Mile End Institute

Mile End Institute Conference Briefings: Liberal Democrats:

As the party conferences get underway, three experienced analysts share their thoughts on the challenges facing each of the main political parties.  In this article, Michael Kenny discusses the daunting road ahead for the Liberal Democrats.

21 September 2015

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The biggest challenge facing the Lib Dems’ newly elected leader, Tim Farron, when he rises to speak at the party’s conference, is to say something that gets heard outside the hall he is addressing.

Since their election catastrophe in May, the Lib Dems have quietly disappeared from the face of the political landscape. 

Farron’s arrival has been drowned out by the dramatic turn taken by the Labour party’s leadership contest, and the minor earthquake generated by Jeremy Corbyn’s victory.

The road ahead for Farron and his party is a daunting one. His short-medium term challenge is twofold.

First, he needs to get a foothold in the wider political conversation and show that he gets the need to redefine the party in the public consciousness. This is vital if the Lib Dems are to become competitive again at the local level. 

One of the underplayed aspects of its coalition catastrophe was the decimation of its local councillor base, as well as the diminution of its fabled capacity to hold the position of incumbent MPs.

Corbyn’s election presents both a threat and an opportunity in this regard. Farron’s default political instinct may be to tear into the Tories and protest against massive further public spending reductions and other parts of the government’s agenda. 

But this is now the territory on which Labour will camp, and it will be hard for him to get much of a hearing. 

He would do better to craft a more balanced narrative that interweaves these themes with an appeal to the many who still relate, in different ways, to the political centre, and who are likely to find the polarisation of British politics alienating. 

To succeed, he is going to have to talk on themes – such as the need to reform the public services and the UK’s productivity crisis - which do not, one suspects, come naturally to him, as well as those – like civil liberties and localism – which probably do.

Second, he needs to relocate his party’s ideological sweet-spot and position the Lib Dems as the one remaining force in British politics that speaks for a broadly-based liberal tradition that has long been part of the DNA of British party politics, but which finds itself battered and bruised, and increasingly on the defensive in the public culture. 

Liberalism is in a perilous position in British politics and political culture, and Farron needs to define himself as an eager, but realistic and non-metropolitan, exponent of its values.

But while its position in politics is much diminished, there are reasons to think that the longer term prospects for liberalism are favourable and its political potential still considerable. 

Now they are out of the Whitehall bunker, he and his party would do well to look more carefully at the social landscape of the extraordinary diverse country that rejected them, and to contemplate the opportunities and openings for a liberal ethos associated with the technological, cultural and social revolutions of our times.

Intellectual ballast, socially rooted optimism, political savvy... and a few decent jokes; all need an airing in his first speech as leader.

Michael Kenny is Director of the Mile End Institute. His latest book, The Politics of English Nationhood, will be available in paperback in early 2016. 

This article was first published on the Speri blog.