Political

Economist backs core vote strategy for Lib Dems

Economist photomontage on the Lib Dems

The Economist‘s Bagehot column shows the progress made by the Liberal Democrats in re-establishing credibility with the media. One step to recovery is to persuade the media you can have a future. The next step that you do have a future. And the third step to use that media view to get the message out to the wider public too.

Hence the following is good news for step one:

There was a time when a whiff of existential angst wafted about Liberal Democrat conferences. [But] Tim Farron … enjoys the freedom of the open road. Labour has pirouetted off to the left. Under Theresa May the Conservatives are edging away from some of Mr Cameron’s liberalism. And there is Brexit. Three months after the referendum, right-wing Eurosceptics are setting the agenda, the country is heading for a hard break from the European Union and Labour is putting up little opposition…

The party may have been reduced from 56 to eight MPs in last year’s election—the price of five years in power—but it now holds an uncontested, positive role: as the only unequivocal, nationwide, functional advocate of a properly open Britain.

Step two is rather further away, as even this promising Bagehot column goes on to doubt the progress the party can make under Tim Farron in filling this potential. It’s negativity about Tim Farron is hugely overdone. But in one respect it’s right – the route we must try to take:

With so few MPs, the Lib Dems need stark, attention-grabbingly polarising messages. Such is their puny size and such is the muscular role they seek to play, now is not the time for nuance; something which Lib Dems—who like restraint and middle ways—will have to get used to … It was among centre-left voters that Lib Dem support fell most precipitously during the coalition years, observes Mr Clegg. And it is among these folk, in metropolitan Lib Dem-turned-Labour seats like Cambridge and Bristol West, that the opposition’s flaccid anti-Brexit exertions create the largest opening for the party (unlike the 15 broadly Eurosceptic seats in rural south-west England which they lost to the Tories last year).

This deserves to be seen as part of a longer mission: to create a Lib Dem core vote. The party collapsed so ubiquitously last year partly because it does not have any socio-economic base on which to fall back. The Tories have family, faith and flag. Labour has what remains of the industrial working class. The Lib Dems, according to a paper published in 2015 by Mark Pack and David Howarth, two party strategists, need to forge a similar relationship with the well-educated, internationalist urban types who make up the most pro-openness fifth of the British population, but who have no fixed abode in the party-political spectrum. Mr Farron’s uncompromising hostility to Brexit is the substantiation of this strategy.

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