What optimism there is for the Remain cause is now tied to the fate of the Liberal Democrats – and to see it through, they need to make a genuine appeal to the Left.
Recent polls show that the Lib Dems have achieved twice in a month what they couldn’t do for over a decade – they’re overtaking Labour.
The surge comes, of course, from their unequivocally pro-Remain position as the two-party system unravels. Politicians need to accept that this isn’t going to revert soon. After three years of arguing, more and more people have become passionately involved in what is no longer a superficial question of in/out of a multi-state power. Leave or Remain is becoming a more fundamental question of who we are as a nation.
As much as we are all exhausted by the topic, it has become a long-overdue reckoning of the UK’s postcolonial place in the world, and it’s currently in the process of absorbing the classic positions of left and right.
The Lib Dems are currently making hay with Labour’s failure to grasp the ideological breadth of the Remain cause, and are hoovering up centre-left votes. The hard-Remain ticket was initially a gamble – one that probably only a minority party could have risked – but it’s paying off. To watch the party as a whole at this point is to observe a crystal-clear, defiant and actually quite jolly celebration of progressive politics. Whoever takes over from Vince Cable will inherit a beautiful opportunity to take the party firmly into the mainstream, cementing its gains and with it, the Remain outlook’s hegemony. But to do this, they need to persuade Labour voters – and for this, a straight-Remain ticket isn’t enough.
If Labour has started to understand the harm Brexit will do, leaders and many supporters still frame it, at best, merely as a big obstacle to the onward march of social and economic justice. Jeremy Corbyn’s allies hope to lumber over it, take the hit, blame the Tories, and carry on – hopefully in government. Tom Watson, in his speech to the Centre for European Reform, has warned against this stubbornly inward-looking stance, arguing powerfully that being in Europe is inseparable from classic leftwing values of solidarity and progress. He recognises that Brexit is not a stumbling block, but dictates the very shape and direction of the road ahead. But the rest of the Labour leadership is barely listening.
During Labour’s Brexit silence, the Lib Dems have chosen their stage well. But when it comes to a general election, where the party will need either Labour’s or their official partnership, they are going to have to play to a distinctly left wing crowd. Labour Remain voters have signalled their anger at the EU and local ballots, but the moment a general election hoves into view – which for most people is still basically the ‘real’ election – they may well need stronger enticement.
The Remain cause is far, far bigger than the Lib Dems as a party. After their performance in the local and EU elections, it’s sometimes a bit of a shock to remember that they only have 12 MPs. In terms of party politics, it’s like a mouse playing Glastonbury. Just as Tom Watson pleaded with Labour to marry left wing values to the Remain cause, Remainers are going to have to plead with the Lib Dems to marry the Remain cause to left wing values.
This is may mean quite a metamorphosis for both Lib Dem leadership candidates.
The Remain surge has pushed the Bad Old Days of the coalition government far out of view – that is, until the moment Swinson and Davey want to start talking about their experience in office. They might as well tell Labour voters of their days clubbing baby seals before they remind them of their ministerial roles in the Lib Dem pact with the Tories, when their voting records on welfare and benefits followed the Tory whip.
Albeit with hands tied, they voted for the bedroom tax, against raising welfare benefits in line with prices, and voted 26 times (Jo) and 24 times (Ed) to reduce spending on welfare, at a time when austerity was biting its hardest.
On taxation, they’ve gone down the middle of the road, voting to increase the rate of VAT and taxes on booze and flights; but high rollers needn’t worry about either of them slapping a tax on bankers’ bonuses or their massive homes.
Davey, who will want to buff his green credentials by talking about his time as energy secretary, was quietly ok with limited fracking, and applied a market-solutions-will-provide attitude to just about everything. For him, social democracy is “not very convincing” compared to Orange Book-style free-market liberalism, he told Total Politics, so that won’t help.
As business minister Swinson was against banning zero-hours contracts, and made a slightly bizarre push to revoke the Pedlars Act, a kind of mini deregulation of street trade that the local government association quickly pointed out would lead to a free-for-all for frauds and con merchants.
Swinson has rightly said that the party needs to work hard to keep these Labour votes, but both she and Davey are going to have to acknowledge that this can’t be done on the strength of the Remain argument alone. They are going to have to look to themselves, also.