Six months ago, British politics seemed poised for upheaval. The Liberal Democrats, standing on an unambiguously pro-remain platform, secured a higher vote share than both Labour and the Conservatives in the EU elections. The overall victory however, had gone to the equally unambiguous Brexit Party. One YouGov poll showed voting intention in almost a 4-way split between these parties. The received wisdom at the time claimed that the EU Question had irrevocably changed the face of our political discourse – and yet now, as we barrel towards a General Election, a kind of familiarity is returning. Hard-Brexiters have fallen in line behind Boris Johnson, and so the Brexit Party vote share has unsurprisingly collapsed. But what happened to the Liberal Democrats, who also seem to be in freefall? Why are voters fleeing them in droves when, at least by their own estimation, there is no alternative Remain party?
The most essential weakness of the Lib Dems is their leader - Jo Swinson. Polling has shown that remarkably, the more voters see of her, the more they dislike her – even among Remain voters – with her approval dropping significantly after each major debate and television appearance. This would be incredibly damaging for the leader of any party, but particularly for one that has made its leader a central feature of their branding. The party frequently refers to itself as ‘Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats’, and its manifesto as ‘Jo Swinson’s Plan for Britain’s Future’. One of their recent rallies even featured a ‘Swinzone selfie zone.’ Every election from 1992 to 2015 saw the Lib Dem’s vote share increase over the campaign. This trend was bucked in 2017, under the leadership of the useless (and quietly homophobic) Tim Farron, and so it seems to be again, as Jo Swinson withers under the light of scrutiny. The Lib Dem brand, built atop Swinson’s personal popularity, appears now to be sinking like a house built on sand.
The Lib Dems have also faced challenges not of their own creation – victims of several widely shared ‘fake news’ stories. The mostly prolific of these was a fake Mirror story (by a ‘Wurrence Telephene’) which claimed that a video had emerged of Swinson firing stones at squirrels (or ‘pleb bunnies’, as she was alleged to have referred to them). Swinson has since publicly denied that she enjoys killing woodland creatures for fun. A more recent fake story emerged in the form of tweets by a ‘Max Gapes’ which claimed that Swinson was considering resigning before the election, and that senior Lib Deb figures had already attempted to discuss a coalition agreement with the Conservatives. These tweets, painting a picture of a party in total disarray, were shared by senior Labour Party figures, but then promptly debunked.
For a party victimised by, and so strongly opposed to, fake news, the Lib Dems have come under heavy criticism for circulating fake information of their own. The widely derided ‘Lib Dem bar charts’, a recurring tactic of misrepresenting polling or historic election data to exaggerate their own electoral chances, have been out in full force this cycle. The party’s head of media was also suspended over allegations that she fabricated an email in attempts to discredit a negative news story. Many voters flocked to the Lib Dems after being frustrated and disaffected by the Leave campaign’s deployment of misinformation, so the party’s own failings in this area will have contributed to pushing away these voters.
The Liberal Democrats’ failure to retain a loyal base of Remain voters can also be explained, counterintuitively, by their extreme Brexit policy of revoking Article 50 (i.e. cancelling Brexit without any additional referendum). Jo Swinson has struggled to justify this policy on multiple TV debates, with many Remain voters criticising this policy as too extreme, undemocratic, and too alienating of Leave voters to have any chance of success. It does not help that the party’s main defence of this policy has been that they would only enact it if they won a majority (implicit in this statement – that it is rather unlikely). So why even bother voting for them? The party which long championed the ‘People’s Vote’ seems to have shot itself in the foot by abandoning it.
With polling day imminent, only time will tell whether the Lib Dems will be able to recapture some of the support they formerly enjoyed. The party hopes to be the kingmakers of a hung parliament, but to reach this position they will need more than the humble 13 seats predicted by the YouGov MRP model. And if they do, will they break their promise not to put Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10? Or will they once again back the Conservatives (perhaps in exchange for a referendum on Boris’ Hard Brexit)? And will Jo Swinson be able to hang onto her East Dunbartonshire seat, which the SNP are striving to retake? Only one thing is certain – the once expected Lib Dem ‘surge’ has emerged as little more than a trickle.