Over the past 18 months the Lib Dems have increasingly positioned themselves as “the Party of the 48%”, of Remain and as “the real Opposition” to the Tories hard Brexit.
On the face of it this seems a sensible strategy – trying to do what the SNP did in Scotland after IndyRef – coral the defeated side behind one Party whilst the ‘victors’ remained divided.
Amongst the 48% were large numbers of previous LD voters, some moderate Tories and about two-thirds of Labour voters.
It seemed to be working – in Richmond they overturned a 23,000 Tory majority and defeated Zac Goldsmith using this approach.
But did they get carried away with this initial success and inadvertently limit their own chances, and, probably more significantly, undermined the campaign of resistance to Brexit?
By trying to focus anti-Brexit sentiment on themselves as a political party they faced a couple of big obstacles:
- firstly they were starting from a very low base of support. As Martin Kettle has pointed out in today’s Guardian their “2015 result was shattering: just eight Lib Dem MPs left from the 2010 total of 57. Votes down from 6.8m to 2.4m. The party’s 8% share was the lowest since 1970.”. This was a very poor platform to launch a national challenge to Brexit by themselves.
- secondly, they were carry huge baggage from their period in Coalition with the Tories from 2010-2015. It meant that a substantial number of ‘Remainers’ – especially Labour voters – would be naturally sceptical about the Lib gems however important they felt Brexit was as an issue. There is evidence some Labour supporters and activists have deserted Corbyn’s Brexit-collaborating Labour for the Lib Dems but judging from today’s local election results not many voters have followed them.
Could they have done anything else? Well, yes they probably could have.
The former LD leader Paddy Ashdown launched a movement called ‘Better Together’ (after the slogan of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox).
This could have been a platform for a broad anti-Brexit movement in which the LDs could have played an important role whilst avoiding dominating it. There are many, many, potential activists for such a movement – both from other Parties and none – but ‘More United’ has largely failed to organise them into an active campaigning movement. It has not set up local groups or organised much outside its on-line presence.
There are other groups that could have been mobilised behind such a movement – the readers of the highly successful New European newspaper or the various groups like Scientists for the EU. A non-Party movement would also be find it easier to attract funding from the many businesses and other interests threatened by Brexit, especially a hard Brexit.
Instead of this the Lib Dems have rather opportunistically tried to focus opposition into themselves. It looks like it has had only very limited success for them. Rather more significant it may have missed an opportunity to mobilise a broad movement against Brexit, or at least for a much softer version of it?
One thought on “Have the Lib Dem’s blown it? Trying to monopolise the Remain vote may have backfired on them and ‘Remain’?”
Hmm. I think you mean ‘More United’, not ‘Better Together’ !
This illustrates one of the problems: so many groups have tried to set up some sort of anti-Brexit or anti-hard Brexit organisation, yet hardly any of the general public know who any of them are. I’m not so sure the blame lies with the Lib Dems here; to get traction there needs to be heavyweight support from Labour and even a welcome to brave Tories; this has failed to materialise.
I would go further and say that I think that Stronger In and its successor Open Britain have had the effect of neutering rather than rallying opposition. During the referendum campaign, Stronger In was inactive and ineffectual; pro-Remain voters were offered overpriced merchandise but no campaign materials or organisational help. As soon as the result was in, Open Britain accepted it unquestioningly and started to lobby for Brexit (albeit soft). It failed to challenge the triggering of Article 50, undermining both remainers and reluctant leavers who would have liked to see a clear and democratically accepted plan with a remain ‘safety net’ before doing so .
As the likelihood of a hard Brexit has become more and more apparent, Open Britain has failed to gain much publicity or put across a clear message. On social media it has been slow-footed and less engaging than the pro-Brexit groups on social media. At every stage it has given the impression that its high profile supporters are unable to speak out because they fear going against their parties’ pro-Brexit policies. Yet Open Britain was the largest and most well-funded group and by occupying that position, it has effectively smothered attempts by other organisations to provide opposition.
The European Movement was apparently well-placed to capitalise on the Remain vote, but has also been very low key and has timidly avoided upsetting the main parties -to the extent of backing out of the March for Europe leading confusion as to whether the whole event was being called off.
I agree that More United is a disappointment for those hoping for focussed opposition on Brexit, but to me this is a symptom of a broader failure of high profie Labour and Tory critics to come together and speak out against May’s autocratic hard Brexit