The Lib Dems’ death is being predicted once again

If you believe most of the people commenting in response to my CiF article this morning, and Bob Piper, you would think the Lib Dems were about to shuffle off this mortal coil. I seem to remember a remarkably similar bunch of people assure me of this at this point in the Parliamentary cycle every time over the last 13 years.

No-one seems to believe me when I point out that the Lib Dems always got squeezed in contested Lab-Con by-elections in the run up to 1997. So, without further ado, I thought I’d list them here and include how the Lib Dem vote went:

So, not so different then.

History is repeating in other ways as well. Clegg is being talked about as a failure in pretty much the same terms that people were writing Kennedy off in 2000 (“oh, you made a big mistake in getting rid of Paddy Ashdown – he was a brilliant leader, etc., etc.”), and Ashdown in turn in 1990.

The point is, none of this ever changes. People look at the chicken entrails, and generally the things they look at are the least useful indicators such as comparing the BBC’s annual guestimate of the local election share of the vote and by-elections, and make wacky predictions about our demise EVERY SINGLE TIME. They always struggle to see the wood for the trees.

I’m not deluding myself that the next election is going to be the sort of opportunity that 2005 was. I’m not even ruling out that we might make a net loss of seats (for the record I’m not ruling out our chances of making net gains either – in fact I’d say it is a distinct possibility). But no matter what our political rivals say, with us at between 19% and 23% there is no prospect of us even falling back to below our 1997 tally of 46 MPs. In the long run, however much people might stamp their feet, that means that three-party politics is here to stay.


  1. It seems everyone loves to attack the LibDems.

    I note Iain Dale was crowing over the LibDems coming 3rd with a reduction in the vote rather than Labour’s vote collapsing as it did.

    Its understandable that Labour supporters do it now, it detracts from their failure in Crewe.

    I suppose we just get used to it. Just like the claims of dirty tricks being trotted out all the time (without evidence – I don’t claim LibDems are always whiter than white, but if you believed critics every LibDem must be forging votes…)

  2. There is no way the ib Dems are going to die out. But I wouldn’t call what we have at the moment “three party politics”. More like two-and-a-bit. Two-and-a-half if I was being extremely generous.

  3. ThunderDragon – I agree. But if we don’t fall back in the next election then we have a real opportunity to change that.

  4. James, I think that that is just wishful thinking. It may be what you want to happen, but it’s not going to. Much Lib Dem support comes from protest votes. Hence, their vote is circular. They’ll pick up votes from disaffected Labour voters, but lose votes to a resurgent Conservative party. And then that ill switch around.

    The Lib Dems simply cannot develop beyond this. Their main claim is “we’re not them”. And that will only change with a huge electoral upset and the dissolution of either of the other main parties. Which isn’t very likely.

  5. I’m afraid that is wishful thinking on your part. I’m not suggesting that, without a total collapse of one of the other two parties (which has happened before and may yet happen again), we could get more than 150 seats or that our share of the vote could rise much above 25%. But 25% is distinctly possible and 25% of the seats in the Commons would be 161. In lieu of a decent electoral system, we could still be under-represented in the Commons and have between 100-150 MPs (2×63=126). It is a question of targeting efficiently.

  6. Well it is certainly not outlandish to say one of the other parties could collapse with the most obvious candidate for that being Labour when it is pushed back out into the wilderness of opposition. Although I am dubious about the long-term benefits of the long-stints followed by total collapse of governments to politics and the political process the one thing it does do is introduce alot of fluidity into the political process.

  7. So, James, do you think that it is right for the Lib Dems to crow about collapses in Tory voting where the Lib Dems are second in a Labour seat? I agree that there are problems with the way that people try and predict the Lib Dem vote, as extrapolating from polls tends to underestimate their local campaigning, but there are good reasons as to why you might lose seats – an unwind of tactical voting from 1997, and the fact that people who want Labour out might vote for the Conservatives to try and ensure they are in government, rather than making sure Labour aren’t.

  8. The more they spin the more the public becomes familiar with the message and immune to its effects.

    They can continue to try to pull the wool over our eyes, but it does them no good in the long run as they end up pulling the wool over their own eyes. We grow wise and get sceptical while they grow accustomed to their cynical sychophancy.

    I’ve got my money on the LibDems gaining 80-90 seats at the next general election without any huge advance in their popular vote (~20%). This continues the ironing out of inequalities under FPTP and will make a case to see LibDems as credible challengers in the future, maybe PR isn’t the panacea is has been painted after all!

  9. “James Says: I’ve got my money on the LibDems gaining 80-90 seats at the next general election without any huge advance in their popular vote (~20%).”

    Then you’re going to lose your money.

    They’re at 63 now. In reality [not some rainbow-coloured land where you live] how likely is it that they’re going to more than double in on election without increasing their popular vote by much? Not at all. If they’re very lucky, the Lib Dems might pick up quite a few seats from Labour, but they’re likely to lose a few to the Tories as well. I’d be extremely surprised if they came out with an increase in double figures.

  10. I became involved with the Liberals around 40 years ago (never got my head round the Lib Dems so now I’m a Green) and here in the North the squeeze effect when an unpopular Labour Government is in power has been particularly apparent. Hardcore Labour voters wanting to give the party ledership a kick don’t seem to undertand the concept of tactical voting.

    A very old Liberal long ago once told me, “realistically we’ve no chance, round here they’d vote for a turd if you stck a Labour rosette on it.”

    As things often turn out, when “they” want to protest they turn to a blue but only slightly less smelly object.

  11. While I agree that t’other James’ prediction is far too optimistic, ThunderDragon could do well to remember that the Conservatives managed to gain 33 MPs in 2005 with an increase of just 0.6% of the share of the vote. It is a feature of FPTP that big gains can be won with small swings.

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