At the time, both inside the Liberal Democrats and outside the party, the 2001 general election appeared to be a good result. Far from falling back in seat numbers after the huge gains in 1997, the party gained further seats, up a net six. That even included a general election gain from Labour, something beyond generations of predecessors. The party’s vote share was up – a modest 1.5% increase yet the first increase in the vote share for the party or its predecessors since 1983. Progress too on improving the party’s diversity, with three of the six gains at the election coming with female candidates. Charles Kennedy, trebling his own majority, had firmly established himself as one of the party’s most popular politicians and the party also seemed to have cracked the formula for winning seats. The two seats lost at the election both came from those seats which had not followed the Campaigns Department’s template for campaigning. Those that did, won.
Which is why 2001 also makes for a good example of the problems the party needs to overcome for long-term, sustainable success. For there were big cracks in the foundations on which the 2001 success was secured.
Most notably, despite the party’s vote increase, the British Elections Study data reveals that in 2001 the Liberal Democrats only retained the support of 51% of those who voted for the party in 1997 .* Even in good times, the party suffered from a huge churn in its support between elections – a huge churn that required therefore huge effort to battle to stand still, let alone move forward as, for example, also illustrated by the 1983 general election.
Down in the destails too, there were other cracks in the party’s foundation. The party’s Parliamentary gender balance was still massively male-dominated and, at the local council level, it was higher but flat. The long-running improvements through the 1970s and 1980s had ended. Party membership, moreover, had been falling through the 1990s and save for a small upwards tick at the time of the 2001 election it then slipped back and stayed static for years afterwards. As for the local government base, during the preceding Parliament, the party had lost seats at every round of May local elections. More seats were lost in the concurrent 2001 local elections too. Even the gains in the next Parliament were not sufficient to overcome the losses from 1997 and onwards. Away from the general election headlines, the requirements for long-term sustainable growth were not being met.
The lessons of 2001 were then reinforced by the lessons of 2005 general election. But, so far, the party has not been good at learning those lessons about getting the foundations for success right.
That’s why a good chunk of the party’s strategy adopted at our spring conference is about those foundations. It is also why the current debates over party reforms are not a ‘distraction’ from more important matters; getting such issues right is an essential part of long-term success.
* In bad times, the churn rate in the Liberal Democrat vote is similarly high. For example, the British Election Study shows that only 55% of those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2015 did so again in 2017, when the party’s vote share fell even further from its 2015 low.