"Why is everyone voting Conservative?" tweeted an exasperated Holly Hawthorn, "VOTE LIB DEMS!!" But it was already too late. By the time the votes were counted the Liberal Democrats had lost thirteen seats and picked up only eight. And most of the seats they lost went to the Conservatives.
In an election that was all about Labour losing seats, the Liberal Democrats were struggling to defend their own against the Conservatives. When it came to picking up swags of Labour held seats, they weren’t in the hunt.
Before the 2005 election academics Andrew Russell and Edward Fieldhouse wrote:
In tactical terms, the Liberal Democrats have aligned themselves as an anti-conservative party in recent years, despite the fact the class profile of their supporters is similar to that of the Conservatives. The party finds itself competing with the Conservatives for the majority of its existing and target seats. However, if the Liberal Democrats are to make substantial gains in future elections they must also make in-roads in Labour held areas (p 216).
But in 2005 this changed. A poll by Ipsos MORI suggests that around one in ten of those who voted for Labour in 2001 shifted to the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems gained twelve seats from Labour with Labour gaining no seats at all from the Lib Dems. The MORI poll suggests that attitudes towards the war in Iraq were partly responsible for this shift. Disaffected Labour voters tended to favour the Lib Dem’s position on the war.
The 2005 fight against the Conservatives was less successful. The Lib Dems picked up three seats from the Conservatives but lost five.
In 2010 the Lib Dems reverted to the old pattern failing to pick up a large number of Labour seats (they gained Norwich South and Burnley). All up, the Lib Dems gained eight seats, some newly created (eg Bradford East), some Labour and some Conservative.
While they picked up eight seats, they lost thirteen. And in contrast to the gains, there was a clear pattern with the losses. Most of the seats the Lib Dems lost went to the Conservatives.
For Lib Dem supporters who saw the gains of the 2005 election as part of a long term trend, the 2010 election was a crushing disappointment — especially after some very positive opinion polling numbers. As Holly Hawthorn put it: "Seriously, all of you who said you were voting Lib Dem & then didn’t…you suck."