It’d be fair to say that since the EU referendum last June, the previously vilified Lib Dems have made something of a comeback.
In the first two weeks since the referendum, Liberal Democrat membership increased by 16,000 to 76,000, which increased again to 78,000 by the end of the year. They have also gained their ninth MP, when Sarah Olney beat incumbent MP Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by-election. Besides Richmond Park, they were also very successful in the two other by-elections that took place at the end of last year, receiving more votes than Labour both times. At the start of February, they also announced that their membership had increased by 4,000 since December, over a quarter of which was in the week following Trump’s inauguration.
But what does this all really mean? Is this resurgence a reaction to disillusionment the public feel towards the politics of Theresa May’s Conservative and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour parties? Are the Lib Dems becoming the new voice of the centre-left? Will we see a Lib Dem Prime Minister in 2020? Well, yes, possibly, and definitely not! Whilst this increase in membership is certainly good news for the Lib Dems, who were slowly slipping into the political wilderness just 18 months ago, it is not necessarily love for the party that’s causing people to join. Rather, this increase in membership is testament to a problem that has been created by Labour and the Conservatives over the last couple of years; those who align themselves to the political centre are being increasingly unrepresented in mainstream politics.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have recently moved away from the centre ground, under the leadership of Corbyn and May respectively. This has left many in those two parties feeling disillusioned, and so they have joined the party who are most known for sitting in the political centre. However, this negates the reason many political commentators give for the increase in Lib Dem membership: Brexit. During her speech in January, May announced that she plans to pursue a hard Brexit with Europe, thus betraying 48% of Britons who voted to remain, and many of those who voted leave but did not want a complete European divorce. Since this speech, Corbyn’s Labour Party has twice supported May’s Brexit Bill, even after none of their proposed reforms were accepted. Therefore, with the two biggest parties fully supporting Brexit, there’s little wonder why so many people have joined Tim Farron’s party, when his is the largest party in England and Wales still fighting to allow the people to have a final say in the Brexit negotiations.
However, their increased membership does not necessarily spell Lib Dem electoral success. After all, 2020 is still three years away. Labour might ditch Corbyn, and try and regain the votes they’ve lost. Similarly, the Tories may attempt to move back towards the centreground. Regardless, 82,000 is still a small number, and quite frankly pales in comparison to the Labour and Conservative memberships of 540,000 and 150,000 respectively. Even though the Lib Dems may be gaining members, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will make significant gains in the next election. There’s also the question of where these new members come from. About 8,000 of the Lib Dems’ 20,000 new members hail from London, and many from constituencies that have traditionally voted Lib Dem, so it’s unlikely that the party will gain many seats in constituencies they’ve never held before.
Therefore, whilst the number of Lib Dem MPs will probably increase after the next election, and may even reach the heights of 2010, it’s unlikely that we will see them become a serious political force any time soon. However, this increase should, nevertheless, serve as a warning to Labour and the Tories that, with their current policies, they are alienating a number of key voters.