The Liberal Democrats still think they can drive a bus straight through the middle of British politics, but they haven’t worked out yet what to write down the side of it, or who’s going to be behind the wheel.
By now Brexit was meant to have made Lib Dem conference, which begins this weekend in Brighton, a much more relevant political event, but that has not happened and no one is sure why.
Vince Cable’s big plan to change all that is to set up a registered supporters association, which has already acquired the unfortunate moniker “Momentum for moderates”, that even the moderates don’t like.
“I like what Vince is trying to do,” said one former Lib Dem special adviser. “I think he deserves quite a bit of credit. It is brave and it is self-aware to realise that more of the same in contemporary British politics isn’t going to cut it.
“The bit I don’t like is that it is called this ‘movement for moderation’. Part of the problem is that the centre feels too insipid, too safe, too boring, too politics as usual, when in fact centrist thought, and small ‘l’ liberalism, can give rise to radical ideas that disrupt elites, disrupt closed shops, ideas that can really change things. That is the market in which the Lib Dems should be operating.”
Another former Lib Dem staffer thinks it is not only the as yet unlaunched supporters association that will soon be needing a new name. It will be the whole party itself:
“All this stuff, having registered supporters, changing the rules so a non-MP can be leader, they’re setting it up so that the party can be negotiated away into a new party. You don’t change the rules so that a non-MP can be leader unless you’re thinking about closing the party down.”
Becoming the home for the army of radical centrists that must, surely, be out there somewhere, is one thing, but there are more pressing problems that people inside the party have come to think might not be solvable.
“There has been polling done to work out whether the party is toxic, and the results suggest it is,” said a former adviser. “The polling company, Populus, one of the seven groups they break the electorate down into is ‘left-wing intellectuals’.
“They used to be our core vote. ‘Left-wing intellectuals’ voted for Charles Kennedy when they didn’t like the centrist Labour Party. They were the main swell of support. Those people are gone. When we polled it in February 2017 we were at 10 per cent with them.
“It means we don’t really know what we are any more. Are we like the German FDP? Sensible, reliable and an adjunct to government?
“Or are we a Charles Kennedy style opposition party that opposes everything?
“Kennedy constantly attacked Labour from the left, on civil liberties, on Iraq, on detention without charge. That stuff chimed with the voters we then lost in 2015, and they haven’t come back. They are now enamoured with Corbyn.
“That was our base and the polling shows we have become toxic with them. The party’s soul is with Charles Kennedy, but the future of the party is as an FDP.”
The idea of setting up a registered supporters association, which is what ‘Momentum for moderates’ would be, is something that the party has considered doing for years. Tim Farron looked into it; even Nick Clegg looked into it. Party insiders suggest Sir Vince now imagines it will be his legacy.
But they still fall well short on quite what a ‘Momentum for moderates’ would do or stand for.
“If you want to talk about the need of something new in the centre, it can’t be an existing brand,” said one former Lib Dem adviser, who worked for the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, during the years of coalition.
“You have seen movements everywhere, whether it’s Macron, Momentum, or the alt-right in America, movements that work in conjunction with, alongside, in support of, and parallel to politicians have had success.
“But what we need is to be more radical about the platform, the offer to voters.
“Look at Labour under Ed Miliband. You’d see people from the left writing a 5,000-word essay in the New Statesman on ‘why Labour must have something to say on immigration’. And everyone agreed, but then they didn’t have anything to say.
“The problem you might have is that everybody will say, ‘the centre needs to be more radical’, everyone will agree, but then you won’t have any radical ideas or policies.
“People need to work out what the big spending measures the party would take are, what new environmental policies.
“It might seem very Lib Demmy, but people actually do moan about how parties don’t represent them, about how the voting system is unfair and all that, so that is an area where we could offer change.
“There are lots of people in Westminster, in and around politics who, if not sympathetic to the Lib Dems themselves are sympathetic to Lib Dem ideas. There’s environmental charities, people who are interested in the reform of broken systems like tax, or the electoral system.
“And it just has got to feel a bit younger, a bit edgier. That is where Momentum has had success. Momentum is viewed as being only young people, but it really isn’t. It’s full of all sorts of people, some of whom have been around for decades, but the way they put themselves across makes people think it’s young and edgy.”
Next weekend at Labour’s conference in Liverpool, you can be certain that hundreds if not thousands of the nation’s youth will assemble for an eve of conference rally, fully energised, mobilised and committed to the Corbyn project.
But Liberal Democrats do not feel their chance has passed.
“Not everyone under 25 in Britain is a socialist, or attracted to pretty hard left views,” said one former staffer. “But they do want some kind of significant change, and most of them want no Brexit so there is a market there.
Privately, Lib Dems hope that ‘Momentum for moderates’ might attract 100,000 members. But if the party decides it wants to survive the party will need to change too.
“They’ve got to overhaul the party’s processes,” said one ex staffer. “Things like the leader not being able to sack anyone. And the leader can’t set policy, which means they can’t announce policy.
“We will see how we get on in the Sunday papers. But if you’re not in power and you can’t announce policy then what have you got to offer the media? They’ll just go to Labour instead.
“Who will the interviews be with on Sunday, Vince or Keir Starmer? If it’s not Vince then we’re not in the conversation any more.”
The Lib Dem fightback has been promised at every party conference since 2015 and, over the coming days, don’t expect 2018 to be any exception. But the starting point gets further away, and the questions more challenging. It will need plenty of momentum, and there is no time for moderation.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies