Along the Yellow Brick Road

Last week, I took a break from writing to recruit some new guest contributors, one of whom is a certain Theo Penn. Here’s his first article – it’s a sanguine perspective on the political equivalent of John Cleese’s parrot. Hopefully it’ll rise like a phoenix from the ashes sooner rather than later! NK 

Since their mauling in May 2015, the Liberal Democrats have gained 20,000 new members, become a trending hashtag on Twitter (#LibDemFightBack), held a remarkably upbeat autumn party conference and successfully elected a bright and shiny new leader, Tim Farron. It would, however, be unwise to conclude the Lib Dems are back in the game, or the “comeback kids of Britain” as Nick Clegg put it. Without tarnishing their reputation any further, they must differentiate themselves from the Tories and Labour as much as possible, but be sure not to go back to becoming a movement of protest.

The General Election of 2015 was a pollster’s worst nightmare. The outcome: a stunning Conservative majority that shocked the Tories as much as the country at large. Perhaps more predictably, the junior partner in the former coalition lost seats – but Friday morning revealed the defeat of 49 MPs, a terrible drubbing which not even the most anti-liberal advocate could have forecast. Their election campaign was categorised by a “stronger economy, fairer society” slogan, trying to achieve, as ever, the ‘umbrella’ party status. But it was always felt they were fighting a losing battle after mistakes during the first few days of their incumbency (dare I say tuition fees?).  After the May 2010 coalition deal was made, it soon became clear that divisions lay within the party ranks.

British politics is, at present, extremely fluid. Jeremy Corbyn’s rapid elevation and the SNP’s domination across the border prove that much. As Britain’s traditional third largest party, the Lib Dems have always tried to hold the liberal centre ground. However, this holy grail upon which elections are supposedly won is constantly on the move, seemingly in the opposite direction to the government. After the Conservatives became the largest party in May 2010, it was felt that David Cameron had inherited the centre ground as the self-professed ‘heir to Blair.’ Nick Clegg spearheaded a right-leaning ‘Orange Book’ faction within his party, but many of his backbenchers would rather have formed an alliance with Labour. Defined centre-left MPs, like the late Charles Kennedy, would even have gone as far as saying that his leader had betrayed the party’s values and supporters by joining a Conservative-led coalition.

Of course, you can’t dwell on the past. The Lib Dems must be unified. And the man they have turned to is Tim Farron. An Anglican father of four and a graduate of Newcastle University, Farron is a politician who occupies the centre-left of politics. He has already held prestigious roles both within the party and Parliament, becoming Lib Dem party President from 2011 to 2015 and a remaining a member of the Education and Skills Select Committee since his election to the Commons in 2005 by his Westmorland and Lonsdale constituents. One would expect Farron to seek policies which will achieve egalitarianism. By August 2015, Farron set out seven top priorities for his tenure:  rural affairs, the EU referendum, mental health, immigration, civil liberties, the green economy and housing.  All are fairly straightforward liberal hopes, designed in part to attract wavering Labour voters and, with some luck, defecting Labour MPs.

Despite these lucid objectives, it’s crucial for the Lib Dems to keep a strong economy high on their agenda. Clearly, the General Election 2015 was fought and won over the issue: voters were swayed by the Conservative’s promise of finishing the job. Crucially, a growing economy provides greater job security for the electorate, and social climbers just fled from Miliband’s weak grasp of basic fundamentals. Although the Tories offered a better economic strategy, at the end of the day, their vote share only bettered Labour’s by 6.5% – but more worryingly, it only bettered UKIP’s by 24.3%. We can conclude that they were saved by the outdated First-Past-the-Post voting system – something the Lib Dems have always campaigned against. It is then obvious that partisan dealignment is happening in the UK. The Lib Dems must ensure that they take full advantage of this and remain Britain’s third largest party outright.

The Lib Dems will also play a key role in lobbying against the government in extremely important debates over the next five years. Most notably, Brexit. If Cameron fails to achieve his EU reforms, many in his cabinet have declared that they will vote in defiance of their leader in the coming EU referendum.  Staying true to the liberal free trade, and free movement of people, the Lib Dems will be at the centre of the fight to keep Britain in the EU. It has been suggested that, to bolster Labour’s opposition, a new Lib-Lab Pact will emerge. From 1976 to 1978, it was agreed that liberal spokespersons had the right to be consulted by ministers on policy issues before legislation was introduced. If a pact were agreed, and if it acted similarly to the original, the Lib Dems would be rebuilding their party while being plunged back into the political frontline. It would be likely that further blocking on Conservative measures such as Tax Credit Cuts would arise (a motion defeated by Labour and Lib Dem peers). Consequently, the Lib Dems would risk abandoning the equidistance needed to revitalise a battered party.  However, it should be noted that a pact remains extremely unlikely: very few MPs would want to be associated with Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Did the 2015 election signal the death of British liberalism? Why do you need a liberal party when a Conservative-led coalition will pass measures such as Gay Marriage? Yet recent terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, the migrant crisis and the rise of the Front National in France have highlighted the need for a cogent and muscular defence of liberalism more than ever. This includes the defeat of groups which impose hate and suffering through violence, but also helped show the need for compassion and nurturing in communities which need support financially or an acceptance to integrate successfully. Globally, Liberal parties have made gains. Recent elections in Canada saw a triumph for Trudeau; in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi defeated a powerful military dictatorship. So, with some optimism, I look into my crystal ball and see 35 Liberal Democrat MPs in Parliament after the 2030 election. I sincerely hope that the counteroffensive is well and truly underway.