At last week’s Corby by-election, the Liberal Democrat candidate requested two recounts. Once a formidable by-election machine, the Lib Dems were reduced to searching in vain for the 14 extra votes they required to get 5% of the vote, and so get their £500 deposit refunded.
In 1935, a famous book described The Strange Death of Liberal England, a theme that has regularly been returned to in the intervening 77 years. In 1951 the Lib Dems’ predecessor, the Liberal Party, won six seats on 2.5 per cent of the national vote; in 1989, a year after the merger between the Liberal and Social Democratic parties, the Lib Dems polled 6 per cent in the European elections, 9 per cent below the Green Party. The party’s current poll rating, consistently around 10 per cent, appears less grim in this context.
Most focus on the Lib Dems’ 2015 electoral prospects is upon the degree to which they can extract more tangible policy ‘wins’ from the coalition, such as on a mansion tax. Party strategists will also be intrigued by polls that have consistently shown the party gaining several percentage points in the polls were Vince Cable their leader. Lib Dems have been ruthless with leaders, like Charles Kennedy and Sir Ming Campbell, in the recent past, and their self-preservation instincts could lead to Cable – even though he turns 72 in 2015 – replacing Nick Clegg.
But ultimately the fate of the 57 Lib Dem MPs will be decided by local issues almost as much as grand national narratives. Indeed, the Lib Dems are reportedly planning to treat the 2015 campaign as ‘75 by-elections’, focusing all party resources on these most winnable seats. Such a limited strategy makes perfect sense, and ensures the mistakes of the 2010 election campaign will not be repeated. ‘Cleggmania’ led to Lib Dem talk of succeeding in 100 seats, leading to the neglect of the party’s existing seats. For instance, in Oxford resources were moved away from Oxford West and Abingdon to the target seat of Oxford East. While the Lib Dems won 6,000 more votes than any other party in the two seats combined, they lost Oxford West and Abingdon by 176 votes and also failed to pick up Oxford East. In the aftermath of a campaign that saw the Lib Dems lose five seats even as they gained almost a million votes, it was easy for them to lament the electoral system. But their somewhat hubristic campaigning strategy shouldn’t be neglected.
Turning to 2015, the broad circumstances the Lib Dems face in their 57 current constituencies may provide comfort. Of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010, left-leaning voters are particularly likely to have since deserted the party. While Labour will expect to pick up many votes from such voters, they are second in only 17 current Lib Dem seats.
Instead, Lib Dems’ main electoral challenge in 2015 will come from the Conservatives; of the Tories’ 40 target seats, 20 are currently held by Lib Dems. But Lib Dem MPs should be more comfortable defending themselves from the Tories than Labour. In right-leaning constituencies in the South of England, Lib Dem MPs can claim they have broadly cooperated with the Conservatives while reining in the perceived nastier elements of the party, such as immigration policy and social conservatism. It could amount to a powerful pitch.
The rise of UKIP may also come to the Lib Dems’ electoral aid come 2015. UKIP’s appeal is primarily amongst traditional Conservative support, which will be especially true if the Conservatives do not pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership in their next manifesto. In Lib Dem-Conservative marginal seats, disaffected Conservatives supporting UKIP may allow Lib Dem MPs to retain their seats even if their own vote share falls.
Lib Dem MPs will also be able to fall back onto their traditional strengths: strongholds developed over many years, local campaigning, and above all their personal popularity and reputations. All these advantages would have been eradicated by the proposed boundary changes: come 2015, the failure of Lords reform could seem inconsequential for the Lib Dems’ future compared to the preservation of old constituency boundaries.
Even the most optimistic Lib Dems concede that the party should expect to lose a significant number of votes in 2015. But, partly thanks to the rebellious nature of Tory backbenchers, their MPs may prove surprisingly resilient.