It's time for Lib Dems to accept that the party's over

25 May 2020

4:38 PM

25 May 2020

4:38 PM

Who are you backing in the latest Liberal Democrat leadership contest then – Layla ‘you got me on my knees’ Moran or steady Sir Eddie Davey?

It’s an academic question really, as I highly doubt it will have punctured your carapace of indifference. The stewardship of what we once referred to as ‘the third party’ – in government as recently as five years ago – is now very much a minority interest.

But thanks to pressure from grassroots Lib Dem members – and allegedly there are still more than 100,000 of those – the party’s leadership contest is back on for this summer. A decision to postpone it until after the coronavirus crisis was over has been reversed and the field will now come under starter’s orders at the close of nominations on 9 July with a winner being announced in late August.

Moran says she will be standing for ‘an economy which respects key workers and leaves no-one behind, a world-leading education system that puts trust in teachers and a renewed fight against biodiversity loss and the climate emergency’. Another contender, Wera Hobhouse, says her message is: ‘We need to fight from the centre left and build a winning, progressive alliance.’ A source close to Sir Ed adds: ‘We need a strong, liberal party to oppose this Conservative government.’

All of which begs another question: why bother? With Sir Keir Starmer installed as Leader of the Opposition, there is no major policy position or political disposition that distinguishes any of those Lib Dem mission statements from what is already being offered by Labour.

Former human rights lawyer Starmer is liberal to a fault in his approach to immigration, law and order, multi-culturalism and wider social issues. He springs from the centre left and aims to build a progressive coalition behind his party to turf out the Tories. The stuff about respecting key workers, leaving no-one behind, trusting teachers and fighting climate change is all second nature, as it were.

Like all the senior Lib Dems, he is fanatical about fighting against a meaningful post-Brexit settlement and wants to extend our transition period if a ‘deal’ with Brussels is not in sight by the end of next month. Like all the senior Lib Dems he also believes in higher progressive taxation and radical economic redistribution (the Orange Bookers are long gone). But where the next Lib Dem leader will have just ten other MPs behind her or him, Sir Keir has 200.

Marooned on single figures in the polls, the Lib Dems find themselves in a curious position where any achievable uptick in their fortunes will make their political agenda less likely to be implemented because it will split the anti-Tory vote and keep their kindred spirit Starmer out of Downing Street.

It is the mirror image of the position in which the Brexit party found itself at the general election, leading it to withdraw hundreds of candidates so the Tories could have a clear run – and helping secure a Conservative majority in the process.

Of course, the Lib Dems have a far longer political lineage than did the pop-up Brexit party and as a result a far stronger internal party bureaucracy fighting for self-preservation. They also have far more grassroots activists used to fighting the bigger parties at local government level and nursing grudges and battle scars from such contests. But the logic is just the same.

The identity of the politician who will be making the dominant lib-Left offer at the next election is not in doubt. It will be Starmer.

Given that the Lib Dems aren’t going to take a Gladstonian, small-state tilt any time soon, they will have nothing distinctive to offer. Thus they will be doomed to trying to use the advantages of MP incumbency to hang on to the handful of seats that they presently hold, while thwarting Labour’s prospects of winning scores of marginals from the Tories by chalking up wasted votes in the rest of the country. As a consequence, another term of a Tory regime some of them claim to regard as being made up of right-wing extremists and xenophobes will be all but guaranteed.

None of it makes any sense. The logical step for a principled cohort of politicians concerned more by shifting the country in what they see as a better direction than their own self-preservation would be to disband and join Starmer’s ultra-internationalist liberal Labour party.

Instead of spending the summer trying to outgreen, out-EU and out-tax each other in a pointless leadership race, their energies would be better spent performing a reverse Chuka Umunna and simply folding into the Labour ranks.

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