It is fair to say that the past few years have not been the best for the Liberal Democrats. After being King-makers at the 2010 General Election they suffered one of the worst demises in British political history in 2015, losing 49 of their 58 seats – a fall of over 85%. Vince Cable, David Laws and Simon Hughes, formerly stalwarts of Britain’s third party were ousted from their presumptive safe seats, whilst leader Nick Clegg marginally hung onto his, before being forced to resign from his party post.
The main issue for the Lib-Dems was that being in a coalition with the Conservatives implicitly made them a pillar of government and so the hitherto anti-establishment party could no longer claim to be such. Attempts were made to present themselves as the conscience of the Tories, but having voted in accordance with their coalition partners on such a regular basis, this fell largely on deaf ears.
There were other problems too. One of their biggest strengths at the 2010 election was the appeal of Nick Clegg; a young, good-looking, cultured politician who seemed different from the orthodoxy. Five years on, his public perception was strikingly different, now seen as a weak, untrustworthy hypocrite, the general feeling around the Deputy Prime-Minister was a long way from the ‘Cleggmania’ which preceded his first election as party leader.
Even the most ardently optimistic Lib-Dem supporter would have envisioned losses to be a certainty but few could have predicted it would be to such a devastating extent. The core voting base had been eviscerated as a result of broken promises, while the SNP, UKIP and Green Party became more favourable protest votes. However, out of sole-destroying lows often come noble rises and such is the flux of British politics, the party could be about to experience this under the leadership of the urbane Tim Farron.
Farron, a left-leaning Lancastrian was a canny choice as leader having distanced himself from the Clegg regime. He was one of only two Lib-Dem MP’s to vote against the controversial bedroom tax, also previously objecting to the even more divisive tuition fee rises. The party was in need of a leader to drag them back to their centrist home having been lured to the right by their coalition partners and it seemed they had found one.
The new leader immediately expressed the need for the Lib-Dems to occupy the centre ground, a message which already seems to have struck a cord with the electorate. Amidst the referendum soap opera which has occupied news bulletins for months now, it was the Lib-Dems who were the stars of their very own subplot at the beginning of May. It was they who gained the most seats at the local elections and by some distance, adding 45 to their tally, 20 more than UKIP in second.
Politics by its very nature, though, is as much about opposition popularity as it is about a singular party’s and while the Lib-Dems are making quiet progress, virtually all those around them are floundering. The biggest example of which comes from the incumbent Conservatives. Euroscepticism has caused a destructive schism right through its very core and David Cameron’s position is looking more precarious by the day. More significantly for Farron, though, is the party’s apparent movement further to the right of the political spectrum thus alienating voters with more liberal predilections.
The situation is strikingly similar in Labour. Jeremy Corbyn was a controversial choice as leader to say the least, a self-proclaimed socialist his appointment immediately prompted a number of front-bench MP’s to voluntarily withdraw to the back of the Commons. This would likely be reflected in the case of a general election where Corbyn’s radical beliefs would unlikely regain the swathes of voters Labour gained in the Blair years, something which is widely regarded as necessary for the party’s resurgence.
As such, like with the Conservative’s left leaning voters, those to the right of Labour could find themselves looking for a more moderate, centrist party. Enter the Liberal Democrats. The political spectrum is undeniably stretching in Britain leaving vast numbers disillusioned with the extremity of views expressed by the mainstream parties. Additionally, UKIP are potentially redundant in effect if Brexit does become a reality; although it does have to be said that UKIP voters are unlikely to defect to the Lib-Dems in large numbers but it does open the opportunity to retract protest voters.
Farron would do well to capitalise on this situation as leader. To do this, however, he must make himself more vocal, he has quietly led his party well up until now and has seen good progress as a result, but with both major parties in disarray and Corbyn providing insufficient opposition, the door is open for Farron. Previous flaws with the Lib-Dems must be eradicated. The party needs to create a discernable identity for itself and not languish in the faceless centre, picking and choosing their policies from their opposition on either side. If this happens then the Lib-Dems really could be on the brink of a resurgence.