The Liberal Democrats: the EU Referendum’s invisible party – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

The Liberal Democrats: the EU Referendum’s invisible party

Andrew_Russell_Head_Shot

Prof Andrew Russell

Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has written extensively on political participation of hard to reach groups and all aspects of British political and electoral politics. He is a frequent commentator on political matters in the media.

Email: andrew.russell@manchester.ac.uk

Twitter: @poliblogman

 

EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 6

Section 6: Parties

One of the strangest features of the June 2016 EU Referendum was that the most pro-European political party in Britain was nowhere to be seen. Only 13 months before the then party leader, Nick Clegg, was Deputy Prime Minister and the party was embedded into every level of cabinet and senior coalition government. Yet come the Referendum campaign the Liberal Democrats and new leader Tim Farron were conspicuous by their absence.

Structural problems caused the Liberal Democrats to go AWOL in the Referendum campaign. A party with a reputation for grassroots campaign strength might have been the backbone of the Remain cause, instead the evisceration of the party’s Westminster base had a profound effect of its ability to break through to the electorate.

The Liberals and Liberal Democrats have consistently been the most sympathetic to the European ideal. The British Election Study repeatedly demonstrated that the voting public identified the Liberal Democrats as the most Euro-friendly political party. This is not to say there hadn’t been contradictions in sources of Liberal support. From the 1970s the party built a bridgehead in some of the most Eurosceptic regions, especially in the South West where agricultural and fisheries industries often sat uncomfortably with European community policy. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the party took such a backseat during the 2016 campaign.

Much of this was outside the party’s control. Coverage in the mainstream media has frequently been a problem for the party and the collapse of the LibDem vote in 2015 General Election had unanticipated consequences. The reduction of Liberal Democrats to a miserly eight seats, and the triumphant rise of the SNP in Scotland meant that the party lost their third party status in the Commons. Consequently, Farron does not automatically get to ask a question in PMQs, further reducing the party’s visibility. Meanwhile current affairs programmes looking for an alternative voice increasingly turn to the Scottish Nationalists, the Greens or UKIP to provide non-Conservative/Labour political viewpoints.

Not so long ago, it had been different. The Liberal Democrats were the focal point of the 2011 AV Referendum and prior to the 2014 European elections, Clegg took part in televised debates against the UKIP leader Nigel Farage. These didn’t go well for Clegg or his party but the LibDems had been the face of pro-European narrative in British politics providing positive images about free European travel, work mobility and the benefits of migration – an agenda not addressed elsewhere.

The party could have stepped into the void left by Conservatives and Labour, fearful of alienating their core vote, and appealed to those voters in England and Wales who might have been receptive to a more positive European story. Nevertheless the LibDems didn’t play – or were not asked to play – a significant role in the Remain campaign.

The EU referendum campaign included TV debates and set piece interviews with a vast array of supporting characters; David Cameron and Ruth Davidson, Alec Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon; Alan Johnson and Sadiq Khan, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Diane James, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom, even Jeremy Corbyn played a part. Tim Farron didn’t feature in any of them.

Moreover any LibDems playing a bit-part in the campaign were from a bygone era. Paddy Ashdown briefly appeared alongside Neil Kinnock in a rerun of 1992, Vince Cable took time off promoting his book to interject on the inadequate Referendum campaign. Clegg warned of the dangers of Brexit on two separate occasions; the first overshadowed by President Obama’s visit to the UK, the second on the eve of polling barely making a bigger mark. However it might be worth considering his prophesy to those still contemplating voting Leave:-

“Having woken on Friday to the news we’re quitting the EU, you will assume that those who persuaded you to take that leap of faith have a plan about what to do next.

“So imagine how dismayed you will feel when you discover, instead, that Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson can’t agree among themselves what life outside the EU looks like?

“So you will look towards our leaders in Westminster to sort out the mess. Instead, they argue among themselves: the Conservatives descend into a bloody leadership election; Parliament enters years of constitutional gridlock …Then you discover just how unprepared the Government is… imagine how you’ll feel when you discover that they don’t have a plan?”

After the Referendum Farron announced a Liberal Democrat commitment to non-implementation of Brexit and claimed a 12,000 surge of new members in the week after the result, but this fails to compensate for the party’s invisibility during the campaign.

Structural problems caused the Liberal Democrats to go AWOL in the Referendum campaign. A party with a reputation for grassroots campaign strength might have been the backbone of the Remain cause, instead the evisceration of the party’s Westminster base had a profound effect of its ability to break through to the electorate. The party is still playing the price for coalition in 2010; the referendum campaign suffered as a result.