The Party Conference season got underway with a low-key gathering of the Liberal Democrats in Brighton. Reduced to just eight MPs you would be forgiven for thinking the atmosphere at conference might have been rather gloomy, but this seems not to be the case. In chirpy Lib Dem style, the mood on the ground in Brighton was rather cheerful and even optimistic.
Since their electoral oblivion in 2015 the Liberal Democrats have had to face the same obstacles that every minor party has to face, the most significant of which is simply getting noticed. The press coverage of the Party Conference was understandably minimal, which is in keeping with the coverage the Party have received this year in general. For many, the story of the Liberal Democrats is over. The final page was election night last year when they reaped their punishment for a turbulent period in coalition. There are certainly some who consider the Lib Dems to already be firmly in the dustbin of history.
This is going to have to change and change fast if the Party is serious about filling the centrist void left by Labour. Tim Farron will bear most of the responsibility for making this happen, and his speech in Brighton certainly came across as a pitch aimed directly at moderates in the Labour Party. Farron praised Tony Blair and bemoaned the fact that “Blairite” is now considered a dirty word by so many in Labour. He discussed the EU and promised to support a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal, which is a policy that could appeal to many Pro-Europeans on the left. There are definitely some positives about Tim Farron but there are also significant drawbacks. He often comes across as very middle of the road and cautious, and he often lacks charisma in his delivery. There is arguably no ingredient more vital for the growth of a small Party than a charismatic and controversial leader – just look at UKIP. The fact that Farron is neither of these things is a real concern for the Party.
Winning a few local council by-elections has given the Party some renewed purpose but there is still a long way to go before the Lib Dems can truly become a political force again. There’s an open goal on the centre left and an opportunity for someone to seize. Farron, Corbyn, or May?