The problems facing the Liberal Democrats

It can’t be much fun being a Liberal Democrat at the moment.

The most pro-European Party in Britain looks distinctly out of favour following its side’s defeat in the EU referendum earlier this year.

And this is on top of the disaster that was the 2015 general election, from which the party is still working out how to recover.

But leader Tim Farron remains characteristically chirpy. He points to recent success at council-level elections at the gains his party made in the Scottish parliament back in May.

He believes that Labour’s lurch to the left and Theresa May’s embrace of the Eurosceptic right allows his party to become a home for disillusioned centrists.

But in the minds of the voters, the membership, and many of the grandees, the LibDems are still very much stuck in the mud.

A new opinion poll released to coincide with this year’s conference finds that Tim Farron is neither liked nor respected as leader. He also faces the problem of people not really knowing who he is.

Membership continues to dwindle and at this year’s conference in Brighton elaborate tricks with curtains and lights had to be devised in order to mask the embarrassing rows of empty seats.

If you thought that was bad, big names within the party are even more pessimistic about its future.

During conference, Paddy Ashdown spoke at a seminar which asked if 2080 would be the year in which there’d next be Liberal Democrats in government.

Tim Farron is young and spritely, but even he might get worn down if he has to wait that long.

The truth is that the LibDems have simply fallen out of vogue at the moment, and while any political scientist can see that centrist, liberal parties are in short supply in Britain right now, there is little appetite for Farron’s crowd to fill the gap.

Britain’s departure from the European Union also poses a problem for the party. Should they accept the result and work for the best deal, or demand it be overturned in a second vote?

Farron, Clegg and Lamb all believe that the details of Brexit should be put to the voters. Vince Cable disagrees.

Then there is the next general election. With Labour in disarray, the Tories look set to win comfortably the next time the country goes to the polls, whenever that may be.

Thus the need for the LibDems to play the role of power broker in a hung parliament is rapidly diminished.

Let’s not forget though, this is a party that has struggled greatly to survive in the last one hundred years.

It has long since ceased to be an organisation that could win elections on its own, but it continues to exist — much longer than most people guessed it would.

Yet perhaps like its ideological opposite, UKIP, the Liberal Democrats have finally become redundant.

As the sun sets on Brighton, there is a lot for the party to think about.

Originally published on Backbench UK on 20 September 2016