UK election: Lib Dems misfire on second Brexit vote pitch

Campaign trail: Britain’s ‘third party’ struggles to be heard as main parties become polarised

Speaking to Irish Times correspondent, Simon Carswell, Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg talks about the reality of a hard border with Northern Ireland after Britain's exit from the EU. Video: Simon Carswell


Next to a “Winning Here” Liberal Democrats sign in a cramped office, Joe Otten has piles of leaflets neatly stacked ready to be distributed street by street in the constituency of Sheffield Central.

The party has just nine seats at Westminster, including the one held by Nick Clegg, the party’s former leader and one-time deputy prime minister, down the road in Sheffield Hallam.

As the Conservative and Labour parties have swung further to the right and left under Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, the Lib Dems, the traditional centre-left alternative, spied an opportunity. They would be the natural home for much of the 48 per cent anti-Brexit vote with the promise to push for a second referendum. The people, the party suggested, should have another chance to choose the final Brexit deal or to remain in the EU.

‘Slightly mystified’

Over coffees and paninis in a nearby Italian coffee shop, Otten, a Lib Dem city councillor, admits to being “slightly mystified” that the party’s bet on Brexit is backfiring and that its centre between the two main, deeply polarised parties is not holding.

“That ought to leave space for us – and that’s what we thought – but perversely it seems to have frightened the two parties’ supporters so much that they don’t want to risk a third option,” mulled Otten.

In theory, the strategy to have another go at a Brexit vote might have been a smart political pitch. There were 18 million “Remainers” and it was a perfectly sensible strategy for a pro-Europe party.

But it has not played well. The Lib Dems’ representation at Westminster dropped from 48 seats to eight in the 2015 election and polls suggest the party might struggle to hang on to the seats they have.

“If the polls are to be believed, which I appreciate is a large leap of faith, they would suggest that the Liberal Democrats are not making any headway at all,” said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds.

“If anything, they would be going backwards, which is quite something given the position that they are in.”

Even before the election, the party is engaging in a level of soul-searching to try to figure out why the election strategy seems to be backfiring.

Joe Otten: the Sheffield city councillor admits to being “slightly mystified” that the Lib Dems’ bet on Brexit is backfiring and that its centre between the two main, polarised parties is not holding.
Joe Otten: the Sheffield city councillor admits to being “slightly mystified” that the Lib Dems’ bet on Brexit is backfiring and that its centre between the two main, polarised parties is not holding.

Ruminating over a latte, Otten felt that once the referendum was lost and opinion was divided, it was going to be a struggle for the Lib Dems to try to stop Brexit or at least bring in “a less extreme version of it” that maintains the free movement of people and keeps the borders open.

So what happened to the “48 per cent”?

“I think half of them have moved on, as the polls suggest, even if they don’t like it,” said Otten.

“The other half are saying, ‘yeah, I’d like to stop it if I can’, but even they are saying to themselves, ‘but how can I stop it?’ And if they don’t live in an area that the Lib Dems are strong, they clearly don’t feel that voting Lib Dem will help them stop it.”

Drowned out

In this election, the Lib Dems’ voice on Brexit and Europe has been drowned out by the Conservatives blasting the election as a referendum on leadership and Labour beating a loud drum on economic equality.

“That 48 per cent who voted Remain are not really that bothered,” said Finbarr Cronin, the 37-year-old Lib Dem candidate running in the constituency of Wakefield, further north in Yorkshire. “They have been told to shut up and accept the vote, and a lot of them have.”

There have been other problems. Party leader Tim Farron has run a lacklustre, charisma-less campaign, making it a struggle to be heard above the Corbyn-versus-May slugfest. The party is still suffering a hangover from its coalition alliance with David Cameron and the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015.

In what felt like a last-gasp bid to be noticed, the party stepped up its attack on the two main parties and tried to bring the election debate back to Brexit.

In a hard-hitting speech on Tuesday, Clegg accused May and Corbyn of forming “a pact of silence” to avoid discussing Brexit during the campaign. He called it “one of the most cynical acts of collusion between the two larger parties in a generation”.

“We have this extraordinary spectacle of the two larger parties in British politics, Labour and the Conservatives, now in effect colluding to claim that this election is all about Brexit and then refusing to talk about Brexit in any meaningful way whatsoever,” he told The Irish Times on a visit to a manufacturing company in industrial Sheffield.

“Clearly, it is very difficult for other parties to intrude into that collusion when both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, for their own political purposes, are as keen as they are to duck any serious detailed question on their Brexit plans which are now, to all intents and purposes, identical.”

‘A self-destructive Brexit’

Asked why the Lib Dem warnings about “a self-destructive Brexit” have not resonated with voters, Clegg urged patience and to await the counting of votes: “Let’s see what happens on Friday.”

The Brexit vote in Sheffield, where four of the five seats are held by Labour, in last year’s referendum largely mirrored the national result: just 51 per cent voted to Leave, with only 6,000 votes separating the Remain and Leave camps.

Hugh Facey, the chairman of Gripple, the Sheffield wire-joining manufacturer Farron and Clegg visited on Tuesday, calls Brexit “a disaster”. He employs 730 people worldwide, including staff in Strasbourg and Chicago, and laments the fact that the Lib Dem warnings are falling on deaf ears.

“I pity that it isn’t being received or understood more by the British population,” he said. “We don’t know what Brexit means. What’s it going to be? That’s the nonsense of this election. That woman [May] called it for political reasons and political reasons only.”

A short drive away at the vast Meadowhall, the eighth-largest shopping centre in the UK, voters explained why Liberal Democrats were not really figuring in this election.

“People are scared to lose a vote,” said Brian Morgan (20), a self-employed roofer from Chesterfield who is voting Labour.

“They don’t want to vote Lib Dems because they think it is a two-horse race and would rather vote Labour or Conservative. Otherwise they think they are wasting a vote.”

His friend Johnathan Thompson (21), a student, says the party is being ignored by the press. “The media has helped streamline it to the two parties: the Tories and Labour. If you look at the coverage, it is predominantly what Jeremy Corbyn is going to do and what Theresa May is doing.”

Robert Betts, a retiree from Mansfield, blames the Lib Dems’ opposition to Brexit.

“The majority of people voted for Brexit – that is why they are losing the votes,” he said.

Rebecca Butler (29), a Labour voter, and her mother Judie Revaudi (54), who is backing Conservative, say they have not really heard much about the Lib Dems. “Nobody really knows the leader,” said Judie.

Mother and daughter questioned the party’s election pledge on Brexit.

“How can you go backwards when everyone has voted for it?” asks Revaudi.

“It has been decided, hasn’t it?” said her daughter.