Stuck in the Middle No More

07/07/2016 16:50
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

The not-so-subtle suggestion from Danny Alexander was clear enough: whichever way the undecided voter turned, she'd be confronted with the uncomfortable reality of an entrenched, out of touch political class pulled increasingly to the extreme. Look to the center, however, and now the discerning voter could seek refuge in the outstretched arms of the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury himself. Indeed, the visual was designed to firmly stake out the middle ground by the Liberal Democrats, the only major party that, as the campaign poster implied, had managed to retain its ideological integrity while representing those segments of society fed up with decades of partisan deceit.

Yet as history has shown, most people preferred the clowns to the left or the jokers to the right over being stuck in the middle with the Lib Dems. The voice of reason and moderation offered little by way of electoral inspiration or emotional appeal. It wasn't enough being the brake on a Tory coalition partner that, left to its own devices, would run rampant with everything from austerity to the Snooper's Charter. People wanted something to believe in, and as far as they were concerned the Lib Dems weren't serving it.

That is, until the near farcical fallout from the EU referendum. As double dealing engulfs others, tens of thousands of new members are joining the ranks of a party that a year ago risked permanent political purgatory. Brexit has reignited a passion within the Lib Dem leadership not seen in years, with Tim Farron delivering a blistering call to arms less than 12 hours after the result had been declared. The cautious rhetorical platitudes that bogged down the party throughout the last election had given way to visceral anger. Far from preaching exclusively to a loyal band of the converted, the Lib Dems tapped into a national nerve, moving unconditionally out of no-man's land and taking a firm position on a contentious, if not defining issue. In what would otherwise be seen as reckless abandon for prudence, they were now boldly standing up for something big and were doing so with a fiery rage.

It is no surprise that they would take a decisive stance on Europe. Internationalism, openness and inclusivity cut to the very core of what it means to be a Lib Dem. Nick Clegg went so far as to challenge Nigel Farage on national television on the issue in the run up to the 2014 local elections. Since the outset of the referendum campaign, the Liberal Democrats were unapologetic, and at times alone, in their outspoken support for the EU and its myriad benefits to the UK. It would also be unfair to suggest that the Lib Dems have never previously come out strongly on a divisive national debate. Indeed, from the Iraq War to equal marriage, they have courageously navigated perilous political waters.

What is refreshing this time around is the fervour with which the party is now drawing battle lines. Those lines no longer correspond to an ideological divide or calculated coordinates on an outdated, binary spectrum. For the Lib Dems, those lines are as stark as the borders with which eurosceptics wish to enclose the UK.

In contrast to the imagery evoked by the now infamous campaign poster, the Lib Dems can move beyond their role as the temporary hideout of the tired and disaffected who are out of options and have nowhere else to turn. Far from being an amorphous, ineffectual alternative, they have been reanimated, assuming a distinctive identity defined by what they're fighting for, and not just by what they are against. Their surge in numbers demonstrates an ability to proactively attract people based on the merits of their position, rather than relying solely on absorbing by default the discontented of their opponents.

Get it wrong, and the party is in danger of descending deeper into the electoral abyss. A staunchly pro-EU stance, criticised by some as undemocratic and anti-liberal, could alienate huge swaths of voters in marginal seats that overwhelmingly broke for leaving. What is more, there is the risk that situational exigencies will attract voters who may feel ultimately let down by subsequent decisions, once again punishing the party they felt betrayed their initial promise come election time. Nor is it enough to build an identity around a single issue.

But get it right, and the tide may well turn. By continuing in the valiant defense of the EU, by espousing the ideals of millions of voters who desperately seek a political force prepared to fight for what they believe in, the Lib Dems have the opportunity to demonstrate the broader value of their brand of social democracy. Get it right, and the much-vaunted "Lib Dem fightback" could be here to stay.