Talk of electoral wipeout continued to hang over the Liberal Democrats as they met for their annual conference this week. In the last of our party conference blogs, Craig Johnson at Newcastle University argues that the task for the Liberal Democrats over the coming months is survival, but that all might not be as bleak as it seems for the party.
The Liberal Democrats met for their party conference this week in Glasgow. Nick Clegg’s speech was largely considered a job well done. He outlined the increasing probability of coalitions in the future, and the role of Liberal Democrats within that process. However the conference was held, as in 2013, 2012, and 2011, against a backdrop of local government losses and the prospect of a heavily reduced parliamentary party next May. Add to this the loss of all but one of the party’s MEPs in May, and there’s much to be downbeat about in the Liberal Democrats.
Both before and after the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrat placed huge importance in being a credible party of government. This is a pitch which the Liberal Democrat leadership has made both to voters and to their own members and activists. However, previous evidence suggests that this was never going to be a successful strategy, and so it has proved thus far.
Opinion polls suggest that the party is struggling to maintain a third of its 2010 poll share, and much of their local base, built up over a long period of time, has fallen apart in just four years. Since 2010, the party has lost over 1000 councillors, lost seats in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly, and lost nine deposits in by-elections to Westminster. It’s an awful record.
The Liberal Democrats polled 23% in May 2010. They will not poll 23% in May 2015. They will not come close. If there were a general election tomorrow, they would probably finish fourth behind UKIP, and that might still happen next year. However, it is not national vote share that Liberal Democrats should be worried about.
It’s the electoral geography, stupid
Had the Liberal Democrats polled 23% under a proportional system, they would have won over 140 seats in 2010. However, under first past the post, they won just 57. The Westminster electoral system should not be viewed as one big election, but more like 650 little elections. The task for the Liberal Democrats is to win as many of these little elections as possible. Even with a heavily reduced vote share, it’s still possible for the party to win some of them.
Many of the little elections can be forgotten about. In some areas, Liberal Democrat support has gone. A lot of it will probably vote Labour next year, some will vote for the Greens, UKIP or SNP in Scotland, and some will not vote at all. In the long term, the Liberal Democrats will hope to regain some of this support, but it will be very difficult.
However, the focus has to be on the little elections that remain winnable. A good starting point is the 57 seats that the Liberal Democrats won in 2010. In most cases, this is where the Liberal Democrats have built a base in the local community, and won local council seats before going on to win the Westminster seats. It has been argued that the ‘incumbency advantage’ is strong for all parties, but especially so for the Liberal Democrats. Along with a few other selected seats where the party has concentrated support, it is these seats that will matter for the Liberal Democrats in 2015.
How are they faring in these seats? Certainly better than the rest of the country. This is not to say it is universally great news. Polling by Michael Ashcroft has found that the Liberal Democrats would lose some of those seats next year, but not as many as a national swing might suggest. In many cases, whilst voters seem to be suggesting that they would not support the Liberal Democrats in a national vote, they still want to support their local Liberal Democrat MP.
As well as local support, local party organisation is also important in order to deliver strong election campaigns. Research into key local Liberal Democrat parties supports these findings. Where the Liberal Democrats already have MPs, their organisational base appears to be holding up reasonably well. However, there are regional differences, and it will vary from seat to seat. Their electoral survival next year depends on their ability to get out their vote in these key seats. Given that the Conservatives are in second place to the Liberal Democrats in 37 of their incumbent seats, it is perhaps not surprising that the Conservatives have been at the heart of Liberal Democrat attacks this week.
With just a few months to go until the next election, all parties are setting out their policies and articulating differences from the others. Inevitably, there is talk of red lines and deal breakers in potential coalition talks next year. However, it is ultimately the electoral result that will determine whether or not there is a coalition that involves the Liberal Democrats next year, and it is ultimately electoral geography that will determine that.
Craig Johnson is an ESRC-supported PhD student in Politics at Newcastle University. His PhD focuses on the potential for co-operation between the British Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.
School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University, 40–42 Great North Road, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.