As perversions go, talking about the LibDems now is up there with porking dead pigs. I guess that makes me a filthy deviant. But Tim Farron, the man tasked with leading the LibDems out of the Parliamentary phone box, doesn't half talk some risible nonsense. His party are the "comeback kids" - a name that doesn't really suit until, you know, you've made a comeback. Along with Uncle Vince - remember him? - he reckons an avalanche of Labour MPs will swell the Parliamentary Party as they get fed up with Labour's "unelectable" new leader. Alas, they haven't factored in how any Labour MP crossing the floor to the yellow team had better familiarise themselves with Universal Jobmatch. Still, because Tim has allegedly received phone calls from chummy Labour MPs moaning about Jeremy's election, defections are definitely imminent. He would never fib about such a thing. Speaking of swapping party labels, it's perhaps inopportune of me to mention this defection and rumours of Nick Clegg's departure as well.
The pickle for the LibDems is defining what they are for. Before 2010 they were the nice left but not-too-left party that went litter picking and made an urban legend of dodgy graphs. After 2010, they were the Tories' meat shield prepared to go along with some truly repugnant policies. Their only saving grace, as we've found out since, is they stopped the Tories from being even worse. But now, where do they sit? In his first leader's address - effectively a pre-speech - to conference at the weekend, Farron put it thus:
So let me be crystal clear what the Liberal Democrats are for:Stirring.
We are the party that sees the best in people not the worst.
We are the party that believes that the role of Government is to help us to be the best that we can be, no matter who we are or what our background…..
That’s it. That’s our mission.
He went on:
We trust people.And what about gruel for the activists, the hope of what might be?
That’s why we stand up for the individual against the state.
Why we stand up for the minority against the majority.
Why we stand up for the outsider against the establishment.
Because that is not just what we do, it is who we are!
You know, the Dutch. They are so liberal, they’ve got two liberal parties. The one that’s most like us, D66, were the smaller party in a coalition and then in 2006 got stuffed – 2% and 3 MPs, they came 9th! But last year, they topped the polls in the European elections.There's official optimism and there's outright delusion.
So revival is in our grasp. Have hope. Have courage. Have belief.
A canny Russian once observed that politics are concentrated economics, and the tale of the LibDems is the story of what has afflicted establishment politics generally. For years Westminster politics has grown distant from the constituencies that gave them form and content. We've had so-called post-democracy where the neoliberalisation of the state entailed a political consensus around marketisation and authoritarianism to the point where elections appeared as so much competition between career minded elites who differed over little. Exacerbating this, when the financial crisis hit in 2008 official politics in Britain underwent liquefaction. The inchoate anger and fear of the threat of depression combined with years of low level antipathy and found expression in the MPs expenses scandal outcry. Support for Labour collapsed and the LibDems rode that wave into the ministries, until they too were broken by their dishonest backtracking on tuition fees. They went down, and up came UKIP. And the SNP. And the Greens. And now Jeremy. Under the impact of the crisis, the position of the LibDems in wider society has melted, to all intents and purposes. UKIP are an outcome of a decomposition and fragmentation of the right. Labour's surge may be symptomatic of a recomposition of the labour movement, albeit one that's coming through the party as opposed to the unions and associations that make up its base. And the Tories, despite their UKIP difficulties, are well-placed to win on the basis of the anxiety and insecurity they're stirring up.
The elbow room for the LibDems is tightly circumscribed. Herculean voluntarism can only get themselves so far, because there are so few options. They might think a left turn by Labour leaves an opening, but of necessity Jeremy's management of the PLP means the party is stretching its presence across the political spectrum as opposed to upping sticks and camping out in the lefty backwoods. The second problem for the LibDems is they have a long penance to serve. They can pose as left liberals if they wish, but few are going to believe them. They talked left and governed from the right with the Tories. Whatever will stop them from doing so again? And the final problem is Tim Farron himself. Inexplicably, quite a few people in politics like him. I suppose it says something about them. Tim is not only bland and uninspiring, he presents as deeply insincere too. He might not be a Tory with an EU fetish, which Nick essentially was and is, but oozes the same smarm alright.
Tomorrow, as Tim takes to the stage for his leader's keynote we're going to hear all these things over again. Even the mini-revival in local by-election fortunes (the LibDems have outperformed UKIP three months running) might get a reference. Most of it will be hyperbole and hot air, but because voluntarism and grim desperation is all they've got, don't be shocked if the next Focus leaflet through your door is more noxious than their previous efforts.