This week the fashion world descended on the UK’s capital for London Fashion Week. As models strutted down the runway while Anna Wintour watched from beneath her iconic black sunglasses, a different, less glitzy gathering was taking place in Brighton: the Liberal Democrat party conference.
As London’s brands and designers clamoured to be relevant, the Lib Dems drifted even further towards political insignificance. Pro-EU campaigner Gina Miller was Brighton’s big draw. But rather bizarrely, she used her conference speech to say that she will not become a Lib Dem member nor seek to be their leader – hardly the most inspiring message. Miller’s appearance aside, 2018’s party conference is one that most Lib Dems would rather forget, but the rest of us will struggle to remember.
The Lib Dem conference undoubtedly lacked the glamour of London Fashion Week. But perhaps there are some parallels to be drawn?
After Tim Farron stepped down to spend more time debating the ins and outs of gay sex, the party has found itself noticeably out of style since Vince Cable took the reins. As the new season begins and parliament prepares to commence, endorsing another EU referendum is the hottest political trend. Still, despite marketing themselves as a fiercely anti-Brexit party, the Lib Dems have seen next to no polling increase and sit untouched on the political sale rail.
Opposing Brexit seems to be the only thing that Lib Dems can agree on. But considering that the party U-turned on its previous flagship policy – abolishing university tuition fees – when it joined forces with the Conservatives in 2010, it is understandable that the public would be wary of trusting it. This makes the absence of Farron and Cable from a crucial Brexit vote in July, which could have toppled Theresa May’s government, even more damning.
Whether buying clothes or voting at the polling station, people want to feel confident in their choices. For many, voting Lib Dem still feels like purchasing an outfit for an important event without trying it on – a risk they’d rather not take.
The Lib Dems’ current Brexit woes are personified in an iconic scene, known as the “cerulean sweater monologue”, from 2006 fashion flick The Devil Wears Prada.
Andrea Sachs, played by Anne Hathaway, has just started working for Runway magazine’s editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep. Knowing nothing about fashion, Sachs giggles as a colleague describes two nearly identical belts as “so different”. Appalled by Sachs’ attitude, Priestly wastes no time taking her to task.
“Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you,” she says. “You go to your closet and you select ... I don’t know ... that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.” Streep’s character explains in detail the choices made by fashion industry professionals that dictated the shade of Sach’s sweater. She concludes: “It’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”
Just like Sachs unwittingly fed into the fashion industry, the Lib Dems have been complicit in Brexit. It is hard to take them seriously as its opponents when they have never taken responsibility for their role in making it happen.
After Nick Clegg led them into government with the Tories in 2010, the Lib Dems voted in favour of devastating cuts to public spending. Rough sleeping doubled between 2010 and 2015. In the same period, nearly 20,000 police were taken off the streets and the NHS lost 7,000 nurses. In 2015, 30,000 deaths were linked to cuts in health and social care. That year the number of people relying on food banks hit record levels.
The list of disastrous cuts introduced by the Tory-led coalition is endless. But the Lib Dems enabled nearly all of these measures, contributing to a national mood of resentment that made it easy for right wing opportunists to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment.
The Tories were ideologically obsessed with austerity, but the Lib Dems had their own fixations. Students were saddled with a lifetime of debt and public services were starved of money just so Clegg’s party could indulge its doomed fantasy of holding a referendum on proportional representation. Clegg once publicly supported the idea of an EU referendum, but by 2015 he no longer needed to as his party’s collapse allowed the Tories to pursue one alone.
The Lib Dems have spent the last two years acting as though Brexit is beneath them and they have little understanding of its motivations. Donning a self-righteous superiority complex as their accessory of choice, they co-designed the Brexit collection but now think themselves above wearing its clothes.
While they may not have been in government during the referendum campaign, the Lib Dems must face up to their role in creating the circumstances that allowed the politics of division to thrive. If Cable wants his party’s MP tally to stop shrinking like a cashmere sweater after a 90-degree wash, he needs to stop pointing fingers elsewhere and clearly apologise for the coalition’s mistakes. Only then will the Lib Dems stand a chance of coming back into fashion.
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