It’s Lib Dem conference this week. I can’t be there this time, but as you’d imagine it’s not getting a huge amount of coverage in the media. We’ve been reduced from nearly sixty MPs to eight, and we’re fourth in both seats and polling (though the third in each case is a different party — the SNP in seats and UKIP in polls — thanks to the effect of FPTP exaggerating regional differences).
In fact the current situation reminds me of a Spitting Image bit about the 1992 election, with Paddy Ashdown claiming it was a triumph for the Lib Dems and proportional representation, because “we got twenty percent, and ended up with twenty MPs!” — well, now, we’ve got eight percent…
But while last year’s elections were a complete disaster on every level, and while the party is still doing terribly in the polls, there have been other indications, on the local level, that the party is recovering.
In May, we were the only party to gain both in seats and in control of councils in the local elections — and, indeed, we were once again third overall in England and Wales. We increased our number of council seats by forty-five seats — in comparison Labour decreased by eighteen, and the Tories decreased by forty-eight (UKIP increased by twenty-five). We increased the number of councils we controlled by one — the Tories went down by one, and no other parties increased or decreased.
Then came the referendum, and the massive increase in Lib Dem membership. The party is now at its highest membership in decades, and thirty-five percent of those members have joined in the last three months (many of course will be lapsed members who’ve rejoined, but by no means all — I can think of four people I know well who’ve joined in that time. One is a rejoiner, one a former Tory member of the Ken Clarke type who couldn’t stand the party’s rightward turn, one had never been a member of any party before, and one (my sister) had never even *voted* before June). This has been somewhat overshadowed by the even larger increase in Labour membership, but there’s an important difference there — while the Labour people have joined to take sides in an internal battle over the leadership (and whichever side wins, a LOT of members are going to be angry, and potentially leave), while the new Lib Dem members have all joined to be on the same side.
And most interestingly there’ve been the council by-elections. Of course, one can’t put too much stock in these — I remember a few months ago Corbyn getting roundly mocked for talking about how the mainstream media had ignored a by-election win, when the win he was talking about was a safe parish council seat.
So anecdotes like the Lib Dems winning a council seat from Labour in Sheffield (which has obviously been seen in the media purely through a pro/anti-Corbyn prism) last week, or this week’s quite astonishing result in Derbyshire, where we won in a seat where we hadn’t stood a candidate in the last election, and where Labour had had 67% of the vote last time, don’t by themselves mean anything. Nor does the other seat this week, where we increased our vote by 19% but didn’t win.
But look at this (taken from Political Betting):
That’s a graph of net *changes* in council seats since the last elections, so it doesn’t show all the Tory seats that stayed Tory, all the Labour seats that stayed Labour, and so on. So it’s a good way of seeing where the electoral — as opposed to polling — movement is going.
Now, of course this doesn’t mean that the Lib Dems are going to suddenly become a majority government or anything like that. We’re fighting from what was a historical low for the party, so even impressive increases only mean we’re not doing quite as terribly as before.
But it does mean that it’s possible that the party will do much, much, better in the next general election than people are predicting. British political pundits have a tendency to predict that whatever just happened will keep on happening forever, so now we’re seeing people talking about decades of Tory rule. Before last year’s election, every pundit was saying that we’d never have another majority government again.
We have an unstable political system which simply does not respond properly to people’s wishes any more (if it ever did) — it’s chaotic and *can’t* be predicted. Five years ago, if you’d given any professional pundit any single fact about the current British political scene — Prime Minister Theresa May leading a majority government, the Lib Dems reduced to eight MPs, the SNP with fifty-six, Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Britain about to leave the EU with absolutely no exit strategy — and you’d have been dismissed as a crank. Obviously none of that could possibly happen.
So I’d ignore the conventional wisdom that everything is going to stay horrible, and that the last few Lib Dem MPs will be wiped out next time. In fact, I’m going to stick my neck out now and say that if the next election is in 2020 as planned, the Lib Dems will get *at least* thirty seats, possibly more. I don’t see us doing what Tim Farron suggests is possible and replicating the Canadian Liberals’ jump from irrelevance to majority government, but I seriously wouldn’t be surprised if in ten years’ time we were the largest opposition party (that sounds daft, but remember that ten years ago Blair had just won his third election victory, people were talking about permanent Labour government, and UKIP were on 2% of the vote).
The Lib Dems’ future is still very much up in the air, and I’m certainly not saying that the party is definitely going to make a recovery. But I think the chances are far higher than the media are giving us credit for, and far higher than they were even six months ago. The next few years are going to be interesting.
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