BOURNEMOUTH, England—Standing onstage in front of her party faithful, Jo Swinson had a surprise. At the opening rally of the Liberal Democrats’ conference here at the British seaside, the crowd knew what to expect—all week, rumors had been buzzing that they would be joined by a high-profile defector from a rival party—but they didn’t know whom to expect. Even their own members of Parliament were kept in the dark until half an hour before the announcement.
Swinson, the party’s newly elected 39-year-old leader, said the person she was introducing was “someone who has stood up for liberal values,” and moments later, Sam Gyimah bounded up onstage. Gyimah, born in Britain and raised in Ghana, had once been hailed as the future of the Conservatives—the party of Boris Johnson, which is furiously trying to pull Britain out of the European Union. Just three months ago, in fact, Gyimah had stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
Now he was a Liberal Democrat.
In her introduction, Swinson stressed Gyimah’s social liberalism—the 43-year-old voted to legalize same-sex marriage in 2013—and his commitment to stopping Brexit. Gyimah ran for the Conservative leadership while calling for a second EU referendum, a position that proved about as popular with its grassroots members as a 100 percent inheritance tax or banning Downton Abbey. It was this experience, he said, that had persuaded him to leave the party. Now his move to the Liberal Democrats sent a clear message: The Conservatives had no place for pro-European social liberals anymore. To underline the point, Swinson was wearing a necklace bearing the word European, while Gyimah took the stage wearing orange trousers—one of the Lib Dems’ signature colors.
The past few months have been chaotic, even by the recent standards of British politics. After Theresa May failed to get her deal drawing Britain out of the EU through Parliament on three occasions, she was forced to resign. Her successor, Boris Johnson, immediately took a more aggressive stance, suspending Parliament and trying to force an early election. Opposition parties have denied him that opportunity, arguing that with Britain legally obliged to leave the EU on October 31, agreeing on an exit deal should take priority. In the brief period in which Parliament sat before its suspension, Johnson suffered a series of defeats—and effectively kicked out 21 MPs from his own party for disagreeing with his Brexit position. Gyimah was one of them.
In contrast to this disorder, the past two weeks have seen a carefully choreographed stream of new faces joining the Liberal Democrats. On September 3, Phillip Lee, a former Conservative, announced his defection in a wordless moment of extremely British drama. He entered the House of Commons—during a speech by Johnson, for extra impact—and went to sit on the Lib Dem benches rather than the Conservative ones. Lee’s change of party deprived Johnson of his working majority in Parliament—and with it any chance of passing legislation.
Two days later, Lee was followed by Luciana Berger, who had earlier left the Labour Party, Britain’s main opposition, because of the anti-Semitism she had experienced from some of its members. Then, on September 7, Jo Swinson tweeted the sheet music for a song from The Sound of Music: “I am 16, going on 17.” Hours later, Angela Smith, another Labour defector, became the party’s 17th member of Parliament. The steady drip-drip-drip was designed to remind onlookers that lawmakers inside both Labour and the Conservatives believe their parties have become too extreme. (Voters, too, have been switching over: In the European Parliament elections in May, the Lib Dems secured a fifth of the national vote and 16 seats—their best-ever result.)
The Lib Dems see the polarization of British politics as their big chance in a country whose first-past-the-post electoral system is notoriously hostile to smaller parties. Aside from national governments at times of crisis, Labour and the Conservatives have alternated ruling Britain since the 1910s. But their traditional bases are fragmenting, with an array of new factors—age, education, city versus country, homeowners versus tenants—crisscrossing the old divides of class and economics. The 2016 referendum on EU membership was won by Leave 52 to 48 percent, with supporters of both main parties on each side of the question.
All that means, with another election potentially looming, attention is turning to the Liberal Democrats. Can they make a breakthrough and become the main opposition—or even a party of government? What do they stand for, apart from opposing Brexit? And by accepting refugees from Labour and the Conservatives, do they look like the sensible middle ground, or just the “None of the Above” party? It is a question with international resonance. Across Europe and the West, old parties are struggling to adapt to new divides. Is the electoral map about to be redrawn—and can the Lib Dems seize the moment?
The Liberal Democrats were born out of the ashes of failure. The first half of their name comes from the Liberals, a party of government that dwindled over the course of the 20th century before eventually merging with the Social Democratic Party—a group that broke away from Labour in the 1980s over fears that the party was becoming too left-wing. The Liberal Democrats’ foundational beliefs were center-left economics plus social liberalism. One member of the SDP breakaway group, Roy Jenkins, had championed causes such as divorce-law reform, decriminalizing homosexuality and abortion, and abolishing theater censorship. The party proposed raising income taxes to fund education and, more recently, health care.
But time and again, this new force was squashed by Britain’s electoral system, which rewards bigger national parties and punishes upstarts. In 1983, as the Liberal-SDP Alliance, the new group won 7.8 million votes—just 650,000 fewer than Labour won—but ended up with only 23 seats to Labour’s 209. In 2005, when they rode a wave of anger against the Iraq War, the Lib Dems still won only 62 seats in Parliament—less than a 10th of the available seats—despite garnering more than a fifth of the vote.
At the next election, in 2010, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg performed so well in television debates that there were a few weeks of “Cleggmania.” His personal popularity overcame one of the persistent disadvantages faced by any small party: the battle to get any attention at all. When the results came in, the Lib Dems held the balance of power between a tired Labour Party, which had been in power for 13 years, and the Conservatives, with their young, untested leader David Cameron. Clegg chose the Conservatives, entering a full-blown coalition (rather than a looser, vote-by-vote arrangement) and supporting the party’s austerity policies. After five years as the junior partner in government, the Lib Dems’ reward was electoral wipeout. In the 2015 election, the party went from 57 seats to eight.
This history haunts the Liberal Democrats. The party has surged before, only to see the two-party system brutally reassert itself. Its activists fear entering government, because they worry they will end up with all the blame for unpopular policies and none of the credit for successful ones. Raising the threshold at which income tax becomes payable was a Lib Dem idea, as was a 5-pence tax on plastic bags, and yet the party’s time in coalition is most remembered for a broken promise not to raise university tuition fees, which are set by the government in Britain.
Because of its history of centrism, the party has often been accused of vagueness, and the Lib Dems are asked repeatedly during election campaigns what their “red lines” would be—which policies are absolutely essential, and which can be horse-traded away in potential negotiations to form a coalition government. Some argue their identity crisis has been provoked by the success of liberalism itself. “The 20th century is the liberal century; the Labour Party implemented the social liberalism, and Tories a form of economic liberalism,” Stephen Tall, a former Liberal Democrat adviser, told me.
In Brexit, the party hopes it has found a new defining idea. The Liberal Democrats ardently campaigned during the 2016 referendum in favor of remaining in the EU. Now they are going a step further. On the second day of the conference here in Bournemouth, its activists voted decisively to become the party not just of Remain, but also of Revoke. A majority Liberal Democrat government would, they decided, simply cancel Brexit altogether and keep Britain in the EU.
The virtue of the Revoke policy is simplicity. Labour’s position is tortured, implying that a better Brexit deal is out there waiting to be found, but that the party would also offer voters a chance to reject it. And the Conservatives have set out their stall as the party of Brexit, “do or die,” as Johnson has said. The danger is that Revoke is seen as extreme. For a party that already does well in metropolitan areas full of university graduates, the stance risks cementing the perception that they represent the views of the “liberal elite.” During the debate at the conference, Niall Mahon, a councillor from Sunderland, a city in northern England, asked: “Who is this targeting? Do we really need to be piling on more and more Remain votes in London constituencies? What are we offering to the North?”
Some insiders have another worry. They fear that the Lib Dems, custodians of a particular political tradition, are being turned into a single-issue party. At the conference, attacking Brexit was a guaranteed applause line. In his speech, the former leader Vince Cable noted that 70 percent of new members joined to oppose leaving the EU. The common thread of the lawmakers joining the party is a hatred of Brexit. But is that enough to hold a political party together? Or has the liberal tradition been hijacked by—admittedly, extremely polite—entryists?
Conference season is an enduring British political tradition, even though everyone involved claims to hate it. Lawmakers decamp to a series of airless halls outside London, mingle with activists, and wash their party’s dirty linen in public. Labour’s conference is dominated by the trade unions that provide much of its funding; the Conservative one is the best place in Britain to spot men in mustard-colored trousers with strong views on foxhunting. The Liberal Democrat conference is more like a high-school reunion for nerds: Just five minutes after my arrival, a man in a white suit engaged me in an earnest conversation about proportional representation. The party is also intensely democratic. Votes on policy taken here really matter, whereas the bigger parties tend to govern by fiat or clique. That makes it an extremely good place to spot the prevailing opinion among its members.
Activists generally agree that the high/low point of the conference is “Glee Club,” held on the last night—a public sing-along with rewritten pop songs full of in-jokes. Last year’s Glee Club featured a number that could stand as a mission statement for the party. Sung to the tune of Labour’s revolutionary anthem, “The Red Flag,” it instead promised, “The party's flag is pallid pink, and old Madeira is our drink / Though Labour sneers and Tories plot, we will remain a moderate lot / Then raise our banner shoulder height, for to do more is impolite.”
In an age of populists and strongmen, the Lib Dems are proud to embrace moderation, consensus building, and tolerance. The more battle-weary members, though, have a saying: If you’re in the middle of the road, you might get run over. In the 2015 election, the party suffered heavy losses because it was unable to distinguish itself as having a unique set of principles. Tall, the former adviser, believes that electoral math will guide the Liberal Democrats’ future path: The majority of their target seats are held by the Conservatives. But they need an economic policy that goes beyond splitting the difference between the two main parties—as Tall put it, “a bit Keynesian, but not spendthrift.”
In a packed room at the Marriott Hotel in Bournemouth, Chuka Umunna—like Berger, a defecting MP who joined the Lib Dems from Labour, after a brief attempt at starting a new party—seemed typically unruffled by such questions. He argued that Brexit was not a single issue. Remain and Leave, he told activists, were merely “badges” for new political identities. In the 20th century, the big divide was economics: The Labour Party represented the worker, the Conservatives capital. The new dichotomy, Umunna said, was about values: “liberal, open, outward-looking, internationalist” versus a “socially conservative, nationalistic, authoritarian view of the world.” He saw the party in the same tradition as Emmanuel Macron of France, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Justin Trudeau of Canada, and Pedro Sánchez of Spain. (That focus on social liberalism brings its own problems. The party’s decision to welcome Lee, who called for immigrants to be tested for HIV, led to a councillor heckling Swinson during a question-and-answer session. Heckling is considered to be very un–Lib Dem, and the audience was palpably shocked.)
Plenty of political scientists support Umunna’s analysis—and his contention that Remain and Leave have become shorthand for these two worldviews, ensuring that the new divide will persist even after Brexit is settled (if it is ever settled). Labour and the Conservatives draw their support from both sides of this new fissure. About 30 percent of Labour’s 2017 voters were Leavers, according to the British Election Study. And about 39 percent of those who voted Conservative in 2015 went on to vote Remain, according to YouGov.
This should be, then, a moment of great opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. They hope to pick up support from both disgruntled Labour and Conservative voters by presenting themselves as the unequivocal voice of Remain. If and when Britain leaves the European Union, though, would there be as much backing for a campaign to rejoin? The pure focus of the current anti-Brexit anger would surely dissipate, and everything would depend on whether British politics was truly realigned, or merely snapped back to its old, ill-fitting, comfortable labels.
In recent decades, British politics has become much more presidential, focused on leaders as much as on parties. Both Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, were chosen by their memberships, rather than their colleagues in Parliament. Both see connecting with their “base” as a purer form of politics than that practiced at Westminster. Johnson draws his energy from the 2016 referendum, promising to enact the “will of the people.” Those in Corbyn’s circle have always felt that it was their job to shift Labour’s center of gravity to the left.
To work out whether the Liberal Democrats can break through, then, look at their leader. A great deal now depends on the character and ability of Swinson. Her leadership style is unusually collegiate; she likes to hear a range of opinions before coming to a decision. (This could prove a disadvantage in the pressure cooker of negotiations with other parties.) “She’s probably also one of the less tribal MPs in terms of getting on with people from other parties,” Sean Kemp, a former Lib Dem adviser, told me. “That’s paid dividends with these defections.” Swinson also spent three years as a business minister when the Lib Dems were in coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. It is a strange quirk of British politics that, at 39, she therefore has more governmental experience than 70-year-old Corbyn, who was a lifelong backbencher before his elevation to Labour leader.
Her place at Westminster has been hard-won. Swinson lost her seat in 2015 before winning it back in 2017, after a campaign marked by vitriol: She told me that her mother’s car had been attacked with a brick. She has two young children, and her husband, Duncan Hames—himself a former Liberal Democrat lawmaker—became the first person to take a baby through the voting lobbies in the House of Commons. Having the children contributed to her decision not to stand for the leadership at the prior opportunity in 2017, and instead run for deputy.
Those who know her express genuine admiration for her confidence in her first weeks as leader. “As baptisms of fire go, you can’t get much hotter than this,” Tall told me, referring to the series of dramatic votes on Brexit. “She stood up with poise and an instant style. You’d expect a few more nerves.” Kemp agreed: “You don’t lose your seat ... and then win it back without being a bit of a streetfighter.”
Onstage in Bournemouth, Swinson was pleasant, polished—but not yet quite the whole package. She seemed more like a substitute teacher than an unstoppable political force. At the leader’s questions, she had an answer to the naysayers. “I got elected to Parliament as a 25-year-old woman,” she told the hall. “I have some experience of being underestimated. People only ever do it once.”
Even so, the task before her is huge. In realistic terms, beating the previous record of 62 seats would be a good result at the next election. But talk to some activists, and a glimmer creeps into their eyes. Few commentators foresaw the vote to leave the European Union, or the choice of a veteran left-winger such as Corbyn to lead Labour. They dream of a “Liberal Democrat surge” being the next big surprise in British politics. The party has responded by doubling the number of seats it is targeting at the next election to 80, and Umunna has speculated about winning 200.
The political scientists—and the hardened special advisers—I spoke with were skeptical. Canada is sometimes offered as an example of how small parties can break through: In both the 1990s and the 2010s, upstarts unseated traditional rivals at the polls there. But according to Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, the hurdles are still high. “We’ve got the same electoral system—we got it from you,” she told me. “And voters are asking themselves two questions: Who do I prefer? Who do I think is viable?” The electorate, she added, needed to sense a “zeitgeist” that made a small party seem viable, rather than a wasted vote, and so, as a result, third parties tended to cause “tremors rather than earthquakes.”
The Liberal Democrats think that the earthquake has already happened, that Brexit has moved the tectonic plates of British politics. Their ambition is huge—to dominate the outward-looking, liberal side of the new fault line—but so are the risks.