Monday, February 19, 2024

GUEST POST The Lib Dems approach the general election in a far weaker position than in 1997

However many seats the Liberal Democrats win at the next election, the patchiness of their support and their lack of a clear 'third party' profile will remain a serious problem, argues Anselm Anon.

The results from the Wellingborough and Kingswood by-elections were no great surprise. At first glance, by-elections in this parliament look similar to those in 1992-97, with a Conservative government running out of steam, and the Labour Party widely expected to win the next  General Election, and the Lib Dems also making gains.

In 1992-97, there were 18 by-elections, with four Lib Dem gains from the Tories. In this parliament, there have been 21 by-elections so far, also with four Lib Dem gains from the Tories. (There were no Lib Dem defences in either case.)

But looking more closely at the results illustrates the extent to which the Liberal Democrats have collapsed as a national political force. Jonathan Calder’s observation from 2015 onwards that "the Liberal Democrats need more good third places" remains the case.

Let’s look at the two sets of by-election results beyond the headlines, thus excluding the Lib Dem gains and also three seats where the Lib Dems didn’t stand. These were North Down in 1995 (in Northern Ireland), Southend West in 2022 (after the murder of Sir David Amess) and, in effect, the extraordinary case of Newham North East in 1994 (which deserves a post of its own).

This leaves 12 results from 1992-97, and 15 results thus far from 2019-24.

In 1992-97, the Lib Dems were second in 4 seats, third in 7, and fourth in 1 (a Scottish seat won by the SNP). This is just what we’d expect from a healthy third party. 

In 2019-24, the Lib Dems have been third in 2 seats, fourth in 7, fifth in 2, sixth in 2, and seventh in 2. 

Out of 15 results, they have been beaten nine times by the Greens, and twice by the Yorkshire Party – both parties which share many sensibilities with us. In addition, the Lib Dems have been beaten 9 times by far-right parties, twice by far-left parties, and twice by independents.

Of the two third places, one was the City of Chester, and the other was Mid-Bedfordshire. 

In Mid-Beds, a third place of 23 per cent was gained only at the expense of an enormous effort. City of Chester was a straightforward Labour hold, with the Tories remaining in second, and Liberal Democrats in third on 8 per cent. This would have been an unremarkable Lib Dem performance in 1992-97, but was among the best in this parliament. In the remaining by-elections that we haven’t won since 2019, we secured between 1 per cent and 4.1 per cent.

The Lib Dems are failing to inspire liberal-minded voters, let alone more pragmatic supporters, outside a few areas of existing strength. (John Curtice demonstrates this in relation to national polling, rather than by-elections.) It is becoming much harder to present the Liberal Democrats as the junior anti-Tory party, in a more crowded political marketplace. (This was never appealing ideologically, but has had electoral benefits.)

However many seats the Liberal Democrats win at the next General Election, the lack of a national network and a clear ‘third party’ profile will remain a very serious problem. It will be very difficult to grow in the future, especially against Labour incumbents, or in areas where the Greens (and potentially others) have developed a profile. 

Even the most optimistic aspirations for the General Election will not take the party back to 1997 in political terms. The challenge of moving on is cultural and intellectual, rather than narrowly electoral.

Anselm Anon has been a member of the Liberal Democrats since the 1990s.


Phil Wainewright said...

While the party can argue it didn't campaign in these elections and that FPTP distorts these results, there is a valid concern here. The lack of third-party profile also means less media attention compared to 1997 and even more so 2010. The notion of the LibDems leader taking part in 3-way televised debates with Lab and Cons leaders as happened in 2010 is out of the question now.

At least the next election will be fought under FPTP, when 'Vote for us we're not the Tories' still works. A switch to PR would demand coming up with a positive message of what the party really stands for, and so far it fails that test. (I have an idea of what that message might be, but it's not being conveyed to the public).

Anonymous said...

Well, that's a "strong agree" from me.

In my opinion, Anselm's point is underlined by the lack of national effort being put in in Rochdale. What we have there is a Labour seat where the Labour Party are unable to put up a fight. So, what have the Lib Dems done? absolutely nothing. I expect that the local team are doing what they can (bolstering the wards they hold, perhaps doing a bit of work in a promising ward, and maybe getting a few more members) but anything they do is despite the efforts of the national party, not because of them. Why haven't I got an e-mail asking me to go and help? I am just as far away from there as I am from Mid Bedfordshire, and in that case I had Peers of the Realm phoning me up and begging for help.

I know that by elections are expensive, and even now it probably isn't winnable. Sure, there's no point in blowing £100,000 in a valiant effort to save the £500 deposit. but we should be putting some effort in and shouting our case from the rooftops, especially in the absence of a mainstream Labour candidate. Getting the Labour establishment to hint that a vote for the Lib Dems on 29th Feb might not be a totally reprehensible thing to do might generate some benefits at the General Election - for us and for them. If tactical voting is going to work for us, we need to have a precedent for Labour voters turning to us for a good reason - all those semi-target seats of ours in the South, where we have 30% of the vote or thereabouts, won't come to anything otherwise.

Every parliamentary by election should be fought with, as the barest minimum, the ambition to save our deposit. In Rochdale, the goal should be even higher. What am I paying my subscriptions for if the national party isn't up to the fight?

Paul Barker said...

This strikes me as a statement of the obvious - would anyone disagree ?
Its only 9 Years since the end of The Coalition & we are still in recovery. You might call it a case of "Long Coalition".
After The Election I expect us to have between 30 & 40 MPs & to regain "Official" Third Place.Most Voters will be surprised by that & I expect our Polling average to rise. We will have a louder Voice & more Voters will be willing to listen to it.
That will not mean less work Or a chance to avoid difficult choices, the opposite in fact.

Peter Scales said...

In North Shropshire, Helen Morgan won the seat after Owen Patterson resigned, breaking a century-long Conservative monopoly. It's entirely possible she managed this by "letter-bombing" the local residents (I am one) with campaign publicity. I was personally fed up with the current Government but would not have voted Labour if my life depended on it. Helen's candidature was a great opportunity to make my views known. We are five voters in my household, and four of us voted for Helen. My eldest daughter didn't because she was put off by the sheer volume of paper put through our door. Goes to show you can't win 'em all, I guess.

Anselm Anon said...

Thanks for these comments. Very good points about the leaders' debates, and about Rochdale. (I wonder if there is any Labour-held seat we might really hope to win in a by-election? Sheffield Hallam?) I do hope Helen Morgan retains her seat, she certainly deserves to. But the party has been hollowed out in much of the country. I hope and expect we will have more seats after the General Election, but that shouldn't disguise how weak we are across most of the country.

David Raw said...

As a Yorkshireman now living in Scotland, I sometimes wonder if the current bland London suburban based group running the modern Lib Dems suffer from oxygen starvation if they ever venture much further north than Potters Bar.

Where are the modern Tony Greaves, Albert Inghams, Richard Wainwrights and Michael Winstanleys of the modern party ?

Don Micklethwaite said...

Offffftt David, I fair choked on my Cumberland sausage at the suggestion that Lib Dems in t'North need any help from that London. 'Appen yer overlooking our recent successes at council level in places like County Durham, Westmorland & Furness, Hull, Derbyshire Dales and Stockport.
While it is reyt hard to see us Libs replicating success in places like Berwick, Southport and Leeds NE at Westminster level this year we're slowly building in the most unlikely locations, such as Middlesborough. True we could do wi' more plain speaking Northerners in the party, but can you see owt that's inspiring in Tories & Labour?