The Lib Dems’ demise–and what might have been

I have long been something of a fan of the Liberal Democrats (and their immediate predecessors in the Alliance). So the result of the election saddens me to an extent. While (ex-)party leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg held his seat, several of their best MPs, like Vince Cable and Simon Hughes, were dumped. This is a loss for British politics.

It is obvious that the party was punished by many of its previous voters for choosing to go into coalition with the Tories when many of their supporters would have expected them to partner with Labour if the opportunity ever came up. However, let’s put the strategic choice in context and ponder the alternatives the party’s leaders faced.

I suspect they would have fared worse from a coalition with Labour given that (1) Labour had clearly lost the 2010 election going from a majority to second place, and (2) It would have been a minority coalition dependent for survival on the SNP (and others).

The more interesting question is what would have happened if they had just agreed to back a minority Tory government, which was what I expected at the time.

The reason for not doing that was probably the fear that the Tories would call an early election and win a majority. The coalition, and the passage of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, prevented that. However, the political situation, as it turned out over the five-year term, meant that an early election was never in the Tories’ interests anyway, and in the end the Tories still won a majority. Would the LibDems have benefitted in this election from not being in power, and making the case that only liberalism could save the union? Yes, I think they would have. Maybe we’d be looking today at a real chance of a Lab-Lib coalition, which would have 4-5 seats in Scotland and an ambitious program of political reform.


On the (minimally) bright side: The LibDems retain seats in England, Scotland, and Wales. Liberal ideas, still bridging divides. I hope the party will recover from this setback. It is too long and significant a fixture of the UK scene to whither away.

And I still agree with Nick.

12 thoughts on “The Lib Dems’ demise–and what might have been

  1. You’d almost have to wonder if LibDem support for a Conservative minority government would not have earned the same electoral oblivion. You’d wonder if they could have saved themselves by bolting from the Coalition at some point well before the election. This is the second time in just over a century that the Liberals have destroyed themselves by entering a Coalition with the Conservatives.

    I’d suggest when they enter the next coalition in 2120 or so they demand that LibDem candidates not face Conservative opponents.

  2. Their last election result that was this bad was 1959, when they won six seats on 5.9% (and this was an improvement over the previous election). So they have been here before.

    Of their six 1959 MPs, two were from northern industrial cities, two were from Wales, one from the West Country, and one from Scotland. The distribution in 2015 is actually the same, though there are no Liberal MPs from the West Country -for the first time since 1679- but one MP from the London suburbs and one from the rural North. In terms of making a national comeback, its probably better to keep a toehold in London than some of these other places.

    In Canada, the NDP was reduced to nine MPs, none of them representing ridings east of Winnipeg, and 6.9% of the vote, in 1993. They recovered. The Canadian Liberals in 2011 did somewhat better, with 34 MPs and 18.9% of the vote. But this represents a fall from 168 seats and 41.1% of the vote just eleven years earlier, when the governed the country. Right now they are favorites to win the next federal election. Even the Progressive Conservatives engineered something of a comeback from 1993.

    The lesson is that parties can always come back unless they are thrown out of Parliament altogether. I don’t think the prospects of the two larger parties are that stable, given the threat of Labour infighting between the Blairite and non-Blairite factions, and the probably bigger threat of Conservative infighting over Europe.

    • Even getting thrown out of Parliament all together is not necessarily a death-knell for a party’s future: the Alberta CCF won its first seat in a 1942 by-election, but lost both of its incumbent MLAs in the 1959 election (perhaps not coincidentally the first election since 1924 conducted under FPTP instead of AV in rural ridings and STV in the cities). They returned to the legislature as the NDP in 1967 and were represented until 1993, when they lost all 16 of their seats. They were returned in 1997 but did not hold more than 4 seats until Tuesday’s shellacking.


    A tribute to Clegg’s leadership from Anne Perkins of the Guardian. Though from the tone one would think he was deceased…

    As far as a LibDem reovery goes, the local council elections held simultaneously with the general election and largely overshadowed by it, seem to confirm the serious blow the party suffered. Of the councils voting, they still control 4, but have lost 40% of their councillors.

    • It is not surprising that the LibDems also did poorly in concurrent local elections. An early indicator of whether they can make the sort of comeback described in other settings in this thread will be local elections held in previous strongholds over the life of this new parliament.

      I would not count them out, but I would observe that British politics is getting rather hard to predict!

      • The fact that a different set of elections were held concurrently on different boundaries can sometimes help flush out how much voting was tactical (c/f USA November 1992, when Bill Clinton “won” the presidential popular vote with 43%, but the Democrats lost seats in Congress the same daybetween Perotista supporters were only draining votes from the GOP at presidential level).

  4. Between work obligations and a family emergency (of the ER variety) on election night, I barely had time to follow the British election this year, but at the outset I thought the Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote might actually make it to the low double digits – an outcome suggested by some polls here and there. Alas, it was not to be, and I feel very much like Matthew about the party’s truly disastrous showing, which has rolled back all their gains over the past 45 years and practically put them back where they were back in 1970, with 7.5% of the vote (albeit contesting only 332 of 630 seats at the time) and six MPs. By the way, speaking of Lib Dem contested seats, the party forfeited deposits to the tune over a quarter of a million dollars, as it fell below five percent in 341 of the 631 seats where it fielded candidates (every seat outside Northern Ireland except the Speaker’s).

    As for the election outcome – full figures (including constituency-level results in Excel format) are now available on my website’s UK page – I find it quite interesting that in England and Wales the distribution of seats after last Thursday’s vote is practically identical to the 1992 election seat outcome (which coincidentally was the last time opinion polls in the UK flopped so badly). However, once Scotland is factored in, Labour’s loss of forty seats to the SNP leaves them further behind the Tories than twenty-three years ago, while the latter party’s failure to win more than a single seat in Scotland leaves them with a smaller majority than back in ’92. The Scottish outcome is also the reason why there are far fewer Lib Dem MPs than the 20 the party elected in 1992: Scotland was one of the few areas in the UK where the party thrived under FPTP, but the SNP practically wiped them out this time around.

    Incidentally, much has been said about the SNP’s landslide in Scotland – enormously amplified by the FPTP electoral system – but another equally impressive but far less noticed landslide took place further south: in England’s three southernmost regions (excluding London), the Tories won 181 of 197 seats (91.8% of the total) with 49% of the vote. Following the Lib Dems’ collapse, Labour is now once more the second largest party in that part of England, but far behind the Tories, with just a dozen seats and trailing by thirty percentage points. At any rate, the election outcome in Southeastern England underscores how politically polarized the UK has become under the existing electoral system.

    While I wouldn’t rule out a Lib Dem recovery in the years to come, much like Canada’s NDP did after its 1993 election debacle there, one should not forget that it took the NDP more than twelve years before the party’s parliamentary representation returned to its pre-1993 levels. The fate of Canada’s then ruling Progressive Conservative Party following that election also comes to mind (all the more so because the Liberal Democrats, while a junior partner in Britain’s outgoing coalition government, were also a party in power): reduced to a mere two seats, it managed a modest comeback four years later, but faltered again in the following election, and three years after that it was history for all intents and purposes. Possible Canadian parallels aside, the Liberal Democrats face a formidable obstacle in the years to come, in that they’ll have to compete with UKIP and the Greens for the protest vote from folks disenchanted with Britain’s two major parties. In all, at this juncture I consider the party’s future somewhat uncertain, although I think it’s going to be a while before they fade from the political scene…if that comes to pass.

  5. After losing the AV referendum I don’t see how the Lib. Dems benefited from continuing a coalition with the Tories. Perhaps they felt the need to follow through with the coalition agreement, but I thought the fixed parliament act was particularly detrimental for the Lib. Dems as it made their alliance with the conservatives a blood pact. A supply and confidence agreement would have been so much more understandable. I think the Lib. Democrats got the short end of the stick in the balance of conservative/Lib. Dem outcomes from the coalition. Although it is reasonable to assume conservatives would have more policy items go their way (as the bigger party), I certainly don’t think Nick Clegg got his fair share.

    I wonder if there has been a study to see if junior coalition partners get fewer favorable outcomes–proportionally speaking–than they are due? Is it worth it to be part of the government when you are the junior partner?

    • Is this common for the smaller coalition partner to suffer a chronic meltdown after the next election? Look at what happen to the FDP in Germany at the most recent election, and also what happen to the Conservative Peoples Party in Denmark with their coalition with Venstre.

      I also don’t think the slender majority government will last long and it will be eroded to become a minority government. This government will be less successful than the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. People will remember that the UK can be successful with coalition governments, and it is not the end of the world, and there are more checks and balances.

      • I think it might be difficult to find a large sample of cases of “chronic meltdown” (assuming that means a major electoral decline) of smaller partners, at least in countries with sustained experience of coalitions.

  6. On Dominic’s point, I had the impression that the original plan was in fact for the two parties to wind down the Coalition, and for the Liberal Democratic ministers to leave a few months early, letting the Conservatives continue as a minority government, to give the party a more separate profile in time for the election. I wonder if that was the plan and why it didn’t happen that way. There is precedent in the (previously agreed on) departure of the Labour ministers from Churchill’s coalition government in 1945.

    I think the Liberal Democratic leadership wanted to establish to the two larger parties that the party could be a reliable coalition partner, even to the point of being willing to take electoral losses. However, what may have happened is that all parties, at least the smaller ones, will go out of their way to avoid participating in coalitions!

    On Rob’s point, it actually struck me that this was one of those elections where everyone lost, or at least every major player’s position got worst. The fact is that though the Conservative Party gained more than twenty seats, the Cameron government lost over thirty seats. They replaced fifty Liberal Democrat MPs with about twenty Tory and thirty Scottish Nationalist MPs, in terms of parliamentary arithmetic (actually the SNP gain closely matched the Lib Dem loss, and the Tory gain the Labour loss, in terms of MPs). The end result will wind up being a less stable government.

    It was also a good point that the party strengths in England and Wales closely match the 1992 figures in terms of MPs. Almost half the Liberal Democratic MPs at the time were elected in Scotland.

    • I am not aware of any evidence that the players intended to shift from coalition to confidence-and-supply late in the parliamentary term. I am aware of a LOT of media speculation to that effect at the beginning and over the first half of the term (at least). I have saved a series of such articles. But I suspect the parties themselves always intended to stick it out. Otherwise they probably would not have bound each other through the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

      The LibDems certainly made an effort to differentiate themselves, and while I do not have detailed evidence, my news clippings over the life of the parliament suggest that they did so increasingly over time. I would expect that a party that actually left a formal coalition for the comfort of a looser relationship with a minority government might expect to be punished every bit as much (perhaps more), for being branded as an “unreliable” partner. Really, it seems you have to be all in, or not.

      They could have opted for a minority government in May, 2010, but there were decent reasons for both parties to make the choice of a coalition at the time. It did not work out well for the LibDems in this election, obviously. It is not clear that all this means they would have been better off not having opted for coalition, although as I said in the post, I think there are good reasons to think they would have been better off. However, that is with hindsight. Suppose a Conservative minority government had enjoyed good poll ratings (the absence of good polling during the first three years could not have been foreseen with certainty) and jettisoned its loose relationship with the LibDems. Perhaps it would have won a large majority in the ensuing early election by calling attention to the “perils” of minority government and the need for a “steady hand”. The LibDems would have looked pretty stupid then, as Cameron’s suckers.

      Sometimes there just are not good choices, especially in a political system that has essentially no experience of coalitions and little of minority government.

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