THE title of this submit is the query that—greater than ever earlier than—I discover myself asking following the Liberal Democrats’ just-finished gathering in Brighton. It was my fourth Lib Dem convention. My first, additionally in Brighton, was in 2012. Again then, too, the speak was of the celebration’s identification disaster. Two years into its coalition with the Conservatives, members had been grumpy. Nick Clegg, then the deputy prime minister, had led them into authorities and was on the again foot after an unpopular funds and a failed referendum on electoral reform. Was the celebration a centre-left power: a Labour Celebration with out the authoritarian streak? Or was it a power of the free-market centre: an enlightened complement to Tory energy? Pamphlets circulated about issues just like the which means of liberalism.
Immediately such issues ought to all be a lot clearer. By electing Tim Farron as Mr Clegg’s successor twelve months in the past, the celebration opted for a extra centre-left path. Occasions since then couldn’t have been extra propitious. First Jeremy Corbyn turned Labour chief, dragging the principle opposition out of the kind of social democratic floor by which Mr Farron had beforehand appeared like a solution and not using a query. (Mr Corbyn’s re-election will in all probability be confirmed on Saturday following a management contest that has torn his celebration’s sinews.) After which there was Brexit. Absolutely 48% of voters opposed Britain’s flounce, however with Labour out of play and Theresa Could’s authorities careening in direction of a “laborious Brexit”, they haven’t any voice.
So it’s laborious to think about circumstances extra beneficiant to Mr Farron. And to be honest he has his achievements. Whereas Labour misplaced seats at native elections in Could, the Lib Dems gained 45. And a few 15,000 individuals joined the celebration after the Brexit vote. But nationally there isn’t any signal of a Lib Dem comeback after the celebration’s abysmal displaying in final yr’s basic election. It stays caught on the 8% in polls to which it first fell a number of months after Mr Clegg took the celebration into authorities in 2010. Voters, it appears, merely don’t give it some thought a lot nowadays: in a ballot by YouGov out at this time 65% of them—and even a 3rd of Lib Dem supporters—haven’t any optimistic or damaging view of Mr Farron (Mr Clegg ought to be so fortunate).
What has gone improper? Why have the political earthquakes of the previous twelve months had no apparent impact on the celebration’s nationwide standing? One reply is that it’ll take a lot a couple of yr for the Lib Dems to recuperate from the unhealthy repute they (principally unfairly) acquired in authorities: as quislings, softies and most of all dissimulators. British voters have lengthy recollections. An occasion on the Brighton convention requested whether or not the celebration would return to energy earlier than 2080.
One other issue is the celebration’s sheer smallness within the Home of Commons. The Lib Dems might have greater than 100 members of the Home of Lords, however within the elected chamber they’ve simply eight representatives. An upcoming redistricting train might cut back these MPs to 4. Thus they’re merely not accorded a lot consideration. Tv interviews, choose committee chairmanships, parliamentary questions don’t come their means as they did when, earlier than the final election, there have been 57 Lib Dems within the Commons. To recuperate, the celebration wants the kind of prominence that won’t fall into its lap.
There are two further explanations that make but tougher studying for Lib Dem loyalists. The primary is that Mr Farron might not be as much as the duty. In a British political panorama dominated by hucksters, authoritarians, isolationists and delusionals he’s that uncommon factor: a reasonable, respectable political chief who speaks his thoughts and isn’t clearly incompetent. However for the Lib Dems that might not be sufficient. Up is just not the one means they will go. Their chief’s job is concurrently to arrest decline and to propel a brand new advance. Higher abilities than Mr Farron would fail in his sneakers. And for all his likability, he doesn’t come throughout as a heavyweight. Mr Clegg could also be extensively reviled, however no less than he’s recognised. A yr into his job, Mr Farron enjoys no such scorn. His speech to the celebration this afternoon provided glimpses of the kind of audacity and swagger wanted to vary this, however was extra spectacular on the web page than within the corridor.
That, no less than, the celebration can do one thing about. If, in a yr, Mr Farron’s celebration remains to be on 8% within the polls, it ought to ditch him and reinstate Mr Clegg. However a second issue transcends such questions: the tectonics of British politics. Demographically, as I’ve lengthy argued right here and elsewhere, Britain is transferring in a cosmopolitan path that ought to profit the likes of Mr Farron. But the Brexit vote appears to have unleashed forces pulling in the wrong way: a brand new hostility to migrants, a triumphalist purism about Brexit in swathes of Westminster and Fleet Road that drastically exceeds something promised earlier than the referendum and most of all a bring-it-back nostalgia that now infuses the political mainstream (reviving outdated icons of British energy and independence, from Britain’s outdated blue passports to Britannia, the royal yacht). Little of this touches the Lib Dem citizens, or that minority of voters torn between the Lib Dems and Labour. However in the actual centre floor this shift issues and should change the electoral calculus.
Mr Farron’s technique is clearly to win over reasonable Labourites alienated by Mr Corbyn. Therefore the reward in his closing speech this afternoon for Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna and even (albeit in a professional style) Tony Blair. This may occasionally assist the Lib Dems choose up some new members. However electorally, the types of locations the place Mr Farron’s welcome mix of social democracy and liberalism does greatest are secure Labour seats in locations like London, Bristol and Norwich. Locations the place sufficient individuals vote Labour for Mr Corbyn’s uselessness, even on the fragile matter of Brexit, to be virtually immaterial. If there’s any low-hanging fruit for the Lib Dems it’s within the south-west of England, the place the Tories swept the board final yr however the place, for deep historic causes to do with native trade and faith, there stays a powerful liberal streak. In these constituencies individuals voted for Brexit and care little for Mr Blair and his successors.
I absolutely perceive Mr Farron’s considering. Maybe, a yr into Mr Corbyn’s disastrous management of Labour, the Lib Dems can now fruitfully bid for Labour members. Certainly I count on this gambit will work out: I’d not be stunned if hundreds of Labourites joined the Lib Dems within the subsequent yr or so. And when it comes to Britain’s political spectrum, the Lib Dems have a extra essential function—because the guardians of the progressive centre—than maybe ever earlier than. The query is: will any of this translate into votes, affect, and energy? Right here I’m pessimistic. As issues stand I don’t see Mr Farron main the kind of liberal reconfiguration at which he hints. I hope to be proved improper.