The Liberal Democrats face being squeezed even further in 2018, with the party likely to struggle to make itself heard in the debate beyond Brexit and real fears for its future as a political force, former party staffers and academics have warned.
Several key members of staff have left over the past few months, and the party’s poll position is stuck rigidly at about 7%.
One departed party staff member said there was “a genuine fear for the future of the party”, pointing out many of its 12 MPs have small majorities, including former leader Tim Farron, the new education spokeswoman, Layla Moran, and the work and pensions spokesman, Stephen Lloyd.
Prof Glen O’Hara, an expert on political history and polling at Oxford Brookes University, said higher-earning public sector professionals and former Green voters who may have voted Lib Dem over Brexit were now “solid Corbyn”.
In their former heartlands in the south-west, Ukip voters have switched in huge numbers to the Conservatives, blocking any Lib Dem resurgence. “Put it together with the pincer from Brexiteers in their blue heartlands and public sector professionals in cities moving left, and they face a long time in the wilderness,” O’Hara said.
Internal party projections suggest that to reach a total of 30 MPs at the next election, half of what they had in coalition, they would need a swing of about 10%.
Vince Cable, the former business secretary, is battling to raise his profile as party leader on issues beyond Brexit, defined by a party policy of a referendum on the final exit deal, which he had initially been reluctant to support under Farron.
Mark Pack, the former party strategist who co-founded the influential Lib Dem Voice, said Cable may have been aided if there had been a leadership race. “A contested leadership has the benefit of pushing you to come up with your message quickly, Vince did not have to do that,” he said.
Daisy Benson, one of the party’s former parliamentary candidates who spearheaded a drive for new activists called Lib Dem Newbies, said the party needed to keep its new members motivated. After the EU referendum, membership of the party has grown to 100,000.
“Vince told us it would need a lot of patience and persistence. I agree there is going to be no overnight success,” she said. “But if you are a member of a party you do want to see them scoring some hits. There is an urgent need for Vince to re-engage with people who joined post-2015, because if they don’t, that’s two in three members. We could shrink dramatically.”
One departed member of staff said there needed to be a radical rethink of the party’s direction post-Farron. “Are we a Charles Kennedy-catch-all opposition party or are we the SDP, an adjunct to another party? Are we first and foremost an anti-Brexit party, or not? I don’t know the answers to these questions,” the ex-staffer said.
O’Hara said Cable was associated too strongly with the coalition, and tuition fees, for many voters. “He also seems a little underpowered as leader,” he said.
Other party sources hit back, saying Cable’s personal profile “is much higher than Tim’s. Not long ago he was the most trusted politician in the country.”
His team are pursuing a “broadcast-first strategy”, one that Lib Dem strategists believe worked well for Corbyn during the election. Cable has made a string of hires in recent weeks, including a new chief of staff, Fiona Cookson, who was Cable’s head of press in government, and press secretary Mark Leftly, the ex-deputy political editor of the Independent on Sunday.
However, Lib Dem sources said morale was low at the party’s headquarters. Senior figures including the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, its head of press, Jasper Gerrard, and the director of communications, Phil Reilly, have departed since the general election, as well as Farron’s press secretary, Paul Butters.
Several senior figures in the party said they believed the party’s best hopes of future revival lay with one of its newest MPs, Layla Moran, a former teacher of Palestinian descent who is popular with the party’s newly joined younger members.
“There is real momentum in Team Layla. A lot of people now are thinking she’s actually the best person for the future of the party,” a former staff member said.
Benson said Moran was making an impression. “She’s really in touch, picking her battles,” she said.
Pack said the party still had several key strengths, a large membership as well as a unique selling point as a pro-remain national party. Cable, he said, needed to be well prepared for the pitfalls of leadership to avoid the problems that sunk Farron, who was dogged by questions about his attitude to homosexuality and abortion as a practising Christian.
“He is doing serious preparatory work now to be ahead of any potential pitfalls that might come up, such as what our policy should be on tuition fees. That’s an obvious question that will be asked,” Pack said.
“And there’s a lesson here from Tim Farron’s leadership. Thinking ahead, what are the things that are likely to be a problem come the next election?”
A senior Lib Dem source said the party planned to broaden its message more widely in the new year, with Cable keen to talk more on poverty, the economy and BAME rights. “The problem we have at the moment is Brexit is all that we appear to be about and we are trying to change that,” the source said.
One of the changes the party will push in the new year is to change legislation to allow political parties to run all-BAME shortlists, as well as specialist visas for curry chefs.
Benson said 2018 would be “make or break” for the Lib Dems. “Though every year seems to be that, doesn’t it?” she said.
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