As I wrote yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn being the next leader of the Labour Party, barring some strange unforeseen event, can now be taken as a given. With this in mind, what effect will this have on the Liberal Democrats?
There are two distinct strains of thought on this. The first is that Labour veering to the hard-left will create political space for the Lib Dems. Jack Straw has written about the Lazarus-like effect a Corbyn leadership may well have on the party, and Progress did a handy article espousing the same line yesterday that’s worth a read. The idea is that if Labour abandons the centre ground completely, people will see the Lib Dems as the only sane alternative to the Tories.
In order for this to work out electorally for the Lib Dems, Labour would really have to implode over the next few years, in my opinion. People in places like the southwest would have to see a Corbyn premiership as a total impossibility, and the result of the election being a foregone conclusion, the only variable being just how large the Tory majority will be. If Labour are really down in the polls, like below 20%, this is possible.
But that’s where we pick up the second strain of thought, the one that says the Lib Dems have only ever done well when the Labour Party does well. That the Tory vote needs to depress in order for the Lib Dems to pick up seats, given that most feasible targets for the party are in constituencies that are Tory facing, in which Labour have no hope at all of winning. There is something to this way of thinking. Imagine the next election, Corbyn still there, and the Tories successfully able to peddle a line that Jeremy Corbyn could be prime minister and the only way to stop that is to vote Tory. If that’s saleable, I can’t see the Lib Dems doing very well (unless Labour really goes to hell, of course). So long as Corbyn getting into Number 10 seems even remotely possible, I think the Lib Dems are slightly stuffed. It’s only if, as I say, a crushing Tory majority seems on the cards for sure and people who voted Tory last time in the southwest can say, “I’ll give the Lib Dems a punt again, why not.”
Unless, as I alluded to in parenthesis above, things go very, very downhill for Labour under Corbyn and some sort of split occurs. Then, we are in a whole new political world and making any sort of predictions would be a fool’s errand.
In conclusion, I don’t know which of the two strands of thinking on this are correct. The only time Labour have tried this, a split occurred, so history isn’t great at telling us what might happen this time. I guess we’ll all have to wait and see.
Corbyn’s Labour would allow us to present liberalism as a distinct alternative to socialism, an opportunity which hasn’t really presented itself in a while (with Labour not being socialist). Not liberalism in an ‘end of history’ kind of way, but in a way that’s more specific to the Liberal Democrats.
I don’t think projections for 2020 are much use though, because I don’t think Corbyn will be around then. He’ll never be seen as a likely PM. My guess for his leadership would be: honeymoon period to crises to poll crashes to overthrown. I imagine that will happen within 2 or maybe 3 years. We’ll get drowned out in the early phase of his leadership but when it goes tits up there will be some space to make our voice heard. Whether that’s achievable with 8 MPs in another question.
Steve Peers says
You don’t define ‘doing well’. It’s possible that the LD vote would pick up in safe Labour seats, but not in Tory seats for the reasons you mention, leading to an increase in votes not seats – rather like the obvious parallel of 1983. But actually I doubt that the LD vote would pick up much, since many of the Labour voters or possible voters who would be turned off by Corbyn didn’t like the coalition much either. I would imagine that many of those voters would either stay home or vote UKIP depending on what happens with that party post-referendum. Incidentally my impression is that many LD voters went UKIP already in 2015 – have you dealt with that issue in another blog post, Nick?