Painting yourself into a yellow corner? The future Liberal response to Covid

The Lib Dems have a knack of swinging wildly on the side of public opinion (e.g., Iraq War) and back to the fringes (e.g., Revoke Policy). The latter is often buoyed by coming off the back successful elections, giving the party a false sense of confidence that such policies are far more popular than they are and indeed we can be the party of governance. Though such fringe policies have a lasting and damaging impact. Easy to make accusations that the party is neither “Liberal” or “Democratic” is easy to make when such positions are taken and particularly when the public doesn’t see it as justified.

And so, we come off the back of an incredible victory, in a by-Election, over the floundering Tories, in a pandemic. Emboldened by this and the quiet, lack lustre opposition; the Lib Dems are vibrant in their opposition to this government. They see the current state and utter incompetence of the Tories and they see an open goal.

Where the Tories have been cautious about further restrictions, the Dems feel this is dilly-dallying. Restrictions are needed and the country needs strong leadership (which they offer) to put these in place.

This puts the Dems in a precarious position. By being on the side of illiberal restrictions (protections also, but still illiberal), they expose themselves to those allegations. However there has always been a liberal justification for such restrictions. Even the most libertarian of libertarians, Ayn Rand would have seen the justification for lockdowns; in light of no vaccine. And the Lib Dem position has been in line with the public mood, for most of the pandemic.

But this Xmas 2021, not Xmas 2020. Only a very small percentage of adults aren’t vaccinated at least twice and a large proportion are boosted. No variant, Omicron or otherwise is going to cause a surge of hospitalisations and deaths anywhere near what we saw in 2020. This is a nation well-protected. The public have kept their part of the social contract of “15 million jabs to freedom” and there’s an expectation that contract is met. Polling is starting to show that appetite for most restrictions is limited best. Fatigue for such measures, which behavioural scientists always said would happen; is happening.  The Lib Dems may inadvertently end up advocating for illiberal measures, that are unpopular with the public.

There is also the argument that calls for restrictions paper over the cracks, when there are fundamental, more progressive arguments to be made. For example, if the NHS is suffering because of a wave of Covid, is it not better to consider what funding is needed to support the NHS, which was always under immense pressure in winter times, pre-Covid? There is a far more liberal, progressive route through this. For the Lib Dems, I don’t think restrictions is it.