The Liberal Democrats’ irrelevance has afforded the Labour leadership the freedom to take left-liberal voters for granted on Brexit, argues Progress deputy editor Conor Pope
It is easy to look at Labour’s hardline stance on leaving the single market over the weekend and wonder how it all happened.
It is, of course, the Liberal Democrats’ fault.
Tim Farron was supposed to be the Liberal Democrats finding their social democratic conscience again. Instead, his personal views appeared to challenge the party’s liberal principles.
Following the 2015 annihilation, the Liberal Democrats clearly saw a shift to the left as being the obvious way forward. After the coalition years, getting back in touch with left-liberals who had abandoned them for Ed Miliband’s Labour party seemed an obvious move. A return to pre-2010 politics did not seem out of the question, with the Liberal Democrats posing as the middle classes party of protest to Labour’s left. By the time Farron was elected leader, it was far from clear that Corbyn was on course to storm the Labour leadership race: both the welfare bill vote in parliament and the first Times/YouGov poll showing Corbyn leading came in Farron’s first five days in the job.
It quickly became clear that Farron lacked the gravitas, charisma or political nous to sell some of his views to his own party, let alone make a dent in public consciousness. His most memorable appearances at prime minister’s questions were his increasingly exaggerated cries of exasperation as the speaker failed to call on him.
The referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union should have been a redefining moment for the Liberal Democrats. With a Labour leader equivocal about the issue and Conservative top brass split, there was an opening for them to throw off the shackles of the governing years and become anew Britain’s European party. But they were absent.
The vote to leave then gave them a rare second chance. Given Corbyn’s eagerness to call for article 50 to be invoked, and Theresa May’s ‘Brexit means Brexit’ stance, there was an even bigger opportunity to become the pro-’Remain’ populists. Last month’s general election shows that under Farron’s leadership they simply have not been able to capitalise on any of this. There may have been small gains off the Conservatives, but they have not been able to eat into the Labour vote whatsoever – and that was the clear goal of electing Farron over Norman Lamb two years ago.
Once upon a time Vince Cable would have been the obvious choice for a party wanting to return to the responsibility-free moral high ground. As treasury spokesperson, he called for immediate nationalisation of Northern Rock after the crash he ‘predicted’ in 2008. He was the darling of the anti-identity card types, and his cutting summation of Gordon Brown’s transformation from ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ typified the attitude to Labour as a whole from certain sections.
But not now. After five years in the coalition cabinet, he is not the clean pair of hands the party needs if that is the route it wishes to go down. As a defining moment of the party’s fall from grace, he is reluctant to return to a populist stance on tuition fees, giving Corbyn free rein to promise whatever he likes. Cable instead looks likely to style himself as a safe pair of hands – a functional politician for dysfunctional times.
The Liberal Democrats’ modest advances have so far come from the Tories, May’s leadership is severely time limited and a civil war in the cabinet is heavily pre-briefed to the Sunday papers every week. The Conservatives are the obvious target for further electoral gains, especially in areas where Labour still struggle to break through.
Effectively, this gives Labour permission to ‘bank’ huge swathes of voters who would have been natural Liberal Democrats 10 years ago, and who may have been expected to return in the post-Brexit age. The general election showed that Labour could count on their support with a fudged Brexit offer as long as they appealed on other areas. Over the past two years the Liberal Democrats have not been good enough to earn their support again, and now the party may not even try.
So, the Labour leadership feels confident enough take a tougher line on leaving the single market and immigration in an effort to shore up support in places where the party’s position is beginning to look more precarious.
Scepticism, to put it mildly, about the benefits of this approach is natural, both in its economic and political effects. It is important that a case for remaining in the single market is made within the Labour party that encompasses both of these elements. Despite the current position, it should be no foregone conclusion that Labour will be permanently wedded to writing the single market off.
However, any campaign to change party policy must at least understand where the leadership has come from to reach it – and it seems the failure of the Liberal Democrats is a core part of that.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.