Lessons from the 2001 general election for the future of the Lib Dems

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.

That’s why developing a larger core vote for the party is so important.

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.

4 responses to “Lessons from the 2001 general election for the future of the Lib Dems”

  1. As the person who won that seat from Labour in the General Election of 2001 I would note a couple of things:
    1. It was only the second such gain from Labour in a GE since WW2 but presaged a relative electoral earthquake in 2005 when we gained an unheard of 11 seats from Labour. Not something we can aim to repeat if we become a narrow ideological Party of urban, educated, middle class Remainers.
    2. Some would argue that electing an MP of Northern working class origin/grew up in a Council flat etc etc was a gain for diversity of our Parliamentary Party in 2001! How many others have there been in that category over say the last century?
    3. Was the large scale churn in our vote between 1997 and 200,1that you refer to, based on constituencies where we were campaigning hard or based on the voting population as a whole? From 1992-2018 I have kept a very close eye on canvass figures in my area and certainly between 1997-2001 I don’t recognise any such churn on that scale. If the data is drawn from the nationwide population such churn is more easily explainable. Being generous, lets say that 150 constituencies between 1997-2001 saw serious LD Campaigning and 500 saw only a Ward or two being active. In those 500 the LD vote would be very transient and subject to to the national mood/opinion poll swings/media coverage (or lack of at any given time). Whereas in seriously campaigning areas a political ‘micro climate’ could be created, without which a small third Party cannot succeed under FPTP.

    • Hi Paul – the figure in the post is a national figure. In our held constituencies, where there was polling done during the Parliament, many of the polls showed our support falling back sharply during the Parliament (even putting the MP back down in third place in one case) – so it wasn’t a case of simply held seats having a solid base of support. As we went on to win nearly all of them, even if it was the same voters we won back, that is still a form of big churn, albeit of a different kind (same people in and out, rather than one lot of people in and a different lot out).

      I’m sure that intensive year-round campaigning – especially in areas with annual local elections – will have reduced the churn in places, though if it was the hard work year-round that did it, it actually reinforces the overall point: that with a small core vote, we have to work extremely hard just to stand still overall and that holds us back. (David Howarth and I expanded on this in our pamphlet, but hopefully that quick summary illustrates the more detailed points.)

  2. Thanks for responding Mark. But that takes us on to a question I have asked before and never seen answered. How long do you think it will take to create this solid Core Vote that sticks with us regardless? Not much sign of it yet so 3 years post 2015 is clearly too short a period. Ten years? Twenty? Fifty?

    Also, how difficult would becoming a niche Party of urban, educated professionals, who are pro EU and pro immigration, make it to attract all those other voters who we cannot win FPTP elections without?

    Also, given that, as yet, there is next to no sign of such ‘Core’ voters switching to us whilst the Brexit debate is at full strength what are the prospects of them doing so once Brexit is a done deal?

    And finally! No thoughts on my suggestion that increasing the diversity of our Party needs to mean more than just improving the mix of middle class faces? I read that your hero Trudeau has been taking some flack for failing to take his ‘improved mix’ beyond that of the middle class. On the other hand if ‘we’ are to officially aim our policies at building a Core Vote of the urban, educated etc etc then perhaps social/class diversity is not a priority?

    • On the point about core vote versus first past the post – this piece (attempts to) address that, though in addition given the way you framed the question, it’s worth emphasising that although the sort of core vote David Howarth and I sketched out tends towards being more pro-EU, more education, more BAME, more female, etc., that’s not the same as being completely made up of such people. Plus if you look at the number of people who voted Remain in areas that were overwhelmingly Leave, those numbers are still often higher than the number we need to be winning local elections – so building up towards such a core vote both isn’t as exclusive as your description implies but also is a much higher ceiling too.

      On timescales, I don’t think it’s a pure binary – either someone is a core voter or isn’t – it’s more of a spectrum, so in that sense each year of campaigning (even if it’s a year without elections) can be a year taking us in the right direction and banking some gains from the progress we’ve made. Each bit of strengthening the foundations helps, so there isn’t a magic ‘job done’ date to try to estimate in the future.

      Re Trudeau – he’s very impressive, though I wouldn’t count him as a hero given his decision to drop electoral reform. Looking back at what I’ve written about him, I can’t see what I’ve said that makes him sound like my hero – I wonder if you might be conflating my views with those of others?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.