Coffee House

The Lib Dems’ future may not be so bleak

23 November 2012

11:51 AM

23 November 2012

11:51 AM

At last week’s Corby by-election, the Liberal Democrat candidate requested two recounts. Once a formidable by-election machine, the Lib Dems were reduced to searching in vain for the 14 extra votes they required to get 5% of the vote, and so get their £500 deposit refunded.

In 1935, a famous book described The Strange Death of Liberal England, a theme that has regularly been returned to in the intervening 77 years. In 1951 the Lib Dems’ predecessor, the Liberal Party, won six seats on 2.5 per cent of the national vote; in 1989, a year after the merger between the Liberal and Social Democratic parties, the Lib Dems polled 6 per cent in the European elections, 9 per cent below the Green Party. The party’s current poll rating, consistently around 10 per cent, appears less grim in this context.

Most focus on the Lib Dems’ 2015 electoral prospects is upon the degree to which they can extract more tangible policy ‘wins’ from the coalition, such as on a mansion tax. Party strategists will also be intrigued by polls that have consistently shown the party gaining several percentage points in the polls were Vince Cable their leader. Lib Dems have been ruthless with leaders, like Charles Kennedy and Sir Ming Campbell, in the recent past, and their self-preservation instincts could lead to Cable – even though he turns 72 in 2015 – replacing Nick Clegg.


But ultimately the fate of the 57 Lib Dem MPs will be decided by local issues almost as much as grand national narratives. Indeed, the Lib Dems are reportedly planning to treat the 2015 campaign as ‘75 by-elections’, focusing all party resources on these most winnable seats.  Such a limited strategy makes perfect sense, and ensures the mistakes of the 2010 election campaign will not be repeated. ‘Cleggmania’ led to Lib Dem talk of succeeding in 100 seats, leading to the neglect of the party’s existing seats. For instance, in Oxford resources were moved away from Oxford West and Abingdon to the target seat of Oxford East. While the Lib Dems won 6,000 more votes than any other party in the two seats combined, they lost Oxford West and Abingdon by 176 votes and also failed to pick up Oxford East. In the aftermath of a campaign that saw the Lib Dems lose five seats even as they gained almost a million votes, it was easy for them to lament the electoral system. But their somewhat hubristic campaigning strategy shouldn’t be neglected.

Turning to 2015, the broad circumstances the Lib Dems face in their 57 current constituencies may provide comfort. Of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010, left-leaning voters are particularly likely to have since deserted the party. While Labour will expect to pick up many votes from such voters, they are second in only 17 current Lib Dem seats.

Instead, Lib Dems’ main electoral challenge in 2015 will come from the Conservatives; of the Tories’ 40 target seats, 20 are currently held by Lib Dems. But Lib Dem MPs should be more comfortable defending themselves from the Tories than Labour. In right-leaning constituencies in the South of England, Lib Dem MPs can claim they have broadly cooperated with the Conservatives while reining in the perceived nastier elements of the party, such as immigration policy and social conservatism. It could amount to a powerful pitch.

The rise of UKIP may also come to the Lib Dems’ electoral aid come 2015. UKIP’s appeal is primarily amongst traditional Conservative support, which will be especially true if the Conservatives do not pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership in their next manifesto. In Lib Dem-Conservative marginal seats, disaffected Conservatives supporting UKIP may allow Lib Dem MPs to retain their seats even if their own vote share falls.

Lib Dem MPs will also be able to fall back onto their traditional strengths: strongholds developed over many years, local campaigning, and above all their personal popularity and reputations. All these advantages would have been eradicated by the proposed boundary changes: come 2015, the failure of Lords reform could seem inconsequential for the Lib Dems’ future compared to the preservation of old constituency boundaries.

Even the most optimistic Lib Dems concede that the party should expect to lose a significant number of votes in 2015. But, partly thanks to the rebellious nature of Tory backbenchers, their MPs may prove surprisingly resilient.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • AnotherDaveB

    “…the perceived nastier elements of the [Conservative] party, such as immigration policy and social conservatism. ”

    Perceived as nasty by who?

    • Terentius

      Me? But then, I’m only here because it came up second on a google search for Lib Dems. Not sure Spectator readers are representative, having read some of the (nasty) comments above. I find sexism and homophobia abhorrent. I run a business, and I don’t want us on the sidelines of Europe. We need a sensible, business-like pro-European party, that will push reform, not exit, and reasonable precautions against the risks of climate change, not shale gas.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Reigning in? You can’t mean that, can you?

  • William Blakes Ghost

    In right-leaning constituencies in the South of England, Lib Dem MPs can
    claim they have broadly cooperated with the Conservatives

    Clearly Wigmore must have Liberal leanings because only they are that deranged as to believe that the rest of the country have not seen that they have behaved as if they had been kidnapped and held hostage in the Coalition against their wishes (and no signs of Stockholm syndrome either). One only has to watch the verminous Cable and Oakeshoot out on their regular weekend manouevres to know that the Libdems entered the Coalition purely to get a seat at the table and afterwards have indulged themselves in the most infantile posturing in an attempt to be all things to everyone whilst condemning what they are part of. Not only is it the worst type of politics but suggests a sort of collective schizophrenia and one must ask if the Liberal Democrat entity is in terms of its politics mentally fit to actually stand for office?

    However, all that is irrelevent because it doesn’t matter what they do the simple fact is that in signing the Coalition agreement they sealed their fate. Just look at the polls and you will see that they had lost over half their support by the time Miliband was chosen as leader and almost all of it went to Labour. Basically these were disaffected Labour supporters who having decided to return to the Labour fold ain’t going to rejoin the “Libdem traitorous collaborators” anytime soon. To Libdems are to Labour supporters what Vichy was to the resistance

    Similarly Cameron’s task is simple convince Libdems voters in right wing constituencies that the Libdems (who under Cable, Clegg is toxic and will go, will likely lurch to the left chasing Labour votes) that the Libdems never seriously either attempted to work with them or for the people (over Europe, over England Sovereignty, Over Energy, Over Immigration, Over the HRA, Over Taxation etc etc) and siphon as many of those right leaning and floating voters that have been mistaken into voting Libdem in protest as possible. It won’t be that hard as the Libdems have time and again proved to be a roadblock to progress over the last two years and parties of the centre are inherently two-faced so long as Cameron is determined to do so. What will be left if Cameron is successful is a rump of Liberals and Social Democrat rejects who likely will not out poll UKIP. In fact if Cameron does play it right (by no means likely that said) he can squeeze both the Libdem vote and the UKIP vote at the same time. Of course Cameron may lack a determination to do so but if thats the case he doesn’t deserve to lead the Tories anyway. I’m pretty sure if it was Labour who the Libdems were in Coalition with, they wouldn’t think twice about stabbing them in the back at the first opportunity if it helped their own purpose.

    How does Cameron shrink the Libdem vote even further? By playing the blame game (subtly of course it would not be cricket to betray Coalition secrets) and making sure the Libdems are the fall guys (and rightly so) for the lack of progress on the vast tranche of populist and right of centre issues that have not been addressed during this government. This is the big problem for the Libdems. Their infantile behaviour in government can be used against them and no longer can they claim to be a populist receptical for protest votes by either the left or the right to highlight their issues. Rather than a Cleggasm this time it will be a Cable’s (brewer’s) droop because they have nothing going for them. After the betrayal of the tuition fees debacle they have no credibility. The job of Labour and Conservative is to demonstrate and play up these weaknesses.and if they do the Libdems will be back where they were under Davies, Grimond and Thorpe.

    That said the Tories generally really do need to learn to stop playing by
    Queensbury rules when campaigning and get down in the gutter to fight campaigns in the same way Labour and Libdems do. If they don’t the usual lies and propaganda from the (dishonest) bar chart loving Libdems and the nasty smearing lying Lasbour party will soften the blows that the Libdems are likely to suffer.

  • TomTom

    Ah Tim, which College did you graduate from at “The Home of Lost Causes and Forsaken Beliefs” in 2012 ? Must be hard as a freelance journalist to pen the right words for the fee ! Of course the LibDems will do splendidly at the next election – remember that not all students got to vote in Sheffield Hallam in 2010, so no doubt Clegg will be sorry to become an EU Commissioner rather than bask in the glory of increased majority. The LibDems have a warm place in the nation’s consciousness in these dark days of winter – somewhere between faggots and matches – they will keep people wam as they burn

  • Olaf

    They live in liberal la la land where everyone lives in an eco house in an eco town and takes a bicycle or electric car to their eco office 2 miles down the road. Whereas the reality now is that most of us live in old cold houses since we can’t afford to take up any eco benefits but are still tapped to pay for those who can, we drive old highly taxed cars 25 miles to our cold offices because we’ve been forced to commute by rising house prices and lowered disposable incomes.

    So quite frankly the announcement that the liberal have successfully managed to heap another £150 onto my bills to pay for more useless windmills makes me wish I had another two votes to take away from them. Useless airheaded eejits.

    • Colonel Mustard

      That is funny! Sad and true but funny! They live in urban liberal la-la land and dream up these stupid ideas as they are being chauffeur driven in departmental limousines between talking shops. Westminster talking shops, EU talking shops, BBC talking shops and Common Purpose talking shops.

      Nice work if you can get it and more and more politicos on the gravy train to pay for.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Why does England need two left-wing parties who are continuously flirting with each other? Why don’t they just make their minds up and get married – or enter into a civil partnership.

    • TomTom

      Individually they will no doubt but collectively they cannot agree

    • John Guest

      They’re probably waiting for a gay or female bishop to become available to conduct the ceremony!

  • Ray Finch

    The previous support for the LibDems in Tory-LD marginals will never be repeated. Labour will use “Vote yellow, get blue” and it will work. The LDs voters are overwhelmingly either “anti-government”, students, or anti-tories. None of these will vote for them now. The difference between them now and previous lows is that they have now been in Govt and have been seen to be willing to abandon their supporters for seats in Cabinet.
    They face electoral oblivion.

  • Daniel Maris

    Their well deserved victory over Osborne on green energy policy won’t do them any harm in public perception. Osborne had best keep his mouth shut on the subject from now on.

    £7 billion for green energy each year, though it should be far more, is a respectable commitment.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      That’s sort of UKIP’s doomsday weapon, all the greenie stupidity. Coming down the stretch, if/where deemed advantageous, they’ll break out that weapon and hammer away at either the LD’s or Cameroons. Or both.

      There are many issues upon which UKIP might build and promulgate a domestic platform, linked directly to their EU-driven efforts, but the EU’s greenie nonsense is likely the most politically compelling one. It has had direct implications and costs for domestic voters, and is easily understood by all. UKIP just needs to pick up that cudgel, and do what you do with cudgels… whack the most flagrant idiots over the head, come election time, whether LD or Cameroon, or both.

      • foxoles

        UKIP policies:

        Cancel renewable subsidies and tariffs
        Stop wind power development
        Keep coal fired power stations
        Repeal 2008 Climate Change Act.
        Assess shale and build gas generation capacity and nuclear power stations.
        Stop Brussels dictating what we do.

        Ed Davey – lunatic, fanatical, eugenicist, Malthusian Armageddonist greenie.
        Nick Clegg – EU fanatic and liar. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry …’
        Nick Clegg’s wife – greenie trougher.
        Vince Cable – S of S for the Prevention of Business, fanatical property taxer
        David Laws – expenses thief.
        Simon Hughes – ‘Labour would find us very good partners’ – a cab for hire.

        Well, it *may* not be so bleak, but on the other hand it’s not looking good, is it …

        • Robert_Eve

          Spot on.

    • 2trueblue

      It will have the opposite effect. We are now going to pay more for our energy because of the LibDums and Liebore. Climate change has not been proven so we are shackling ourselves with taxes and gifts to energy companies rather than using what is available wisely. We are paupering ourselves, both now and in the future for what? A lie.

      People ought to use energy more carefully and we should not be forced by ‘greenies’ to subsidise their belief system.

    • itdoesntaddup

      If only it were only £7bn. Truth is, we’re already paying twice US prices for power and gas and more. Let’s be generous and call it just a 5p/kWh premium: on 380TWh annual consumption that is £19bn on electricity alone: more realistically, it’s twice that. There’s another 500 TWh of gas consumed by industry and homes for which we are paying at least a 30p/therm premium over US prices while we await the development of our shale gas supplies. That’s another £50bn.

  • 2trueblue

    No idea what will happen to the LibDums and a little early to call it. The next 27mths will be crucial for all of us. The media might be reshaped a bit so that the electorate might be more properly informed and might go out and vote! Getting people out to vote will be all the parties biggest problem.

    Frankly the Libdums have truely not done themselves or us any favours. They have such unrealistic ideas about how things work and Cable dined out on an impression that he had called the collapse too often before having to ‘fess us to Andrew Neil. He is a vain man and not top of the tree so can not see how he will improve their chances, or our situation.

    Cameron did not allow for the fact, and is in denial of it, that UKIP was the reason he did not get his majority. Unless he faces that it will happen again, and we will have Liebore back again.

  • HooksLaw

    ‘UKIP may also come to the Lib Dems’ electoral aid’ – such is the buffoonery of UKIPers

    • Noa

      No- such is the arrogance of the Cameroons

    • TomTom

      Well that should help them save a few deposits

  • LB

    Here’s how its going to go.

    You lied over tuition fees – bugger off.

    • DavidDP

      So did Labour. It didn’t seem to do them much harm.

      • TomTom

        ALL Parties had an agreement – just forgot to tell the Voters

  • Sweetpea

    You fail to acknowledge the extent to which the LibDems have benefits from anti-Tory tactical voting in the past. When did they make their biggest breakthrough in Westminster elections? – 1997 when they more than doubled their number of MPs. Any Labour voter who has voted LibDem in the recent past to keep a Tory out of Westminster is unlikely to do so in the future, so the Tories are likely to win at least some seats from their coalition partners because of the fall in tactical voting.

    • dalai guevara

      ‘tactical voting’ will never fall – the headlines all over Britain proclaiming ‘vote UKIP, get Labour’ today expose these tactics again for what they are: a massive distortion of democracy – in a two party state, the majority NEVER gets what they voted for. This is a simple and hard fact.

  • anyfool

    Supposition and hope is a lot more than the Lib Dems deserve, they have just secured another £150 on almost every voters energy bill, that should get them 500,000 voters to replace the 2,000,000 they have lost, delusion wins the day again.

  • Justathought

    And then you woke up and had your cornflakes.

  • Vulture

    I think this is called ‘whistling in the wind…’

    • telemachus

      Pissing in the wind

      The most important phrase above is

      “In Lib Dem-Conservative marginal seats, disaffected Conservatives supporting UKIP”

      This blog clearly has an important role in promoting UKIP support

      • William Blakes Ghost

        Pissing in the wind

        There is no need for you to confirm what you have been doing ever since you started commenting on this blog. We already knew!!

    • RealTory

      I will start taking bets that, come 2015, the libtards will recover some of their lost voters who have defected to the labtards and the tories will recover some of their defectees to UKIP. British tribal politics will reassert itself and the votes will follow pretty much where we were in 2010. It’s too depressing for words.