Andrew Whitaker: Lib Dems face a long climb back up

Tim Farron with supporters showing an optimism that does not reflect the hammering the party is likely to undergo. Picture: Getty
Tim Farron with supporters showing an optimism that does not reflect the hammering the party is likely to undergo. Picture: Getty
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THE party has a long way to go to shake off unpopularity incurred by its coalition with the Tories, writes Andrew Whitaker

THE leadership of the Liberal Democrats, still reeling from their electoral mauling in May, was quick to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as opposition leader in September would drive so-called “moderate” Labour supporters into its arms.

Newly elected UK Lib Dem leader Tim Farron was quick off the mark to make such claims and even sought to make overtures to Labour MPs on the centre-right of the party to encourage them to jump ship.

Although there was never any question of him defecting from Labour, former foreign secretary Jack Straw warned his party against electing Corbyn on the basis that it would lead to the chastened Lib Dems making a “comeback from the dead like Lazarus”.

There may, in some circles, have been an attempt to stir up talk of an Social Democratic Party (SDP) mark II – a sequel to the right wing breakaway from Labour in the early 1980s when the party last moved to the left.

But such a narrative with Tim Farron was never really likely with no current sign whatsoever of any Labour defections to the Lib Dems.

The prospect of a repeat of anything on the scale of the 28 Labour MPs who in the early 1980s defected to the SDP, which would go into alliance with David Steel’s Liberals, is fantasy.

The SDP styled as a party that would “break the mould” of the two-party dominated Westminster system – something that a lot of people bought into rightly or wrongly.

But in truth the party was nowhere near as radical and anti-establishment or even as principled as its leadership of former Labour ministers David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers suggested it was.

For starters it was arguably the case that large numbers of the 28 Labour MPs who left the ranks of Labour, the party on whose coat-tails they were elected on at the 1979 general election, were facing deselection by their local parties related to criticism of their performances.

There was never any question that all of these 28 politicians, supposedly championing a great social democracy of the new centre party, would en masse take the principled decision to resign the seats they had won as Labour candidates and fight a series of mini by-elections up and down the country.

But getting back to the Lib Dems, who were founded from the wreckage of the SDP in the late 1980s, Tim Farron’s party is in no fit state to ride the sort of crest of a wave that the SDP was able to successfully do for a time.

There’s no evidence whatsoever that the Lib Dems are anywhere near shaking off the unpopularity the party acquired as a consequence of Nick Clegg’s decision to go into coalition with the Tories in 2010.

It may be that the Lib Dems will continue to pay a heavy electoral price for the five years its most senior figures had of being driven around in chauffeur-driven ministerial cars and carrying red boxes, together with other various trappings of office.

There may well be the occasional by-election success, but the Lib Dems have in no way recovered from the electoral hammering the party took in Scotland on 7 May when it was reduced to just one MP – Alistair Carmichael who narrowly managed to cling on in Orkney and Shetland. It would be a brave punter who would place a bet on the Scottish Lib Dems adding significantly to their tally of five MSPs in next year’s Holyrood elections, although a small handful of gains is possible.

All of which will seem somewhat harsh to Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, who has been one of the best performers at Holyrood of the last parliament and has managed to put the SNP government on the back foot over heavy-handed attempts to abolish corroboration, and the creation of the single police force.

In fact it’s probably the case that Mr Rennie has been one of the few shining lights for the Lib Dems anywhere in the UK during the past four or five years, but it will do little to help his party come next year’s Holyrood elections. By the same token the Lib Dems are likely to face a hammering in next year’s London mayoral elections and probably in many other UK regions that have elections of one sort of another, although the party does seem to have a stronger operation in Wales.

In the fashion of 1980s and 1990s comebacks Tim Farron probably fancies himself as somewhat of a Paddy Ashdown mark II in that, like the former leader, he is taking over a party down on its luck.

Whatever one’s view of Ashdown it’s indisputable that he took over as Lib Dem leader in the late 1980s at a time when the party was on the ropes after the experiences of its forerunner the Liberal Party in the SDP-Liberal alliance.

Yet within less then a decade, the Lib Dems were talked of as a potential coalition partner for Labour, something that Tony Blair is rumoured to have been sympathetic to had it not been for the 1997 Labour landslide. There’s certainly not much likelihood of a coming together between Jeremy Corbyn and Mr Farron’s party.

While there will always be some Labour people uneasy about Mr Corbyn’s leadership, it’s unlikely there will be enough in the locker of the Lib Dems to make solid Labour folk switch their allegiance to a party heavily toxified by its involvement in the coalition and its association with policies such as the bedroom tax.

To find the last example of the Lib Dems eating into Labour support in any significant way, one has to go back to the Iraq war in 2003 when the late Charles Kennedy’s opposition to the conflict doubtless played a part in winning over some long-time Labour voters to the Lib Dems at the 2005 election. So in the short term and perhaps long term, whatever we hear from Mr Farron about holding out an olive branch to Labour “moderates” and doing more to distance his party from the Lib Dems, there is no immediate sign of the party getting a spike in its support.

Regardless of talk about SDP-style space in the political centre from Mr Farron, it could simply come down to his party being just as toxified by the coalition experience in five years’ time as it is now in the minds of many anti-Tory voters.