Mark Field is the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster.
The prolonged battle for the Labour Party’s leadership and soul, with its sensational outcome, has occupied the limelight for most political commentators since May’s General Election. Understandably, the plight of the Liberal Democrats and their prospects of recovery since their own calamitous reckoning with the voters last spring attracted less rapt attention.
Yet the mood music from their Party Conference was unexpectedly upbeat. Tim Farron’s plucky leadership speech reflected unexpected optimism,, with over 500 new Party members in attendance. Nevertheless the short-term challenge for the new fourth party of British politics is to harness this new energy and enthusiasm before disillusionment sets in. However, it is difficult to see any clear, rapid route towards sustainable electoral revival.
In the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph, speculation abounded (encouraged by Farron himself) that several Labour MPs were contemplating defection to the Liberal Democrats. Frankly, this seems rather implausible. After all, those Blairite Labour MPs most hostile to, and refusing to serve under, Corbyn’s leadership generally have views on civil liberties, foreign policy and economics that are social democratic rather than liberal. Most have little love or respect for Farron, and the wounds of the Lib Dems’ five year collaboration in the Coalition remain too raw.
By the same token the prospects of an SDP-type breakaway from Corbyn’s Labour remain remote – the current generation will be all too aware of the electoral frustrations that the centre party foundered upon during the 1980s. Moreover, the plight of both UKIP and the Greens at the most recent General Election is a reminder of the harsh treatment that faces any fringe party under the current electoral system.
So what hope of the Liberal Democrats’ electoral revival being driven at local government level? The Party’s current tally of councillors is a little over 1800 nationwide, its lowest since 1982 and under half of its aggregate strength throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Historically, there has been a lag between achieving substantial local government representation and winning a parliamentary seat. Only in 1997 with the collapse of the national Tory vote was the party able to translate local strength into General Election gains; to a lesser extent, the decline in Labour’s urban and suburban support as a result of the Iraq War saw the Lib Dems win another breakthrough in 2005. It has been downhill ever since.
As it was, over three decades of painstakingly accumulated electoral progress was wiped out in exchange for a single five year term of coalition office.
In contrast to the elections of the 1950s and the 1970 contest, when the Liberal Party was reduced to six seats chartered in regional strongholds (Highland Scotland, rural Wales and far South West of England), the eight survivors of the 2015 tsunami sit for a ragbag of non-adjacent seats. All six of their constituencies in England were won by the Conservatives as recently as 1992, an election whose outcome so closely mirrors that of 2015.
Only one current Lib Dem seat (Orkney and Shetland) has been consistently held for more than 20 years; fully half of their current constituencies were not even won by the Party in 1997, whilst Tom Brake is their only sitting MP to have served in parliament the last century. In addition, the impact of the impending boundary changes may result in the notional loss of three or four of their current seats; presumably several of the current incumbents will also retire in 2020.
Early indications suggest that some degree of recovery at local government level may not be a fanciful possibility; nevertheless, next year’s London and Scottish elections are unlikely to be especially fruitful. So if the energy of their new recruits is to be maintained a high-profile victory or two in parliamentary by-elections will be desperately important. Naturally much here depends upon vacancies arising in seats where the Lib Dems are competitive. Meanwhile, whilst their sights may be on many of the 27 seats lost in May to the Conservatives, the importance of “double incumbency” for first-time Tory defenders in 2010 should not be forgotten. It was clearly important in 2015 as first time defenders held the line against anticipated gains.
It is evident that during the years ahead the Liberal Democrats will not be able to rely upon Labour’s woes to kick-start their own recovery; indeed, many of the Party’s defectors from the Ashdown/Kennedy era are likely to feel supremely comfortable in a Corbyn-led Labour Party. In truth, many psephological signs suggest that even the calamitous result in 2015 may not necessarily reflect the low point of the Liberal Democrats parliamentary election fortunes.