Stuck in the middle with who?

It’s been interesting watching the reaction from some to the Liberal Democrat victory in the Richmond Park by-election. One trend I’ve noticed is people (generally from the left) pointing out that Tim Farron hasn’t said that the party would never be in a coalition with the Tories again it means that the party is clearly just a bunch of evil Tories in disguise, can never be trusted and are somehow responsible for everything bad that has ever happened.

Now, while the interpretation might be a bit extreme, the basic fact is true in that Tim Farron hasn’t ruled out coalitions with anyone. (What he has done, however, is set out that any Lib Dem participation in coalition would be based on red lines like electoral reform without a referendum, that it’s hard to see the Tories agreeing to) However, there’s a reason for this, which is best illustrated by comparing his position to Paddy Ashdown’s back in 1992.

Back then, the party was well know for its policy of equidistance between the two main parties. Paddy’s Spitting Image appearances generally revolved around the phrase ‘neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere inbetween’, and polling showed that the public were pretty much evenly split on which party we were closest to. Then, a few weeks after the 1992 election Paddy gave a speech in Chard which declared a new strategic direction for the party. The party’s task for the next Parliament would be:

to create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories; to assemble the policies capable of sustaining a different government; and to draw together the forces in Britain which will bring change and reform.

That set the party on an explicitly anti-Tory path, which passed back and forth through various levels of co-operation and co-ordination with Labour, and eventually gave the party its best electoral performance in years at the 1997 election. (I’ve written a lot more about that here)

There’s plenty of people who would like to see Tim Farron make a similar declaration, but despite being from the left of the Liberal Democrats, he’s not in the same strategic position Ashdown was. For a start, Paddy was talking after thirteen years of Tory rule, which an unexpected election victory now threatened to make eighteen. That’s considerably longer than they’ve been in power now or will be by the time of the next election. Perhaps more importantly, Labour was in a completely different position. They’d just got 37% of the vote in the election under Neil Kinnock, who was about to be replaced by the very popular John Smith. Even though they’d lost the election, they were a credible alternative Government.

The problem Farron faces is that if he explicitly positions the party as anti-Tory, the immediate question from the media becomes ‘so you want Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, do you?’ Labour in 2016 are simply not a credible alternative government in the way Labour of 1992-97 were, and the way our media frame politics as a binary choice mean Farron’s options are limited for the time being.

All that being said, Farron also has to be conscious of a much bigger opportunity than Ashdown ever had: a realignment of British politics. The referendum and its aftermath has shown up a division in our politics that could supplant the left-right cleavage as the main determinant of voter identification and electoral choice. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that there are already two parts of the UK – Northern Ireland and Scotland – where questions of identity and nationalism drive the political debate much more than economic. If the politics of England and Wales follow a similar path and Leave/Remain (or nationalist/internationalist or open/closed) becomes the main political division then which side of left/right the Liberal Democrats support becomes a moot point.

If that happens, then the important issues for the Liberal Democrats are how to organise and co-ordinate a whole new wing of politics, which is an entirely different mindset to operating a party in the centre of it. It also puts Labour into a whole new set of troubles, trying to straddle a division and hold itself together while forces within it are pulling it in vastly different directions.

Farron’s having to play coy on the ‘which side do you support?’ question right now because giving a definitive answer weakens the party’s position, but if things keep changing, it might not be him who gets asked that question in the future.