The Liberal Democrats have been shocked, but they are not paralysed, as shown by the optimism at their annual conference last week. Despite having been the sacrificial lamb to the slaughter at the 2015 general election, one commentator noted how upbeat the mood was at conference. Maybe the attendees were buoyant because of Labour's recent decision to elect socialist firebrand Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. Suddenly the centre ground of British politics looks sparse if not empty, vacated by a Labour Party that has decided to pursue a socialist utopia. The Liberal Democrats thus understandably this as an opportunity to appropriate the centre ground and once again become a party of government.
Of course, there are obstacles that may blockade a Liberal Democrat comeback, the biggest of which is whether the party can be politically relevant with only 8 MPs. However, new leader Tim Farron seems to have already formulated a plan to circumvent this difficulty, through the House of Lords. A chamber which the party openly resents is now its political lifeline. Indeed, the Lib Dems have 112 peers in the House of Lords, an increase from before the general election. The Lib Dems are likely to use this clout in the Upper Chamber to influence government policy and the national debate.
Tim Farron himself is also an asset for the Liberal Democrats. Farron, an authentic individual, is a motivational speaker and a pragmatic politician. He can connect to normal voters, as he showed during his conference speech, and can make the case for liberalism without descending into lecture mode. Farron punctuated his speech with funny anecdotes, while talking through the biggest issues facing the nation today. This is not an easy task, as shown by Jeremy Corbyn's conference address earlier this week, which failed to mention immigration, the European Union, or the deficit.
Yet, Ian Dunt, Editor of politics.co.uk, argued that Tim Farron made a pretty sizeable mistake during his conference speech. By failing to distance his party from Clegg’s toxic coalition, Farron’s speech was a ‘de facto slap in the face to the electorate’, according to Dunt. This pessimistic assessment may have been accurate had Corbyn not been elected as the leader of the Labour Party. Moderate Labour voters repelled by Corbyn’s radicalism will quickly begin to appreciate Farron’s rhetoric. The Lib Dems out of power can be a clear voice of reason. Farron’s personable style of politics will lure back those who couldn't be persuaded by Clegg, and those who defected to Labour will come flooding back as the party's internal civil war ensues.
The Liberal Democrats need to perform well in next year’s council elections. This will give the party a community springboard to launch a long-term political platform in the run-up to 2020. Farron has laid the foundation stones in this long, arduous process. If he carries on pitching his mature, centre-ground message to the electorate through an honest, genuine style, the Lib Dems may win back prestige and influence at the expense of the Labour Party in the forseeable future.