In Britain, all eyes are currently on the Tory leadership contest. But another – far less publicised – race is currently taking place at the same time: that to replace Vince Cable as leader of the Liberal Democrats, who are enjoying something of a revival.
The two candidates, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey, both expected to inherit a party that had faded into insignificance, having won only 12 MPs in the 2017 snap election (one of whom later resigned the whip in order to vote for Brexit).
But instead, these leadership hopefuls are feeling the wind in their sails, following notable successes for the party in the recent local and European elections. The Lib Dems picked up over 700 council seats in the local elections, and then followed this up by coming second (to the Brexit Party) in the EU elections with 20 percent.
Added to this, recent surveys have put the Liberal Democrats at 20 percent or higher in terms of support amongst voters, well up from the 5-10 percent that they were consistently polling at until relatively recently. One opinion poll in the wake of the European elections even put the Lib Dems on top with 24 percent, setting off alarm bells back at Labour HQ.
There is no secret formula behind this Lib Dem ‘surge’. It is clear that the party is galvanising support by posing itself as the only genuine home for Remain supporters. Their EU election slogan – ‘bollocks to Brexit’ – has certainly left voters in no doubt.
Change UK (FKA ‘The Independent Group’) had hoped to pick up the mantle of Remain. But despite an initial flurry of donations and column inches, this motley crew of ex-Tories and Blairites have quickly sunk into oblivion.
The new ‘moderate’ formation scored only 3 percent in the European elections, picking up precisely zero seats. With the group languishing below 1 percent in the polls, in-fighting soon set in and six of its 11 MPs – including key figures such as Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, and Heidi Allen – decided to split away. So RIP Change UK, it seems.
Instead, Remainers have rallied to the Liberal Democrats. Ed Davey has stated that a number of Labour and Tory MPs are considering defecting to his party in protest against Brexit. The leadership contestant also called on former Change UK MPs to “prove their liberal values and join the Liberal Democrats”, singling out Umunna and Sarah Wollaston as two figures he would like to “join our crusade”.
Labour has been particularly affected by this phoenix-like rejuvenation of the Lib Dems. Over one-in-five of their voters from 2017 said they had switched to the party in the recent EU elections. This included high profile Blairites such as Alastair Campbell and Charles Clarke, who showed their true colours by admitting to voting Liberal Democrat.
This has added to the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to support a second referendum, with Tom Watson standing up for his New Labour friends and leading the charge inside the PLP for a so-called ‘People’s Vote’.
But the Labour leader has correctly resisted this so far, holding the line and demanding a real ‘people’s vote’: a general election to kick out the Tories and unite workers around demands for decent housing, healthcare, and jobs.
It is not only Labour who have lost out to the Lib Dems recently, however. Whilst the Tories have mostly haemorrhaged support to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, 12 percent of their 2017 voters stated that they moved over to the Liberal Democrats in the European elections. And it was in formerly Conservative-controlled councils, such as Bath and North East Somerset, that the Lib Dems picked up many of their local election victories last month.
This has led many to talk of a ‘realignment’ of British politics, with a polarisation no-longer along a Left-Right axis, but along that of Remain-Leave. This, in turn, is predicted to create a fragmented political landscape, in which Labour, the Tories, the Brexit Party, and the Lib Dems vie for the number one spot, with the Greens, SNP, and Plaid picking up seats also.
Certainly the Liberal Democrats would see a revival if a general election were held tomorrow. But at their current polling level, the party would only win approximately 50 seats, given the high concentration of their votes in leafy suburban areas. This would put the Lib Dems back to where they have consistently hovered for most of this century, under a succession of leaders.
Importantly, as the 2017 general election and recent by-election in Peterborough demonstrated, when Labour mobilises activists and brings the debate back to social, class-based issues, it can cut across the Brexit divide and rally voters to its banner.
It is down to the Labour leadership to ensure that these examples are repeated in any future election campaign, by organising grassroots supporters around a programme of bold socialist policies. On this basis, the Lib Dems’ apparent renaissance could quickly prove to be ephemeral.
Most importantly, we have been here before. Ever since their creation in 1981 – originally as an electoral alliance of the moribund Liberal Party and the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP) – the Liberal Democrats have been used by the ruling class to pull both Labour and the Conservatives back towards the ‘centre ground’.
In 1983, with Labour right-wingers splitting away to form the SDP, the ‘Alliance’ was able to gain 25 percent of the vote. This proved enough to keep Michael Foot’s Labour out of power, and allow Thatcher to remain in Downing Street.
By 2005, with the Tories still hated and Labour voters abandoning the party over Iraq (amongst other things), the Lib Dems reached their peak. Leader Charles Kennedy presented the party as a progressive alternative to both New Labour, with its programme of privatisation, and to the much-reviled Conservatives, and was rewarded with 62 seats in Parliament.
Young people, in particular, were attracted to the Lib Dems, with its vocal opposition to the war and to tuition fees. This latter pledge, however, would soon come back to haunt the Liberal Democrats.
In 2010, the country was supposedly swept up in ‘Cleggmania’, as new Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg gained admirers in the media on the back of some smooth performances in the general election’s televised debates. But despite the whipped up hysteria, the Liberal Democrats only gained one percentage point compared to their 2005 highpoint. In the end, the party actually lost five seats.
With Cameron’s Conservatives unable to win a majority, Clegg ended up playing the role of kingmaker, agreeing to prop up the Tories in an official coalition. But the agreement proved to be a Faustian pact.
In exchange for ministerial positions and perks – including that of deputy prime minister for Nick Clegg and business secretary for Vince Cable – the Lib Dem leadership agreed to support the full Tory programme of austerity. Not only did this include vicious cuts to public services, local councils, welfare, and pensions, but also a humiliating U-turn on Clegg’s main promise: to abolish tuition fees.
Instead of scrapping fees, the Lib Dems voted through a trebling of university costs, agreeing to raise tuition from £3,000 to £9,000 per year. The result was an unprecedented rebellion of students, with 50,000 demonstrating in London and occupations breaking out on campuses across the country.
This acted as a spark for a wider anti-austerity movement. An estimated half-a-million came out onto the streets in March 2011 for a TUC-organised protest against cuts. And in November of the same year, over two million workers took strike action against the coalition’s attacks on public sector pensions. This was the biggest industrial action since the 1926 general strike.
In short, it was the supposedly ‘progressive’ Liberal Democrats who ultimately allowed the Conservatives to come to power – having been out of government for 13 years – and carry out their attacks on workers, students, and migrants. Having helped push through Tory austerity, Clegg and his fellow MPs were then tossed aside by Cameron and Osborne like a used handkerchief.
These events shattered any illusions in the Lib Dems. Young people abandoned the party in their droves – initially for the Greens, and later for the Corbyn-invigorated Labour Party. Nick Clegg and his colleagues were duly punished for their betrayal at the 2015 general election, when the Liberal Democrats were reduced to just eight seats in Parliament.
In 2017, students finally got their revenge, mobilising in large numbers in Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam seat to replace him with Labour’s candidate. And even with the shadow of Brexit looming over the snap election, the Lib Dems could still only muster together enough support to win 12 seats nationally – proof that their time in coalition still left a bitter taste in voters’ mouths.
In reality, the experience of the 2010-15 Tory-Lib Dem coalition was merely a confirmation of the true nature of the Liberal Democrats. At root, they are – and always have been – a party of the capitalist establishment.
The Lib Dems have a long history of being the servants of the capitalist class, both as their predecessors, the Liberal Party, and as an alliance of Liberals and ‘social democratic’ (i.e. right-wing) Labour splitters. Their role as junior partners in the Con-Dem coalition only highlighted this reality: that they are fundamentally the junior Tory party of the ruling class.
The sheen of progressiveness provided by their social liberalism is always a thin cover for the reactionary economic interests of the ruling class that they defend. The liberalism that they first-and-foremost support is ultimately that of free markets and private property. As the old saying goes: scratch a Liberal and you’ll find a Conservative bleeding underneath.
Whilst they may rally against bigotted Tory Brexiteers today, leading Lib Dems like Vince Cable, Ed Davey, and Jo Swinson all happily sat alongside these right-wing creatures in the House of Commons as part of the coalition. Much of their current ‘opposition’ to people like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg is therefore nothing but a hypocritical and cynical attempt to defend the interests of big business better than their normal First XI – the Tories.
Even where the Lib Dems opportunistically attempt to pick up votes on socially liberal issues, they always do this on the basis of defending the very system – that of capitalism – that is responsible for society’s problems in the first place.
Take the issue of climate change – an urgent question that has radicalised young people internationally and brought a whole new generation into political activity. Both Liberal Democrat leadership contenders have made this a central part of their programme.
Out campaigning on the road, however, Ed Davey revealed what this will mean in practice: “making capitalism turn green so Britain is a world green finance capital.” But it is precisely capitalism and its insatiable thirst for profits that has led us – and our planet – into this global race to the bottom in terms of environmental standards and working conditions.
By contrast, Labour has put forward a class-based solution to the climate crisis, promising a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ of public ownership in order to address problems both of ecology and equality.
This demonstrates the key difference between the two parties: Corbyn’s Labour bases itself upon the interests of the vast majority – the working class; the Lib Dems, on the other hand, rally together disenchanted petit-bourgeois layers in order to provide a wider base of support for the capitalist class and their big business interests.
The question of Europe is no different. The Liberal Democrats are clearly attempting to win over middle-class types by endlessly banging the drum about the EU, posing themselves as the defenders of migrants and internationalism.
They are aided in this campaign, of course, by liberal media outlets, the Blairites, and an establishment that is terrified of losing access to their beloved Single Market.
But this Europhilia plays an extremely reactionary role. Firstly, it creates huge illusions in the EU as some sort of vehicle for progressive politics, when in fact it is a capitalist club, with austerity and privatisation enshrined into its laws. The only ‘liberty’ that the EU defends is the freedom for the big banks and monopolies to exploit the workers of Europe.
In the wake of the refugee crisis, meanwhile, freedom of movement within the EU is now a long-distant fiction. And for migrants attempting to escape poverty and war in Africa and the Middle East, left to drown in the Mediterranean sea by the EU’s boats, the continent presents itself as Fortress Europe.
Secondly, with their cacophony of calls for a ‘People’s Vote’, the Lib Dems and the rest of the liberal establishment are playing right into the hands of right-wing demagogues like Nigel Farage. The Brexit Party leader is already having a field day by promising to uphold the 2016 referendum result and presenting himself as the true ‘defender of democracy’. This will only intensify in the event of another EU referendum, bolstering the far right even further.
Indeed, the Lib Dems’ actions have only ever helped to boost the reactionary Brexiteers. It was, after all, the austerity that the Lib Dems helped to force through in coalition with the Tories that fuelled the referendum result of 2016. Voting Lib Dem to stop Brexit is therefore like calling in the arsonist to put out the fire.
Finally, as well as exacerbating the divisions within society, a second referendum would do nothing to solve the problems facing working-class communities. Whether we stay inside the EU or leave, the future for workers, the poor, and the youth under capitalism is one of austerity and attacks on living standards.
Europe, like Britain, exists within a world that is ravaged by economic and environmental crises. Within the confines of capitalism, there is no escaping this.
And, at the end of the day, the Liberal Democrats defend this exploitative, crisis-ridden system. That is why the only way forward is to fight for a general election and the coming to power of socialist Labour government.