If you’ve listened to pretty much anyone who has attempted to given an educated opinion on the issue – apart from Owen Jones and people on your Facebook newsfeed who have jumped on every tawdry bandwagon since Cleggmania — a clear consensus is developing that a Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership election would cause the sky to quite literally fall in on the party’s head. Now, regardless of whether or not this is true, there are definitely some interesting questions to be asked, as a Liberal Democrat member, about whether or not a Corbyn victory would really be the dream come true for my party some seem to be suggesting.
It won’t be surprising to party members to hear that those who commentate about Corbyn and his effect on the Lib Dems have seemingly zero knowledge of how the party works. Whilst accurate and informed coverage of the liberals isn’t exactly commonplace, the idea that a Corbyn victory would automatically equal success for them is worth questioning in more than a few areas. Frankly, I’m not so sure the party is either ready for it, or indeed that Labour to Lib Dem switchers will give the party votes in areas where that will translate into seats.
The first point worth making is that any Labour turmoil comes at a stage where the Liberal Democrats are in a very poor state to capitalize upon it. The party has just gone through one of the most disastrous elections in its history and, before that, five years of decimation in local government. Its financial situation and local machine has certainly seen better days, and the party still has a long way to go in recovering a sense of being a credible alternative to the Tories, most importantly in a way which will attract disaffected Labour pragmatists.
There is no doubt in my mind that in the wake of a Corbyn victory, regardless of what happens to Labour’s poll numbers, the Lib Dems will receive a boost, with angry Blairites and the like furiously telling pollsters they will be switching allegiance to a party whose media reputation is now broadly that of a softer, more centrist anti-Conservative party. However the Liberal Democrats aren’t really in a position to contest Downing Street in 2020, and Corbyn will have a hard time even stabilizing his own leadership with the parliamentary Labour MPs and the centre-left press constantly on his back. So would these swing-Blairites not merely hang tough until such a time that Labour is once again in the hands of what they view to be sensible, social democratic politicians?
In more wonky terms though, are Labour moderates the kind of voters who will even help the Liberal Democrats make a noticeable recovery at Westminster in the areas that they need them? There are a number of conventional theories as to why the Liberal Democrats were almost completely wiped out in 2015. The first is that their vote had always been considerably buffed up by Labour tactical voters and left leaning anti-Conservatives who withdrew their support for the Libs post-coalition. The second is that UKIP supplanted the Lib Dems as the “none of the above” protest party, which was disastrous in places like the South West. The third is that fear of the SNP in a tight election led more people than ever to vote for a prime minister in Cameron rather than a well-loved local Lib Dem MP. As with so many things, it is likely to be a combination of the three. My question is: how is Corbyn’s ascension supposed to change this picture?
Admittedly “the fear” should not have such an impact on the election next time around, and will likely die out of its own accord, especially if the result looks unlikely to be close (and in THAT area Corbyn certainly could be of some help). However, if the Lib Dems won seats in the West Country and other places because of a “none of the above” anti-Westminster, and, in some cases, anti-London mentality, why would the election of a radical, outsider leader of Labour improve the liberal plight? Similarly, If Labour tactical voters abandoned the party due to feelings of betrayal over what were broadly LEFT of Labour manifesto pledges, then why on earth would Labour-supporting tactical voters who DIDN’T vote tactically in 2015 feel inclined to lend their support to the Lib Dems once again? Well, maybe if it was felt that the party had moved away from their positioning in the coalition significantly, but the point is it wouldn’t be Jeremy Corbyn’s doing, it would be Tim Farron’s.
There is a compounded problem here for the Liberal Democrats in that the few seats they lost to Labour have a tendency to be in areas where an old Labour message may well be received positively; the provincial, urban north and student-dense seats where high Green votes are likely to only make matters worse for the party. Am I therefore optimistic that the Lib Dems will somewhere like Cambridge back in 2020, their currently most marginal seat? With Julian Huppert as the candidate it looks likely, with anyone else, perhaps not.
Ultimately, what the party really needs to do in 2020 is succeed in electing new politicians, not just former MPs with strong personal votes and holding onto the seats they already have. My instinct says Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour into 2020 will not be much help in that task, although he’s unlikely to be much of a hindrance either. The Liberal Democrats need to find a way of winning back seats from the Tories, probably through an agenda which resonates with people who voted Tory in 2015. It remains to be seen whether they can make progress in Labour seats or seats with a strong Labour vote to squeeze, but at the moment it’s really a sideshow in the wider battle for Liberal Democrat survival.