In the last few months, Labour and the Conservatives have moved into new positions of strength. Clearly Keir Starmer wants to beat the Conservatives, whilst Johnson is trying to halt the falling polling numbers before his backbenchers begin to get nervous. But there is an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to utilise these shifts in the political landscape to reposition themselves and capitalise on the situation.
The first such manoeuvre began with the Conservatives reigniting the Brexit debate. Despite claiming back in January that Brexit had been done, the government decided to pick a fight with the EU and risk breaking international law just to bring it back from the dead. Of course you can understand why. It’s a safe Conservative issue and they hope to use it to regain support and distract from their handling of the COVID crisis. They also hoped to remind people that the new Labour leader is a remainer.
What was interesting was the response from the new Labour leader. Despite being given an opening by Johnson to comment, Starmer didn’t take the bait and instead continued his attack on the government’s shambolic handling of COVID. One of the smartest things Labour has done for a long while. Not long after was Labour’s conference, which gave an opportunity for the leader to set out his vision for labour. And what we saw was definitely a shift in Labour’s position and an indication of who their target voters will be. With their slogan ‘Under new management’, Labour pushed itself as a patriotic party that will listen to the issues of working class people. As one commentator said, he’s basically setting himself up as a more competent version of Johnson, who will deliver the promises that Johnson can’t deliver.
Now I’m sure many people on the left will be aghast at the idea of Labour now being a ‘nicer’ one-nation Conservative Party, but let’s not forget that Johnson had promised many traditional Labour ideas. Record spending on infrastructure, schools, NHS and police. Raising the living wage. Controls on immigration. All issues that are important to traditional working class voters, and important to those in the red wall seats that Labour lost in the last election.
So the goal of these political manoeuvres are clear, Labour are aiming to fight over the same political battleground. Yet where does that leave the Liberal Democrats? Well luckily for us, it leaves us pretty much everything else. With the two big parties fighting over the same voters, we have an opportunity to pick up the rest and create a core vote based on our values. Personally, I would like the party to target two specific groups of voters based on our traditions of personal freedom and civil liberties.
The first group would be minority groups under threat from the cultural war being pushed by the Conservative party. The cultural war will be a quite a tight-rope walk for labour over many issues like asylum seekers and LGBT+ rights. They will have to try not to alienate the socially conservative working class voters whilst not annoying large parts of their supporters. Whereas the Lib Dems have always proudly made clear what our position is on these issues, and our firm belief in individual freedom will make us the natural home to all who want to defend those being persecuted or ignored.
The other group are those unhappy with this increasingly authoritarian government. Even before COVID, Johnson and Cummings have believed in a strong centrally controlled government, above the normal scrutiny of a healthy democracy. And now during the COVID crisis we have seen a greater amount of power given to the government without any discussion. This power grab has seen many traditional libertarian conservatives shocked at the size of the state and the new restrictions on personal freedoms. And if these restrictions continue, we could see many disgruntled Tories switching to the only party that prides itself at having personal freedom at the heart of its policies.
It was always going to be a time of political manoeuvres after Brexit; especially with relatively new leaders in all the parties. But we potentially haven’t seen such a shift in the political landscape since Jeremy Corbyn surprisingly gained the labour leadership five years ago. It’s going to be an interesting run up to the elections in May.
Stuart is a columnist for Liberal Base and Tweets @stueybourne.