The title of this post is the question – more than ever – that I found myself asking after the Lib Dems had just wrapped up their Brighton rally. This is my fourth Lib Dem conference. My first was also in 2012, also in Brighton. At the time, too, there was talk of the party’s identity crisis. Two years into the coalition with the Conservatives, members are in a temper tantrum. They were brought into government by Nick Clegg, then deputy prime minister, but they struggled after an unpopular budget and a failed referendum on electoral reform. The party is a centre-left force: a Labor Party without authoritarian tendencies? Or is it a force at the heart of the free market: an enlightened complement to Conservative power? Pamphlets such as the Meaning of Liberalism circulated.
These things should be much clearer today. Electing Tim Farron as Mr Clegg’s successor twelve months ago, the party has opted for a more centre-left orientation. What has happened since then couldn’t have been better. First, Jeremy Corbyn became Labor leader, dragging the main opposition out of the social democratic position where Mr Fallon had previously looked like the unquestionable answer . (Mr Corbyn’s re-election is likely to be confirmed on Saturday, after a leadership contest has torn the bones of his party.) Then there’s Brexit. A full 48% of voters opposed a British revolt, but with Labor out and Theresa May’s government leaning towards a “hard Brexit”, they have no say.
It is therefore difficult to imagine more generous circumstances for Mr. Fallon. To be fair, he has his accomplishments. While Labor lost seats in May’s local elections, the Liberal Democrats gained 45 seats. Some 15,000 people joined the party after the Brexit referendum. However, the Liberal Democrats have shown no signs of making a national comeback since their dismal performance at last year’s general election. The party’s support has been stuck at 8 per cent in opinion polls, the first dip since Mr Clegg brought the party into government in 2010 for a few months. Voters don’t seem to be thinking much about it these days: in a YouGov poll released today, 65% of them (and even a third of Lib Dem supporters) had neither a positive nor a negative opinion of Mr Fallon (Mr. Clegg should be lucky).
What went wrong? Why has the political earthquake of the past twelve months not had a noticeable impact on the party’s national standing? One answer is that it will take more than a year for the Liberal Democrats to recover from the bad (mostly unfair) reputation they have acquired in government: as traitors, weaklings and, above all, pretenders. British voters have long memories. An event at the Brighton conference asked whether the party would return to power by 2080.
Another factor is the party’s small size in the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats may have more than 100 MPs in the House of Lords, but in the elected House they have only eight representatives. Upcoming redistricting could reduce those MPs to four. So they didn’t get much attention at all. TV interviews, select committee chairs, parliamentary issues are no longer as they were before the last election when there were 57 Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons. To recover, the party needs a prominence that doesn’t fall into its own lap.
There are two additional explanations that make it even more difficult for Lib Dem loyalists to understand. First, Mr. Fallon may not be up to the task. In a British political landscape dominated by peddlers, authoritarians, isolationists and delusional people, he was a rare figure: a moderate, decent political leader who dared to speak his mind and was not manifestly incompetent. But for the Liberal Democrats, that may not be enough. Up is not their only way out. Their leaders are tasked with simultaneously arresting decline and spurring new progress. Someone more talented than Mr. Fallon would fail in his position. As likable as he is, he doesn’t come across as a heavyweight. Mr Clegg may have been widely reviled, but at least he was recognized. One year into his tenure, Mr Fallon has not met with such scorn. His speech in the party this afternoon opened up a glimpse of the audacity and hubris needed to change that, but it was more impressive on paper than in the halls.
At least, the party can do something. If Mr Fallon’s party is still at 8 per cent in the polls a year later, he should be jettisoned and Mr Clegg reinstated. But a second factor transcends these issues: the structure of British politics. Demographically, as I have long argued here and elsewhere, Britain is becoming more international, which should benefit people like Mr Fallon. However, the Brexit referendum seems to have unleashed forces in the opposite direction: a new hostility to immigrants, a triumphant purism towards Brexit in large swaths of Westminster and Fleet Street, far beyond any pre-referendum promises, and ultimately Importantly, “bring it on” nostalgia has now entered the political mainstream (reviving old symbols of British power and independence, from Britain’s old blue passport to the royal yacht Britannia). This hardly touched Lib Dem voters, or the minority who were torn between Lib Dems and Labour. But in the true heartland, the shift matters and could change the election outcome.
Mr Fallon’s strategy is clearly aimed at winning over the moderate Labor Party alienated by Mr Corbyn. So he paid tribute to Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umuna and even (albeit in a qualified way) Tony Blair in his closing remarks this afternoon. This may help the Liberal Democrats absorb some new members. But electoralally, the blend of social democracy and liberalism welcomed by Mr Fallon has fared best in the safe Labor seats of London, Bristol and Norwich. Enough people voted Labour to see Mr Corbyn as useless, almost irrelevant, even on the sensitive issue of Brexit. If there is one low-hanging fruit for the Liberal Democrats, it is the south-west of England, where the Conservatives won a sweep last year but which still has a strong liberal streak for deep historical reasons linked to local industry and religion. In these constituencies, people voted for Brexit and cared less for Mr Blair and his successor.
I totally understand what Mr. Fallon is thinking. Perhaps, after a year of Mr Corbyn’s disastrous leadership of the Labor Party, the Liberal Democrats can now achieve fruitful results in courting Labor members. In fact, I expect this strategy to work: I wouldn’t be surprised if thousands of Labor join the Lib Dems in the next year or so. On the UK political spectrum, the Liberal Democrats play a more important role than ever before as guardians of the center of progress. The question is: Will all this translate into votes, influence and power? I am pessimistic here. As things stand, I don’t think Mr Fallon will lead the kind of liberal restructuring he hints at. I hope to be proven wrong.