Sir Vince Cable, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, has admitted that his party “needs to do more” after it failing to get its position on Brexit across to voters last June.
Speaking exclusively to MM, the veteran politician and former-Business Secretary blamed the timing of the general election for the Liberal Democrat’s lukewarm result.
Whilst former-leader Tim Farron was able to increase his party’s seat count, the overall number of votes it received decreased from the 2015 poll. Farron also blamed the public conflict between his liberal and Christian views as a reason for his departure last month.
Sir Vince was confident that, as negotiations with the European Union progress, the public will grow more and more disillusioned with the Referendum result. He predicted an economic shock not yet seen, serving to push a great deal more people into the arms of the Liberal Democrats.
“People will think, ‘My God, what have we got ourselves into?’ There will then be a wish for what I’m calling an ‘exit from Brexit’ – a wish for the public to once again be consulted,” Sir Vince explained.
“During the general election campaign, all that was premature. A lot of Remainers were passive about last year’s result, opting to wait and see what happens next rather than take a stand to stop it.
He acknowledged that his party’s campaigning team had inadequately conveyed their nuanced approach to the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
“We didn’t capture the public mood and we didn’t explain our position clearly enough,” he said.
“We don’t simply want a re-run of last year’s vote, but rather that the public have a fair judgement of the final terms, when we know what they are. That didn’t get through though, and I am certain that we can do better.”
Sir Vince was visiting Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry last weekend, on the third stop of his regional tour since becoming leader of the Liberal Democrats. He was there to speak about the industries of the future, and his party’s approach to the digital revolution to be experienced by the next generation.
He was keen to emphasise his advocacy for science education at a secondary level, and spoke enthusiastically about the need to address the gender gap that still exists within many undergraduate disciplines.
“I feel very passionate about the idea that schools and local government should do more to incentivise young people to study science at University,” he said.
“When I was Secretary of State, I did a great deal to promote the science agenda. I am actually one of the few people in politics with a science degree, so I can give first-hand experience of its benefits.
“Then again, since I’m seen as a renegade from the profession, I’m probably not the best ambassador!” he quipped.
“We need to be much more conscience of women within the industry. I think Britain has the worst record for women in engineering, whether it’s at graduate level or apprenticeship level – it’s as low as one in ten.
“We’re losing half the population just because when they are 12 or 13, they are turned off engineering and the physical sciences, for whatever reason. That is tragic, and schools have got to be encouraged to try and deal with that.”
Some commentators have pointed out, however, that continued technological advancement and investment in the sciences will bring its own set of challenges. Sir Vince stated his hope that phenomena like increased automation of unskilled work would serve as a potential positive for modern society, but emphasised that job protection ought to remain a priority.
“When computers first came in, there were horror stories about how they were going to destroy jobs. But all they have done is change the nature of work, and automation will do the same. It does have the potential to raise people’s living standards by making us more productive,” he said.
“There is a danger of course that you get more and more insecure and badly paid employment, and we need an updated system of protection for workers including self-employed workers, the Matthew Taylor report a week ago was a good start.”
Sir Vince was quick to point out the irony, as he sees it, that uncertainties over the UK’s future in the single market has led companies reliant on unskilled work to begin to invest in automation technology. In an attempt to protect the sovereignty of their own jobs, people may well have voted them out of existence.
“Nobody voted last year to be poorer,” he said. “I do, however, worry that this irony may be lost on many leave voters – and they won’t appreciate it until it is too late.
“Historically speaking, protectionism, whether it’s in trade or migration, always has this effect. If you go back to the days in Manchester when people were clamouring to put restrictions on imports of cotton and textiles, the only effect was to speed up automation and destroy the existing jobs.
“Technology is something that you can adapt and you can adjust to it, but you can’t ignore it – it’s never going to go away.”
Whilst the Liberal Democrats position on Brexit may well have failed to inspire the electorate last June, there is hope yet among members and activists that the UK is overdue a centrist revolution similar to that seen with the unprecedented success of liberal Emmanuel Macron in France earlier this year.
Sir Vince, who worked with the then economy minister whilst serving in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, suggested that his party must work to emulate the political tactics used by Macron, and to capture the reason behind his appeal, if it hopes to retain relevancy.
He argued that Brexit has left the entire Westminster system as “utterly dysfunctional”, with the two main parties continually moving towards the political extremes, at the expense of any moderate or centrist approach to policy making.
“The Tories have been taken over by anti-European zealots, who are pretty unrepresentative of the wider population. They are holding Theresa May to ransom, and are doing a lot of damage,” Sir Vince said.
“The Labour Party isn’t just radical – it is hard-left, and ruthlessly so. All it can achieve is a continuation of its driving out of social democrats – members who have long been the backbone of parties of the left in Europe.
“I describe myself as a social democrat, proudly so, and it is as one that I picture the unoccupied vast space that currently lies between the two large parties.
“I think there is a hunger amongst people for a party that is broadly centrist, moderate, and extolls common-sense values, and as Brexit negotiations continue to devolve into complication and conflict, I am adamant that the Liberal Democrats can fulfil that role.”