The European Parliamentary elections were an extraordinary process for us in the UK. It’s hard to remember, among all this drama and the ever-shifting news landscape, that these were the elections we never expected to be part of, assumed we wouldn’t participate in; according to Plan A, we wouldn’t even be members of the European Union when they took place, so they were peripheral at best to our ongoing psychodrama with the institutions of Brussels and Strasbourg. And yet here we are, the dust beginning to settle, the tectonic plates beginning to slow their movement.
One outstanding story, of course, was the runaway success of Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, founded barely six months before but topping the poll with 29 seats and nearly a third of the popular vote; that said, the turnout was low (37%), as it often is in European Parliamentary elections, and these are the conditions in which Farage thrives, stoking up a loyal base and relying on apathy from his opponents. Remainers have to acknowledge, however grudgingly, the scale and suddenness of Farage’s success, his personal popularity with his target constituency and the simplicity and straightforwardness of the party’s central message. Dismiss them as a blip at your peril; politics is changing, and we don’t yet know who the winners and losers are.
But I am a non-tribal Remainer, so I drew considerable consolation from the great leap forward made by the unashamedly pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who went from their one MEP, Catherine Bearder in SE England, to 16 MEPs and a fifth of the vote. I don’t think it’s difficult to identify the ingredients of the yellow surge: the Liberal Democrats were united around a clear and relatively positive message. Stay in the EU. No to Brexit. By his own lights, the departing Sir Vince Cable had a good campaign, as did some of the bright young things in the party like Jo Swinson and Layla Moran. This is the cadre from which the next leader will come, and Ms Swinson seems to overwhelming favourite at the moment, Ms Moran having opted not to run. (She is only 36. Her time may yet come.)
There were other underlying causes too. The stain of association with the Coalition Government - and I have to call it that, because that’s how it is widely perceived, I’m afraid - is beginning to fade, even for people like Cable, Swinson and Sir Ed Davey, who were senior members of that administration. People have long memories, but they’re not infinite. The Conservatives have generated enough new toxicity since 2015 to help the Lib Dems put the compromises of government behind them and return to their comfort zone, the relative ideological purity and optimism of a protest party.
That brings me to the central point I wanted to make. The Liberal Democrats have shifted back to the intellectual status of a third party, a ginger group never required to make the hard choices of Whitehall, but actually their polling numbers are holding up, and it may be that they can make huge advances at the next general election; enough, maybe, to make themselves power-brokers? They are going toe-to-toe with the Conservatives and pushing into the same sort of territory as the Labour Party, but no group is seeing support much higher than the early to mid-20s, so it seems at least possible that a general election in the near future would leave a patchwork at Westminster, with groups forced to co-operate to put together a policy platform which can find majority support.
This is where the Liberal Democrats have always hoped to be. Their passionate support for electoral reform over the years may have failed to strike a chord with the voters, but its inevitable corollary is much more of a ‘mixed economy’ in party voting, creating blocs and factions and groups which have to be stitched together for a broad mass of support. We have rejected Alternative Vote, but a more ‘European’ pattern of voting seems to be upon us; a Commons consisting of competing but also co-operating minorities, sizing each other up and working out where the common ground between them lies.
If it’s where they were meant to be, it must also be where they put themselves. The Liberal Democrats must accept the inevitable consequences of their policies, and prepare themselves, maybe for government, but certainly for co-operation. They have to understand that political deal-making is not always easy, nor pretty, nor uplifting. You need a ruthless and relentless focus on the end result, on achieving the policy objective. Means must (largely) give way to ends. But that’s business. Disraeli said “England does not love coalitions,” and he was right, but we may all have to learn to tolerate them.
Chris Wright, CBE is Co-Founder and Chairman of Chrysalis Group.
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