One way or another, it’s been a pretty tough couple of months for Liberal Democrats. First came the bloodbath of the General Election, in which the party lost 49 of its 57 seats. For the most part these were cruelly devoured by their coalition partners, including in the South West which was previously as close as they had to a heartland. In truth, the party fought a dispirited campaign in which they failed to define themselves on their own terms.
Less than a month later, the untimely death of hugely popular former leader Charles Kennedy was both an enormous tragedy and a reminder of a time when the party was happier in its own skin. Under Kennedy’s leadership, the Liberal Democrats achieved their best ever electoral result of 62 seats, buoyed by the decision to oppose the Iraq war and aided by a personable leader who connected with voters with his relaxed and natural manner.
However, as small a crumb of comfort as it may be, the addition of almost 20,000 new members since the election – a 30% increase – is suggestive of some groundswell of sympathy amongst the public for the electoral massacre, which went further than almost any commentator or party member had predicted. Adorned with the rosiest of yellow-tinted spectacles, the Liberal Democrats, gutted of many of their parliamentary grandees, can at least now rebuild. They may not be afforded a clean break (the student fees debacle has proved especially pernicious), but there is a sense that they reached the bottom in May following a string of electoral disasters associated with their decision to join the Tories in coalition. Things, to quote a song with its own political history, can only get better.
Or at least, that’s the hope. Delivering on that hope will depend a great deal on the ability of the new leader to reconcile an acceptance of mistakes made over the past five years with a narrative of competence and achievement in government. It will not do to simply apologise (and certainly not on YouTube). Even more importantly, the party must carve a space for itself in a political environment in which it can no longer rely on the protest vote, squeezed by a rising Green party on the left and the rejection at the polls of Nick Clegg’s equidistant centrism.
Last week, Tim Farron, the frontrunner to take on this challenging mantle, laid out his vision of how this resurgence might look. In a speech I attended at the Institute for Public Policy Research, he identified liberty, internationalism, fairness, environmentalism and quality of life as areas of public policy which, combined, only the Lib Dems could champion. Despite mentioning inequality, however, he largely neglected the economy. Pushed on this matter by the chair, he espoused a Keynesian approach to capital spending, but the detail was (perhaps understandably) thin on the ground. However, his pledge to oppose the extension of Right-to-Buy as one of the key tenets of his leadership is indicative of his left-leaning economic principles.
This week, Farrons fellow leadership challenger Norman Lamb spoke at the same lectern, and he too largely sidestepped economics. Instead, it has been his comments on gay equality and the legalisation of drugs that have garnered press attention. Lamb is seen as a more centrist candidate, but he is a classic social Liberal. Farron, by comparison, has been attacked in some quarters for putting his Christian beliefs ahead taking traditional Liberal standpoints over questions of gay rights and abortion.
That Farron is 1/10 on to take the leadership, with Lamb at 6/1, perhaps signifies that the heart of the Liberal Democrat party, its membership, beats to the left. However it is also true that they are keen to move on from the coalition. Even while Lamb was highly respected in his role as Minister for Social Care, Farron’s outspokenness and strength of character may end up as crucial factors in the leadership debate as the party seeks to redefine itself, particularly with the Labour party likely to return to centrism following their own appalling electoral performance under Ed Miliband.
Senior leadership seems less convinced however, and last week a cluster of highly influential party figures including Menzies Campbell, Ed Davey, Lynne Featherstone and Shirley Williams issued a public letter outlining their support for Lamb. Paddy Ashdown has already backed the North Norfolk MP, but there is a lingering sense now that these names – distinguished as they are – belong to the past. A new generation of Liberal Democrats is required, and the party simply has to improve on its representation amongst ethnic minorities and the working class. A new vision for combining liberalism with pragmatic social democracy, and communicating that message effectively, can see the party become relevant once more.
The road back is likely to be long, whoever triumphs on the 16th July. Persuading the British public that it is a journey worth taking is the most important task for the party’s next leader.