After the worst results since the formation of the party in 1988 (or since 1970 if you include its predecessor), the question of what happens to the Liberal Democrats now is an interesting one. As I see it, there are two broad possibilities: a fightback which results in a return as the third largest party, or a gradual slide into complete obliteration. Realistically I think the former is more likely, especially as people will be able to compare a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition with a majority Conservative government.
Electing a new leader
The first order of business is to elect a new leader, as Nick Clegg has resigned. As candidates for the leadership must be MPs,1 and assuming Clegg is not going to stand again (highly unlikely, though Farage is considering doing this at UKIP), we are left with seven possible candidates (in alphabetical order of surname):
- Tom Brake
- Alistair Carmichael
- Tim Farron
- Norman Lamb
- Greg Mulholland
- John Pugh
- Mark Williams
Realistically, I think Tim Farron has the best chance of success, assuming he throws his hat into the ring, as he has a high profile from his previous position as party president. Norman Lamb has also been around a long time and held ministerial positions in the coalition government – I would rate him as second favourite should he choose to run against Farron. The rest seem fairly low-profile, and I don’t recognise any of their names instantly.
Rebuilding the membership base
Several news outlets have reported that thousands of people have joined the party since the election results became known. This is good news for the party, as poor results could have led to an outflow of members, and given the number of lost deposits the party will need some time to rebuild its finances. Retaining these new or returning members will be key to the party’s longer term success, as it is starting with almost a clean slate in terms of preparing a candidate list for 2020.
Reflection and rebranding?
There have been many calls for a period of reflection within the party, to take stock of what has happened and consider what the party stands for and its position within the political spectrum. This seems perfectly sensible to me – after all the next election will not be for another five years, so taking a few months to step back and have a proper think about long term goals and strategy is not going to hurt. Now is the best time to make such a move, when the pressures of time are least and there is no need to rush into any decisions.
The other suggestion which I have seen raised is a rebranding of the party, possibly even resulting in a new name. Whilst I can see the superficial attractions, I don’t think a rebrand will detoxify the Liberal Democrats in the way some supporters seem to hope. Part of the problem is that the toxic message is associated with individuals – particularly Nick Clegg – so unless they are booted out of the party the stain will remain. I also don’t think the electorate would be fooled by a change of name or logo – switching to a tree for a logo did nothing for the Conservatives. Thatcher and Blair, two of the most successful turnaround artists, made many changes to their parties but kept the name (albeit with a ‘New’ prefix in the case of Blair and Labour). Unless the new Lib Dem leader knows better, the party would do well to make more of its distinguishing policies than enter into a potentially divisive rebrand.