Do the Lib Dems Occupy the Sensible Middle Ground?
As I’ve written in the past, when the effects of policies are considered, the centre ground of UK politics lies well to the right of the actual centre. In 2010, when the battle for PM was between Gordon Brown and David Cameron, the media predictably portrayed it as a battle between left and right (despite their budgetary agreement). Nick Clegg placed his party, the Liberal Democrats, between these two ‘extremes’ and achieved significant success in doing so. Their flagship promise at the time was to oppose any rise in university tuition fees, which was a policy that inevitably attracted student votes, and was one that could be considered ‘left’.
But then with one sniff of power they broke it.
For me and many others they had shown their true colours to be blue, any leftward leanings mere grandstanding for the sake of votes; their pretence of occupying the middle ground had shattered. If Caroline Lucas had taken the Green Party into coalition with the Tories, then agreed to pave over all National Parks to make way for new airport runnways and fracking sites, could anyone trust the party again?
But then came Brexit and the Lib Dem’s attempt to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves as the party of Remain (again, a flagship policy rightly or wrongly associated with the left). It has quickly become more central to the party than student loans ever were.
Their new leader Jo Swinson was around during the coalition days. She voted alongside the Tories to cut benefits, increase privatisation in the NHS, impose the bedroom tax, and of course to treble tuition fees. For anyone hoping she may shift the party away from the right her desire to erect a statue of Thatcher should have been a massive red flag (and definitely not a socialist one).
Yet they have succeed in becoming a relevant party again thanks to Brexit.
I’m a socialist, a supporter of Welsh Independence and a Plaid Cymru member; probably in that order. My support for Plaid is contingent on their commitment to the first two. It was Leanne Wood’s appointment as leader of the party that convinced me they were truly a socialist party, and not merely another neoliberal party using rhetoric to imitate the revolutionary language of Wales' past (as Welsh Labour has become).
When she lost the leadership it gave me doubts about the direction of the party (Adam Price identifies as a socialist, though he is yet to completely convince me) but in Wales Plaid remain the party situated furthest to the left.
Whatever your position on Brexit Plaid’s backing of Remain, based largely on the economic hit Wales would take, makes sense. There are plenty of Remain voters in Wales who have permanently lost trust in the Lib Dems so there is mileage in it. But I’m not sure its prominence among the party’s policies makes as much sense. The Lib Dems were in desperate need of a new raison d’être, but this is not the case for Plaid. For me, fighting austerity should take precedence.
So, with the havoc austerity has caused, I was concerned by proposals to form a pact with its joint-architects (because that’s what the Lib Dems are). In a Remain coalition, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party were to step aside in the Brecon and Radnorshire byelection to give the Lib Dems a better chance of defeating the Tory incumbent (who pleaded guilty of claiming false expenses). When the decision was confirmed I convinced myself that as the aim was to defeat the Tories, the ‘masterminds' of austerity (I use that expression very lightly indeed), and as Plaid were never really in the fight so had little to lose, then maybe it was worth it.
But as it inevitably turned out the Lib Dems were not to be trusted. They immediately swapped appreciation for the cooperation of Plaid and the Greens for self-congratulations and delusions of grandeur. The continued to sell themselves as the only party for Remainers.
Then, when given the choice between hypothetically backing Boris Johnson’s No Deal Brexit or a ragtag temporary government with the sole purpose of preventing a No Deal Brexit, they lean away from the option led by a socialist.
They want voters to believe they are no longer the party for students that sold students out for a taste of power. But at least then they had power as an excuse; this time it’s purely ideological.
They say that they are the party of Remain, that Brexit is the most important issue of our time and that only they can stop it. In an attempt to deflect from their recent record they have become a single-issue party.
When asked to chose between a world where they get to prevent their worst case scenario on the issue that now defines them (but with Corbyn getting limited and temporary power) and a government seemingly intent on a No Deal Brexit with what has the potential to become the most rightwing government the UK has ever seen, which way do they lean?
Mainstream UK politics sits firmly on the right, and the Lib Dems can’t even claim to be in the centre of that.