Sunday, 15 February 2015

The Liberal Democrats and the 2015 General Election

Timothy J. Oliver from the University of Hull discusses the Liberal Democrats and the 2015 general election.

With fewer than 100 days to go before the 2015 general election, the fortunes of Britain’s traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, seem to be fated to be stuck near an all-time low. The party has sunk to single digits in the polls, fighting for fourth place nationally with the Green Party[1]. Models designed to predict seat totals for the parties after May 7th regularly see the party losing around half of its 56 current seats[2], taking them back to seat numbers last seen in the 1992 general election, and being placed as the fourth largest party in the Commons, after the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). Their leader, Nick Clegg, is facing a hard fought battle to hold onto his own seat against Labour, going by the poll conducted in November by Lord Ashcroft[3]. All in all, the future looks dim for the Liberal Democrats.


Of course, the party has been in dark places before. In the 1950s its predecessor, the Liberal Party, was reduced at one point to just 5 MPs and in the late 1980s the party faced a crisis in the aftermath of its merger with the Social Democrats, coming a distant fourth behind the Greens in the 1989 European elections[4]. Party members bear this scar, as well as those of more recent years, where the party has taken a battering in local, devolved and European elections, as proof that they cannot be done away with. Despite all these odds, they would say, the party is still fighting hard and has achieved things in its coalition government with the Tories that will win back voters as polling day approaches.
Certainly, their approach is not entirely without reason. Lord Ashcroft’s insightful individual constituency polling has shown that, in a number of seats where the Liberal Democrats are currently expected to lose, the margin between them and the expected victor is very close – around 3%[5]. Similarly, they may well have reason to hope that the rise of UKIP and the Greens will pull away enough Conservative and Labour voters to help them hold onto, or at least remain competitive in, a number of their seats. The local election seats that will be up for contest this May are those last elected in 2011, when the Liberal Democrats had a particularly torrid time; supporters may well be hoping to recapture much of the ground lost then, especially in areas where they have since had successes.

Then there is the question of both the next Parliament, and the next leader of the party. The party’s election message so far has focused on the benefits of the Liberal Democrats being included in another coalition government, as a moderating influence on either the Conservatives or Labour. This positioning, as more economically responsible than Labour and more socially responsible than the Conservatives, has been going on for some time.
It is interesting to note that the party has not been as forthright as others in terms of ruling in or out prospective coalition partners. This willingness to adapt to what may well be a new reality of British political life could serve the party well if it learns the lessons of the last coalition formation and others do not or poorly and if voters punish what may reasonably be perceived as a lack of principled, individual values.

As for who will lead the party in any such coalition talks and then into the next Parliament, the question remains open. If Nick Clegg does keep his Parliamentary seat in May, then he may well find himself under pressure, especially from Labour, to resign as leader before any deal can be done. Clearly, a leaderless party would find it harder to secure a better deal for itself in any talks, and given that they will likely be smaller in numbers, the Liberal Democrats may well have to rely on outside factors, such as a lack of preparedness on the part of other parties, to get space to keep their leader. Of course, if Clegg loses his seat in May, then it will be interesting to see who emerges from the party’s Byzantine internal power structures with the strongest grasp on leadership. The matter is complicated by the fact that the Deputy Leader of the party in the Commons, Sir Malcolm Bruce, will be standing down at this election, and that the man most likely assumed to run for leadership after Clegg stands down, Tim Farron, has no formal position beyond being foreign affairs spokesperson after he stood down as Party President at the end of 2014. In this scenario, the party looks very vulnerable indeed and potentially at risk of being unable to secure much of anything out of a coalition deal, short of a disproportionate share of the blame for future mistakes.

Of course, with the Liberal Democrats, there is a final factor to consider. The party has been traditionally very hard to anticipate electorally; it has often won in places it was meant to be a distant challenger, and failed to win where many commentators felt it would be a sure-fire challenger. This election will be dominated by swings in individual constituencies, rather than the uniform national swings of old. In this environment, the party’s avowed election strategy of fighting individual seats hard, rather than seeking a national swing, may prove to be more productive and so secure it a less wounding defeat than some are predicting. The uncertainty of the future for the Liberal Democrats is just one of the factors that are making British politics so interesting this year. Which of these factors will dominate is anyone’s guess; what’s clear is that their performance in the campaign and in May will have significant repercussions for the next Parliament, both inside and outside their ranks.

Timothy J Oliver is a doctoral candidate and a member of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Hull examining Britain as a Great Power.



[1] May2015.com, Who is ahead in the polls?, accessed 01/02/15, http://may2015.com/category/poll-of-polls/
[2] May2015.com, Can any party win a majority?, accessed 01/02/15, http://may2015.com/category/seat-calculator/
[3] LordAshcroftpolls.com, Sheffield Hallam, accessed 01/02/15, http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2015/01/sheffield-hallam/
[4] C. Cook, A Short History of the Liberal Party: The Road Back to Power, p. 203, (Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
[5] See, for example, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Cambridge, Mid Dorset & North Poole, North Devon and Taunton Deane, Lord Ashcroftpolls.com, Constituency Polls, accessed 01/02/15, http://lordashcroftpolls.com/constituency-polls/

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