Since the general election, I’ve been awaiting the inevitable analysis of Lib Dem second and third places. But as I haven’t seen one forthcoming, I thought I would compile my own. Liberal Democrats stood in 631 constituencies – every one of the UK’s 650 constituencies, except the 18 Northern Ireland seats, and the Speaker’s seat. The one figure I have seen bandied about was that there were 335 Lib Dem lost deposits; or 53.1% of candidates put up by the party.
I make the tally of first places, second places, etc, as follows:
|Lib Dem Candidate||No. of Constituencies||% of Constituencies Contested|
In other words, while the party came fourth nationally, on a constituency level the results were even more sobering, with 54% of Lib Dem candidates coming fourth; and an even more galling 26.5% actually coming fifth; and more sixth places than first places. In numerous cases where the party came fourth or fifth, there were only four or five candidates standing, and so the Lib Dems came bottom of the poll.
The party’s sixth places were all secured in Scotland, Wales, or the urban north of England: the 14 seats with a sixth place were Blaenau Gwent; Caerphilly; Carmarthen East and Dinefwr; Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South; Dwyfor Meirionnydd; Glasgow Central; Glasgow East; Glasgow South West; Liverpool West Derby; Midlothian; Neath; Scunthorpe; South Shields; and Stafford. The two seats where the party came seventh were Hartlepool and Preseli Pembrokeshire.
No new seats were won. Of the party’s 63 second places, 44 were in seats won in 2010 that were lost this time around. The remaining 19 were as follows: Bosworth; Cambridgeshire South East; Cornwall South East; The Cotswolds; Dorset West; Guildford; Hampshire North East; Harrogate and Knaresborough; Maidstone and the Weald; Mole Valley; Montgomeryshire; Newbury; Newton Abbot; Oxford West and Abingdon; Richmond Park; Romsey and Southampton North; Truro and Falmouth; Wiltshire North; and Winchester. It is interesting to note that 11 of these 19 were Lib Dem seats in recent memory (or are the successor constituencies to such seats), whilst the remaining eight have not been Liberal seats in living memory.
Some Lib Dem seats won in 2010 did exceptionally badly. In four cases, Lib Dems came third (Aberdeenshire West and and Kincardine; Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk; Brent Central; and Bristol West), and in one case (Norwich South) they came fourth. In all but one of these five seats (Brent Central), the incumbent MP was seeking re-election, so the much-vaunted ‘Lib Dem incumbency bounce’ did little or nothing to stem the collapse of the party’s vote. Nor did pouring money into such seats always do much good. The only one of these five seats to not have an incumbent MP re-standing - Brent Central - was reportedly the third-best funded Lib Dem campaign in the UK, yet it also experienced the sharpest drop in Lib Dem support (-35.8%) in any constituency.
In five seats that were held during the 2005-2010 parliament, but lost in 2010, the Lib Dems fell back to fourth place: Camborne and Redruth (the successor to Falmouth and Camborne, with Julia Goldsworthy re-standing after having lost by just 66 votes in 2010); Chesterfield; Dunfermline and West Fife; Hereford and South Herefordshire (the successor seat to Hereford); and Rochdale.
Amongst other things, this does rather suggest that the knee-jerk response put out by some members of the party’s right – that the appalling Lib Dem result was down to the party having moved too far to the left in its election manifesto – is complete fantasy, strongly contradicted by the evidence. Collapse in Scotland, Wales, and the urban north, matched by the few second places in non-held seats being in rural, affluent Kent, Hampshire, Leicestershire and Wiltshire, suggests the very opposite .
It is worth asking, though, whether these results point to greater Lib Dem potential in these more affluent, Tory-facing seats. I suspect not. It is certainly the case that although the Lib Dem vote collapsed across the UK (even in the few held seats), it fell less sharply in some Tory-facing seats. But this is unsurprising, given the entire election campaign was pitched as a vote for a moderating, centrist influence on a renewed coalition with the Conservatives. This election was the first right-leaning pitch for votes made by Liberals since the mid-1950s, and it should not escape notice that it has also been the most catastrophic. Furthermore, if one is to look at the historical parallels of Liberal votes in Tory-facing seats – and in ‘good years’ such as 1974 and 1983, Liberals have tended to get most of their second places in Tory-facing seats – it is worth differentiating between those ‘good second places’ in Tory-facing seats which the party has eventually won, and those where it has not. In those seats where it has won (such as Bath, Eastleigh, Truro, and Yeovil), it has seized Conservative seats with largely Labour votes, realigning the left and uniting the anti-Conservative voters behind the Liberal candidate. By contrast, Tory seats like Aldershot, Salisbury and Surrey South West have long favoured respectable Liberal/Lib Dem second places (until now); but with very little of a Labour vote in the first place, there has been nothing to squeeze to take Liberals over the finishing line. Thus looking to the latest round of 2015 second-place seats such as the Cotswolds (which last elected a Liberal in 1880), Maidstone and the Weald (whose last Liberal election victory was a 1901 by-election), Mole Valley (which last elected a Liberal in an 1871 by-election), or Hampshire North-East (which hasn’t been Liberal since 1885) would be a strategy based in fantasy, and wishful thinking.
As my SLF colleague Michael Mullaney (who held onto a rare second place at Bosworth) pointed out at the forum’s recent AGM, the party’s standing is arguably worse than in any of the Liberal Party’s previous ‘worst ever’ results, in 1970, 1959, 1955, and 1951. There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, not only do the Lib Dems’ 335 lost deposits in 2015 exceed the all-time record of 303 Liberal lost deposits in 1950, but as Mullaney pointed out, the goalposts have changed: prior to 1983, candidates had to poll under 12.5% to lose a deposit – since then, the figure has been 5%. If the goalpost were still at 12.5%, then 543 Lib Dem candidates would have lost their deposits in 2015. By this yardstick, the party failed to mount a viable challenge in 86% of the constituencies it contested.
Secondly, it should be pointed out that in these previous ‘worst ever’ years, the Liberal Party did not field a complete slate of candidates: as such, while their national poll in the ‘worst ever’ years of 1951, 1955, 1959 and 1970 varied from 2.5% to 7.5% (compared to 7.9% in 2015), the fact that so few candidates were standing (between 109 and 332) meant that the full level of Liberal support couldn’t be registered. In these four previous ‘worst ever’ years, where Liberals did stand, the average vote per candidate was actually a far more respectable 12%-13%. This stands in stark contrast to the 2.5%-5.5% that most Lib Dem candidates polled in 2015 outside the so-called ‘fortress’ seats.
Thirdly, previous Liberal ‘routs’ have been against the background of two-party politics; and while Liberals complained of being ‘squeezed’ by the ‘big two’, the reality was that they remained the only viable national third party in Britain. As such, at times when dissatisfaction with the ‘big two’ was high (as with 1974 and 1983), they were the only realistic national outlet for protest votes. Accordingly, even after a slump, Liberals could afford to bide their time and wait for the next fad for ‘none of the above’ to logically benefit them. But the field is now crowded with sizeable third parties: the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, and UKIP. Protest votes can go in many other directions, and it is no longer enough to simply hold out for them to deliver the party from its predicament.
Admittedly, looking purely at party places rather than vote shares can be slightly misleading; there is the world of difference, for instance, between the Lib Dem fourth place at Warwickshire North, which constituted 978 votes (2.1%), and the fourth place at Chesterfield which consisted of 6,301 votes (13.8%). So why does any of this matter?
Most obviously, because the party’s present campaigning techniques emanate from the traditional minor-party squeeze message, which places great emphasis on seeking tactical support through the old mantra of ‘ONLY THE LIB DEMS CAN BEAT [PARTY X] HERE.’ This depends on securing the maximum number of second places; and if Lib Dem candidates are in third place, then such tactics do not work. If they are in fourth place or worse – as with 83% of Lib Dem candidates – then such tactics are a complete irrelevance. In fact, Lib Dems are now hyper-vulnerable to having what is left of their vote further squeezed by having this very argument deployed against them, and so some compelling further counter-arguments are required to prevent all-out extinction.
The lack of second places is a considerable setback, given the party’s strong record in recent years of securing second places and being competitive in nearly half the country. To put things into context, in 2010 the Lib Dems came second in 242 seats, and so were either first or second in 299 seats; 47.4% of all constituencies contested. At the 2005 general election, the notional results adjusted for 2010 boundary changes put the party on 188 second places, with Lib Dems first or second in 250 seats; 39.9% of constituencies contested. Presently, the party is in first or second place in just 71 constituencies, or 11.3%.
Consequently, if the party is to survive in first-past-the-post elections, and to even keep more than half of its deposits (let alone begin winning elections in new areas), its campaigning tactics will have to adjust dramatically. Tactical squeezes, which were so catastrophically ineffectual in keeping 49 of the 57 held seats, are not enough. Voters will only start considering voting for the fourth- or fifth-placed Lib Dem candidate if given positive, inspiring reasons to do so.
Dr Seth Thévoz is a political, cultural and social historian of Britain from 1800 on, and specialises in social networks, and detecting corruption among legislators. He is a member of the Federal Finance and Administration Committee, and in his spare time he is Honorary Librarian of the National Liberal Club.