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.
|13/1/11||Oldham and Saddleworth By-election||2nd to Lab||31.6||31.9||1|
|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%|
|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||–|
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):
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.