Ayesha Hazarika: What is the point of the Lib Dems now?

Hands up who remembers the Liberal Democrats?

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran who is vying for the leadership

They are a bit like Labour in Scotland. No one can quite remember if they are still an actual thing. But they’re back and in the midst of a leadership contest again.

They say being the leader of the Opposition is the hardest job in British politics but pity the poor person who becomes Lib Dem leader – especially right now.

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With only 11 MPs, a hefty Tory majority, a shiny new Labour leader and a rampant SNP, this is not an easy gig. But at least there’s a contest.

The job of leading the Conservatives in Scotland was so unpopular that Douglas Ross faced no competition.

There’s much to like about both Lib Dem contenders – Layla Moran and Sir Ed Davey, who is interim leader of the party.

They are both popular, competent, decent politicians. I interviewed them on Sunday on Times Radio and was rather charmed by both, although there really isn’t much difference between them.

They could save themselves a huge amount of time and just become 
co-leaders but that would involve another internal referendum.

It never stops. Despite being Labour, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Lib Dems. Some of my best friends are yellow. But does the public feel the same way?

It seems not.

The damage the coalition years did to their brand of being the “nice guys” of British politics still hangs around their neck even though Davey insists it really didn’t come up that much anymore. Moran pushes back against that and clearly thinks that being a clean skin who wasn’t part of the Clegg years which Davey was would help.

She may be right.

But the bigger question is existential. What is the point of the Lib Dems now? What makes them relevant when their revoke Brexit strategy was so rejected at the last election and when soft left, centrist progressives have somewhere else to go now that the Labour is under “new management”?

Starmer is much more appealing to Lib Dem voters than his more extreme predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

But perhaps Starmer provides a political lifeline and that could be a quid pro quo.

The only thing that keeps the Lib Dems interesting is whether they can create an unofficial electoral alliance with Starmer against the Tories in 2024.

And both Moran and Davey seem open to that. No-one wants a formal arrangement as the voters dislike a stitch-up and because both sets of local activists are famed for how much they hate each other.

Red versus yellow council elections can be brutal.

But Davey talks about the kind of relationship Paddy Ashdown had with Tony Blair in the run-up to 1997 which helped Labour’s landslide.

And both he and Moran no doubt share Starmer’s core principles of being pro-human rights, social justice and a staunch internationalist.

There could be local decisions not to field candidates in seats where Labour could beat a Tory.

And Labour could choose not to go in hard in Tory/Lib marginal seats.

This kind of unspoken alliance could be all the more important for Starmer as Labour’s fortunes in Scotland still look bleak.

Whoever becomes leader of the Lib Dems should prioritise political synergy with Starmer.

It’s a union the public may cry out for in four years’ time.