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Poor Expectations: why the Liberal Democrats are doomed

Vince Cable claims resisting Brexit could create a ‘Lib Dem moment.’ But in this Stats For Lefties column ELL SMITH assesses the possibility of a Lib Dem comeback — and the numbers are not kind

HOW times change. When Stephen Lloyd MP, who quit the Liberal Democrats last month in order to vote for May’s Brexit deal, first stood for Parliament in 2005, his party had 62 MPs.

Following his departure, they now have 11. After Lloyd was elected as an MP in 2010, his party took part in a British government for the first time since 1931, and within the previous decade had also governed as part of coalitions in Scotland and Wales. They were, in a very real sense, a major political force. Now they are struggling to have more seats than the DUP.

The party’s position on the fringes of politics is a consequence of the 2015 election result. In one devastating night, the Liberal Democrats’ participation in the coalition undid over 45 years of electoral progress.

Under Clegg, the party won just eight MPs (-49) and 7.9 per cent of the popular vote (-15.1pts). On both counts, this was their worst result since the general election of 1970, but it was also the biggest drop in Liberal support since 1931, and the biggest percentage loss of seats (86 per cent) since 1918.

Is it even possible for a party to recover from that, let alone to recover enough that they are in government again?

Maybe. Stranger things have happened. But it would take a long time, and there are significant obstacles in its way.

The Liberal Democrats’ entry into the coalition in 2010 was the culmination of an 80-year journey, in which the party slowly returned to relevance and finally to power. And yet just five years in government left the party barely existing as a political force.

Their local government base has been depleted, their representation in devolved parliaments is virtually non-existent, they only have one MEP and their group of MPs (11) barely outnumbers that of the DUP (10).

The 2017 result, in which they made a net gain of four seats, would seem to suggest that they are recovering. But outside Scotland, the party collapsed further. For the first time since the 19th century, there are no Liberal MPs in Wales at all.

In England, the party now holds just seven seats out of 533. And contrary to expectations — given that 48 per cent of the voters backed Remain in 2016 — the strongly pro-EU Lib Dems failed to increase their vote share in the 2017 election.

Instead, they went backwards, falling to 7.4 per cent, their worst share of the popular vote since 1959.

Even more worryingly for the Lib Dems is the fact that they have collapsed in many of the seats they used to hold. In 35 of the 57 seats they won in 2010, the party did worse in 2017 than in 2015. And in 29 previously held Lib Dem constituencies, the party’s vote share has undergone a dramatic collapse since 2010, falling by more than 20 points. The Lib Dems’ support base has dramatically shrunk, and it is not growing.

The final question worth considering, when it comes to the Lib Dems, is (what else?) Brexit.

You might not know it, but Brexit has affected the Liberal Democrats’ base as much as it has affected the Tories and Labour. A YouGov survey conducted after the 2017 election found that only 20 per cent of the party’s voters had backed Leave in 2016, down from 29 per cent of 2015 Lib Dem voters.

YouGov found that 73 per cent of these “2015 Lib Dem Leave” voters backed other parties in 2017. Even more worryingly for the party, a YouGov exit poll after the 2017 election suggested that the Lib Dems had retained only 42 per cent of the people who backed them in 2015.

Think about that: the Lib Dems couldn’t even convince half of the people who voted for them after five years of the coalition to stick with them just two years later. The Lib Dems did manage to win a handful of new voters from other parties, arguably because of their stance on Brexit. But the party faces an uphill struggle even to stand still. As Tim Farron himself said in 2018, if it weren’t for the Lib Dems’ stance on Brexit: “There’s no way we’d have 12 seats and 100,000 members now. We’d be doing a David Owen now and winding up the party.”

The mystery, though, is this: when Britain leaves the EU (as it will), how long can the Lib Dems continue to be the party of Remain? The problem with being a single-issue party is that when that single issue stops being relevant, so do you. When Britain has left the EU, what reason do the Lib Dems even have to exist?

I don’t have an answer to this question. But neither do the Lib Dems. And that should really, really concern them.

Follow Ell Smith on twitter @LeftieStats or check out the Stats for Lefties blog here

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