The Liberal Democrats are down but not out in the world of politics, this was shown by the optimism at the Liberal Democrat conference this week. Despite being the sacrificial lamb at the slaughter of the 2015 election, one commentator noted how upbeat the mood was at conference. Maybe the attendees were upbeat because of Labour’s decision to elect the socialist firebrand JC as leader. Suddenly the centre ground of British politics looks sparse if not empty, the Labour party have decided to abandon it and pitch for a socialist utopia, in both senses of the word. The Liberal Democrats can see the opportunity to take that space, own it, and once again become a party of government.
Of course there are obstacles to the Liberal Democrat comeback. The biggest of which is how can you become politically relevant with only 8 MP’s? Well Tim seems to have an answer for this, it’s called the House of Lords. The chamber which the Liberal Democrats hate, and have wanted to abolish since before I was born is now their political lifeline. They have 112 Peers in the House of Lords, and Tim has said he is willing to flout the Salisbury convention in order to stop the sell off of Association housing. They will need the cooperation of cross bench peers and Labour peers for this to succeed, but they will be the party which will receive the press attention if it comes off.
The Lords can give the Liberal Democrats political oxygen, and Tim Farron can give them appeal. Farron from Lancashire is a motivational speaker, pragmatic, and more importantly he’s a normal guy. He can connect to normal voters, and as he showed today, he can make the case for liberalism without descending into lecture mode. He punctuated his speech with funny anecdotes, while talking through the biggest issues which affect the nation today. This is not an easy task, as shown by Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches to date.
Ian Dunt argued that the Liberal Democrats made a pretty large tactical mistake today. He believes that not leaving the old Liberal Democrats behind will not win anyone over. Dunt argues the political strategy of defending coalition policy has failed, as is shown by the Moribund state of the party now. I disagree with this belief, the Liberal Democrats didn’t suffer because of policy outside of tuition fees. They suffered for pretty basic reasons. Nick Clegg’s opinion poll ratings were positively toxic after the tuition fees pledge. It has been reported that people shoved faeces through his constituency home front door, with Tim Farron this animosity has evaporated.The tuition fees pledge was disastrous, not because that people still asked questions about it 5 years later, but because they lost any sort of momentum and got stuck in the political mud. As the Conservatives are attacking student grants, people’s attention will be turned from tuition fees to living costs. As a third-party to maintain their seats they needed to be different, and offer change. However,they couldn’t ride in as the agent of change, or as a protest vote because they were the establishment, and had been the status quo.
So why isn’t Dunt right? Farron’s call to the past merely reinforces the notion of the Liberal democrats being the party of protest without a protest. I think Dunt would be correct if Corbyn hadn’t been elected by Labour. However, this development means christmas has come early for the yellow party. The Liberal Democrats suffered heavily at the hands of Labour last time out, but with this unelectable mess swing voters will be listening quickly. The Lib Dems out of power can be the voice of reason. Tim’s personable politics will lure back those who just couldn’t be persuaded by Nick any longer, those who defected to Labour will come flooding back as the civil war ensues. The Liberal Democrats can occupy the centre ground and re-build what they’ve lost. They can point out a number of their policies are being dismantled, when you’re arguing against the government it’s far more effective being in opposition than in the government. Re-visiting tuition fees even as an apology would be a bad move.
The Liberal Democrats need to perform well in the council elections to give themselves a springboard, they are after-all a community based party. Their MP’s rely upon local work in order to be re-elected. The Ashdown strategy has served them well, but it means there will be no quick route back. Trashing the past rarely works well for a political party, but you do need to acknowledge it. However, surely this is done only when your party is strong, not when it’s on life support. Farron has laid the foundation stones in this long arduous process, he’s got a long road ahead but he is making small waves. Maybe the Liberal Democrats can show centrist politics is the way to go, to win back prestige and influence at the expense of the Labour Party.