Local elections

The strange death (again) of Liberal England

One of the first books I encountered when I started my A-level history course at school was by George Dangerfield. Its title was so punchy and intriguing that it has stayed with me ever since (a period of 22 years).

The book was called The Strange Death of Liberal England. It was cited as a key text on my course (and possibly still is) as a “way in” to comprehending the changes under way in British politics in the early 20th century.

Dangerfield was writing in the 1930s, so the events were still reasonably fresh in his and his original readers’ minds. Even so, he took great care to revisit in detail the issues and incidents he believed were responsible for the decline of the Liberal party from its position as the dominant force in government to a minority group of divided MPs.

Liberal England has undergone a similarly startling decline in recent years, though the start and end points are different. This decline has occurred during, and arguably because of, the Liberal Democrats’ coalition with the Conservative party in parliament. But unlike the deterioration of a century ago, which occurred after decades of intermittent Liberal governments, this one set in as soon as the party tasted power.

The decline has been most obvious in a loss of councillors: a trend once again in evidence in Thursday’s local elections.

Here are the Lib Dems’ net losses in councillors in each of the four sets of local elections to have taken place since the formation of the coalition government:

Lib Dem council lossesSince the 2010 general election, the party has seen a net loss of councillors totalling 1,515. That’s a staggering price to pay – or sacrifice to make – for entering government. In 2011 alone they lost 40% of the seats they were defending.

If I extend that graph back to 2003, when the Lib Dems scored their highest ever share of the vote at a set of local elections, you can see how starkly the party’s fortunes have changed:

Lib Dem council losses since 2003Yet even in 2007 and 2010, when they saw net losses of hundreds of councillors, the Lib Dems’ share of the vote held up. It’s only been since 2010 that the decline has really set in:

Lib Dem share of the vote in local elections since 2003This week’s local elections left the Lib Dems without councillors in Manchester, Knowsley, Sunderland, Rotherham, Wigan, Tameside, Sandwell, South Tyneside, Salford, Barnsley, Wakefield, Doncaster, Coventry, Dudley, Slough, Plymouth, Southampton, Hartlepool, Plymouth, Thurrock and over half of London’s 32 boroughs.

Of England’s 2,445 metropolitan councillors, just 191 are now Liberal Democrats. Four years ago, that number was 522.

Why is this a “strange” death? Because we haven’t seen an established political party decline in popularity this fast in modern history. Because it has been unexpected. Because it has been brutal. Because no one quite knows how or when it will end.

And because above all, just like George Dangerfield’s “death” 100 years ago, there’s always the chance that it might not be terminal.


4 responses to ‘The strange death (again) of Liberal England

  1. I’m really enjoying your blogs and analysis, but just one quibble – this collapse in Liberal Democrat support is surely not ‘unexpected’ – I knew it was on the cards (and deservedly so) from the Rose Garden love-in in 2010.

  2. I’d agree that there was always likely to be a backlash, but I remember being surprised in 2011 by just how great was the scale of the Lib Dems’ losses. I’d also argue that few thought we’d get to this point in the life of the parliament and find the backlash still roaring on!

  3. Based on these results, do you have predictions for the number of Lib Dem MPs in the general election next year? They won’t have the “I agree with Nick” factor. If (as seems likely) we end up with another hung parliament, will they even be in a position to hold the balance of power?

    UKIP has done spectacularly well in the European elections, but still only 27% of a 34% turnout. I doubt their vote would hold up with a 60% or 70% general election turnout, but I suspect UKIP might end up with handful of MPs, and they could damage the other parties significantly.

    Will we see the Conservatives turn right to chase UKIP? If so, could Labour move back to the centre ground, reabsorbing Lib Dem / SDP’s territory? Is anyone out there further to the left?

    Interesting times.

  4. I’m planning to write about the Lib Dems’ most vulnerable parliamentary seats later this week. I think it’s already safe to say they won’t hold on to any of their marginals in London. As for Ukip, for the past few years I’ve predicted they won’t win a single MP at the general election, and I’m sticking with that forecast!

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