It is early days in the Election race, and the Lib Dems have (barring the odd graph) run an incident free campaign, but so-far have failed to cut through and make a decisive impact. In fact, despite an initial false start for both the Conservative and Labour campaigns, the prevailing wisdom (backed up by polling), is that smaller parties like the Lib Dems, are being squeezed by the big two.
While the Lib Dems might blame this squeeze on an uneven media landscape, which they may argue has reduced their exposure to the electorate – most contentiously the decision by the BBC and ITV to exclude the Lib Dems from the leadership debates – there are some fundamental truths that the party knows they are battling. The UK electoral system is disadvantageous to smaller Parties, with voters often wary of ‘wasting’ their votes, and the Lib Dems only have 21 MPs despite a series of defections from both the Conservatives and Labour.
The strategy that the Lib Dems have deployed to counter these facts is twofold: firstly, they have sought to ambitiously paint Jo Swinson as the future Prime Minister – a direct attempt to combat the issue of voters seeing a vote for the Lib Dems as wasted. The flip side of this tactic is that the party is seen as unrealistic and arrogant about its potential – this has been coupled with some contention about the Lib Dems’ use of unverified polling data for leaflets in ‘marginal’ constituencies.
The second tactic has been an unrelenting focus on Brexit. This should be no surprise; the Lib Dems have been unapologetically anti-Brexit since the referendum – citing the economic cost to the country and questioning what type of Brexit voters endorsed in the referendum. Furthermore, focusing on Brexit has paid dividends for them, delivering strong results in the recent EU elections, a spike in membership and a rise in donations.
Brexit has also helped give a clear rallying call and purpose to a party which had lost direction in the wake of their disastrous coalition with the Conservatives. For many of their target seats in London and the south east, it should also be a vote winner on the doorstep, due to strong local support for remain.
However, the issue for the Lib Dems and a possible reason for their falling poll numbers, is that an election is about more than just a single issue. Voters are considering both leaders and policy, who they want to run the country and if they like their ideas on issues that matter to them – health, immigration, the economy. This presents a conundrum for the Lib Dems; Brexit is a vote winner in target constituencies and the reason for their resurgence. Yet, in a national election, campaigning on a single issue that may not be representative of voters’ broader priorities reduces their appeal.
If Brexit doesn’t define this election, then their manifesto launch today presents a vital opportunity. It is a window to show voters why they offer more than just unequivocal opposition to Brexit. Carrying that message to voters is essential to their efforts to re-assert themselves as a political force. This is not to suggest that the Lib Dems should move away from an anti-Brexit messaging platform, especially in their target areas, but they must work to prove that they offer a holistic set of policies and open the potential for a wider support base come December 12th.