It was a long time ago, and what seems like an alien reality, but there was once a time when the Liberal Democrats had as many as 62 MPs. The savage decline that followed their time in coalition has thrown British politics off balance, and made Conservative victories at elections far more likely.
Rewind to 2005, and we find an electoral map that looks very different to anything in recent memory. The Lib-Dems enjoyed strong heartlands in the peripheral regions of the country: Scotland, mid-Wales and Cornwall, with a few seats in the South and East. Not only that, but their opposition to the Iraq War paid dividends, resulting in a 5% overall swing towards them.
Credit: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=824866
Five years later, they overcame the loss of five seats to make it into government, forming a coalition with the Conservatives. But therein lay the roots of their downfall.
Having promised to oppose student tuition fees, the Lib-Dems tripled them instead. Despite opposition to the Iraq War being one of their most high-profile policy platforms in the years prior to the 2010 election, they signed on to the bombing of Libya, and helped create a malfunctioning state on the shores of the Mediterranean in the process. The result, when voters trudged their way to the ballot box in 2015, was a wipeout.
The results, when they came in, were crushing for the party. 49 seats lost. The Conservatives drove them from their traditional bases of support in the West Country and Wales. The SNP’s surge to dominance in Scotland left the Lib-Dems bereft in that quarter as well. Since then, they have by and large failed to make a comeback. They gained a few seats in 2017, only for Jo Swinson (the leader who advocated revoking article 50) to lose her seat to the SNP in 2019. This was unfortunate, not just for the Liberal Democrats, but for anyone who cares about liberal or progressive politics.
For anyone besides the Conservatives to win elections, there has long been a requirement for someone to split voters off from their electoral coalition. As you would expect, it is somewhat difficult for many Conservative-minded voters to cross their x for a Labour candidate, and likewise for liberal-minded voters to make the reverse trip (arguably much harder, in fact). Enter the Liberal Democrats.
That this process has worked is demonstrated by previous elections. When Labour’s vote share and number of seats fell in 2005, it was the Liberal Democrats who gained the most votes. When Labour won in 1997, the Liberal Democrats increased their seats by 26, taking Major’s Tories down at the knees – 19 of these victories ousted Conservative incumbents. This, in combination with tying up 16% of votes, and acting as ‘area denial‘ in the political landscape, hurt Conservative chances, and allowed Labour to storm to power.
That no longer happens, obviously. For all the beauty of this electoral calculus, it has become largely irrelevant as a result of tuition fees and Brexit. Or to put it another way: David Cameron and Nick Clegg, between them, broke politics.
Cameron, in particular, deserves the plaudits for this act of vandalism. A referendum to try and resolve the divisions in the Tory party (Ha! Ha! Ha!) instead let a swathe of political basket cases out of the basket.
Brexit has regardless unleashed a nativist and reactionary brand of politics. Demands for ‘our laws’, ‘our values‘ and ‘our country’ to be protected from ‘the left‘, ‘the woke’, ‘illegals‘ or whichever ‘other‘ is convenient are now regular features of our media and political discourse. These narratives poll particularly strongly in the deindustrialised North and Southwest, as demonstrated in 2016 and 2019, the latter fact making the pro-EU position of the Lib-Dems particularly precarious.
In Scotland, the other traditional Liberal Democrat stronghold, attitudes towards the union are hardening as voters increasingly perceive Westminster (with significant justification) as an ‘other‘ that neither respects nor cares about them. This creates parlous conditions for the Lib Dems. For a party that prizes a certain idea of openness and moderation, an atmosphere of suspicion and grievance is far from helpful. Appeals to the centre-ground tend not to appeal when battle lines are being drawn.
So, what next for the Liberal Democrats? Well, it appears they will struggle. Indeed, it is possible they may never fully recover from the past 10 years. But if they don’t, the question of how to oust Boris Johnson becomes substantially harder for Labour.