As part of our regular “Remember their Audience” series, we examine the move by Lib Dems to back unilateral “revoke” instead of a referendum.
The background: The Lib Dems have seen a big revival in their polling following bad post-coalition election results in 2015 and 2017. That revival has come by attracting support from remain-motivated voters. The party has now gone further in its remain stance than before, saying it would revoke Article 50 (cancel brexit) without a second referendum.
So why has new Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson hardened the Party’s stance when support for a referendum has played so well for them in the polls?
The claim: “Whenever the election comes, our position is clear and unequivocal. A majority Liberal Democrat government would not renegotiate Brexit, we would cancel it by revoking article 50 and remaining in the European Union.”
So said Jo Swinson this week as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Who she isn’t talking to: Mostly Voters
As usual in this series, I now take the opportunity to remind you that many things in politics are misunderstood because most of us think we are the audience when in fact we rarely are.
Jo Swinson is setting out a newer and harder line on brexit ahead of an upcoming General Election. Some remain voters will cheer this move but many of them are already firm supporters of the Lib Dems and the wider “rebel alliance” anyway. Meanwhile, those put off by “remain” will not be won around by this move.
In this regard the Lib Dems are victims of their own success. Having pushed so hard for so long on a second referendum they have attracted just about as many voters as possible among remainers, and have seen other parties also propose a referendum – including Labour, which has not even come out as “remain”.
Frankly, the fact that Lib Dems are still “remain” is not much of a new message for the public.
The formation of a Rebel Alliance, and especially Labour’s willingness to throw itself into it, has raised a challenge for the new Lib Dem leader. There might be a good case for a formal remain electoral pact as played out between Lib Dems, Greens, and Plaid Cymru in Brecon and Rednorshire, but a party needs differentiation too.
That differentiation can be crucial to reaching out to voters – though in truth most voters are savvy enough to know that a “Majority Liberal Democrat Government” is not in prospect anyway, and thus such policy positions are not in prospect either.
This new policy position is thus more likely about reaching out to Lib Dem members.
With the Lib Dems at risk of almost merging into an amorphous blob of remain parties, this new move to a position that puts them back out there as “the most remain” party is likely to help energise their activists.
That matters because those members will be needed to get out on the doorsteps to give the smaller party a voice amid the media tendancy to focus on the “big two” (or the SNP in Scotland).
There is also a sub-plot here in the shape of a message to other remain parties. They want to work together to some extent but the Lib Dems are making clear that they believe in themselves as an electoral force again – and that means other parties should not take them for granted.