"Now is an excellent time for the party to rediscover its passion for serious, brave and original ideas"by Peter Kellner / June 13, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: The centre is running out of time
After their post-election gap year, should we be paying a little more attention to the Liberal Democrats? Little noticed by the media, which concentrated on London, Scotland and Wales, and the better-than-expected Labour performance, the Lib Dems had reason for satisfaction—making a net gain of 48 seats and shoring up support in most of their local council strongholds. Is there a case for saying that they are laying local foundations for a national recovery—not immediately but, say, in the 2020s?
I doubt it. Here’s why. In September 2012, I wrote Prospect’s cover story about the Lib Dems. Its headline was: “Extinction: end of the third party?” I predicted that the party would end up at the next election “at least 20 seats down.” I was technically right though, like most people, I was surprised that they lost more than twice that number.
However, my fundamental analysis held up. The 24 per cent won by the party in 2010 comprised three roughly equal groups: protest voters; anti-Conservatives who for tactical or other reasons (for example: Iraq; student fees; ideology) didn’t vote Labour; and genuine, positive Liberal Democrats. Soon after the 2010 election they lost the first two groups and never won them back.
What now? The figures are bleak. They not only lost 48 seats last year, they lost them heavily. In 33 of them they now have to overcome a majority of more than 10 per cent. The coming boundary changes will make their task harder. So will the fact that few of the former MPs who lost their seats last year are likely to fight them again in 2020; so any residual personal vote will be lost.
Long-term optimists could hope to repeat what happened in the 1980s and 90s: building up strength through council elections, harvesting the protest vote in parliamentary by-elections, and pouncing when one or both of the big parties become unpopular.
I doubt that will work; at least not for a decade or so. Ukip and the Greens are taking more of the protest vote, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is plainly regaining the votes of left-wingers who despaired of Tony Blair and New Labour. (The fact that Corbyn is likely to lose more votes from the centre in 2020 than he gains from the Left is another story.) Following the years of coalition with the Tories, the Liberal Democrats are reduced to their core support of voters who genuinely believe in their particular brand of progressive politics and positively identify with the party—and there have never been very many of them.
Perhaps the biggest failure of the Ashdown / Kennedy / Campbell / Clegg years is that these four politicians failed to convert a large fund of general anti-establishment goodwill into a permanent devotion to the specific cause of liberal democracy. In conventional terms, then, the Lib Dems have a mammoth task fighting both their own recent history and an electoral system loaded heavily against small parties. Here, though, are two reasons for optimism.
First, leaving aside personal ambition and the (perfectly honourable) desire for red boxes and ministerial cars, one of the purposes of national political activity is to influence the direction our country takes. Throughout the twentieth century, the influence of the Liberals was enormous. William Beveridge reshaped our welfare system, John Maynard Keynes rescued our economic system and a range of far-sighted Liberals did much to propel Britain into more pro-European and environmentally-sustainable directions. Much of this influence occurred when the party has just as few MPs as it has today. Now is an excellent time for the party to rediscover its passion for serious, brave and original ideas.
Second, I have never known a time when national politics has looked so unstable. The referendum campaign threatens to turn the age-old divisions about Europe within the Conservative party into a full-blown civil war, whatever the result of the vote on 23rd June. Meanwhile, Labour has a leader whom few of the party’s MPs either wanted last autumn or respect today.
Our electoral system punishes parties that split (remember what happened to Labour in the Eighties, the Liberals after the first world war and the Conservatives during the Corn Law disputes). The likelihood is that both Labour and the Tories will avoid this fate. But their ability to return to something like an even keel is by no means guaranteed. There is an outside chance of some kind of realignment. If so, the doctrines of liberal democracy could provide an attractive home for many. Perhaps Tim Farron’s most urgent task is to ensure that any revival of liberal democracy really will benefit the Liberal Democrats. His real danger is that the Lib Dem brand has become so weak that his party could end up as a spectator in any such revival, rather than an active participant.