What happened to the Lib Dems?

"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."

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13 years ago

Yet despite this trend, they remain the third force in UK politics, and will probably be a part of any coalition government. Clearly there’s a market for a far-left party (just showing how stupid the British really are); and the lib-dems are it.
The (small) silver lining for conservatives out of the election is that the economic proverbial is really going to hit the fan over the next year or two, and it’s not going to fall on conservatives to get the blame for spending cuts, pay cuts, tanking economy and everything else. In other words, blame will be correctly apportioned to those responsible. Still, given this result the British would rather end up in grinding poverty than elect Tories. They’ll probably try to go socialist before they bring themselves to elect conservatives.

13 years ago

It’s really quite surprising that they didn’t do better. Of course, if the UK had proportional representation, I suppose you can argue that they would have done better, but that’s a whole separate issue.

In one way (despite the horrific pact with the devil[s] facing him!), Clegg’s really rather lucky that the numbers have fallen how they have, leaving him as the kingmaker. If the Tories had managed to swing an outright majority, he would have just been the guy who started well, but ended up leading the Lib Dems to a very disappointing campaign outcome.

Funny old election outcome really. Out of the three parties, surprisingly Labour is the only party that performed better than expected.

13 years ago

Munro is correct. Despite losing seats the Lib-Dems are more powerful because of the close political balance. It’s one of those mathematically accurate but morally indefensible aspects of any voting system you care to name (personally I’m a big supporter of Australia’s system regardless of the short comings).

Clegg is/was a media darling, but traditional media don’t count for as much in today’s world; and quite frankly I’m way happy about that fact. The swing towards conservative thinking is hardly a shock with British Labour’s repeated failure to deliver quality governance to their employers:

* Steadfastly refused an EU referendum knowing perfectly well the UK public would never approve Lisbon.

* Tony Blair lied about the “dossier” and “weapons of mass destruction” and got caught in the lie and there are some voters who don’t easily forget.

* Again and again banged on the national ID card, something that no one wanted.

* Gordon Brown is fractionally less likable than tongue-kissing a cane toad.

* Labour consistently demonstrated that “nanny state” will not lead to a prosperous future for the UK (nor any other country for that matter).

There are still British people feeling bad about all the people of Iceland who were declared terrorists because some private banks screwed up and sent broke. These are the British who respect their Nato allies and the rule of law, rather than bullying the weak when it happens to be convenient.

I’ll also point out that the UKIP gained an additional 50% of votes over last election, and got something like 3% of the national vote. This vote probably would have gone to the Tories under an Australian-style system, but we can guess that these particular voters don’t really trust David Cameron to push hard on pulling out of Europe… They would prefer to protest than allow the Tories a comfortable victory. No doubt when the EU gets sufficiently unstable and unpopular, such protests will be listened to.

Geoff Robinson
13 years ago

Labour was able to win back left-wing voters from the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems problem is rather like the Australian Democrats their MPs and activists are very much on the centre-left but their electorate is much more evenly split hence their problems on immigration. if Lib Dem voters had to express a preference between Labour and Conservatives it would have been clear that Cameron was preferred to Brown by voters.
On labour’s overall record I find the LSE analysis convincing. Labour did acheive a lot.

Butterfield, Bloomfield & Bishop
Butterfield, Bloomfield & Bishop
13 years ago

A policy of getting the UK to adopt the Euro wasn’t exactly a grest idea!

Ken Parish
13 years ago

Beware of gifts bearing Greeks?

13 years ago

Yes, the Euro-friendliness couldn’t have been worse timed, could it? I wonder how much a role that played.

Also, re: Munro #1, the Lib Dems aren’t that far-left in a lot of ways. They are far closer to Tory small government than Labor! I think a Lib Dem-Tory coalition is almost the best possible outcome.