The Liberal Democrats and BREXIT: repercussions for a dramatic policy change?

The Liberal Democrats are back. This is probably the most uncontroversial statement that can be made in British politics at present. The Lib Dems have undoubtedly enjoyed an incredible summer  — reflected through their gain of 700 councillors in the May 2019 local elections; a secured second place in the European Parliament elections; the win of a by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire and the acquisition of 6 MPs defecting from the Conservative and Labour parties. Add to this a dynamic young leader — Jo Swinson — and it is easy to see why current opinion polling has them at or around 20%. 

Amidst all the positivity surrounding the Lib Dems at present it is easy to forget how recentlly the party was in peril. At the 2015 general election they were heavily reprimanded for their role in the coalition, amassing just 8 seats when they entered the election with 57. In the 2017 General Election, despite gaining 4 seats their vote share actually went down. They were a party lacking leadership, ideas and most importantly, votes. 

So what has changed? Ultimately Brexit. As the Brexit calamity rages on, the impossibility of implementing the promises of the Leave campaign continue to become even more stark. This has strengthened the Lib Dems power, as their unambiguous position (of supporting a second referendum or people’s vote, in which they would back remain) has become increasingly attractive. 

Or at least that was their position until very recently. At the party’s conference, party members overwhelmingly voted in favour of changing the party’s policy from a people’s vote to an immediate revoking of Article 50 — essentially cancelling Brexit, without a second vote. This could be seen as the first error in Jo Swinson’s short tenure.

An error because of the acutely clear policy position that previously existed. For those who voted ‘Remain’ in 2016 (and who believe this is more important than other policy issues) are highly likely to have already voted for the Lib Dems in the European Elections, and are likely to do the same at the next general election. It would therefore appear that the potential gains from such a policy change should be relatively small. Few were complaining that the party wasn’t sufficiently pro-Europe. 

There is sufficient scope for the policy change to be attacked by the other parties, and rightfully so. Despite the eventual revocation of Article 50 as a desirable outcome, doing so without asking the electorate first is entirely undemocratic. As progressives, we shouldn’t be bowing down to the tactics of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings: getting our way by shutting down debate and shutting out voters. 

In an electoral sense, the greater problem for the Lib Dems is that this blunder presents Labour with a glorious opportunity. Having struggled with Brexit since the start of the referendum campaign, Jeremy Corbyn now has the opportunity to command centre stage by changing party policy at their upcoming conference. 

The Labour leadership need to transition to wholeheartedly supporting a second referendum, and unequivocally backing remain in that referendum. If they do so they will seemingly have the most sensible Brexit position, in between the extremes of the Tories’ catastrophic No-Deal proposals and the Lib Dems’ undemocratic revocation. If Labour (and in particular Corbyn) are prudent, the Lib Dem resurgence may come to a grinding halt. 

 

Image: Liberal Democrats via Flickr

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