Almost as soon as Ed Miliband resigned as leader of the Labour Party on 8th May, there has been a media frenzy surrounding the contest to become the party’s next leader, one that has only intensified since veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn entered the race. It now appears increasingly likely that Corbyn will emerge victorious, despite initially being the rank outsider. In any case, even if he doesn’t win he has succeeded in awakening Labour’s left-wing base and has undoubtedly dragged the debate to the left.
While much of the discussion surrounding this leadership contest has focused on whether or not Labour will be able to beat the Conservatives in 2020, very little attention has been given to the Liberal Democrats. Given that they were reduced from 57 seats to just 8 at the general election, this is perhaps hardly surprising. However, the Lib Dems have had a leadership contest of their own this summer and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn could have a huge impact on them.
Since Nick Clegg became leader in 2007, the Lib Dems have sought to position themselves at the centre-ground of British politics, particularly during the most recent election campaign. They have repeatedly argued that they can be a voice for moderate, liberal values and combine what they see as the positive aspects of both Labour and the Conservatives while avoiding their negatives. Although Clegg is no longer leader, his successor Tim Farron has continued with similar rhetoric
Ironically, the current Liberal Democrat Party came into being when the old Liberal party formed an electoral pact (and eventually merged) with the Social Democratic Party, a party which was formed by a group of moderate Labour MPs who were dissatisfied with Labour’s shift to the left under Michael Foot in the early 1980s. If Corbyn captures the Labour leadership, it could well divide the party in a similar fashion and there is already talk of a “resistance” led by Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt. This time however, there is already a ready-made party for Labour’s soft left and although the Lib Dems may have a pitifully low number of seats in the House of Commons, they have a large support base and are unlikely to remain at such a low level in the long term.
To be clear, it is unlikely that there will be any immediate Labour defections. Although many Labour MPs may be bitterly opposed to Corbyn, he will still be afforded time. However, if Labour perform badly in the upcoming English local elections and Scottish Parliament elections next year, that could be the spark which sees defections. Of course, this hinges on the success of the “resistance” – if the Labour Party can successfully oust Corbyn at the right moment, there might not be any defections in the first place.
The new Lib Dem leader Tim Farron could prove to be a more important figure in the coming parliament than many might have anticipated. He is significant in that he is considerably more left-wing than Clegg ever was. While he may not be a hardcore socialist of the Corbyn mould, he has already sought to take his party to the left in a similar way that the late Charles Kennedy did in the early 2000s. Unlike Kennedy however, Farron’s Lib Dems will not be up against a centrist Labour party but rather one that could be the furthest left it’s been since the 1980s. It wasn’t particularly difficult for Kennedy to outflank Blair on the left, but it will be nearly impossible for Farron to do the same with Corbyn.
For decades, elections have been won at the centre. Both Blair and Cameron reaped huge rewards by moving their parties towards the centre. While it is true that the Lib Dems aggressively pushed their centrist credentials at this year’s election yet still fared badly this was more down to a feeling of betrayal among many of their support base due to their decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives and renege on their pledge not to raise tuition fees. To many, the Lib Dems were merely “Tory-lite”. However, they are unlikely to have much success either if they tack too far to the left and end up being seen in 2020 as Labour-lite.
Thus, the key for Tim Farron and the rest of the Lib Dem leadership over the coming parliament will be to successfully bridge the divide between the Conservatives and what will most likely be a very left-wing Labour party. If Farron can do this, he may just be able to revive the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats and possibly even pick up some huge prizes – defectors from Labour.