Talking to Labour MP these days is a pretty miserable business, to the extent that many journalists are starting to wonder if they should charge by the hour for counselling. Among their many moans is that there no longer seems to be a centre-left, pro-European force in British politics any more. But when I try to cheer them up by pointing out that the Lib Dems surely fulfil that description, those miserable MPs shrug their shoulders. None are considering defecting to Tim Farron’s party. While many moderate Labour MPs are asked the whole time why they don’t ‘f*** off and join the Tories’, no-one makes the same suggestion about their suitability for joining the Lib Dems.
Why is this? I discussed this – and the general changing political landscape – in my Radio 4 programme, Party Futures, last night with former Lib Dem adviser Miranda Green, Times columnist Tim Montgomerie, Professor Tim Bale, Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge and former Labour pollster James Morris. One of the conclusions that they reached was that the party had not elected the right leader for the political climate: that Tim Farron might have worked better had Labour not then lurched dramatically to the left under Corbyn.
There is also a personal element here: a few years ago I mentioned in a column that a number of North West MPs try to avoid Tim Farron on the trains that they all end up catching from their constituencies to Westminster and back. He is often jeered at by MPs in the Commons when he rises to ask a question of the Prime Minister on a Wednesday (when the Speaker permits him, as he has no formal rights now that his party is so small). Farron seems to rub a number of MPs up the wrong way, despite being popular as a cheeky chappie in his party and despite being one of those very tenacious local Lib Dem MPs.
And finally, the animosity between Labour and the Lib Dems at a local level, after years of dirty by-elections and council fights, means that it is just more difficult for Labourites to imagine co-operating with a party they often take great pleasure in despising.
This is a challenge for the Lib Dems, who are struggling to get attention as it is now that they have so few MPs. There is no tension about whether a defection is imminent, as there was for months when Ukip was threatening to take – and then succeeded in doing so – MPs from the Tory party. They are pitching themselves as the Remain party for all those horrified by the referendum result, but they need to work out how to get a hearing with that message.