Last week saw an unprecedented wipe out of one of the main 3 political parties in the UK, the Liberal Democrats. Anyone who has been on twitter or Facebook over the week since will have seen the popular hashtag #LibDemFightback and your bound to have noticed the posts pertaining to the amount of new members they’ve gained since the election. A decent amount, around 11000 last I saw, but still less than half the new members Labour have gained and still a fraction of the overall members Labour have and less too than the Greens. So what next for the Lib Dems? Will they come swinging back at the next election, or will they continue to be a minor party with a single figure number of MPs?
What went wrong?
A lot has been said about this, but I think to fully understand it you need to look at what had previously gone right.
The Liberal Democrats are quite a new party, formed from the remnants of the once great liberal party. (A party that were one of two main parties with the Conservative party. Parties that were not overly different, which showed when Churchill and others regularly crossed the floor. They suffered a massive wipe out in the twenties after entering a coalition with the labour party who were on the rise trying to make things better for the working man.) And the SDP, a breakaway ftom the labour party who thought it was too left under Michael Foot. The Lib Dems built themselves up to over 60 seats in 2005, and this success was twofold.
Firstly, they had built a following of liberal Conservatives in the south and mobilised the labour tactical vote well in many areas to keep the tories out.
Secondly, in traditional Labour heartlands they appealed to disillusioned Labour voters who felt Blair had taken the party too far to the right, picked up a number of protest voters from Labour with their repeated rhetoric on the ‘illegal war in Iraq’, won the student vote with talk of tuition fees and mobilised the tactical tory vote to “keep Labour out”.
What does this have to do with their downfall
In 2010 the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservatives. One of the first things they did in that government break a pledge they’d made on raising tuition fees. These two things meant that instantly they’d lost the student vote for 2015 and the traditional Labour vote who’d voted tactically, as a protest or because they felt Labour were too far to the right were likely to go too.
When the election came strange things happened. I like in Leeds NW, predicted to be a Lib Dem / Labour marginal, even a three way marginal. Although the sitting LD MP had a 10000+ majority in 2010. The tories didn’t name their candidate until nominations were due to be handed in. They didn’t campaign and an analysis of the general election results against the local election results show masses of tory voters voted LD. A similar story was seen in Sheffield Hallam and other Lib Dem / Labour marginals.
In neighbouring Pudsey, a Conservative / Labour marginal the reverse happened. The Lib Dems didn’t campaign and a local vs general analysis showed LD tactically voting Tory.
I’m sure the Tories are quire happy with the way the deal panned out, but I’d wager the Lib Dems didn’t felt the same when the Conservative machine steamrollered them in the South as the Labour tactical vote deserted them.
So can they recover?
I think it will be tough for them to recover in the traditional Labour areas. A lot will depend on the new Labour leader and the direction that party takes, but it is currently difficult to imagine a recovery there, or in Scotland.
In the south, however, they maybe able to make some ground. There’s no doubt that they reined Cameron back during the coalition, and I think when the tactical voters see the true face of Cameronist Conservatism they may find it in them to vote LD again to keep the Tories out. I think the LDs should have focused more on this in the campaign, their southern wipe out may not have happened. I feel it wasn’t shouted as much as it should have been due to the need to appeal to Tory voters in seats like Leeds NW and Sheffield Hallam.
A lot will rest on their own new leader. They need to distance themselves from the worst of coalition, and celebrate the successes they had in stopping Cameron. I’d assume that Tim Fallon is the candidate to do this. I think that their rebuilding process will be long, and that it won’t happen in the Labour heartland, so they should focus their efforts on regaining the Labour tactical vote and “Keeping the tories out”.