Tim Farron may be regretting his choice of words today following an interview with the Times which resulted in the headline: “We may not recover, say Lib Dems.”
As a Liberal Democrat myself, I was surprised that the leader of the party would come out with a statement so apparently doom-laden. Although the negativity of the headline does not entirely reflect his original statement that “Comebacks… may never happen, or they can be quite speedy and swift,” it will no doubt be disheartening to Lib Dem supporters that a potentially good media opportunity has been tainted by a relatively innocuous comment.
But does it ring true? How worried should Lib Dems be that our leader might be managing expectations about the potential – or not – for the party to return to its former position? Farron goes on to give some hope as to the possibility of a comeback, noting the turnaround after the party’s 1979 collapse: “Four years later, we recorded the highest share of the vote our party’s got since the early 1920s.” Is there a chance that history might repeat itself?
It’s almost impossible to predict so far out from an election and with the party still polling at around 6-7% nationally it doesn’t look good. But there are signs that all might not be as bad as it seems. Of the last 18 council by-elections across the country since December 3rd 2015 – despite the low polling nationally – the Lib Dems have gained two council seats, more than any party in that time. If we look back further to the General Election, the Lib Dems have gained 16 council seats in by-elections, almost double what Labour has managed (9). Only the Conservatives have made more gains (21) – but they have made no net gains from the Lib Dems. Whilst by-elections are by no means an entirely reliable indicator for wider voting they still offer a useful indication to voters’ attitudes. Similarly, although the Lib Dems are recognised for their strength in local campaigns, their strong local-showing since May gives credence to the strategy outlined by both Farron and Paddy Ashdown of rebuilding locally to set-up a solid foundation for the next General Election.
Without doubt the biggest by-election loser since May has been Labour, which has net-losses to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. This is a trend which I can imagine continuing as more moderate members of the party reject the ‘New Politics’ of Jeremy Corbyn. Of the results since December, Labour has worryingly reduced their share of the vote in over half of the 18 by-elections. National polls have similarly shown a steep decline for Labour, which presents my party with perhaps its biggest opportunity. If Corbyn continues to lead Labour, it is likely we will see an increasing number of former Labour voters taking their vote elsewhere, with the Lib Dems likely to see at least some benefit.
Another good opportunity on which the Lib Dems should be able to capitalise is the EU referendum. As the only party who are wholeheartedly pro-remain, the referendum is a great platform from which the Lib Dems can further burnish their credentials as a moderate, centre-left party. They should also be able to use the vote as a positive to both raise their profile and present themselves as a sensible alternative to the broadly anti-EU Conservatives.
It is definitely going to be difficult. But the current political climate offers a far sunnier outlook than one might have imagined following the General Election disaster. Labour’s implosion gives the party an opening it can capitalise on, whilst the Conservatives almost inevitable EU meltdown may weaken its ability to fight threats elsewhere. Internationally, there are also strong signs that Liberalism could be in for a revival. Justin Trudeau’s victory in Canada and the rise of the new Spanish Liberal party, Ciudadanos, give hope that Liberalism can succeed, with the Canadian victory coming despite polling third at the start of the campaign, whilst Ciudadanos won 40 seats despite never previously having parliamentary representation.
So, will the Lib Dems ever recover? If Corbyn remains Labour leader for the next few years, and the UK votes to stay in the EU, I’d say there’s certainly a good chance.
Picture Credit: The Independent / Getty Images