December 22, 2016 By FTI Consulting
With their parliamentary presence depleted to just 8 members, the Liberal Democrats’ influence in the House looked as if it was set to increasingly diminish as the year wore on. However, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in June seemed to instil a new raison d’être in the Lib Dems, who overnight became the sole, unequivocal party to champion Britain remaining in the European Union. Since the vote, the party has sought to reposition itself as the voice of remain voters, promising to campaign for Britain to re-join the EU.
The party’s newfound distinctiveness has served them well. Within the first three months after the vote, the party reported a dramatic increase of 20,000 new members, presumably attracting discontented remain voters, bringing the party’s total to 80,000 – more than half the membership of the Conservative Party.
Similarly, their renewed appeal seemed to resonate in local elections, with the party securing their best ever year for council byelection gains, winning 31 seats in local authorities across the country. Their most dramatic success was the political upset caused by Sarah Olney, who in a surprise result seized nearly half of the vote in the Richmond Park by-election and vanquished the incumbent Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith into political obsolescence.
Whilst most attribute the Lib Dems’ success in the by-election as owing to a strong anti-Brexit protest vote, momentum is with the party as it continues to speak for remain voters. Despite their low national polling numbers (currently hovering at 6%) the Lib Dems are well positioned and crucially well organised to strategically seize the support of centre-left voters in pro-remain constituencies, who feel they are no longer represented by Corbyn’s Labour and disagree with the party’s contradictory position over Brexit. Parliamentary byelections will be crucial to the Lib Dem recovery, however these are few and far between, and the chance of by-elections popping up in pro-EU, Lib Dem marginal constituencies are also small.
In the meantime, the party’s left-of-centre leader, Tim Farron, will need to pack a greater punch in the House and seek to better assert himself and his MPs in parliament, something he has failed to accomplish up to now. Farron will need to align strategies with, and leverage the party’s more than 100 peers, who continue to wield much influence in the upper chamber, throughout the Brexit process.
The Lib Dems’ upcoming Spring Conference in York may give greater insight into what strategy the Lib Dems will pursue and the issues they seek to prioritise over the forthcoming year, as the stakes increase and Britain edges closer to the triggering of Article 50.