Thursday 9 February 2023


Looking at the polls, things aren't too peachy for the Liberal Democrats. Since late October, double digit figures are exceptions rather than the norm. With the Tories in a very bad place, why aren't they doing better? Consider the Ipsos archive for example. From Black Wednesday to the 1997 election, the Lib Dems dipped down to single figures just the once before winning 46 seats and five million votes. Despite some serious and famous by-election victories, if it wasn't for the odd appearance on politics TV no one would know they exist. And all this despite Ed Davey's crushing charisma. Why are they are where they are?

A couple of things. While the polls flatter Reform UK, they are doing the Lib Dems a disservice. At UKIP's peak in 2015, its four million votes were thinly spread. The Lib Dems mustered about two thirds as many, but returned eight MPs. Concentrated support kept the party on life support, and 'life support' is accurate. Apart from 2015 and 2017, you'd have to go back to 1970 to find them bumping along with the same number of votes. I'm sure trading in 40 years of work for stints as ineffective ministers in a de facto Tory government was worth it. Second, the Lib Dems do have something going for them as beneficiaries of anti-Tory tactical voting. This has become almost routine at the level of local council by-elections, and there were the North Shropshire, Chesham and Amersham, and Tiverton and Honiton by-elections: three cases in which the Tory position was totally destroyed. This was way before Liz Truss and her helpful intervention. There's no reason to believe they won't modestly benefit when the election swings round, though we're talking not many seats. The idea a return to the halcyon days of 2005-2015 are fanciful. For the moment.

But there are significant issues too. The first is Labour's success. There might not be much enthusiasm, but Labour is the obvious alternative by virtue of being the only alternative. Because Keir Starmer doesn't scare many swing voters in the way his predecessor used to, in most places pickings are slim for the Lib Dems. When voting to get the Tories out, everyone knows that a Labour vote is the best way to achieve it. As such the yellow vote is getting squeezed - repeating patterns captured by the aforementioned Ipsos polls after Tony Blair became Labour leader. The other problem is the Greens. Historically, the Lib Dems have fished from the pond of middle management and the petit bourgeoisie, particularly rural iterations of the latter. The Greens, who are similarly squeezed by Labour, have nevertheless made inroads into both, putting them into direct competition. At least on paper. The Greens taking a seat from Lib Dems in a Bristol council by-election last week was a rarity, as at local level they too have benefited from a degree of tactical voting. Still, because reasons the Greens are on an upward trajectory, and so more competition and pressure is inevitable.

What can the Lib Dems do? Returning to their 90s/00s peak remains the key aspiration, and it will likely be a slow return. That said, Jeremy Thorpe (remember him?) almost trebled the Liberal vote from two to six million between 1970 and 1974, and around that level it stayed until Calamity Clegg blew the party up. Therefore, despite not going anywhere fast the current strategy of prioritising defeating the Tories - something long counselled here as Tim Farron and then Jo Swinson disastrously targeted Labour's support - is the right one. The party is going to continue benefiting from local authority elections and, eventually, some time over the next two years a by-election will befall a safe Tory seat and the Lib Dems are pretty much guaranteed to take it. Always useful for a "Hi, we still exist!" flap of publicity. But in the longer term, should Starmer be returned with an overwhelming majority, with the Tories likely to retreat into a right wing ball and the SNP confined to Scotland, there are oppositional opportunities that the Lib Dems will be competing with the Greens to exploit. And the most obvious of these is Brexit's failure, and Starmer's softly-softly rapprochement with the EU. Effectively, the hard remainism of 2019 came five or six years too early - polling shows the electorate are growing more pro-EU with time, and the Lib Dems are best placed to capitalise on rejoiner frustrations.

The Lib Dems are therefore a bit of a spare part at the moment, adding some distraction to the Tories' coming evisceration at the hands of Labour. But it's what happens after that could reposition the Lib Dems as a viable challenger, provided they can keep the Greens at bay.

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Ken said...

Do the polls show current age demographic voting? I suspect that anyone who was around 18 years of age in 2010 will remember their U-turn over student fees. I seem to remember that they used to have one of the four Manchester MPs in the student area. Previously, they had benefited from their anti-Iraq war stance, but by 2015, they lost as a result of the question of student loans. So I wonder if those in their early 30s still retain their animus?

Old Trot said...

Ken, The non-political general public's memory for detail seems to be very short unfortunately. So in a 2024 General Election I suspect the huge number of policy betrayals, and extraordinary enthusiasm for implementing Austerity, of the Lib Dems in the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition of 2010 to 2015 will be largely forgotten . Sad, frustrating, but the more recent voting behaviour , in recent Tory seats lost to the Lib Dems suggests this will be the future pattern. In my own North Shropshire Constituency, it was Labour that had been second placed to the hugely dominant Tories for three General Elections(electing the utterly sleezy Owen Pattison year on year with vast majorities). But come his fall from grace , and those disgruntled Tory swing voters simply couldn't countenance voting Labour, even led by that Safe Pair of Establishment Hands, Starmer. I think the Lib Dems will do surprisingly well in 2024 in many Tory seats, and also many current marginal Labour seats, no doubt as usual making insincere promises to the Left of Starmer's Labour to once again cosplay as the 'real alternative' to what to most voters by now must seem a hard to distinguish everlasting austerity 'offer' by the Tories and NuLabour.

I still think NuLlabour2 will win, on a vacuous platform offering nothing, and mainly intent on continuing all the main Tory policies of endless Austerity, and privatisation. Then there will be one more , totally reactionary, riot-producing, strike-bound, Labour government I think. Then , as in France or Italy and Greece, etc, with their now defunct old social democratic parties, the electorate will reject this Nulabour failure to deliver even mildly reforming social democracy - and splinter off to new , often very unsavoury, political pastures , despite the barriers of FPTP - just as Biden's useless Presidency will usher in Far Right Trumpist populism once more. Quite why Phil gets so excited about current NuLabour electoral gains is beyond me. But then he voted for that unsavoury ATOS assessment cruelty introducer and all round Right Winger, Yvette Cooper, not Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 Leadership Election.