The Liberal Democrats are the party most people expect to do well out of Brexit. Virtually destroyed in the 2015 general election, Brexit has given them something to rebuild their support around, by pitching themselves as the only (UK-wide) major party determined to reverse the result of the EU Referendum and keep the UK in the European Union. There are already signs that this approach is starting to work: they are attracting the financial support of donors who have been driven away by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, they overturned a large Conservative majority to win the Richmond by-election, and they have gained almost forty seats in council by-elections since the EU Referendum. The Times journalist Rachel Sylvester claims that the party could be on the brink of a ‘political earthquake’.
Nowhere should this political recovery be more apparent than among young people. Before 2010, the Liberal Democrats were, for years, the darling of the young voter; with headline policies such as opposition to university tuition fees, their support among the under-25s was consistently higher than that of the Labour or Conservative parties. Their decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives (not their stance on tuition fees, as is often claimed) changed all that, however, in one stroke destroying their support among the young (and old). Brexit, however, gives the Lib Dems the chance to rebuild their support among the young: young voters are overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit and want to see it stopped, and the Liberal Democrats are the only major party promoting such a policy.
But is it working? The graph below shows the proportion of under-25s reporting their intention to vote Liberal Democrat in an immediate general election (alongside the figures for Labour and the Conservatives for comparison) from YouGov polls since shortly after the EU Referendum. As noted in a previous blog, it is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party that is today’s darling of the young voter: Labour has led consistently among the under-25s since before the referendum, and even Corbyn’s support for Brexit has done little to dampen their enthusiasm. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, attracted the support of less than 10% of under-25s for much of the post-referendum period, and between early December and the end of January their support fell to around 5%. That said, their Brexit stance may well be getting them somewhere: in the final poll at the end of January, when MPs voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 but most of the Lib Dems’ nine MPs opposed it, there was a surge in support among the under-25s, with 13% saying they would vote for the party in an immediate election. This coincided with more modest drops in support for the Brexit-supporting Labour and the Conservative parties. Moreover, the Lib Dems’ support amongst the under-25s has remained higher than its pre-Article 50 vote average (though there are signs that it has declined a little in March). There is some evidence, then, that the Lib Dems’ staunch opposition to Brexit is helping them rebuild the damage caused by their decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives. Nonetheless, the improvement in support is small, and still leaves the Lib Dems trailing behind both the Conservatives and Labour amongst Britain’s young voters.
Therefore it is far too early to claim that the Lib Dems are on the cusp of a ‘political earthquake’. Despite the support of Labour and the Conservatives for the government’s ‘hard’ Brexit, the Lib Dems were only able to make modest gains in support amongst the voters most ardently opposed to Brexit. In addition, the party’s support among the over-25s (7% in the 13/14 March poll) is lower than that among the under-25s, and still lags well behind that of both Labour and the Conservatives (18% and 35% respectively). Even if the Lib Dems manage to build their support among young voters opposed to Brexit, without a corresponding increase amongst older voters they will simply be building their political house on sand, given the considerably lower likelihood of under-25s voting in elections. Even the Lib Dems’ success in by-elections, while impressive, cannot be taken as a sign that the party is about to take British politics by storm because voters base their decisions about who to support on very different factors in by-elections and general elections. While they are undoubtedly improving their electoral base through their opposition to Brexit, the Lib Dems still have a very long way to go before restoring themselves as the party of the young, or that of many other voters for that matter.
Figure One: Under-25 Support for Liberal Democrats, Labour & Conservatives since July 2016