LONDON — Conditions seemed ripe for a resurgenceof Britain’s political middle when the country learned seven weeks ago that it would return to the polls in a snap election, which took place Thursday.
The spirited bid of the Liberal Democrats, a center-left party punished two years ago for joining a coalition with the Conservatives, had resonance but did not produce a major realignment, owing to the foibles of its leader, the peculiarities of the British electoral system and the decisive — if highly contested — choice of voters last year to leave the European Union. The party, which saw its representation in Parliament fall to eight seats in 2015, was poised to gain modest influence but not greatly fortify its position, according to an exit poll released late Thursday.
The prospect that the Conservatives might fail to capture a majority, as Labour support appeared to surge, put the Liberal Democrats in a potential kingmaker position. But the party has said it will not join a coalition.
Its difficulty gaining ground, despite apparent advantages, offers a case study of how political alternatives wither even as distrust for politics as usual mounts.
A special election win in December, in a district that had heavily favored remaining in the European bloc, seemed to offer a blueprint for the party’s return to prominence. A redo referendum was at the heart of its manifesto. The two leading parties, the ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party, had moved to the extremes, reflecting — or magnifying — the polarization of public opinion. Neither has offered a comfortable home for those who believe the country is doing itself harm by cutting ties with Europe. Nearly half the country feels this way, according to Pew data.
Trends beyond Britain were encouraging, too. Globally, dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians was soaring. Across the English Channel, a pro-European centrist, Emmanuel Macron, rose to the presidency from relative political obscurity, under the banner of a new party.
“We look to France and indeed to Canada and see anything is possible,” said Tim Farron, the Liberal leader, in an interview during a campaign stop in Twickenham, a leafy suburb of London.
As he barnstormed the country the day before the polls opened, Farron made his final case that “there’s got to be a better way forward than the simplistic, easy answers of the hard left and the cruel, mean narrowness of the Conservative government.”
“The space for the Liberal Democrats is huge,” he said.
Nick Clegg, who led the Lib Dems before Farron and served as deputy prime minister alongside Conservative David Cameron, said the party is in transition, from one of “perpetual opposition” with its base in the “anti-London southwest” to a proponent of internationalism and a free-market economy.
“It’s obvious that the small-l liberal center in British politics is pretty empty right now,” Clegg said. With politics in flux, the Liberal Democrats, he said, “are on a journey of our own” to fill the void.
But on Thursday, Clegg lost his seat to the Labour candidate. It was a stark example of how votes had clustered around the two main parties.
Views of Farron expressed by voters along Twickenham’s main commercial drag offer a reason. Some met him enthusiastically, including Peter Pearce, an agent for a Spanish shoe company who said he saw his prices go up overnight after the vote to leave the E.U.
But Leonard Clark, who used to work in the pharmaceutical industry, said Farron was irrelevant, even “useless,” and pledged to vote for the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Theresa May. Others had barely heard of Farron.
“I just don’t know enough about him at the moment,” said Claire Dunckley, a stay-at-home mother.
Farron struggled to break though, in part owing to personal shortcomings, analysts said.
“A lot of the structural conditions seem to be favorable — you’ve got this gaping center, you’ve got 48 percent of the electorate that voted to remain and no one seems to be representing their interests,” said Oliver Heath, an expert on voting behavior and polarization at Royal Holloway, University of London. “But the party hasn’t been able to mobilize, and part of that is whether Farron’s got the stature and the personality to really drive support for Liberals.”
Andrew Gamble, a political scientist at the University of Cambridge, said Macron’s rise in France demonstrates “that the potential is there.”
“It’s very difficult to lead an insurgency in Britain,” Gamble said. “Nevertheless, if the Lib Dems had had a Macron, that would have been very interesting.”
One stumbling block was doubt about how Farron, a Christian, views homosexuality and abortion rights. He was tongue-tied at times about the distinction between his own beliefs and legitimate subjects of government regulation. “I’m not running to be pope,” he said Wednesday, calling it “fundamental” to liberalism that everybody “live the way they choose to.”
Colin Hay, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris studying European democracy and voter disaffection, said it was “deeply ironic that the Liberal Democrats’ leader was accused of being the only illiberal leader of a liberal party in Europe.”
Farron’s inability to capitalize on voter discontent in the way that Macron did, however, had more to do with the specificity of the two electoral systems, Hay said. In France, Macron convinced millions of voters to buck the established parties. In Britain, the path to Downing Street runs through Parliament, in a first-past-the-post system where placing second or third in scores of constituencies does not translate into legislative power.
Meanwhile, the party’s difficulty even in constituencies that voted to remain in the E.U. reflects a miscalculation about the strategic choice voters are making, said Stephan Shakespeare, the chief executive of YouGov, an international survey firm headquartered in Britain.
Conventional wisdom was that “frustrated remainers” would flock to the Liberal Democrats as “the only party saying we can stay in,” Shakespeare said. “But they’re so small that a vote for them is not going to get you that.” People are voting tactically, he said, either backing Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in hopes he would block the most severe version of Brexit, or else reconciling themselves to the split and voting for the Conservatives, who have tacked right to capture supporters of the stridently anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party.
“I think we’re essentially stuck with two-party politics for a while,” Shakespeare said.