You can be forgiven for not knowing there’s a Liberal Democrat leadership contest going on. You can also, to a degree, be forgiven for not caring very much either. For the record, the candidates are the acting leader, Ed Davey, who is a green and a centrist, and the education spokeswoman, Layla Moran, who is more on the party’s left. The result, due on 27 August, is likely to be met with almost total indifference outside the party’s own ranks.
It isn’t hard to see why. The Lib Dems have not recovered from the 2010-15 coalition. A decade ago they had 57 MPs. Today they have 11. Hopes of a revival in the 2019 election proved fanciful. Foolish enthusiasm for an early election, the failure of the party’s Brexit revocation policy, Jo Swinson’s heavy-footed leadership and some bad seat-targeting combined to roll that latest Lib Dem bandwagon back down to the bottom of the electoral hill.
Since the general election, things have got even tougher. The party’s vote share has fallen to 8% in an average of recent UK polls (from 12% at the election). Keir Starmer has meanwhile begun rebuilding support for Labour that was lost, some of it to the Lib Dems, under Jeremy Corbyn. Crucially, much of the air has gone out of Brexit, on which the Lib Dems once sometimes seemed to speak for half of the British public.
Put all that together, and the Lib Dems seem almost a busted flush. Whether Davey wins or Moran, the next leader will be a marginal figure. And yet, in spite of that, the 2020 Lib Dem contest actually matters a lot more widely than this tale of unremitting Lib Dem party woe might suggest.
There are two principal reasons for saying this. The first is UK-specific, while the second is more global. Ironically, the first is the Lib Dems’ electoral influence. Eight per cent in the polls is dreadful. But it is an 8% that affects the rest of the inter-party battle. The Lib Dems stand in almost every UK seat. Three and a half million people voted for them last December. As long as that continues, the Lib Dems will be one factor – alongside the Scottish National party in Scotland and Conservative inroads in England – making a Labour victory under the winner-takes-all, first-past-the-post system much harder.
The second reason is not confined to Britain. Liberalism is fragmenting and in some respects retreating, here as elsewhere in the west. Many aspects of economic liberalism are under challenge, from recession and climate change, and especially from nationalism. Meanwhile, a raft of traditional moderate liberal values around conscience, tolerance and rights are also being confronted by forms of sometimes highly illiberal progressivism. The apparent post-cold war triumph of liberal capitalism is rapidly giving way to a variety of forms of post-liberalism in economics, politics and cultural life. In some of these, traditional liberalism is fighting for its life. There are multiple moments of reckoning.
One of these certainly affects the Lib Dems. But the same issues affect all other parties, and other institutions too, including universities, artistic life and most forms of the media. In Britain it is undoubtedly also true of the Labour party. The 2019 election result asked whether, in the wake of the Brexit divide and other stresses, a 21st-century Labour party can any longer achieve a winning coalition rooted both in liberal values and class politics. Starmer is trying to show that it can still be done by better leadership than preceded him. But in the face of the current fragmentation both of values and of class politics, as well as the revival of nationalism, it is an uphill task.
The political impact of all this on both Labour and the Lib Dems is existential. Both lay claim in different ways to being parties that can combine social justice goals and liberal values. So, it should also be added, do many important traditions within the Tory party, arguably including Boris Johnson’s. But the balance between the two traditions that they all wish to appeal to is not stable.
A century ago, Labour was a working-class party with some middle-class supporters. Today it is increasingly the reverse. The tension between those who see Labour as a party of the poor and struggling, and those who see it as a party of liberal and progressive values, has a long history. But the coalition between them that worked in 1945, 1966 and 1997 came close to breaking apart in 2019 when significant numbers of English working-class former Labour voters turned to the Conservatives to deliver Brexit. It is hard to see it being reforged without significant compromises and moderation on both sides. Starmer gets this. Many in his party and beyond do not. In some parts of post-liberal politics, compromise and moderation are anathema – and worse. This will not be easy.
It is made even more difficult by the electoral system. In potted histories of British politics since 1900, it is often said that Labour replaced the Liberals as the main rival of the Tories. So it did, in broad terms. But not in all ways. The Liberals never quite died, even after 1945. Their successor party is not dead today either. Since the 1970s, the Greens have become a third opposition option against the Conservatives.
Liberalism has many guises. Its crisis likewise takes multiple forms. The parties that draw on liberal traditions, or owe their existence to it, face a choice. They can either go on as before, each parading their own untarnishable virtue. Or they can try to fashion compromises within their own ranks and between one another. If they do the former, the Conservatives are well placed to go on defeating them, as they did to such effect in 2019. But if they choose cooperation and compromise, there may be a way back. The Lib Dem leadership contest may just help to decide which it will be.
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist