Lib Dem Conference —a party fighting back or sitting stagnant?

As the Lib Dems gathered in Brighton, the party is confident that in the aftermath of the ‘Brexit’ vote they can begin their fight-back as the “party of Europe” — but how much of this is blind hope?

Tim Farron, the longest-serving UK-wide party leader, addresses conference after he was elected leader in 2015 | Source: New Statesman

This time two years ago in 2014, the Liberal Democrats were in government. They had 59 Members of Parliament in Westminster, five Welsh Assembly Members, five members of the Scottish Parliament among various other posts including places in the cabinet alongside the Conservatives in the coalition government. Now? The Lib Dems are reduced to just eight MPs in the House of Commons while they lost all but one of their AMs in Wales. In terms of the number of elected, law-making parliamentarians, the Lib Dems now have fewer elected law-makers (15) than Plaid Cymru (16)— a party that only operates in Wales.

Yet, the UK is now in the strange position where their party leader, Tim Farron, elected just 12 months ago, is the longest-serving leader of a UK-wide political party. Apart from Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, who were elected in 2012 and 2014 respectively, Tim Farron is the longest serving leader and has served longer than the new leader of UKIP, the Greens’ new co-leaders, the new Conservative Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn — who himself is facing a challenge from Owen Smith.

The leadership ‘fact’ demonstrates the political turmoil the UK now finds itself in – a situation that the Lib Dems are intending to take full advantage of. Their conference slogan – ‘Open, Tolerant and United’ – is a direct hit at the divisive nature of the EU Referendum campaign and the fear-bating of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign. Against the backdrop of political chaos, the Lib Dems are positive and fighting for their liberal values. However, the issue remains that the party has very much returned to the backdrop of UK politics. Having jut eight MPs and finishing fourth in vote share, behind UKIP and behind the SNP in number of seats in 2015 means the party no longer enjoys the advantage of being the “official” third party.

While the party has seen a steady increase in council seats in the Local Elections in May 2016 and over the course of the months since with multiple by-election wins, — more than any other party and particularly in Cornwall and other former ‘heartlands’— polling remains relatively stagnant. Throughout 2015 and 2016 – even after the ‘Brexit’ vote – the party failed to break out of an average of between 5% and 10% in the polls.

2015/16 polling | Twitter: @BritainElects

But now the Lib Dems do face an opportunity to fight back — no party is in a better position to be the “party of Europeans” and a party capable of fighting the Tories and their Brexit plans from a more moderate position than Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn, who looks likely to win an even greater landslide in the Labour leadership 2016 contest than in 2015. A moderate, pro- European voice is exactly what is currently missing from political discourse in the UK, with Theresa May insisting on tacking to the right and delivering a “hard Brexit” at the behest of Tory backbenchers and Corbyn increasingly moving the Labour Party from a party of the moderate centre-left to a party of the far-left and socialism.

Farron’s praising of former Labour PM Blair and an array of pro-European Liberal Democrats shows his and the party’s commitment to fighting for the UK’s place in the European Union. Meanwhile, his attacks on Corbyn’s inability to fight elections and win and refusing to stand as a “strong, united opposition” as “turning their backs on the poorest” are an attempt to take the fight to an ineffective Labour Party and try to claw back. While Labour remain complacent in ignorence that the Lib Dem’s coalition years will tarnish them for time to come and keep voters in Labour’s fold, the Lib Dems will beging to convince moderate Labourites turned off from Labour because of Corbyn’s leadership to vote for them. If not in General Election polling just yet, the Lib Dems will begin to claw at Labour’s vote share from the right in a way the Tories are simply incapable of doing.

“Labour has forgotten the people it is there to stand up for. Hoplessly divided and patently unfit for government, with no plan for the economy or the country; led by a man who is obsessed with re-fighting the battles of the past” — Tim Farron

It’s not an easy challenge — having just eight MPs means the party is not exactly on the brink of single- party governance. However, Farron and the Lib Dems are aware of the task ahead. They’re acutely aware that they’ll have to work from the ground up, winning local councillors in an even bigger way than what they have done over this past summer. If the Lib Dems do manage to break out of the dip they found themselves in after the 2015 General Election, then it is clear Corbyn’s Labour Party and the Tories’ majority in Parliament will be the biggest losers.