The 2015 general election left the Liberal Democrats on a precipice. The party was reduced to just eight MPs, a much shrunken local government base, and had been dethroned from its traditional position as the third party of British politics.
Since then, it has been seeking a way back to its post-1997, pre-2010 levels of support, and the result of the EU referendum in 2016 seemed to offer just that. By speaking out for a pro-European Union perspective, a position the Liberal Democrats had long held as a party, they hoped to build support among voters who had opted for Remain.
An early general election poses a major problem for the party – it’s too soon to have had a chance to shake off the negative legacy of coalition with the Conservatives, and too soon to see how the government’s negotiating strategy for leaving the EU will play out.
The party manifesto for the June 2017 election tries to offer the electorate policies that will overcome these twin pressures. It also seeks to give the party something to build on before the next general election, which is expected to be held in 2022, after the UK has left the EU. Perhaps understandably, it seeks to limit the ambition of the party to being a stronger opposition, rather than seeking to enter government. Indeed, it explicitly rules out a coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour.
The big issues
There is a twin track offer on Brexit in this manifesto. On the one hand, during the negotiations, the Liberal Democrats will campaign for Britain to remain in the single market. On the other, the party wants to offer a referendum on the final deal, with an option to remain in the European Union on the ballot paper.
Clearly, the party hopes to appeal to Remainers with this strategy but it is doubtless also hoping that, by laying out an alternative Brexit strategy, it can also appeal to Leave voters who don’t want a dramatic change in the UK’s relationship with Europe. It is an effort at triangulation – and it may prove to be too clever by half.
Beyond Brexit, the manifesto commits to higher spending on health, education and welfare. This change of direction is underwritten in particular by a promise to raise income tax by a penny in the pound at every level. An extra £6 billion would be spent on health and an extra £7 billion on education. Within these areas, the party places the greatest emphasis on mental health, social care, early years education, and the schools budget.
The Liberal Democrats have traditionally enjoyed strong support among public sector workers – these policies, coupled with their pledge to allow public sector pay to increase at above the current rate of 1% a year, clearly aim to restore their appeal to those voters.
Young voters are another clear target in the manifesto. The promise to legalise and regulate the sale of cannabis has drawn significant attention already but the goal of building 300,000 homes a year by 2022 will have a strong appeal for voters who feel locked out of the housing market. We should also include the policy on Brexit, which was strongly opposed by younger voters in the referendum, as part of this pitch.
Each UK election brings with it a call for young people to vote – and, without fail, each UK election so far has failed to see this call translate into dramatically higher turnout among younger voters. While the Liberal Democrats have clearly identified younger voters as more receptive to their message of change, it is an electorally risky strategy to adopt.
The problem is compounded by the fact that party leader Tim Farron has faced intense criticism for his position on social issues, and simply has not been received well by voters as a whole. Young voters are also being targeted heavily by Labour as it tries to fight the Conservatives.
There are a great many forces pressing on the Liberal Democrats in this election. With the legacy of the coalition hanging over them, Brexit still incomplete, and a leader who is not resonating with the public, the party will surely hope that this manifesto gives them the ammunition they need to advance on their 2015 position.