Writer, broadcaster and Liberal Democrat EMMA KENNEDY on the three priorities for her party’s next leader.
It’s a funny old time for Liberal Democrats. We’re in the middle of a leadership contest after an election where we increased our vote share by 4%, but ended up losing our leader and talented MPs like Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger. We had a clear directive: stop Brexit, but we lost that argument, not least because the revoke policy, seen by many as a rallying point for Remainers, turned toxic. We were suddenly a ‘party of extremists’. Really? Have you ever met any Liberal Democrats?
Revoke was an own goal but the nation was in a febrile state in 2019. It was an election powered by boredom: a nation that had had enough of scrutiny and making sure the seismic change people had voted for was actually what it said on the tin.
Never mind nobody knew what was in the tin: Brexit meant Brexit, blah blah to fade. That boredom, rather than breeding creativity, created nothing but bad tempers and blood red lines and here we are, staring down the barrel of the no-deal gun.
Remember when Tory MPs voted to push through the Withdrawal Agreement Bill with only three days of scrutiny? Iain Duncan Smith stood up in the chamber and confidently told the House there was absolutely no reason for anyone to have to read the blinking thing for a second longer, our future batted away like a troublesome fly.
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Then a week ago, up he crept again, complaining he hadn’t read it properly and didn’t know what was in it. Let’s tear it up, he said, as if casually disregarding a legally binding international agreement was the same as taking a packet of biscuits back to the supermarket because there aren’t enough raisins in them.
Brexiters are now the living, breathing embodiment of ‘act in haste, repent at leisure’. Nobody in their right mind would have tried to sell no-deal to the British public in 2016.
It wasn’t whispered out loud until 2017. They had to let the rot set in, let the crushing ennui of the tediousness of flushing our nation down the toilet settle before they could peep up from the Underworld of Worst Brexit Possible and Jedi Mind Trick everyone into thinking that’s absolutely what you voted for.
So, it seems as if the hardest possible Brexit is about to happen. The Tories, on a 1% increase against the worst Labour leader of my lifetime, walked away with a thumping 80-seat majority. They can now do whatever they want. So what next for the Lib Dems? Who are we? What do we stand for? What can we do?
I think there are three things the party should consider.
First, we need to revisit overhauling our not fit for purpose electoral system. First-past-the-post is undemocratic. We cannot continue with a system where only the winning candidate’s votes count. This isn’t how a grown up democracy should function. Parliament is the representation of the people, but currently, it’s not.
Under our system, the Tories, who got 43.6% of the votes, walked away with 57.8% of the seats. The Liberal Democrats, on 11.5% of the vote got 1.7%. Under a more equitable system, where every vote cast actually counted, parliament would look very different: Conservatives would be on 288, Labour 216, Lib Dems 70, SNP 28, Greens 12, Brexit Party 10, Plaid 4, Others 4. If you want the mood of the nation, that’s it, right there.
That is the snapshot of what people believed in 2019, but our parliament doesn’t reflect it.
Every person in this country should feel represented and if that means UKIP or the Brexit Party getting seats, so be it. If you don’t feel heard, Brexit is what you get. On the centre and left, we shouldn’t have to spend every election agonizing over tactical voting. Every vote should count. So let’s embrace proper electoral reform.
Second, we need to start the fight to rejoin the single market. It’s not full membership but it’s the best bit of the EU. We need to argue its benefits for our businesses and jobs and we need to start shouting from the rooftops that freedom of movement, far from being the grumbling evil it’s portrayed to be, is a brilliant right, both economically and culturally.
Thirdly, what do we do about the Keir Factor? We’re now in second place in 91 seats across the south east. Time and again, on the doorstep, I met constituents begging Liberal Democrats and Labour to work together. Without meaningful electoral reform, we must, but this will require cooperation from Labour. Start that conversation now.
We have four years to get our s**t together. Let’s get on with it.
Emma Kennedy has been a member of the Liberal Democrats since 2010