In politics, people have always held strong opinions about the other side. Yet this seems to have become even more prevalent in recent years, as polarisation intensifies and social media rewards controversy and confrontation. The left says the Tories are responsible for thousands of deaths as a result of austerity (I agree). Meanwhile, the right claims that Labour secretly wants hundreds of millions of refugees to come to the UK and that Jeremy Corbyn is besties with Vladimir Putin (I obviously find this absurd).
Nevertheless, the basic point stands: people increasingly feel that the stakes in politics are incredibly high, even existentially so. As a result, the other side must lose at any cost. In my view, this tendency is far stronger on the right. But regardless, the default is that Labour voters dislike the Tories, and Tories dislike Labour. See also: Brexiteers and Remainers.
But what if Britain’s worst political party wasn’t Labour, as the right would say, or the Tories, as the left would contend, but that which straddles the space between the two? What if the organisation which best captures Britain’s dysfunctional politics wasn’t a shade of red or blue, but yellow? I’m speaking, of course, about the Liberal Democrats.
To some, blaming the Lib Dems for Britain’s ills might seem like crude contrarianism – a strain of ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’ for a lib-bashing lefty like myself. And yet for many others, particularly those immersed in local politics, the depths to which the Lib Dems will plunge, and their unique brand of ‘nice guy’ toxicity, is all too familiar. So allow me to make the case for the prosecution.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
First, let’s start with the party’s politics – or rather, lack of them. At a local level, where they have historically excelled, the Lib Dem pitch is simple. When their nearest rival is Labour they claim you should vote for them ‘to keep Labour out’ (and that the Conservatives ‘can’t win here’). But when it’s the Tories who are their primary competitors they say the complete opposite. As a result, Lib Dems are eager to brandish their ‘progressive’ credentials when chasing Labour voters, but do the precise opposite when courting Tories. Imagine Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde being on the campaign trail together – and all they can agree on is electoral reform and a 5p charge on plastic bags.
In local government, this translates to no meaningful agenda. After four decades, what are the outstanding achievements of Lib Dem councils? While Labour can point to the Preston model, or improvements in London’s transport infrastructure since the turn of the century (and soon maybe Manchester too), the Tories can gesture towards low council tax (at least for Band D properties). But the Lib Dems? ‘We aren’t the other two’ appears to translate into nothing beyond installing more bollards and nimbyism.
Like the country more generally, the Lib Dems’ modus operandi is managed decline – only for them, this seems to be the point. In 2021 the party voted to call for at least 380,000 homes to be built every year, yet in local government, their default is to block new developments. On infrastructure, they have been similarly myopic. In 2011 Nick Clegg said he opposed nuclear power because it wouldn’t come online until 2022. A decade later, and the price of electricity increased by 66% in the year to March. But that is precisely the point of the Lib Dems: to not do anything. One leaflet, recently posted on Twitter, distilled this perfectly, with a party councillor listing his accomplishments – they almost entirely consisted in blocking new infrastructure and housing.
Where I live, in Portsmouth, the council leader is Lib Dem Gerald Vernon Jackson. There’s a video on Youtube of him speaking beside the demolition of the city’s Tricorn Centre in 2004. Within two years, the viewer is told, a scene of dereliction will become a hub for housing and retail. Almost two decades later, with the council still led by the same individual, it remains a car park. If you didn’t know better you would presume the space was a legacy of the Luftwaffe rather than Lib Dem town planning.
Besides their politics, and inability to do anything, the Lib Dems are the market leaders in fake news. The party’s campaign materials, which frequently border on outright misinformation, have included misleading bar charts, inaccurate data from European elections and dodgy ‘tactical voting’ websites. The latter was promoted in their leaflets in Kensington in the 2019 general election, where they claimed the ‘tactical’ vote for progressives was to go Lib Dem – despite Labour’s Emma Dent Coad being the incumbent. Dent Coad subsequently lost by 150 votes. To the Tories.
The Lib Dems are not even beyond commissioning their own dodgy data. In 2019, the party published a leaflet in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s constituency claiming they had 32% of the vote while the Tories had 38%. Yet in the previous general election, the Tories mustered an impressive 53% and the Lib Dems just 8% (Labour came second). So how did they arrive at this different figure? By commissioning a poll with the following question: “Imagine that the result in your constituency was expected to be very close between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidate and none of the other parties were competitive. In this scenario, which party would you vote for?” That same year, in the race for Putney, one party leaflet approvingly quoted a YouGov poll. There was just one problem: it was made up.
Then there are the fake newspapers and lifestyle magazines. To the untrained eye, these seem to be local freesheets rather than party propaganda. There are also letters from ‘polling experts’ – who fail to mention they are Lib Dem members who have previously stood for parliament. While there are few clean hands in politics, no other party regularly plumbs to such depths.
Such deception would make even Donald Trump blush, and if it were perpetrated by Labour or the Tories the media would call it ‘fake news’. Yet the Lib Dems appear to get a free pass. One explanation for that double standard is that the party and its views are over-represented in Britain’s centrist broadcast media.
Most grating of all is that despite everything, the Lib Dems try to portray themselves as the nice guys of British politics, and their opponents as nasty. Yet their toxic mix of inertia, anti-politics and misinformation serves to undermine trust in politics – far more so than either Labour or the Tories.
British politics, and public life, can only start to revive with the departure of the Lib Dems. It is an organisation instinctively hostile to fresh thinking and honest debate. Both have never been more necessary.