Are the Liberal Democrats really Doomed to Annihilation?

February 14, 2012

in Featured Articles, Opinion

There is always a temptation to declare things that you don’t like as doomed. Like the Liberal Democrat Party, which saw its slow and steady climb up the cursus honorum of our political system smashed last general election even as they formed a Coalition government with the Tories. Among the Lib Dems who are left, I constantly hear a refrain that the Lib Dems are being punished at every level for the actions on their national leaders, but ultimately as the electoral cycle wears on, voters will forgive them to taking a difficult decision in difficult times and realise that the Liberal Democrats are good, hard-working people who offer something from the status quo. The current poor polling is just an inevitable consequence of being a third party with little media coverage between elections. They’ll come back.

I always go for data over bluster, so lets look at all the election results the Liberal Democrats have fought since May 2010, and lets calculate what percentage of that vote changed compared to their percentage of the vote at the last election held in that area. That makes the significant drop in turnout between general and by-elections irrelevant, and judges the Lib Dems purely by the success of their campaign efforts rather than what the media was saying about them on the day a pollster called.

Date Election Result Prev. %/V %/V Change
13/1/11 Oldham and Saddleworth By-election 2nd to Lab 31.6 31.9 1
3/3/11 Barnsley By-election 6th 17.3 4.2 -76%
5/5/11 Scottish Parliament -11 MSPs 13.7 6.5 -47%
5/5/11 Welsh Assembly -1 AM 13.3 9.3 -30%
5/5/11 Local Elections -792 councillors 26 15 -42%
5/5/11 Leicester South By-election 2nd to Lab 26.9 22.5 -16%
13/6/11 Inverclyde By-election 4th 12 2.2 -82%
15/12/11 Feltham and Heston By-election 3rd 13.7 5.9 -56%
5/10-12/10 All Local By-elections -2 councillors
2011 All Local By-elections -4 councillors 16.9
Total Av. -43.5

So 43% of people, who are already aware of the Lib Dems, sufficiently so to have voted for them previously, refused to do again in the very next election. Consistently, for the last year and a half. That is not a media storm in a teacup. It’s a disaster.

Another thing little known is the financial cost of losing so many councillors. Every Lib Dem official tithes to the organisation, so the loss of 800 councillors in the last year means a loss of around £650,000. In addition, the loss of MSPs and AMs is another £70,000. Not just that year, but every year for the four years between elections. May 2011 has therefore cost the Liberal Democrats somewhere in the region of £2.9 million.

Add this to the cost of the loss of Short Money that parties in opposition get to fund themselves, which is another £1.5 million, and the Liberal Democrats are now operating on about £4.5 million less than they were before they went into coalition with the Tories. As they spend £9.6 million a year, this is a little more than catastrophic.

So, they’ve lost half their previous supporters and half their funding, where next for the Liberal Democrat Party? Well, one supporter, whilst being scathing about my alleged political naivity, claims that at the next general election, Liberal Democrat support will rise from the 9-11% range to 18%. Ok, let’s go with that. Result? UK Polling Report’s Swingometer indicates they are set to lose 60% of their MPs (they have 57 now):

If the Lib Dem share of the vote goes up to 18% as it was predicted by a Lib Dem member.

We’ve also got another local election coming up and I am told that Manchester Lib Dems are looking to lose another shed-load of councillors – I’m actually quite concerned about that as Manchester is a Tory-free zone and the Green Party is only starting to make headway in a few wards, leaving Labour to reign free and supreme across the entire city. Lib Dem analysts are resigned to the fact that they are going to lose more seats. The question is how many, and how much money are they going to lose this time?

I am really just writing this as a way of filling in my time while I wait for the Liberal Democrats’ Statement of Accounts for 2011, when we’ll be able to see whether there’s been any rise or fall in party membership since May 2010 without electoral bounce data clouding the figures, and see just how much money the Liberal Democrats really have. But based on what we have seen so far, it would seem that the Liberal Democrats really are losing, losing badly, and likely to keep losing.

But does that really mean they are doomed? Where will Liberal Democrat voters go if they can’t stomach the Tories or they hate Labour? Well, we can learn from a cautionary tale on the other side of the world. The Australian Democrats, who, at their height, held the balance of power in the Australian Senate, also went into coalition with a right wing government and passed a policy into law that that had previously campaigned. Then they also started to lose, and kept losing. Today, they poll at just over 1% and have lost all national representation. Their third party replacement? The Australian Greens.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

uglyfatbloke February 23, 2012 at 3:26 pm

I doubt that the Lib-Dems are totally finished, but I think their parameters have probably changed quite radically. In England – and perhaps Wales – I expect that they will recover over time; in fact, I expect they will not do so badly in the next GE as most people seem to think and if Ed Milliband ever becomes PM the Lib-Dems will eventually benefit from an anti-libertarian Labour government.
OTH, they really are washed-up in Scotland. Another week of campaigning back in May and they would have lost at least one more MSP and more likely two – possibly one to Labour under the ‘list’ system, but more likely both to the SNP. Having Willie Rennie as their Holyrood leader really won’t help at all.
As for the next Westminster elections….If Ming Campbell does n’t retire then they might well keep his seat and almost certainly Alistair Carmichael’s, but the rest will pretty surely go SNP unless the Nats do something incredibly stupid – and there’s litle sign of that. Labour in Scotland might make a recovery if they were to adopt a position of FFA (Full Fiscal Autonomy), a massive shift toward personal liberty and abolition of the Supreme court (which is a breach of the Treaty of Union) – but Milliband would never allow that.
If the Lib-Dems were smart they would adopt FFA now as part of a drive toward federalism and make a big push on private and personal civil liberties – ‘my home is my castle’ sort of stuff. Then they could campaign effectively to replace labour as the second party in Scotland….better to do it before Labour implodes and loses the referendum in 2014.

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sarah February 23, 2012 at 8:59 pm

I think that a snowflake will melt at the north pole before Ed Miliband becomes PM, tbh.

I think the Lib Dems have been pushed to their limit in Wales and they will, if not recover, as least maintain what remaining seats they have. I find your points about Scotland very interesting, I don’t know much about them, so I shall bear that in mind.

But I think that the membership of the Liberal Democrats has shifted dramatically, and so have their voters. If the Liberal Democrats appealed as a protest vote in general elections, what protest votes will go to them as the party of government? But if you want to vote for the government, why wouldn’t you vote Tory? I hear tell from many friends in different countries with coalition governments that the minority partner is nearly always punished at the ballot box for supporting measures they don’t agree with to get a place at the table. What student, a massive portion of the Liberal Democrat vote in several seats, is going to forget that they are paying £9000 a year because the Lib Dems lied? I’m really not convinced by this argument that people will just “forget” tuition fees, the destruction of the NHS, welfare, etc.

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richard lane March 16, 2012 at 12:50 am

Am liking the conclusion to this – Greens replacing Lib Dems! Also, think they’ll prob lose all cllrs again this May, possibly bar 1 or 2.

The Greens are determined to win in Manchester, but like all these things its a long hard slog.

If labour do shoot up to say 90% control, are there any other large cities with such an unbalanced majority?

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sarah March 17, 2012 at 11:08 am

I actually couldn’t find any, but if there are, they’ll probably be around the north somewhere. Let me know if you find any!

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gd smith May 1, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Of course the lib Dem’s are pretty much finished. History suggests they will split, leaving a rump of committed liberals.
More important than the loss of voters is the failure of their central policy of electoral reform. Without it they haven’t really got a purpose.
In any seats hostile to the conservative all Labour has to do is say “vote lib Dem get Tory”. I can definitely see The Greens picking off some seats, as well as Labour and the Conservative party.
Basically they are not even trusted by the party they are in a coalition with, let alone the Voters. It sad really.

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sarah May 2, 2012 at 1:48 am

Absolutely everything you just said. I find it utterly bizarre that Nick Clegg’s next big idea to go into the 2015 election with is Lords reform…

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