How the Lib-Dems and the SNP Failed the Progressive Movement in Britain

by Benjamin Studebaker

The Labour Party was able to increase its vote share to about 40%, a level which has often historically been enough for Labour to form governments on its own.

But Labour was unable to form a government because the Conservatives also increased their vote share, albeit by a smaller amount:

This large Tory vote share enabled the Conservatives to prevent the assembly of a grand coalition of the left. Much of the turnover came from the collapsing UKIP vote, which fell more than 10 points from 2015 levels. But some of it came from the SNP, which dropped 1.7 points and 12 seats to the Tories. And some of it even came from the Lib-Dems, who lost 0.5 points and failed to win over many anti-Brexit Tory voters. Labour took care of business, but the junior partners came up short. What went wrong?

The Lib-Dems Chased Young Labour Remainers instead of Old Tory Remainers

Immediately after Brexit, Tim Farron thought the Lib-Dems had a chance. Labour was polling poorly. Corbyn had been wishy washy about Brexit. Farron thought the Lib-Dems could swoop in and take all these anti-Brexit Labour voters. After all, 63% of Labour voters had voted remain, only a bit less than the 70% of Lib-Dems who voted the same way. Who cares if the Lib-Dems chased off their 30% leave vote? They had a whole 63% of Labour’s much larger bloc to conquer! Who cares if ripping the left wing vote into finer and finer chunks only aided and abetted the Tories? There were seats to win here!

Farron’s eyes were bigger than his stomach. The best the Lib-Dems could have hoped to do in this election was make themselves useful in a progressive coalition, and they were never going to be the part of that coalition which captured the young remainer vote. The Lib-Dems alienated an entire generation of young cosmopolitan people when they went into a coalition with the Tories and voted to raise tuition fees. To make matters worse, the Prime Minister they helped form a government ended up being the same one who introduced the EU referendum after kicking the Lib-Dems to the curb and taking most of their seats in 2015. The Lib-Dems are unbelievably unpopular with young people–so much so that in my old Warwick days, a fellow I knew started a campaign to “save the Lib Dem” (i.e. the one remaining student willing to admit Lib-Dem affiliation on camera) from extinction. The hole is deep.

I saw Farron at the anti-Brexit rally in London, proud to be the only party leader participating. I saw Farron stride into the Cambridge Union, thinking he was going to win over the students. I even took a crummy phone pic:

He really thought Corbyn was leading Labour into oblivion and that the Lib-Dems could benefit from the carnage. He thought Brexit could undo the damage the coalition had done, that Clegg’s apology and his installation as leader had drawn a line under it:

Not quite. In the weeks leading up to the election, I asked many of my undergrad students who they were voting for. “Labour.” “Corbyn.” I asked them if they knew any Lib-Dem voters. “No.” “A couple.” “One.” “Not many.” This is Cambridge, mind you–a marginal in which only Labour and the Lib-Dems are competitive, a seat Labour had won by only a few hundred in 2015. But this time Labour obliterated the Lib-Dems here:

You have to know your own strength and your own ceiling. The Lib-Dems’ credibility is shot with young people. Labour stole their pledge to eliminate tuition fees–Corbyn even said it would come into force starting next year. The best the Lib-Dems could hope to do was try to offset the return of right wing UKIPers to the Tories by pilfering some of their remainers–to become remainer UKIP. If they’d managed to do this, they might have kept the Tory percentage in the upper 30s, below the Labour level, and then helped the Labour Party form a government. This would undo their original sins. Instead of helping the Tories bump off Labour, they’d be helping Labour bump off the Tories. Instead of voting with the Tories to raise tuition fees, they’d be voting with Labour to eliminate them. Young people could consider a Lib-Dem Party that was seen to be doing left wing things and, more importantly, seen to be helping them in tangible ways. The Lib-Dems needed to win over and then betray old Tory remainers, just as they won over and betrayed the students. And then they could make the same argument they made after 2010–they did it for the good of the country, and look at all the ways they tempered Corbyn’s worst instincts! Instead, they feel no more relevant than they did two years ago, and the Tory vote share is 42%.

But not only did they fail to do this, Farron went out of his way to alienate students even more by initially refusing to deny that gay sex is a sin and by turning out to have at one point been anti-abortion. Old Tory remainers might have put up with such things. Young Labour remainers do not. In the end, it didn’t even begin to work. The Lib-Dems took nothing from Labour. They ended up taking five seats from the Tories, but losing two, with an overall vote share decline. It didn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way going forward–Farron should be replaced, and straightaway.

The SNP and Scottish Labour Turned the Scottish Conservatives into the Dominant Unionist Party

After Brexit, the SNP pushed for another independence referendum, but independence is less popular than it used to be. The “yes” side hasn’t won a major poll since June 2016, and after SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon announced in March her intention to seek approval for another referendum the numbers got better and better for the unionists:

Because Scottish Independence is such a fundamental constitutional question, it tends to be a priority issue for Scottish voters when it’s in the offing. The SNP’s decision to pursue a new referendum in March moved independence to the top of the agenda in Scotland at a time when independence was not very popular, and the more time Scottish voters have had to think about it, the less they’ve cared for it. The SNP is firmly in the “yes” camp, so these people need to find someone else to vote for. The last independence referendum took place in 2014. In the 2015 election, the SNP were unshackled from the referendum. For the first time, Scottish voters had no reason to think that voting SNP would stick them with a destabilising vote. They were happy to vote them into parliament if it meant they didn’t have to risk anything fundamental. But Sturgeon put the issue back on the agenda, and the SNP once again became the independence party.

Now, in 2015, the SNP had taken most of its voters from Labour. But most of those Labour voters did not return–instead, the SNP somehow managed to convert many of them into Tories:

Some of this comes from the fact that by damaging Labour as badly as they did, the SNP displaced it in certain parts of Scotland. This meant that if the SNP vote share fell precipitously, Labour would not be in a strong organisational position to recover–when people sent fliers around telling them who could beat the SNP, it was easier to show the Tories as competitive than Labour in some spots. So In many places, Labour didn’t look like a realistic choice. In every Scottish seat the Tories won, Labour finished third. In England, tactical voters were looking to stop the Tories. In Scotland, the tactical votes are about stopping the SNP and their second referendum.

Even in areas where Scottish Labour were competitive, they weren’t always regarded as reliable. The Tories were able to hit Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale over and over on perceived wishy washiness about independence. In an interview mere months ago, Dugdale said that it was “not inconceivable” that she would back Scottish independence to maintain EU membership. The Tories pounced:

The idea that Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom is in some way dependent on Britain’s membership of the EU is offensive. Scotland helped build the UK and is an integral part of it – confirmed by the referendum vote just 18 months ago. With the SNP about to prepare a fresh drive for independence, we need to stand up for our place in the UK. It now appears Labour are simply incapable of doing that.

Dugdale has since tried to buff up her unionist bona fides, but the damage has been done. Under Dugdale, Scottish Labour isn’t the place you go if your first priority is to save the union.

It doesn’t help that the Scottish Labour Party is split off from the national apparatus. Dugdale is not a Corbynite. She voted for Yvette Cooper. She also called for Corbyn to resign a year ago and backed Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. Immediately after Corbyn defeated Smith, she reiterated her position that Corbyn could not unite the party or win an election. This inhibited Scottish Labour from taking advantage of the left-wing enthusiasm that helped Labour pick up 10 points nationally. While turnout increased across the whole UK by 2.6 points, it fell in Scotland by 4.7 points.

So in the end, the Tories gained 12 Scottish seats, about 20% of those available in addition to the 1 seat they acquired in 2015. Sturgeon and Dugdale screwed this up:

  1. Sturgeon’s independence referendum push drove unionists out of the SNP’s column.
  2. The SNP’s electoral success in 2015 made it more difficult for Labour to compete in the first-past-the-post system, making it a weaker choice for anti-SNP tactical voting.
  3. Dugdale allowed the Tories to paint her as weak on unionism, making Labour less attractive to tactical unionists even where it might have otherwise been realistic.
  4. Dugdale’s anti-Corbynism reduced Labour enthusiasm and lowered turnout.

With a better leader, Labour might have won more than 6 additional seats in Scotland. If the SNP hadn’t pushed for another referendum, it might not have lost so many to begin with. The Scottish independence movement shot the left in the foot.

When the next election comes (and we might not have to wait too long), the Lib-Dems and SNP need to understand that they have a real chance to go into government as junior partners in a progressive coalition. But the SNP can’t let the Tories use Scotland as a cushion and the Lib-Dems can’t go after Labour votes when there are remainer Tories to be had. And in the meantime, Scottish Labour should probably find some exciting left wing unionist who can align better with Corbyn’s vibe. The deputy leader, Alex Rowley, might fit the bill–or perhaps former contender Ken Macintosh.