Looking at what I said on Twitter prior to the election I could probably claim to have predicted the result. But I wouldn’t be telling the truth. I accurately foresaw that the Tories would get more votes than the polls were predicting. This wasn’t actually too difficult. In almost every election I have followed since 1983 the polls have underestimated the Tory vote. Why this easily verified fact catches out all the commentators every time is a mystery. But it has prevented me being disappointed by false hopes many times now.
I didn’t however predict the result – as Mrs HistoryScientist would confirm if I tried to claim otherwise. I had been moping around the house predicting a damp squib election for the few days before it. I foresaw the final result being much like 2010 only with a few more SNP and few less Lib Dems. So I was fully expecting to see Cameron back in Downing Street . I just thought he’d still have Clegg keeping him there.
What caught me out – and to be fair to myself also caught the campaign manager Paddy Ashdown himself out – was the total collapse of the Lib Dems. The idea that they would be reduced to the kind of numbers that I could fit in my Citroen Berlingo Multispace never really crossed my mind even though in retrospect it was totally to be expected given their slump in the polls.
What were we all thinking? It seems like there was some kind of consensus that nobody broke that just because the third party has been a fixture on the political scene since the seventies, it would somehow survive despite the fact that nobody was voting for it. That a political party needs people to keep putting their crosses in the boxes somehow escaped our minds.
Even now there seems to be an air of disbelief about what has actually happened. The way Nick Clegg resigned suggested that he was somehow handing over the reigns of something significant. There are precisely 7 other eligible candidates. The good news is that the party constitution requires a nominee to have the support of 10% of the parliamentary party. No Lib Dem MP needs to be put off a leadership bid for lack of nominations. He is already a big enough group in the party himself.
It is going to take a while for this to sink in, but the Lib Dems aren’t coming back. They may not got any seats at all next election. They certainly aren’t going to be players. I suspect that they will vanish altogether within 10 years. Here are the four reasons.
1. History. The Liberal Democrats are the result of very particular circumstances in the seventies and eighties where the Labour Party nearly split. The centre parties had the unique experience of being able to field former cabinet ministers with nationally known names. It also meant that they were on the front pages. This gave the whole centre project a momentum that has kept it going for decades. On top of that when the Lib Dems were forming both Labour and the Conservatives were going through periods of extreme policies making the centre unusually attractive by comparison.
None of these circumstances are true today and they not likely to be repeated.
2. Demographics. Party membership is dependent on recruiting new members to replace those that leave, or simply become inactive for various reasons – of which death is the most definitive. Without a steady influx of new members the party will eventually cease to exist. This has already happened in some regions. Liberal Democrats contested my local council ward in 2007, but haven’t been seen since. The kinds of people who might in the past have stood for them are doing other things. Which brings me to my third point.
3. Competition. We still have two big parties, but we now have UKIP and the Greens as well. Both are going to be looking forward to by elections where they can spring upsets of the kind the Lib Dems used to.
4. Narrative. Political parties are all about stories and ideas. The Lib Dems have never really been strong on ideas, but they have always told a good story. They are the plucky underdogs taking on vested interests and fighting for their communities. The ultimate aim is to ‘break the mould’ or some other wholesome sounding metaphor. This worked well as long as it seemed like something that might happen. Now that they have been in government it is rather hard to hold it out as a goal. We know how the story ends now.
This is going to get worse as time goes by. Already most people under fifty will have no idea of the origins of the party. A lot of people who lived through it won’t have been interested in to have remembered the details. Future coverage will have to inform people about the party’s back story. It is going to sound more and more like something from history. I predict it will be surprisingly soon when mentioning the Liberal Democrats will sound like a reference to the Anti-Corn Law League.
The Lib Dems aren’t obviously going to literally vanish overnight. They still have a few MPs and a lot of local councillors. They will often be able to keep the show on the road in their own patch for a while – maybe a long while. No doubt we will have some ‘revival’ moments in the future. But the decline in the party’s ability to bounce back will be steadily eroding. It will be interesting to see what fills the hole that they leave behind.