With reports of Jeremy Corbyn’s runaway success – don’t buy them – in the Labour leadership referendum, some have begun to speculate that the victory of the ‘veteran left-winger’ would be the best outcome for the Liberal Democrats. They argue that his election would place Labour in the unelectable wilderness of the hard left and the Lib Dems would fill the centre-left void as a reasonable, more palatable alternative – well, if Farron can stop implying homosexuals are sinners anyway.
Now, this resurgence could be a real possibility if Labour’s right decided to go all retro and break away and merge with the Liberals again, but my instinct is they wouldn’t. They would instead wait for Corbyn to tank in the polls – which he would – and then mount a coup, which should be fairly easy and bloodless seeing as Jeremy doesn’t want the job anyway. But all this is irrelevant seeing as Corbyn won’t win. The charge I want to deal with, however, is that a left-wing Labour party provides the best electoral opening for the Lib Dems. It does not.
While it may sound rational that if there is a wide divide between the two main parties, a largely centrist public will vote for the party that has the best of both without the unpalatable extremes, First Past the Post actually means the Lib Dems get squeezed sharply in such a scenario. Their decision in the 2015 to go with the ‘split-the-difference‘ approach was catastrophic. All it actually did was reinforce in voters’ minds the image that Labour really were spendthrift, socialist maniacs while the Tories were sadistic elitists who revelled in hurting the poor. This meant that anyone who leant left or right were terrified of the opposite party getting into power on such an extreme agenda and as such voted for the major party closest to their views. This was made even worse by the spectre of the SNP dragging Labour leftwards. People were too afraid to risk ‘wasting their vote’ on the Lib Dems when so much was at stake.
No, the ideal electoral space for the party is when Labour and the Tories converge on many issues. Don’t believe me? From 1983-1997 the SDP-Liberal Alliance lost 8.3% of the public vote. From 1997-2010 they gained 6.2%. The 1983 election itself was of course the exception, but this was an exceptional circumstance where Labour and Tory MPs and large numbers of councillors and members had defected to the SDP, already giving them a base, credibility and momentum. Throughout the Blair years, centrist voters were less worried about extremes getting in, and those who weren’t centrists saw the Lib Dems as the ideal protest vote, particularly after the Iraq war.
This is why the Lib Dems need either Liz Kendall to win, or Yvette Cooper to head right when elected. A Corbyn victory would throw the political scene into turmoil, and we cannot be sure what would come out of it, but be assured that the biggest threat to the party is Andy Burnham triumphing. The prospect of a Labour leader who speaks roughly the same language as Ed Miliband but with more populist rhetoric and in a northern accent would be anathema to the centre/liberal centre-right voters the Lib Dems need to pick up in the south and London, and we should expect their fortunes to fall even further in favour of the Conservatives.