by Chris Jarvis
Media outlets are covering the Labour Leadership election to the point of saturation, with countless people both within and outside of the party throwing around suggestions as to why Labour lost the election, and therefore who would be best place to succeed Ed Miliband. On the one side, there have been bitter New Labourites, such as Peter Mandelson and Dan Hodges who have been clamouring that Labour’s problem is that it has spent the last five years purporting some form of utopian Marxism, that is so radically unelectable that the party must lurch rightwards in order to appeal to the mythical floating, ‘centrist’ voter and in doing so, select a Blairite leadership candidate.
Likewise, many on the left, including ten of the 2015 intake of Labour MPs have argued instead that to emerge from their election defeat in one piece and to reconnect to the five million voters who left Labour since 1997, the party must oppose austerity, must challenge, rather than pander to, big business, and reject the recent neoliberal past. Resulting from the election and this subsequent debate, commentators have suggested that Labour is going through a process of ‘pasokification’ or else that is unable to effectively define what its purpose is, viewpoints not solely confined to the left – Channel 4’s Paul Mason has suggested that Labour is facing an existential crisis.
But Labour is not alone in facing this kind of threat. Beneath the front pages, the Liberal Democrats, fresh from their electoral decimation are similarly undergoing the process of soul searching, while attempting to understand how they can re-merge as a viable political force.
In many ways, their crisis is significantly more acute than that of Labour. Irrespective of where Labour falls, regardless of whether or not there is a flight of members, parliamentarians and supporters either to the left, or to the right, there is no real doubt as to whether Labour will exist in one form or another in five, ten or even thirty years. The same cannot be said for the Liberal Democrats, a party which until three weeks ago was a party of government, holding significant ministerial posts.
it would be confirmation that the historical position of Lib Dems
as the primary opposition in Northern seats and a palatable left
wing alternative to Conservative voters is indeed over
Tim Farron and Norman Lamb are the two contenders in the forthcoming leadership election for the Liberal Democrats. At the moment, Farron seems to be the favourite, which is good news for the party, and good news for the country. Farron has throughout the last five years, been a voice of dissent from the Tory-Lib Dem government, both criticising and voting against a number of core policies of the coalition, including the trebling of tuition fees and the bedroom tax and is widely considered to be on the left of the party. By contrast, Norman Lamb has been particularly close to the former leadership, for a stint acting as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Nick Clegg in addition to being loyal to the coalition for its duration.
Lamb is the continuity candidate – more of the Orange Book Liberal Democrats, that attempt to combine a right wing economic policy with social liberalism who we have seen dominating the upper echelons of party for the last ten years. Should the party chose him to succeed Nick Clegg as leader, it would be confirmation that the historical position of Lib Dems as the primary opposition in Northern seats and a palatable left wing alternative to Conservative voters is indeed over.
By contrast, Farron offers the opportunity for the party to depart from its past and emerge out of the election as a potentially progressive force, rebuild its base and start to stand on a platform of social democracy once again. Unsurprisingly, in light of this possibility, prominent figures from within the party have lined up both before and after the election to claim that Farron is not a credible leadership hopeful and attack his criticisms of the coalition’s record.
the near wipe-out of the Liberal Democrats in the election
offers a stronger chance of renewal and real opportunity
for a proper shift in direction
This election is of particular importance given the state of the parliamentary party. Ironically, the near wipe-out of the Liberal Democrats in the election offers a stronger chance of renewal and real opportunity for a proper shift in direction. The majority of the old guard and front benches of the party – Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, David Laws lost their seats, therefore allowing for a complete rethink of party policy and strategy. In the absence of such voices being amplified by parliamentary seats, it becomes much easier for a new leader to steer the party in a new direction.
But why does this matter? Why should we care of the fate of the Liberal Democrats, the party considered by most to be an irrelevance, sell-outs, or middle class bearded sandal wearers?
By and large, the last five years of Liberal Democrats
in coalition with Tories is a historical aberration.
The future of the Liberal Democrats is crucial. In the not so distant past, they provided the primary opposition to the Iraq War within parliament and were vocal opponents to the Orwellian anti-terror laws that Labour introduced in it, and Afghanistan’s wake. The party throughout the nineties also managed to win seats in the Home Counties, in middle England and in Tory shires where the chances of a Labour victory were so miniscule as to be considered unthinkable. Further to this, Liberal Democrats have a long-standing history of playing a significant, left of centre role on Labour councils in University towns and the North, in many instances, pulling Labour leftwards.
By and large, the last five years of Liberal Democrats in coalition with Tories is a historical aberration. Should Farron win, it is likely that it will be as such for their future too. And the importance lies at least in part on their electoral prospects in the next few General Elections. Should they begin to crawl back up the polls and win back seats they lost in 2015, it makes a Labour government much more possible and also provides a feasible left alternative should Labour revert to its recent flirtations with neoliberalism in the North and in London.
Tim Farron is the leadership candidate that can deliver this, and therefore is the only hope the party has of rebuilding its support and becoming a political force in the future.