Barely a week goes by without a cry for a new centre party in British politics, unless you are Jeremy Corbyn, in which case being centrist is tantamount to fascism. Yet there is a delightful irony to Labour’s condemnation of the middle ground.
It is often touted that Corbyn got a similar share of the vote in 2017 to Tony Blair’s in 1997. This is true, but why did he not get the majority he so clearly deserved? There are two reasons, firstly that he faced a far stronger Tory party than Blair had, and secondly, Blair was aided by a strong Liberal Democrat presence in the campaign and Commons. It may seem strange to attribute Labour’s success to the Liberal Democrats, but bear with me.
From 1997 to 2015, it was not the Labour Party which prevented a Conservative majority, but the Liberal Democrats. Local Lib Dem MPs dug in and clung, seemingly unshakeably, to seats where Tories should have breezed in with little effort; St Ives, Yeovil and Bath are prime examples. This was not just limited to the South West though; Colchester in the East; Hazel Grove, Southport and Berwick in the North; Brecon and Radnor in Wales; pretty much the entirety of the Highlands and North East of Scotland; these self-declared local champions entrenched themselves in potential Tory safe seats. Yet, in 2015, the local warriors were swept away, to be replaced in many cases by fawning Conservative lobby-fodder. As Andrew Grice wrote in 2016, Labour needs a Lib Dem recovery. Not to gain seats for Labour, but to deny the Tories them.
Where are they then? Where is the #LibDemFightback? I would say it is there, but smaller than anyone expected. The worst thing possible for a party based in local government is to lose that base, and it is that fate which befell our tragic heroes. Half of their councillors gone, membership in freefall, a quiet, dignified fizzle-out seemed imminent (quite the opposite of the explosive, desperate, directionless thrashing we see in UKIP). Step ye forward Sir Tim of Farron, knight of oh-what-a-nice-bloke evangelism.
His views on equality issues have been well-documented, and do not need to be reiterated by me. What he did was galvanise and mobilise what was left to him. Determined not to go quietly into the night, he grasped his sword and took to the field. Europe would be the battlefield upon which his party would make their stand, and stand they did. No-one can deny the pro-European fervour of the Liberal Democrats, and it seemed there was some hope. Membership rose to its highest ever level and strong performances in Parliamentary by-elections, the Lib Dems not-at-all-secret weapon, brought the shining light of hope for Tim. Hope for the future, hope for Europe, hope for a scarred, embattled party.
But it was not to be. The election came too soon. Our resurgent heroes were not ready, the dark forces of May and Corbyn encircled them on all sides. Despite all the power of their pro-EU convictions, their local base was not yet recovered, and their local champions could not break through the national chatter. There were gains, but very modest ones. There were losses too, the biggest being the fall of Sir Nick actually-a-knight-this-time Clegg. Think what you will of Clegg, but he was, and remains, one of the most experienced, powerful and authoritative pro-EU voices in Britain.
Sir Nick defeated, Sir Tim deflated, our battered and bruised heroes turned to another knight: Sir Vince Cable of Twickenham, Master of Coin, stepped to the fore. He is a veteran of countless battles, and the facts show that he has usually been right – on Iraq, on the 2008 crash and, his party hopes, on Europe. Yet despite his dogged forays into the media and his personal profile, the Lib Dems struggle to cut through.
Vince’s mission is not to return to government in one fell swoop, but to rebuild. To be able to man the battlements once more, the party must return to local government. The focus of the Lib Dems turns once more to councils up and down this green and pleasant land. The disarray of the Conservative party bodes well for this year’s local elections, Kingston and Richmond Borough Councils are in their sights. However, the majority of seats up this year are in the cities, where Labour looms monolithic, unopposed. Success must be made against the Left too, for the Lib Dems to restore their former glory. Naturally, the battlefield for this clash of Corbyn and Cable must be Sheffield. With a disgraced misogynist MP being outperformed by his Lib Dem opponent and a council under fire for botched tree-felling, Labour in Sheffield is faced by one of the best organised Lib Dem local parties in the country. The battle will be fierce, but it will decide the fate of Jared O’Mara when he eventually comes before the electorate once more.
The party tells its campaigners that the road back is not inevitable. The party is right. The road back is however, now clearer than before. With the Sword of Europe in hand and the Shield of Local Government on his arm, Sir Vince braces himself to return to the fray. His army of pavement-pounders gathers. The road will be long, the journey hard, but the Lib Dems can and will survive. They have been in the wilderness before; indeed, their predecessor party, the Liberals, was there for most of the 1900s. They will return, they are a hardy bunch. This May could well be the next solid step back from the wild.
There is a very British fondness for an underdog, and I think this applies to the Lib Dems for many people. They are to British politics what Prince Philip is to the Royal Family. Many decry them, but would miss them if they weren’t there.
Forward Sir Vince, your party calls you to battle. The Liberal Democrats are down, but not out. It is a foolish Labour or Conservative party that forgets them.