Will the Lib Dems Ever Escape the Shadow of the Coalition?

Scotland looks to be the party’s only hope.

by Ell Folan

30 August 2021

(Liberal Democrats/Flickr)

Following their disappointing result in the 2019 general election, the Liberal Democrats released a scathing report examining their failures. There were, the report said, “crucial errors made throughout 2019” with regards to strategy and targeting; while it described the election as “a high speed car crash”, an accurate characterisation given that the party was left with the same amount of seats in England as they had following their overwhelming defeat in May 2015.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, the Lib Dems had over 60 MPs, more than 4,000 councillors and nearly 30 representatives in devolved legislatures.

However, after forming a coalition with the Conservatives in May 2010, and famously reneging on their promise of free university for all, the Lib Dems lost millions of votes across the UK, experiencing their most devastating defeat since 1918. Six years on, the party remains stuck in the political wilderness.

That said, there are indications the Lib Dems may yet bounce back. The 2019 election, in which Brexit became the central battleground, saw the pro-Remain Lib Dems gain the votes of many who wanted to stay in the EU, catapulting the party to second place in many key constituencies. What’s more, the Lib Dems’ stunning win in the Chesham and Amersham by-election suggests that they can still win seats under the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system. 

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the party has managed to make gains and solidify those gains even in the face of an SNP resurgence, suggesting that local campaigning and clear targeting can still produce success for the party.

A spectacular decline. 

Before continuing, it’s worth outlining just how badly the Lib Dems performed in 2015. After five years of supporting a Conservative-led government, the party’s popular vote total shrank by 4.6m votes (-15.2pts). For context, this was a greater loss of support than the Conservatives experienced after 18 years in government in 1997 (-11.2pts) or Labour experienced after the Great Depression in 1931 (-6.5pts).

In terms of seats, the Lib Dems went from a major political party to a fringe group overnight. In 2010, they held over 50 seats – after May 2015, they held just eight. The Lib Dem collapse was universal, but their southern heartlands were hit hardest: the party lost 28 of their 30 Southern seats, as depicted in the map below.

Since the 2015 defeat, the party has effectively stood still. In June 2017, it made a net gain of four seats, but its share of the popular vote fell to its lowest since 1959. Two years later, buoyed by its anti-Brexit stance, its share of the popular vote rose to 12% (+4pts). Even so, the party still lost seats, including the seat of its leader, Jo Swinson.

In local and devolved elections, the party has also found little success: aside from an exceptional Brexit-driven surge in May 2019 (+700 seats), local election results have mostly been quite disappointing. In devolved legislatures, the Lib Dems now have fewer seats than they did in May 2015.

A Scottish revival.

Yet whilst the 2019 general election was ultimately a huge disappointment for the party, the Lib Dems have arguably emerged stronger than they have been at any point since 2010. The party’s dwindling councillor base was massively expanded, it came second in a national election for the first time since 1918, and in December 2019 it not only increased its share of the popular vote but also expanded the map of potential Lib Dem wins.

The map below shows constituencies where the Lib Dems finished second in 2019 and were within 10pts of winning. These are what I would categorise as ‘winnable’ seats. Following the 2017 election, there were just eight of these seats. But after the Lib Dem vote rose in 2019, there are now 15. Gaining all of these seats would bring the Lib Dems up to 26 MPs – more seats than they had at any point between 1935 and 1997. 14 of these winnable seats are in England, and are shown below on the map (the final seat is Dunbartonshire East in Scotland):

And it is Scotland that has proven to be the backbone of a potential Lib Dem resurgence. In 2015, the Lib Dems won just a single seat in Scotland (Orkney and Shetland), losing 10 seats, mirroring their wider defeat across the UK. But whilst the party virtually stood still in England and Wales in 2017 (+1 seat), it actually advanced in Scotland, winning 4 seats (+3). This was in part thanks to the decline of the SNP, who dropped from 56 seats to 35 (-21). However, the Lib Dems held on to four seats in 2019 even as the SNP surged.

Following the 2019 election, Scottish MPs now make up over a third of the Lib Dem parliamentary party (four of 11), the most since 1992 (nine of 20). Were it for not this Scottish revival, the Lib Dems would be stuck on just eight seats, the same as the DUP.

In June 2021 the Lib Dems took another step back towards relevancy, winning the Chesham and Amersham by-election in a landslide. The result proved that, even in a much-reduced state, the Lib Dems can still win seats from the Conservatives.

There has also been a steady rise in Lib Dem polling. After polling 7-8% between March 2020 and June 2021, the party’s poll average has now risen to 10% – its highest since January 2020. Some polls have even shown the Lib Dems polling at 14% (higher than in 2019), a result that could see them win more than 20 seats for the first time in over a decade.

A difficult road ahead.

Overall, however, the Lib Dems face very difficult circumstances. Their presence in local government remains historically low, they have no MPs in five of Britain’s 11 regions and nations, and the issue of Brexit, which previously helped the party win millions of new votes, is now largely settled.

Yet as Chesham and Amersham dramatically demonstrated, there are still many voters who are prepared to back the party in UK parliamentary elections. Linked to this is the fact that the Tories’ seats in the south may prove to be less safe than they were in the past, with both Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire electing Lib Dem-led councils in May 2021. In addition, the Lib Dems now have a variety of options for expanding their parliamentary presence in the next general election.

Even so, the party could very likely have too big of a mountain to climb. The circumstances of 2019 provided a perfect opportunity for the party to achieve exceptional results: unpopular major party leaders, a nation polarised over Brexit and an electorate willing to back other parties. However, the party was unable to take advantage of these conditions and lost badly for the third election in a row.

In a way, this shouldn’t be a surprise. The 2015 defeat was so devastating, in both size and scope, that the Lib Dems may take decades to recover. History provides a guide: following the Liberals’ departure from the national government in 1933, and their subsequent decline, the party did not return to a UK Cabinet for another 77 years. The Lib Dems will need extraordinary leadership, and unprecedentedly favourable conditions, to stage a recovery within the next decade. And right now, neither of those things exist.

Ell Folan is the founder of Stats for Lefties and a columnist for Novara Media.

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