As the Lib Dems head to the Brighton seaside for the start of conference season, they will face a harsh reminder of how much the world has changed since that agonising election defeat last year. Two years ago security was high, the rooms were full of ministers, and the world's media hung on every word. Now Tim Farron and his handful of MPs will be lucky to get a headline in the Brighton & Hove Independent.
But rather like the south coast tide, the fortunes of the party tend to rise and fall. Things could soon start to look rather good again. Tim should be proud that he has stopped the post-coalition meltdown and kept the Lib Dems as a major party in British politics. The polling shows a position of stability that is way above the territory of lost deposits. It would have been all too easy to fall into a blame game, arguing about tuition fees and 'who said what' in the coalition. Or worse, they could have tried to rewrite history. Instead the whole party has come together to reflect openly and honestly about its defeat. Members recognise the good it has done, the mistakes that have been made and that now it's time to bounce back and fight back. It's a mature response to a bloody nose.
Next year's County Council elections play to the Lib Dems' strengths and offer a great opportunity to win back voters' trust. There is nothing local activists like more than a good bit of community politics, rather than the heady heights of power at Westminster. If Tim gets lucky and some poor MP is unlucky, then there could be some by-elections along the way. With a surging membership, the Lib Dems have an enormous number of enthusiastic volunteers prepared to head up and down the country to turn a good second place into a famous by-election win. When the party last faced single digits in the polls under Paddy Ashdown's early leadership, it was a string of high profile by-elections that brought the party back to life.
But what will be on most delegates minds is the slow and steady disintegration of the Labour Party, something that comes with short-term opportunity, but long term risk. If Labour splits into two, with moderates forming a new group and the left going it alone, the Lib Dems will need to decide how to respond. In the short term, as Labour pulls itself apart with legal rows over the name and arguments over who is the 'real Labour,' the Lib Dems will surely gain. But in the longer term, a new moderate Labour rebranded and without the hard left will become a big electoral asset - one that could threaten any liberal revival.
There is another option. It's a big risk, but perhaps now is the time to heal that rift that started in the 1980s with the SDP and resulted in the formation of the Lib Dems. Maybe it's time to merge with moderate Labour to form a new, powerful political movement. No one would dare utter it on the conference floor, but it will be on the minds of many as they drink away at the bars and fringes late into the night.
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