What could a Jeremy Corbyn victory mean for the Liberal Democrats?
A reasonably-new Conservative government lurches to the right. The defeated Labour Party elects its most left-wing leader in a generation. There is a new sense of opportunity in the party as the centre-ground seems to be opening up. At conference the leader’s uplifting speech ends “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”…
That was David Steel in 1981, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and Michael Foot the leader of the Labour party. The excitement was real, but it didn’t happen. Our actual breakthrough waited until “New Labour” was electable and people were no longer frightened into voting Tory.
Pragmatism says we should wait to see who Labour elects, and what the actual effects are before getting too excited or worried. But thinking about the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn victory could help us in our journey. I’ll offer two thoughts as starters:
- We plan for the sort of resurgence that would mean we are seen as the natural alternative to the Tories. That may sound wildly optimistic: but early in a parliament might be a very good time to ask what our route to this place looks like, and it avoids turning a temporary electoral setback in May into something that bounces us out of being a serious party of government.
- We explore being radically centrist — rather than mid way between Labour and Conservative — and push that a lot further. The language of “right” and “left” is rooted in a class struggle formed in another age. I think this language is breaking down, which is one of the reasons for failing to adequately diagnose and therefore tackle growing wealth inequality. It makes sense of Labour voting with the Tories to
reduce tax credits, or traditional Labour voters I’ve encountered while canvassing who talk of people on benefits with a prejudice worthy of Victorian ideas of the “undeserving” poor. Yet the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution offers something very different: we exist “to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” Not being enslaved by poverty offers something far removed from class warfare, which feels very contemporary and full of possibility. It is also well outside the familiar Labour/Tory left/right divisions.
I am presenting these as two alternatives. Actually they work together rather well, enabling Labour’s struggles to give us the space to rethink.
Another twist is the way Liberal Democrat peers have been stepping into the breach so strong Liberal Democrat voices in parliament are wider in diversity and number than our present cohort of MPs. This means we have a strong parliamentary voice outside the simple scale from Commons Tory to Commons Labour parties. Although we argue for an elected upper house, the present compromise has the echo of something really important happening just off the Commons stage — a reminder that we are different but not gone.
There are some rich possibilities in thinking this through now, regardless of who Labour elect, as we find our way with a Labour party divided by his campaign and a Tory party divided over Europe.
By accident, Jeremy Corbyn might just help us shift the focus from “fightback” and “recovery from bruising” to “being the Liberal heart of Britain”.
* Mark Argent was the Parliamentary candidate for North West Leicestershire
This entry was posted in Op-eds .