Monday, 29 June 2009

How Far Will the Tide Go Out for Nick Clegg ?

Many of the Conservative majority who post on spend their days asserting how badly the Liberal Democrats are going to be squeezed at the next election - how Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne will lose their seats and how the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party will fit into a taxi after the election and so on...

All very tedious and predictable but the fate of the Liberal Democrats at the next election is of huge significance to the Conservatives if they win a majority.

Since 1945, there have been three occasions on which the Conservatives have won elections after a period of Labour Government - 1951, 1970 and 1979.

In 1951, the Liberals polled just 2.5% of the vote and won 6 seats, thanks mainly to local "pacts" which gave the Liberals a clear run against Labour in Huddersfield East and Bolton West. Without these, the Liberals might have ended up with just one seat and would have faced extinction. It's not always appreciated by Conservatives or Liberals but the modern Liberal Democrats owe their existence as much to Winston Churchill as to Jo Grimond.

In 1970, the Liberals polled 7.5% and again won just 6 seats but these were won in full competition with other parties in seats like Devon North and Cornwall North . It represented a halving of the party's strength from the 1966 election albeit with a fall of only just over 1% in vote share.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher won her first term as Conservative leader. The Liberals polled 13.8% and won 11 seats, a loss of two on October 1974. The main losses were those of Jeremy Thorpe and John Pardoe but a number of seats were held including Colne Valley and the Isle of Wight.

During each period of Conservative Government, the Liberals regained strength and advanced. The mid-1950s saw the start of the Liberal revival at Torrington which culminated in the victory at Orpington in 1962.

The disaster of 1970 was followed within three years by huge by-election gains at places like Berwick and Sutton and a big advance in the February 1974 election with a gain of eight seats and a vote share just shy of 20%.

The years after 1979 saw the Liberals join forces with the Social Democrats. The Alliance polled strongly in 1983 gaining 25% of the vote and winning 23 seats. By-election victories at Ribble Valley, Eastbourne and Newbury were the precursor to a big breakthrough in terms of seats in 1997.

The evidence clearly shows that every time the tide has gone out for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have swept into power, not only has the tide not gone out so far but the Liberal Democrats have made more spectacular advances in terms of seats and votes as the Conservative administration has run into trouble.

So, what will happen to the Liberal Democrats at the next election ?
Will seats be lost ? Yes.
Will vote share be down on 2005 ? Yes.

However, 18% and 35 seats will still represent a stronger base than 1979 and will enable Nick Clegg and the party to regroup and take advantage when (not if) the Cameron administration hits trouble either as a result of the day-to-day issues of Government or a failure to manage and meet expectations or the sheer unpopularity of the measures needed to put right Labour's woeful blunders.

Despite the jibes and the snipes from the Tory crowd, it's a good time to be a Liberal Democrat and even though election night will be tough, the Cameron administration offers a wealth of opportunities.

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