With new Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron having to confirm his position at this years party conference by stating “Mr Whippy is safe in my hands”, you would be forgiven for forgetting that just five months ago, 56 Lib Dem MPs sat along the government benches of the House of Commons. The party faced near extinction in the 2015 General Election, gaining just 7.8% of the vote, and a meagre 8 MPs. This dramatic loss of support begs an important question: will the Liberal Democrats simply disappear into irrelevance? Or could they, in the words of Nick Clegg, be the “comeback kids of British politics”?
Well, there may be some reasons to think so. Firstly, their membership has swelled by almost 20,000 since the election – that’s more people on the campaign trail, more people to spread their message, and more people potentially willing to donate money to their cause. Many have reported on Labour’s huge increase in membership, gaining nearly 100,000 members since the election. However, in proportion to their prior memberships, the Liberal Democrat’s increase in percentage terms is very similar. Secondly, since the May General Election, the Lib Dems have gained more council seats than any other political party. This certainly fits with Clegg’s assessment of the Lib Dems being “comeback kids” – a party making more gains than anyone else can hardly be seen as being an irrelevance. Finally, the First Past the Post election system does a disservice to the number of votes the Liberal Democrats received in May. They gained 1 million more votes than the SNP, yet they only have 8 MPs, while the SNP has received 55. Under a proportional system, the Liberal Democrats would have received 50+ Members of Parliament, similar to the amount they had in 2010. In 2010, the term ‘king-maker’ was used to describe them far often than the word ‘irrelevant’. It is also worth mentioning that in ideological terms, the Conservatives appear to be drifting to the right with pledges to bring back fox hunting and a commitment to the continuation of austerity. At the same time, Labour under Corbyn (may) drift further left, with Corbyn’s stances on unilateral nuclear disarmament, welfare and ‘people’s quantitative easing’ well known. However, the extent to which the Labour Party will follow their leader’s views is unclear, as their rejection of a debate on Trident at their recent conference shows. If Labour’s vision is made broadly within Corbyn’s image, however, the coveted ‘centre-ground’ of British politics would be up for grabs, and the Liberal Democrats appear to be the only party in a position to fill that ideological gap, and may therefore reap the electoral rewards of holding this centre ground.
With all that said, the Liberal Democrats’ future is not all sunshine and rainbows. The fact is, we currently do have a First Past the Post system which disadvantages smaller parties, and one cannot ignore the elephant in the room; tuition fees. The one policy that turned the party, for students especially, from a natural choice to vote for into one of the most reviled parties in Parliament. It is no secret that the Lib Dem image has been tainted by this infamous U-Turn, as well as five years of being in government. Perhaps paradoxically, going into government places the Lib Dems into the much feared ‘establishment’ category, and people can no longer vote for them simply as a protest vote, as there is a possibility the party will once again actually be in government. The impact of these things was nothing less than catastrophic – the Lib Dems received 15.2% less votes in 2015 than in 2010, and in many cases their candidates actually lost their deposits. It would seem that the Lib Dems regaining their 2010 share of the vote by 2020 and reclaiming their title as the third party in British politics would be nothing short of a miracle. In addition, many famous Lib Dems, Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Charles Kennedy, David Laws and Simon Hughes, all lost their seats, depriving the party of many of its locally popular and well-known MPs.
So the future of the Liberal Democrats is unclear to say the least, and much of it may depend on how much the Labour Party lean leftwards in the coming years, and how unified they can remain. In addition, Farron will have a very tough fight indeed in trying to cleanse the tainted image many people have of the Lib Dems – a fight he is not guaranteed to win. With their increasing membership, growing momentum in by-elections and freedom from the shackles of collective responsibility and government, it would be perhaps naïve to dismiss the party as an irrelevance at this stage. However, it is still early days and the real test for the Liberal Democrats will come next year in the local and devolved elections. A dead, irrelevant party they are not, but being “comeback kids”, at least for the foreseeable future, may just be wishful thinking.
By Alex Traves