Yesterday was Day One of Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth. The weather was pleasant; always quite key in terms of setting the mood, particularly when a conference is set by the seaside.
There is an upbeat feeling in the air here now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn as their leader. But I need to sound a word of caution at this stage to those who think the space in the centre of British politics will just become the Lib Dems’ automatically. Because with eight MPs and the party no longer being in government, as we’ve seen already since May, just being heard at all by the public will be difficult. Corbyn as leader of the opposition will be put under a microscope; the Lib Dems meanwhile have no God given right to be heard. Every opportunity to connect will have to be taken.
Another thing for Lib Dems to bear in mind is the current thinking of the Labour right. Most of the people I know who could be placed in this category are currently in stay and fight mode; they talk with slight weariness yet determination of the battle against the Left at CLP level they will throw themselves into for what they imagine will be the next ten years. This is what most Lib Dems fail to get about Labour people: for most of them, being in the Labour Party is a very deeply held thing, much like a religion. You don’t become a Protestant just because you don’t like the pope, in other words. So the idea that loads of Labour folk are going to flood the Lib Dems way in the wake of Corbyn, or even that there is a real itch for an SDP Mark 2 anytime soon is to misunderstand the mood in Labour land.
Meanwhile, the argument within the Conservative Party is between whether now that Corbyn has become leader the Tories can go as far to the right as they like and it no longer matters, thus they may as well, and the idea that Labour have offered them that all too rare opportunity to claim as much of the centre ground as they care to grab, and it would be foolish not to own as much of the territory as possible. The latter viewpoint is in the ascendancy, mostly due to George Osborne’s political pragmatism – for now, at least. So the space out there for them won’t be as big as the Lib Dems hope it will be.
But more than anything though, the Lib Dems actually do have try to occupy the centre ground in question. The party has to be able to differentiate itself from Corbyn’s Labour in easy to understand and identify with terms. Any attempt to be a slightly more cerebral version of Corbyn’s Labour will fail to break through. What distinguishes the Lib Dems from both of the two major parties will have to be clear at gut level.