I remember the heady days of last May, as the spring began to lapse into summer and the cherry trees enrobed themselves in pink blossom. I remember the collective disbelief of thousands, crammed into rooms and halls in local government buildings across the country, watching votes stack up in places we never dreamt of showing us the slightest bit of attention. I remember the sense of purpose we felt, the joyous feeling of standing for something we truly, passionately believed in, and winning elections off the back of it. I remember those few months where the Liberal Democrats were back, winning nationwide opinion polls, and mattering once more.
But we are now in the cold and the gloom of winter, more than a year later. That optimism has evaporated, leaving behind only the murky uncertainty of the present. Two leadership elections and a general election have passed, and we have fallen from insurgency, strength and being feared by our opponents into the hopeless rut of irrelevance, weakness, and derision.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has taken its toll. It has dominated politics, and crises by their nature shine the spotlight on those in power as people seek solutions and updates. It is perhaps unsurprising that the country’s third party, with its 11 MPs, has been almost entirely ignored since last December.
But what is more concerning is the structural weakness in our party which the pandemic has thus far managed to obscure.
After the disaster of the 2019 general election, the Liberal Democrat instinct to go back to the comforting catechism of ‘local, local, local’ has well and truly kicked in. Local parties seem more determined than ever to campaign solely on hyperlocal issues like bins and road safety, or worse, an embarrassing and frankly myopic obsession with opposing local housebuilding. These are issues which are empty of liberalism, with local parties opting instead to run technocratic campaigns promoting their own administrative competence. They are not anything which might make an ordinary person think, “Yes, that’s it, I am a liberal – and the Liberal Democrats are the party we need to put into power.”
Not that this is entirely their fault, of course – our new leader has received almost zero national coverage since his election, his ‘listening tour’ having failed to generate any attention whatsoever. Furthermore, the party’s press releases feel reactive rather than attempting to set any kind of agenda, responding to whatever the headlines are and seeming scattergun and purposeless as a result. The party seems rudderless at the national level, floating around without any real direction. Our polling is dismal, barely rising above 5% nationally – not to mention the prospect of total wipeout in Wales with a recent poll showing us on a mere 2% there. Considering our leadership election finished only three months ago, it is alarming that things have returned to being this bad this quickly.
What on earth are we doing? There are thousands of Liberal Democrat members who work exceptionally hard to try and improve our fortunes across the country. But the bitter, centralised reality of British politics is that national success is what makes people take notice and support our party, and national failure makes it almost impossible to win as people question what the point of voting Liberal Democrat is.
Many of these hardworking members have expressed their frustrations with the national party, suggesting that they are being undermined by the apparent nothingness coming from the top. There is a perception that we are too managerial, trying not to stray too far from the middle of the road, transformed into precisely the milquetoast, anodyne, irrelevant party that we spent years trying to persuade people that we weren’t.
Those in positions of power within our party need to shake themselves out of the stultified lethargy of the past year, and decide what our purpose is; how we fit into the national political picture. We are not a vague coalition of residents’ associations, pursuing local politics until we go red in the face. Our ideals and our values do not lead naturally to meekness or quietness.
We must learn the lessons of our brief moment of success back in 2019: that strong positions, communicated well, rooted in the liberalism shared by the silent majority of this country, bring us success and a core of support. And that this strength, this passion, this tub-thumping, uncompromising liberalism is the only way to hoist us out of irrelevance and derision and make us matter to people once more.
Otherwise, more and more will ask the question: what really is the point?
GRACCHUS is a new columnist for The Torch, writing under a pseudonym. They hold a minor position within the Liberal Democrats.