It’s conference season in the United Kingdom, and the first Britain-wide political party to court media attention at their days-long meeting are the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems themselves will claim they’re gaining good electoral ground: they increased their vote share in the recent European elections, and have scooped up several new recruits in Parliament from members defecting from Labour, the Tories, and the disastrous new incarnation Change UK/The Independent Group. The party put their success down to their position on the European Union calling for a second referendum, the idea being that having observed the veritable mess that has beset Parliament, and seen the country tear through three prime ministers, the country may have changed their mind on membership of the European Union.
But in pursuing electoral success above all else, the party under new leader Jo Swinson are also laying several traps of their own making. After their disastrous decision to enter a coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010, the 2015 general election saw them drop from third place, from fifty-seven seats to eight, tied with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party — a common political joke pointed out they could hold parliamentary meetings in a large cab — and their party leader Nick Clegg humiliatingly lost his seat. A meager four more seats won in 2017 showed the electorate still felt the main political choice in Britain was between Labour and the Conservatives, with more backing the Scottish National party, and that few had forgiven them for reneging on their promise to vote against a rise in college tuition fees, given they had previously performed strongly in university towns.
Swinson has already faced backlash for the Lib Dems’ willingness to bolster Lib Dem numbers by accepting any and all comers through defections rather than electoral success. Many newcomers, such as Chuka Umunna, have come from Change UK, as it has become apparent the new party’s creation was a huge electoral error. More controversial have been the Conservative recruits, including Phillip Lee, the Tory defector who caused Boris Johnson’s working majority to drop to zero. Lib Dem members left the party in protest over his , and the fact he tabled an amendment to the Immigration Bill banning HIV-positive migrants.
The party have now has changed too: rather than call for a second referendum, they now say that if they gain power they will simply cancel the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. The stance is pure electoral opportunism: winning power is a mathematical impossibility for the Lib Dems; they are fully aware that they will not have to take responsibility for anything they say now. Pandering to the hard-core Remainers across the United Kingdom is a cynical attempt to regain some of the extensive ground they lost after the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition.
But any voters won over by this Brexit stance — and willing to ignore the fact they are happy to welcome illiberal MPs with open arms — are likely to be sorely disappointed if the Lib Dems get even a stab at power in a coalition. Repeatedly, Swinson has stated she is unwilling to work with Jeremy Corbyn in any coalition, which leaves the Conservatives as the only possible coalition partners. Entering into a second Liberal-Tory pact will see history repeating itself and an even wider pool of voters abandoning the Lib-Dems for the foreseeable future. It took the Labour Party a complete overhaul in both leadership and outlook to coax back those who abandoned the party over the Iraq War: jumping back to the Conservatives and abandoning key election promises so swiftly shows a distinct lack of both scruples and intelligence in Swinson’s party, especially given her own role in the austerity of Cameron’s government.
The fiasco reveals a key problem with centrism: whatever the claims of centrist politicians, they will always side with the status quo and the Right, prizing power over their voters’ interests every time. When it comes to the Liberal Democrats, you should never have trusted them, and still can’t, no matter how much they claim they’ve changed.