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Quentin Langley: What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?

Picture 1 Quentin Langley read Politics under Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher at the University of Plymouth and now teaches Public Relations and Political Communications at Cardiff University.

It is a bit early in the new loving and friendly relationship to be asking this, but what is the point of the Lib Dems?  Any party or product has to have some sort of unique offering to the electorate.

This issue is likely to arise in any by election campaigns.  It is, of course, possible, that the Lib Dems will stumble in the perfect storm by election, where they have an entrenched and attractive candidate and trail by only a few hundred votes.  In any other scenario, they are likely to struggle.  On the whole, people who support the government are likely to vote Conservative and people who oppose it will mostly vote Labour – with a few choosing UKIP, Greens or, where relevant the SNP/Plaid.  The chances of the Lib Dems making any by election gains during this Parliament would seem to be low.  Indeed, if the party faces a by election in a seat it currently holds, it may have to fight hard to hold on.

If this prediction is correct, it will be the first time in decades that the Liberal Democrats or its predecessor parties have not made any by election gains for a full parliament.  Not counting the mini parliaments of 1964 and 1974, the Liberal Party, SDP or Liberal Democrats have made at least one by election gain in every parliament since Torrington in 1958.  They have taken seats from both Labour and the Conservatives which they could never have hoped to take in a general election.  They have nonetheless had a decent record of holding these seats.  In the 1970s and 80s they held half of their by election gains at the next general election.  In the 1990s things became more volatile.  In 1992 all by election gains were reversed.  In 1997 normal service was resumed, and they held two of their four by election gains.  In 2001, they held their lone gain.  In 2005 they held one of the two and in 2010 they lost their lone gain.

While by elections have, obviously, been somewhat less important to the Party since 1997, they have nonetheless been significant.  By elections may, twice, have saved the Liberal Party from destruction.

In the 1970 election the Liberals lost half their seats, and of the six they held, three, including that of leader, Jeremy Thorpe, had three figure majorities.  By elections, however, allowed the Party to double its Parliamentary representation before the 1974 election, and gave it considerable momentum to its best result for decades.  In 1979 most observers were expecting the Liberals to lose a great deal of ground from the 1974 high point.  Many of their voters had swung back to the Conservatives.  In the dying weeks of the parliament, the Liberals made a stunning gain from Labour at Liverpool Edge Hill.  They held the seat a few weeks later, losing three others.  It is not difficult to imagine that without that startling breakthrough, 1979 could have been as bad for them as 1970 had been.

If the Liberal Democrats are not an obvious way in which voters can protest against the government, and are not going to be the party of by election gains, it is not clear how they will be able to differentiate themselves from the two major parties.  Already at risk of losing those voters who would have preferred they make a deal with Labour, they need to carve out a distinct identity.

They have been a party with strength in local government.  In recent decades they have made major gains from the governing party in local elections.  In recent years they have sometimes managed second place in local elections – always ahead of the government – and at one point had more councillors than the Conservatives.

But this seems unlikely for a minority coalition partner.  As in Parliamentary elections, supporters of the government are likely to reward the Conservatives while opponents will flock to someone other than the Liberal Democrats – in most cases, presumably, Labour.

In Germany, coalition government is the norm.  Aside from two ‘grand’ coalitions between the major parties there is always a major and a minor coalition partner.  The minor partner was the Free Democrats from the 1940s to the 1990s, in coalition with Christian Democrats then Social Democrats then back to Christian Democrats.  Their period in power was interrupted only by a short-lived grand coalition in the 1960s. Thought of as liberals, the Free Democrats were centrists on Cold War issues.  On the economy, however, they veer towards low taxes and free markets.  In that sense they are to the ‘right’ of the Christian Democrats.  Their position was always to appeal to entrepreneurs and farmers – agriculture is an exception to their free market principles.  This has proved a viable market proposition, but they usually garner 5-15% of the vote.  In the German electoral system (the Additional Member System), securing more than 5% of the vote is enough to ensure representation in parliament.  Such a level of support is not really viable for a British party.  The Greens – minority partner to the Social Democrats for two terms from 1998 to 2005 – have an obvious market proposition.  They pull the SDP in an environmental direction and pursue the hippy and sandals vote.  Again, this is usually in the 5-15% range: viable in Germany but not in the UK.

At root, it is easy to see how the Liberal Democrats can emulate either of the minority parties in Germany, nor how they can replicate their own strategies from the past.

One question that remains, for the moment, a matter of mere speculation: will other minor parties – UKIP, or the Greens – inherit the Lib Dem mantle of the by election and local protest party?


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