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:
- Wirral South (1997) – change in Lib Dem vote: -3.0%
- South East Staffordshire (1996) – change in Lib Dem vote: -4.9%
- Dudley West (1994) change in Lib Dem vote: -2.8%
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.