Vince Cable’s announcements about shaking up the Liberal Democrats don’t exactly inspire confidence in the party as an energetic force in British politics. Despite pitching themselves squarely as the anti-Brexit party, and despite there being growing talk of a group of voters – and MPs – who feel politically homeless, the Lib Dems are struggling to attract attention or offer a sense of purpose.
The Lib Dem leader’s plan to open up the party’s membership to a ‘new class of supporters who pay nothing to sign up to the party’s values’ has sparked a fair bit of criticism from those who think this would leave the Lib Dems vulnerable to entryism, as happened when Ed Miliband enacted similar reforms in the Labour Party. The bigger problem for the Lib Dems, though, is that even with some funky new membership offers, they still aren’t giving prospective members a reason for joining up.
This is a problem that also afflicts those MPs in the Labour Party who are considering leaving and setting up some kind of new centrist force. They agree that the Labour Party is over (which is something the wider group of ‘moderates’ is split over), but they do not have a uniting set of policies. The Not Corbyn Party might be attractive to a small section of the political world, but it’s not an election slogan.
Senior Lib Dems are well aware both of the opportunities and of the problem that their party has in solving them. Indeed, the most enthusiastic proponents of a new party in off-the-record conversations are always from the Lib Dems, even though publicly the party claims that it is the best home for those leaving the two main parties. Cable today insisted that it would be better to work with the existing structures of a party which was managing to get people elected to Parliament, rather than trying to set up something new, but he did leave the door open to his party being renamed, which shows that even as leader, he is well aware that something dramatic needs to change before the Lib Dems become a powerful centrist force.