The Liberal Democrats gather in Glasgow between 14 and 18 September for their annual conference with seemingly few reasons to be cheerful. Having aspired to replace Labour as the second party of British politics in 2010, they now trail the UK Independence Party in most polls. Since the general election, the Lib Dems have lost more than 1,000 councillors and a third of their members. The party ran a deficit of £411,000 last year and is struggling to finance its campaigning activities. Along the way, Britain has been isolated in Europe, the Alternative Vote has been rejected and House of Lords reform has been abandoned.
If there is any consolation for Nick Clegg and his party, it is that they are increasingly likely to hold the balance of power again after the next general election. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are attracting sufficient support to be confident of winning a majority. If the Lib Dems continue to perform well in their heartlands, as they did in the Eastleigh by-election in February, they could yet retain many of their 57 parliamentary seats, even on a vastly reduced share of the vote (benefiting from the first-past-the-post system they have long opposed), and enable the formation of a stable coalition government.
As such, it is unsurprising that senior figures in the party are already eyeing their potential suitors. In an interview with George Eaton on page 28, Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president and the standard-bearer of the party’s left, distances himself from those coalition ministers who are dismissive of Ed Miliband (“I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want to join in with the Tories who compare him to [Neil] Kinnock”) and praises the Labour leader as a model progressive. “He is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party – from their perspective, what you’d call the ‘soft left’,” Mr Farron says. “Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open-minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well.”
Mr Farron’s admiration for Mr Miliband is not shared by the Home Office minister Jeremy Browne, a close ally of Mr Clegg, who tells Rafael Behr on page 30 that Labour is “intellectually lazy, running on empty” and suffering from “a leadership void”. He praises David Cameron for identifying “the big issue of our time” in the form of “the global race”.
With their interventions, Mr Farron and Mr Browne are offering diametrically opposed visions of their party’s future. According to the former, the Liberal Democrats should unambiguously remain a party of the centre left, committed to the restoration of the 50p rate of income tax and the eventual abolition of tuition fees and seeking common ground with Labour. In the view of the latter, the party’s best hope lies in transforming itself into a British version of the German Free Democratic Party: economically liberal, fiscally conservative and instinctively closer to the Conservatives than to Labour.
If both are intellectually respectable positions, it is Mr Farron’s that is the more politically astute. Polling by YouGov shows that 43 per cent of the remaining Lib Dem voters place themselves on the left, while just 8 per cent place themselves on the right. To avoid electoral collapse, the party needs to attract tactical votes from Labour supporters in Lib Dem-Tory marginals. Loose talk of a possible second coalition with the Conservatives risks repelling those whose priority remains to keep Mr Cameron’s party from power.
It is to those who stand in the more collectivist, social liberal tradition exemplified by Hobhouse, Beveridge, Keynes and Lloyd George that the party should look to restore support. There is room in British politics for a party that combines social democratic economics with a stronger commitment to constitutional reform, to reform of the state and to civil liberties than Labour. If the party remembers as much, it could yet challenge Mr Miliband’s claim to speak for a progressive majority.