Thursday, 21 May 2015

2020: the Lib Dems, sifting through the wreckage

7 May 2015 was a disastrous day for the Lib Dems.  Overnight, they lost 49 of their 57 MPs.  This result was worse than their worst nightmares.  Will they be able to recover in 2020?

This is what remains of the Lib Dems' representation in the House of Commons:

It's a short list.

What should they be targeting next?  Here are the list of their best target seats on the current boundaries:

Note that the boundaries may well change in this Parliament, so this list should not be taken too seriously and should be seen more as indicative than anything final.  However, there are some points relating to a boundary review that are particularly relevant to the Lib Dems, as I shall note later.

I hope that both of these tables are largely self-explanatory.  On the first list I have highlighted the majority in the colour of the party of the nearest challenger (I have used grey for the SNP simply on the ground of legibility).  On the second list I have highlighted the seat and the majority in the colour of the party of the incumbent.  On the second list I have also asterisked the majority if the Lib Dems are in third, with an additional asterisk for each position the Lib Dems dropped below third.  As you go down the table, the asterisks thicken on the ground.

So where to start?  The Lib Dems will want to think about possible gains.  But the second table does not give them much to give them great hopes of a quick revival. Beyond the top 50 targets, their vote has turned to dust. The Lib Dems held Chesterfield ("target" 82) until 2010 and are now fourth. Meanwhile, target 81 is Hartlepool, in which they finished seventh.  I encourage you to take a look at the epic swings that the Lib Dems need from third, fourth or lower in the second half of this table so that you can appreciate just how few opportunities for outside gains the Lib Dems will have next time.

So the Lib Dems are going to have very few constituencies to focus on.  Just how few in practice?

A uniform 5% swing to them gets them just 16 seats.  And their chances of getting such a swing in those seats are dramatically reduced because in most cases (Bath and Fife North East being the exceptions) these are seats where the Lib Dems were incumbents with large incumbency votes. Most or all of these former incumbents will not be standing in 2020, meaning that any new candidate will be starting from a much lower base.  Of the top five Lib Dem targets, former incumbents Vince Cable, Norman Baker and Stephen Lloyd have already said that they are retiring from politics.  They are typical of the ousted Lib Dem MPs, and their successors as candidates will not have a residue of loyalty to draw on. 

It gets worse for the Lib Dems.  As I have noted, the Lib Dems trade heavily on local loyalties and incumbency.  If the boundary changes go through, that remaining loyalty and incumbency will be weakened further.  Meanwhile, each of the 49 seats that the Lib Dems have just lost now have 49 incumbents, all of whom will be seeking to entrench themselves using the type of tactics that the Lib Dems pioneered so successfully. 

We can probably add at least 10% to the size of the majority that the Lib Dems would need to overcome in most cases (that assessment of 10% may be being charitable to them).  If so, the Lib Dems are going to struggle to make any gains at all without a dramatic revival in their fortunes. 

 Meanwhile, the Lib Dems cannot be confident of holding all of their current seats next time.  As the first table shows, they don't have large majorities anywhere other than Westminster & Lonsdale.  The value of their incumbency in many seats looks set to be weakened by boundary changes (though I expect the boundaries of Orkney & Shetland to remain unaltered).  And some of their current MPs will probably retire in 2020.  What are the chances that Nick Clegg will be standing again?  Or John Pugh (who by then will be 72)?

7 May 2015 was a disastrous day for the Lib Dems.  But it seems to me that the extent of the disaster has yet to be fully understood.  It is entirely possible that it was the day that ended the Lib Dems as a significant force in British politics.

1 comment:

Timothy (likes zebras) said...

"Westminster and Lonsdale"

No large majority in Westminster for the Liberals, but an amusing slip from Westmoreland.