That the Tories would enjoy this general election campaign and Labour would spend it alternating between abject misery and total panic was a given from the moment Theresa May announced she wanted to go to the polls. More of a surprise has been how uncomfortable the Liberal Democrats have looked so far. Tim Farron has spent far too much time defending and then apparently recanting various unpopular beliefs. The party is averaging nine per cent in the polls. One analysis suggests they could end up with fewer than the nine seats they currently hold. What’s going wrong?
Aside from Farron’s awkward media encounters over his religious beliefs, the party may also have made a mistake with its anti-Brexit strategy. It has tried to emulate the SNP, which picked up significant support after losing the 2014 independence referendum by tapping into a sense of betrayal amongst those who voted ‘Yes’. But the Lib Dem imitation of this success has been crude: Nicola Sturgeon poured considerable effort into reassuring ‘No’ voters and those who had voted ‘Yes’ but who didn’t want another referendum that she was more interested in providing a strong voice for Scotland in Westminster, rather than further constitutional change. The plan was to make it safe to vote SNP for those who didn’t want the upheaval and bitter division of yet another referendum. Of course, things are quite different now, but the SNP didn’t make its 2015 election campaign about independence.
By contrast, the Lib Dems have made their election pitch all about constitutional change and a second referendum, promising the British people a final say on the deal. This relies on there being a good number of voters who are still so furious about Brexit that they want to stop it – and as Katy Balls pointed out earlier this week, there aren’t. Focus groups underline that: voters aren’t that enthused by the prospect of a second referendum. This may mean that even disappointed Remainers just aren’t sure it’s worth voting Lib Dem, even if they bitterly regret the outcome of last summer’s referendum.
The lesson of Sturgeon’s strategy is surely that voters need to take up ideas in stages: first the SNP promised a strong voice for Scotland, then it suggested that there had been sufficient change in the political landscape to necessitate a second referendum which the party knew Theresa May would refuse, thereby increasing a sense of betrayal, and only after that can it start pushing a stronger line about constitutional change. Farron’s party has skipped all of those stages and gone straight for the jugular.
Now, the thing about Lib Dem election campaigns is they don’t make very much sense if you view them from a national perspective. Nick Clegg had a jolly fun election campaign in 2015, staging the political equivalent of a stag do around the country, with visits to Go Ape and hedgehog sanctuaries while a large Tory elephant was rampaging through his MPs’ seats, totally unnoticed. Tim Farron might be having a miserable national campaign with a much better response in the party’s target seats. Or else, the #LibDemFightback isn’t going as well as activists might have hoped.
Isabel Hardman and Katy Balls on the Lib Dems’ dismal campaign: