The last gasp? From left, Norman Lamb, Layla Moran and Ed Davey (party leader) on the final day of the Lib Dem Spring Conference, 2019. Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty

September 23, 2020   8 mins

There are lots of ways to understand the Liberal Democrats, their outlook and their role in British life. But the best is probably a story about cockroaches.

Back in 2012, as the Lib Dems were really starting to suffer for their role in the Coalition government, some commentators  and some Conservatives started to speculate that growing unpopularity could force the smaller party out of government.

Others, perhaps more familiar with the Lib Dems, saw more resilience in the party. One of the more colourful bits of analysis noted this extreme resilience, comparing the party’s ability to survive political damage to the apocryphal cockroaches that will supposedly survive even a nuclear winter.

Most people would be mildly unhappy at being called cockroaches, but the Lib Dems wore it as a badge of pride — literally.  The party press office had yellow cockroach badges run up for that year’s party conference. The joke stuck, and at the 2013 party conference, Tim Farron, then the party president, cheerily called his party “cockroaches and nutters” from the podium.  Party members loved it.

Fast forward to 2020, and winter has well and truly arrived for the Lib Dems. This weekend, they will meet, virtually, at an online party conference that will attract little attention — and not just because of the huge events taking place elsewhere in British national life right now.

The story of the Lib Dems in 2020 can be told in two numbers. The first is 2 – that’s the percentage of voters in Wales who backed the Lib Dems in a recent poll.  Dismal, but hardly inconsistent with the party’s general standing. The Politico Poll of Polls currently puts the Lib Dems on 6%, far behind the Tories on 41% and Keir Starmer’s Labour on 39%.

A year ago, that same tracker put the Lib Dems on 20%, snapping at Labour’s heels on 24%, and even Jo Swinson’s general election failure in 2019 saw the Lib Dems take 11.5% of the vote last December.

The other number that explains the state of the party today  is 998. That’s the number of words in the official party definition of transphobia that the Federal Board of the Liberal Democrats (more about party structure in a minute) recently adopted as the party’s official position on what constitutes discrimination against trans people, and people who suport them. (“Transphobia, whether through words or action, may be targeted at people who are, or who are perceived to be, trans or trans allies…”)

Really, the various Lib Dem sub-groups and working parties who laboured over this epic could have saved themselves a lot of time, because those 998 words can be expressed in just three: everything is transphobic. Still, the words do merit some attention here, because that statement says rather a lot about the Lib Dems today. How on earth does a party that can count JS Mill among its forebears end up seeking the outlaw the use of the phrase “biological man”?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the Lib Dems are tanking in the polls because they are staunch supporters of trans rights, or that the British public is deserting them as a result. I’m suggesting that the Lib Dems are tanking because they’ve become fixated on things that are of no urgent interest to the majority of that public. British voters, by and large, are neither pro- nor- anti-trans: they’re just more interested in stuff like the pandemic, the NHS and the fate of the economy.

People aren’t even that interested in Brexit: the most recent Ipsos Issues Tracker showed barely a third of voters mentioned it as a top priority. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, voters have mostly moved on, and Keir Starmer has proved it. The Remain-voting leader of Remain-backing party has recently been urging Boris Johnson to get on with Brexit — with barely a murmur of protest from his party.

Brexit, of course, was the adrenaline shot that restarted the Lib Dems’ failing heart in the years after coalition. Under Vince Cable and then Swinson, the party took increasingly stark positions against the policy chosen by more than 17 million voters in 2016. That drew in a new wave of members, the sort of people who spend time on #FBPE Twitter inveighing against extremist elements in British politics and not seeing the irony.

The new Lib Dems were delighted when Swinson promised to “cancel Brexit”, but the old cockroaches weren’t so sure. British history might have been rather different if Swinson had listened to Lib Dems like Norman Lamb, then the MP for North Norfolk, who warned that the “cancel Brexit” stance would help to polarise politics and “open the door” to Boris Johnson to win big.

But the Lib Dems didn’t listen, and actually rushed to open that door: it should not be forgotten that the 2019 election only happened because Swinson believed it was in her party’s best interest to allow Johnson to go the country.

Today, Brexit is not done but, endorsed in a referendum and a general election, it is a settled fact of British politics. That has left the Lib Dems, once again, searching for a purpose. That brings us back to transphobia, and the identity politics that seem to be all the party has to offer.

Log on to the Lib Dem website today the first thing you’ll see is a crowd of earnest young people holding rainbow flags and #LoveisLove placards. It’s the site of a Pride rally, not a political party.

Again, to be clear, this isn’t an argument that the Lib Dems should take a different position on gay rights, trans rights or any other part of that rainbow-flag agenda. For a party targeting younger, degree-educated urban voters, there’s a certain sense in that positioning, especially when Starmer is so carefully trying to avoid Tory attempts to draw him into a culture war where he can be painted as the head of a “woke liberal” party.

Nor is that different position really an option for Ed Davey, the Lib Dems’ sober new leader and a cockroach who first worked for the party in the early 1990s. One of the things that makes the Lib Dems different is their insistence on internal democracy and rules. The party machinery is a network of committees and boards, all with real internal power. If a small group can control an official “Specified Associated Organisation” such as LGBT+ Lib Dems, they can and do help set party policy and priorities.  Weaning the Lib Dems off identity politics probably isn’t an option for Davey.

A better approach would be to put the rainbow flags in perspective: make them part of the Lib Dem offer — but not all of it. Once, not too long ago, the Lib Dems were the most effective think-tank in British politics, an outfit relentlessly churning out policy ideas that were perfectly sensible but just a little too far ahead of their time for bigger parties to embrace.

Yet Davey has taken the leadership of a party that has little to say about the bread-and-butter issues of politics and government that still motivate the typical voter. The party did develop some sound policies last year — insulating low-income homes; a £10,000 training allowance for all adults — but these were inevitably drowned out by noise about Brexit.

The irony of Lib Dem irrelevance on policy today is so sharp you could shave with it.

If it were to be revealed that Dominic Cummings was a card-carrying Lib Dem who used to sit on the Federal Policy Committee in the early 2000s, no one familiar with the party in those days would be remotely surprised. Industrial Strategy, regional policy, unpicking pension tax perks for high-earners and obscure local government reform: these are all things Lib Dems spent years talking about, to no avail. Anyone looking for the policies that flesh out the Johnson-Cummings promise of “leveling up” could do worse than look at the unread policy papers that Cable and others used to churn out.

Likewise on the green economy.  It has been reported recently that the PM has become fascinated with the role that hydrogen could play in a new low-carbon economy.

If only he’d attended a few Lib Dem conferences in the cockroach days, when Lib Dems enjoyed nothing more than a day dreaming about the carbon-free economy of 2030. When I chaired a fringe meeting on energy policy at last year’s Lib Dem conference, everyone enjoyed it when a very detailed row broke out between audience members about the precise size of hydrogen molecules; Davey, a panelist, cheerily joined in. This is a party that takes the detail of policy seriously.

What happens to the Lib Dems next will depend in part on who is left in the party. The FBPE crowd were largely not “proper” Lib Dem cockroaches; many of them were happy to have a membership card and a direct debit, but not for them pounding the pavements delivering Focus leaflets or going to conference for Glee Club. There are still some very serious Lib Dems in local government, however, and I suspect many of the old cockroaches are still there, even if some younger types with blue hair and pronouns now make more noise.

Will that be a solid enough foundation on which Davey can start to rebuild? And if so, what will he construct?  What is the role for the Liberal Democrats in a political system that is starting to look at least partially post-liberal? A fair bit depends on what Starmer does, but all the signs are that he’s listening to his very clever policy chief Claire Ainsley and trying to reconnect Labour with the values of the voters it lost to Johnson last year: Rule Britannia, VE Day and even Get Brexit Done.

Some Lib Dems may think that leaves a gap in the market for a truly progressive party: more rainbow flags and BLM slogans, and rejecting voters who believe the “wrong” things. In other words, offering sort of politics that Americans call “liberal left”.

As an outsider who runs a centrist think-tank, I’d suggest the Lib Dem aim should be something else: to make the case for a rather older idea of liberalism, one where personal freedom and responsibility go hand-in-hand and people are trusted to make their own choices within a clear set of rules.

The two big parties are quietly agreeing a broad consensus that the size and power of the state should grow: assuming Johnson leads his party into the next election, don’t be surprised to see him battling Starmer over who can promise to do the most, spend the most, in the Red Wall and elsewhere. After all, money is cheap and the huge challenge of the pandemic demands a new paradigm, right?

Economically, we have already entered the new world: the Conservative Party is waging political war on allies and institutions in order to obtain the power to use state spending to support companies favoured by ministers and their super-bright advisers. Likewise the rules and instructions rolled out in response to Covid-19, some of which constitute a remarkable extension of state power in daily life.

Who speaks for the dissenters, for those who’d like some more checks and balances on the people in charge? Who will make the case for rules on the role of the state in markets and in people’s lives? I am no liberterian but the absence of a clear liberal voice in British politics unnerves me sometimes. And as someone who still thinks Mill’s On Liberty is probably the most important book I’ve ever read, it saddens me to see “liberal” attached to causes and ideas that are keener to smother dissenting opinions than protect them.

Is there yet a role for a liberal Lib Dem party? Do the Lib Dems want to be that party? Here, Davey might want to pay attention to the detail of some recent YouGov polling on those Covid interventions, which asked people if they would follow ministerial encouragement to shop their fellow citizens to the police for meeting in groups of more than six.

No fewer than 43% of Conservative voters would report strangers to the police, and 29% would make a similar call about neighbours; 15% of Tories would even call the cops on family members. Lib Dems, meanwhile, were the voter-group least likely to snitch: only 26% would call the police on strangers, 21% about neighbours, and 7% on family.

Britain may be heading down the road of post-liberal politics and a bigger state, but liberalism is neither dead nor doomed to irrelevance. Lib Dem cockroaches need to decide if they want to keep scuttling on.

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation