THE ECONOMIST: The Lib Dems will focus on one issue: Europe

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Release date: 20/4/2017

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So the Lib Dems are optimistic about their chances on June 8th. All 48 seats they lost in 2015 will be “in play”, reckons Rob Ford of the University of Manchester. A 10% swing to the Lib Dems would see them pick up 40 seats, 25 of them from the Conservatives. They are unlikely to do quite that well—partly because eight of those seats are held by the Scottish National Party, whose vote is likely to hold up, and partly because the Liberals’ organisation is still relatively weak after successive local electoral drubbings. But Lib Dem watchers guess the party could pick up more than 20 new seats. Popular former MPs including Vince Cable, a former business secretary, and Simon Hughes, a former justice minister, have said they will seek to win back their old constituencies. Nick Clegg, a former party leader and deputy prime minister, has confirmed he will stand again.

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TitleThe Lib Dems will focus on one issue: Europe
Media name/outletThe Economist
Media typeWeb
CountryUnited Kingdom
Date20/04/17
DescriptionSo the Lib Dems are optimistic about their chances on June 8th. All 48 seats they lost in 2015 will be “in play”, reckons Rob Ford of the University of Manchester. A 10% swing to the Lib Dems would see them pick up 40 seats, 25 of them from the Conservatives. They are unlikely to do quite that well—partly because eight of those seats are held by the Scottish National Party, whose vote is likely to hold up, and partly because the Liberals’ organisation is still relatively weak after successive local electoral drubbings. But Lib Dem watchers guess the party could pick up more than 20 new seats. Popular former MPs including Vince Cable, a former business secretary, and Simon Hughes, a former justice minister, have said they will seek to win back their old constituencies. Nick Clegg, a former party leader and deputy prime minister, has confirmed he will stand again.

Even before the EU referendum, strategists had talked of building a reliable “core vote” among internationalist young urbanites. That job has now become a good deal easier. Advertising the Lib Dems’ support for a “soft Brexit” is an obvious way to attract the 48% who voted to Remain. In Bristol, where Mr Williams is running for the new post of mayor of the West of England, he misses few opportunities to remind voters of the Lib Dems’ position on Europe. At City Hall he tells a crowd of ethnic-minority businessfolk that Indian-British relations are “going to be even more important if we go over the Brexit cliff.” Tory pollsters fret that a Liberal raid on Remain voters might eat into the government’s expected majority, with London and the south-west of England, the Lib Dems’ historical stronghold, particularly vulnerable.

The party’s position on Brexit has also helped it to win back protest voters, who abandoned the party when it got into bed with the Conservatives in 2010. Mark Pack, a Lib Dem strategist, notes that support for close relations with the EU is now the “anti-establishment position”. According to a recent poll by Opinium, only a third of voters now think that the party was wrong to have entered into coalition with the Tories. Meanwhile, its appeal seems to go beyond Europhiles: since the referendum the party has picked up more council seats in Leave-voting areas than Remain ones.

With just nine MPs, the Lib Dems have so far struggled to gain a hearing. Some reckon that part of the reason why they have yet to see much of an uptick in the polls is because most voters pay little attention to the party until they are forced to by an election. The lacklustre leadership of Tim Farron has not helped. He recently got some attention, but only by refusing to say whether he thought gay sex was a sin (he later clarified that he thinks homosexuality is not). Polling suggests that voters think he is doing no better a job than Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s unpopular leader.

But there is cause for optimism on both fronts. The party’s profile will rise during the campaign; the fact that it is the most strident anti-Brexit party will attract television cameras, says Mr Ford. Even if the party’s national polling does not pick up, it will pour resources into marginal seats, while other parties will have to campaign across the country. Moreover, what the Lib Dems lack in leadership, they increasingly make up for with boots on the ground. The party claims that its membership has doubled since the 2015 general election, to more than 90,000. Opposition to a “hard Brexit” provides them with a cause worth fighting for.
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "A Brexit bounce"
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URLwww.economist.com/news/britain/21721211-their-campaign-will-benefit-rapidly-growing-party-membership-lib-dems-will-focus?fsrc=rss
PersonsRobert Ford