How closely are we going to re-run the 1980s?
We’ve not heard much from the Lib Dems lately. The party which until last year supplied the Deputy Prime Minister, the Business Secretary and three other cabinet ministers, which before the election had more than fifty MPs and which had been treated by the media almost on an equal footing with the Conservatives and Labour simply disappeared from view. A year on and there are signs that a tentative recovery might be underway.
The Lib Dems made another net gain in this week’s local by-elections to add to the seven net gains in July. It’s not exactly an electoral earthquake but it seems consistent enough to ask the questions as to whether the long Coalition-inspired decline is not only over but is being reversed, and if so, how far it will go.
The first thing to note is that to the extent that there is a recovery, it’s extremely patchy. The Lib Dems did indeed make a gain this week (in a ward so small as to be virtually town-council sized: only 553 votes were cast in total), but they also only contested two of the other six, and received just 4.1% and 4.5% in the two that they did.
That’s mirrored in the polls. The Lib Dems remain stuck well behind UKIP in fourth place and if there has been an uptick since the referendum or even before, it’s as yet difficult to distinguish from Margin of Error noise given the fewer polls commissioned these days.
But then as the local by-elections show, national shares don’t really count for all that much if you can get the ground game right in localised hotspots. After all, despite the cataclysmic result in 2015, the Lib Dems still returned seven more MPs than UKIP and will have battered but serviceable local organisations in most of the seats they lost.
What of the boundary review though? Will not that completely undermine a strategy based on local redoubts if each redoubt is likely to be rent asunder by the Boundary Review and mingled with other seats where the Lib Dems have been reduced to deposit-losing irrelevance? (And remember – the Lib Dems lost deposits in more than half the seats in 2015). All else being equal, yes, it would.
However, all else is not at all equal. Labour is marching off left while engaged in civil war, UKIP has achieved its primary function and is also beset by internal difficulties and the Greens seem disinclined to make a bid for the mainstream. Politics abhors a vacuum and a vacuum is exactly what has opened up on the left-of-centre. The obvious question is who will fill it?
The answer in Scotland is obvious: the SNP are likely to continue to reign supreme for as long as they can avoid serious blame at Holyrood and present themselves as the best alternative to the Conservatives. In England and Wales, it’s a different matter and there, a huge amount turns on the Labour leadership election.
If Jeremy Corbyn wins again – and the signs point in that direction – Labour will be left in an awful position. The No Confidence vote cannot credibly be undone and even if more MPs do take the cover of a second mandate to follow Sarah Champion’s lead, the reasons why they all left in the first place have not gone away. Something will have to give and if it’s not the leader, secure after re-election, it must inevitably be the MPs: they must either submit or depart.
If all this sounds very reminiscent of the 1980s, it is, or nearly. Perhaps tempered by that experience, the split that might otherwise have taken place by now hasn’t yet occurred. Even so, all the reasons that prompted the Labour right to leave then are in place now, with the addition that they’ve lost key union backing too. But if the 1981 deputy leader contest showed the party’s mainstream that their cause was recoverable, the equivalent this time – the current leadership election – is likely to go the other way.
Does this inevitably mean SDP2 and Alliance 2.0? No, but it would make tremendous sense for a party without support or MPs to link up with a load of MPs and voters without a party and which occupies a similar spot in the spectrum. In fact, if the Lib Dems are recovering ground, it should strengthen their hand and increase confidence about co-operation, a pact or even outright mass defections.
This is to get some way ahead of ourselves. Corbyn hasn’t yet won. All the same, we’re now in a period of more turbulence than at any time since before 1945, and from near-extinction at national level last year, the one-time ‘third force’ in British politics might soon find itself thinking more about second than fourth.