Ever since the 2016 referendum result the Liberal Democrats have sought to establish themselves as the principled party of remain. They have become a single issue party that targets remain voters who would not ordinarily vote Lib Dem in order to capitalise on the increasingly polarised nature of British politics between leave and remain. The issue with this is the Lib Dems view Brexit not as a fundamental issue of principle but one of potential for power. The opportunity for increasing the stature and power of their party has caused the Lib Dems to abandon their key principles, namely liberalism and democracy, in favour of electoral gains.
On the surface, the Lib Dems have become obsessed with Brexit, yet the reality is that Brexit is simply a tool used by the Party as part of their obsession with gaining power. Lib Dem policy has been focused on Brexit to the extent that only the most dedicated political analyst could easily identify another of their policies. A casual look into their policies over the last decade demonstrates that their position on the EU is as flexible as their coalition negotiator was on the issue of student fees and is enough to make most voters think twice about backing the Lib Dems on December 12th.
At the Lib Dem party conference this year, Jo Swinson declared that she could not ‘forgive David Cameron for calling the referendum’ calling it a ‘shocking misjudgement’ that went against the ‘national interest’. This was a startling claim given that the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto promised an ‘in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU’. While the Lib Dems stated that they would argue for remain, both Swinson and Nick Clegg argued for a referendum on EU membership with Clegg even criticising Labour for their refusal to offer a referendum. Nice to see that nothing has changed. A cynic may question whether Swinson and the Lib Dems’ criticisms of anyone who fails their EU purity test is somewhat hypocritical given their support for the vote just nine years ago.
The Lib Dems 2010 support for an EU referendum makes their current criticism of the Conservatives hard to swallow. To see Swinson criticising Cameron for something that she herself backed is worrying as it suggests a willingness to airbrush the past and ignore that which discredits the Party. At a time when the country is forced to watch their Prime Minister bumble around playing fast and loose with the truth, it is disturbing to watch the leader of the fourth biggest party do the same. It hardly serves to dismiss the accusation that the Lib Dems are simply yellow Tories.
What discredits the Lib Dems’ trustworthiness even more is how the Lib Dems policy on Europe has changed. While they campaigned for remain in 2016, their policy ever since has been at best confusing and at worst, shameless political maneuvering. In September 2016, the Lib Dem conference voted for a second referendum on the final terms of Brexit. Vince Cable, future Lib Dem leader, branded this ‘disrespectful’, stating that the party ‘must accept the public have voted on the matter’ and that a second referendum would leave open the possibility of a third. Yet, just two years later, Cable called for Corbyn’s removal unless he backed a second referendum. Cable, and the Lib Dems should not be criticised because they changed their mind as their values proclaim them as a pro-EU party and their policies can change with circumstances in order to best represent their values. What they should be criticised for is the constant shifting of their position accompanied with criticism of those who occupy the space they themselves recently stood in.
Yet the most disturbing shift in the Lib Dems’ Brexit is that, in the unlikely event of a Lib Dem majority, they would revoke Article 50 rather than call a second referendum. This is a shocking betrayal of democracy. Even if the Lib Dems were somehow able to form a majority government, it would not give them a mandate to overturn the 2016 referendum result. This is because our system for general elections is inherently undemocratic. For example, the Conservatives were able to form a majority government in 2015 despite receiving just 36.9% of the vote while UKIP had just one MP elected even though they received 12.1% of the vote. Moreover, people vote for political parties for a myriad of reasons and a vote for the Lib Dems cannot be reduced to a vote for remain. In 2017, the Lib Dems were the only major party in England and Wales to campaign for a second referendum yet they received just 7.4% of the vote. No rational person could argue that only 7.4% of people wanted another referendum, it’s just that those in favour of another referendum prioritised other policies and voted for other parties. Elections, unlike referendums, are not fought on single issues. It is for this reason that the Lib Dems’ policy to revoke Article 50 without a second referendum represents a complete abandonment of the democratic principle.
The Lib Dems’ revocation policy is made particularly galling by their previous policy in favour of an in/out referendum in 2010. While the Lib Dems were no less against Brexit then than they are now, they offered a referendum simply because they believed, however misguidedly, that a vote on Britain’s EU membership was necessary as democracy dictated that the people should have a say. Yet now the Lib Dems argue against a people’s vote, not because they no longer desire one, but because Labour are also offering one. The Lib Dems fear losing votes to the party with a firmer ideology and a better chance of success. As a consequence they have rejected democracy in favour of a desperate grab at power.
Jo Swinson and the Lib Dems’ Brexit hypocrisy is further exemplified by their decision to stand a candidate against Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury. Duffield is passionately pro-remain and has a razor-thin majority of just 187 votes over the Tories. Despite the Lib Dems finishing over 20,000 votes behind Duffield in 2017, and their pledge to stop Brexit, the Lib Dems are refusing to stand aside in this constituency. This will likely hand the seat to the Tories and shows that the Lib Dems do not care about stopping a hard Brexit. Instead, they fear Corbyn becoming PM and even prefer a no deal Brexit to a Corbyn government, as confirmed by their MP, Jamie Stone. They proclaim to champion the remain cause, to be pro-European, yet all they can be said to be is pro-Liberal Democrat.
Sadly, the Lib Dems have also developed an aversion to being liberal as well as being democratic. Such is their desire to legitimise themselves as a major party they have sought to increase their parliamentary strength by accumulating MPs who most would struggle to call decent, nevermind liberal. First there is Chuka Umunna, who in the last year has been Labour, independent, Change UK, independent, and finally Lib Dem, all without a single by-election. So much for a people’s vote. Umunna espoused his Liberal credentials by referring to working class people as ‘trash’ and only joined the Lib Dems after being cast aside by two other parties.
Then there is Dr Philip Lee who is such an anti-racist and LGBT ally that he tried to amend a bill to have all immigrants to the UK tested for HIV. Dr Lee also saw fit to abstain on the legalisation of gay marriage. So disgusted was the party’s LGBT Chair, Jennie Rigg, that she resigned her membership after launching a scathing attack upon the leadership. Rigg declared that Lee was a ‘homophobe’ and a ‘xenophobe’ who believes that ‘people like me are a lower class of human’, before arguing that the party was devoid of ‘soul and principles’.
But what about Sam Gyimah? A man who is so liberal that he filibustered a bill to prevent automatic pardons for gay and bisexual men who had been convicted for their sexuality. There is also Angela Smith, who in her first interview after defecting from Labour saw fit to refer to ethnic minorities as having a ‘funny tinge’, while her husband (and Lib Dem staffer) called Labour MP Dawn Butler a liar for speaking about racism she had experienced. Perhaps worst of all is Tim Farron, the former leader who could not decide whether gay sex is a sin, comparing homosexuality to the practice of slavery as if they were in anyway comparable. These MPs were not suspended, expelled or admonished. Instead, they have been ignored, welcomed and even praised. These are not liberal champions, committed to diversity and equality. They are bigots. Such is there quest to have enough MPs to need a coach rather than a minibus to get to conference, the Lib Dems have sold the soul of their party and betrayed those who abhor bigotry.
So what will voters get from the Lib Dems should they somehow triumph on Decmber 12th? The answer is no one knows. The Lib Dems have become a single issue party with a constantly evolving position on that issue. Will they revoke Article 50, join the Euro, or offer a second referendum? They simply cannot be trusted. Those who remember the tuition fee betrayal by the Lib Dems will be once bitten, twice shy. A Lib Dem promise is no promise at all. They offer one empty policy to voters and ask them to trust them to deliver it after demonstrating that they cannot even be trusted to stick to the principles that define their party. As Rigg said, ‘the party lacks even the most basic of values it espouses in its constitution’. The Lib Dems are illiberal, undemocratic and cannot be trusted.