Life after the coalition

It's the party conference season - the political anorak's favourite time of the year.  This year's conferences have the potential to be more significant than usual as the aftershocks from this summer's political earthquakes continue to reshape the political landscape.


First up were the Greens and UKIP.  Both parties unveiled new leaders; the Greens recycled Caroline Lucas on a job share ticket with Jonathan Bartley - no me neither - whilst UKIP, who to badly mangle Dean Acheson's beautiful quote, won the war but is now struggling to find its role, chose Diane James as its new leader.

She's got a tough job to continue the party's transformation from a single issue pressure group to a credible political party.  If the current government drops the 'Brexit ball' then UKIP may find its second wind, otherwise it is difficult to see how they might prosper in a post Brexit world at a local government or parliamentary level.

Then it was the turn of the Liberal Democrats.  Showing a remarkable resilience for a party that really didn't enjoy coalition government and then got severely punished by the electorate; not only losing 49 of its 57 MPs in 2015 but a huge swathe of its local government councillor base since 2010.

Watching parts of the conference on The Parliamentary Channel (the sign of a true political geek), I was struck by the low levels of attendance for most of the proceedings I managed to catch.  The Party Leader's speech was an exception and a revelation.

The emphasis on positioning the Liberal Democrats as the 'Heirs to Blair' and as champions of issues such as free trade took me a little by surprise, but I thought his speech as a whole was very good.  Farron has that rare gift of being able to make a connection from the TV screen and his emphasis on issues such as the refugee crisis and the NHS will resonate with his target audience as well as the population at large and will, I think, give the party some space in which to thrive again. 

The response in the national media has been pretty negative, not only about his speech but the conference as a whole.  I think they're misreading the runes and underestimating the Lib Dems' potential to bounce back.

First regarded as far too left-leaning to succeed in an increasingly squashed left of centre field, Farron has shown an agility that should translate into electoral gains in the coming years.  Earlier this year the Liberal Democrats made a net gain of 45 seats in the local government elections.  Next year represents a bigger opportunity for them with 1800 county council seats up for grabs.

Earlier this week at conference, Paddy Ashdown asked if it would take until 2080 before the Liberal Democrats regain the position they were in in 2010.  After watching their conference, I think the answer might be much sooner and if Labour continues on its death wish I wonder if we are also witnessing a realignment of the political tectonic plates.

This article was written by Frank Browne a former leader of Wokingham Borough Council and a member of our non-Executive board.