What will Lib Dem Conference tell us about the future of the Liberal Democrats?
Delegates at this year’s Liberal Democrats Annual Conference, at least those with member’s passes, will be approaching Bournemouth with a thirst for vindication and a sombre understanding of the long journey that the Lib Dems must now take to regain political relevance.
This will be the first Annual Conference since the decimating blow that was the 2015 General Election. One thread of positive spin that the Party sought to amplify following that near existential shock has been the 20,000 new members that the Party has attracted since the General Election.
However, if a week is a long time in politics, then the first four or five months in this Parliament have been an eternity. The political landscape has shifted fundamentally since May 2015; not only because of the Conservatives, now able to pursue a more right-wing agenda unshackled from Coalition, present an opportunity for the Lib Dems to fill the more moderate centre space left in their wake (the Lib Dems were always likely to do this anyway). But Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Leader of the Labour Party (unthinkable and un-talked about a mere four months ago) presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats in terms of how it positions itself both with its new found members and the wider electorate.
When Tim Farron MP was elected Leader of the Party, triumphing over former health minister Norman Lamb as the more left wing candidate in a two-horse race, it was widely accepted that Farron’s strategy would be to the left of Labour on key issues. This was the case in the halcyon days under Charlie Kennedy’s leadership where the Lib Dems made unprecedented gains in terms of Westminster seats nibbling away at Labour’s then huge majorities.
Corbyn’s election as leader means that tacking left of Labour is now pretty much a redundant option for the Liberal Democrats. We have already seen Tim Farron plead with Conference to dismiss a motion to scrap the renewal of Trident – a policy previously advocated by the Lib Dems. Nevertheless, the Party must be cognisant that Corbyn’s stance on international issues, such as foreign intervention and defence policy, are in line with the views of many Lib Dem supporters over the years.
Therefore, there is a careful balancing act for the Lib Dems as they seek to position themselves as a sensible opposition party on core issues, such as the economy and security, without surrendering too much ground to the left in terms of compassion.
It is too soon to look at permutations and re-alignments on the left of centre politics in the UK. Gossip about defections between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats is largely unfounded at this point in time. The immediate challenge for the Lib Dems is how to fill the widening gap in the middle of British politics with meagre resources and only eight MPs, and to engage the electorate with issues that are top of the public’s agenda – housing, the economy and public services – as well as to appear relevant with very little airtime in the media.