Where next for the Liberal Democrats? New research report published

Think tank The UK in a Changing Europe has new research out today looking at the political prospects for the Liberal Democrats.

Key findings include:

More seats up for grabs

Graph showing number of seats with a strong Lib Dem performance
Although the 2019 general election was a huge disappointment, it contained the seeds of future recovery with a major increase in the number of seats the party is in contention in.

In 2010, there were nearly 140 seats where the party got over 30% of the vote. By 2017 that had fallen to 28. In December 2019, the party rebounded to 50 seats where it either won or is now within realistic touching distance.

Moreover, the 91 seats in which the party is now in second place is significantly higher than the 66 in which it finished second in 2015, and especially the 38 in which it was the runner up in 2017.

An emerging core vote
The initial signs of the creation of a new and larger core vote seen in previous years continued in the 2019 general election. The party’s support particularly grew in a ‘yellow halo’ of support in London and the South (especially the South East).

Linked to that, the party did particularly well in areas with higher proportions of graduates. The party either holds now or is highly competitive in 30% of the 64 seats that are in the ‘top ten’ in terms of the relative number of graduates in the UK.

There is an understandable temptation for some in the party to look at any variation in the party’s strengthen and respond by demanding the party prioritises its weakest areas. However, under first past the post, strength unevenly distributed and concentrated in particular areas delivers better results. Being equally spread everywhere is a recipe for failure, not success, unless you can leap up to 40%+ of the vote (where it then means you can sweep the board, SNP-style)/

The Conservatives are the main Westminster election opponents

Seats Lib Dems closest to winning in - graphicIn 23 of the 29 seats that the Lib Dems are nominally best placed in to gain, the party holding the seat is the Conservatives. (This is based on a simple reading of electoral numbers. Which seats the party actually is best placed to win of course also depends on other factors such as the quality of the candidate. So take this list as an indication of the overall political picture rather than a sure guide to which seats the party will target.) 

Moreover, there is little direct competition at general election level between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. There are only nine seats where the two parties together took either first or second place in 2019, whereas in 2010, there were 95.

Find out more
I’ll be discussing the report in more detail with Professor Tim Bale next week on my podcast, Never Mind The Bar Charts. Subscribe now in your podcast app to make sure you don’t miss out. [UPDATE: Here is the podcast.]

In the meantime, you can read the report in full here.

Listen to the Liberal Democrats and British politics being discussed by myself and a wide range of experts from inside and outside the party on my podcast, Never Mind The Bar Charts.

6 responses to “Where next for the Liberal Democrats? New research report published”

  1. A very interesting analysis. Yet I find it disturbing that the discussion is completely value-free, much as though it was debating which of the top level football clubs will be champion of the Premier League next year or who will win Wimbledon. Not a word about what ills trouble the country and how best to remedy them, and specifically what practical policies are likely to strike favourable chords with the electorate, and incline them to vote Liberal-Democrat rather than for any other party. This kind of discussion seems to illustrate all too well the failing that was so strongly and rightly criticised in the party’s Review of the 2019 General Election, namely the almost total lack of any long-term vision and strategy. I will no doubt be told that this report was not intended to do that, but any meaningful discussion of “Where next for the Liberal Democrats?” has to be be focused primarily on policy. It is of course only sensible to know where the most fertile ground is for growing LD votes, so that at election time forces can be concentrated there, but unless the party is recognised as standing for distinctive, relevant and important policies, the answer to that question will need no research at all: “Nowhere”.

    This is not the place for me to spell out in detail what I think party policies should be across the board, but in my view the present government demonstrates painfully clearly the weaknesses in the entire way the country is run. We have a presidential Prime Minister in practice largely free from any of the checks and balances that a sound democracy requires, one who, although elected on a minority of he electorate’s vote, is able constantly to ignore or by-pass Parliament and the devolved nations, and who stretches the uncertainties in our unwritten constitution to beyond their limits – it is merely our good fortune that a few individuals had the money and determination to fight for constitutional propriety all the way to the Supreme Court. If the party is to stand for anything, it should be for, and constantly advocate, wholesale major reform of the country’s institutions, most of which are largely unchanged from the 19th century. This should include reform of Parliament, with full devolution of powers to all the regions of England (not just a few more urban mayors here and there); a great strengthening the ability of the legislature to hold the executive to account in Parliament; reform of the House of Lords; electoral reform; reform of how political parties are financed; and an entrenched written constitution to ensure that no government with a simple majority in the Commons can set aside these changes whenever they are inconvenient.

  2. I agree and would go further than this and add that even with 29 seats, The LbDems will still be largely irrelevant if they are seen as just another political party out for whatever they can get from the system. I would like to see the party taking the lead in what I would describe as a ‘Coalition for Democratic Reform and Renewal’ . This might mean working with people and parties with whom there are fundamental policy disagreements, but this surely could be shown to be altruistic – as a practical example of democracy in action. The party could put its views forward about Europe, about devolution or any other matters but in the context of rebuilt political system that allows all views to be heard and encourages wider participation rather than the winner takes all as at present.

  3. I agree totally with the previous comments and am totally exasperated that the public doesn’t seem to notice, understand or care about these issues. But there lies the problem – it’s not going to get most people interested. Perhaps it’s something to work on with Labour but the Party somehow needs to get our political philosophy out there in a way that catches voters’ attention and interest. But none of that means the stuff in the article isn’t something we need to know and know how to work with.

  4. We must become quite ruthless in our ambition to get into a position of power in order to be a significant player in the political game. The key thing we must concentrate on is getting a large proportion of the electorate to put an X against the Lib Dem in the privacy of the voting booth. Voters vote for the party/candidate that they perceive to best serve their interests. The question the voter is looking for an answer to is “What’s in it for ME”, he/she is not, in the main, interested in political philosophy but wants to know whether or not the candidate is going to make their life better, easier, happier et al. Any good sales-person will tell you that the way to get the orders is to best satisfy the needs of the customer, in other words best answer the question “What’s in it for ME”. Looking at voting from this point of view it is important that we move from “telling” people what we are going to do to actually asking them what they want us to do for them. There seems to be evidence that the electorates main priorities are:-
    Good jobs
    Good education for their kids
    The NHS
    Affordable housing
    Protecting the environment.
    Concentrating on the voters priorities could be a vote winner for us. This does not mean that we have to abandon our ethical position on the key issues of the day but to use it to make our policies attractive to the voter when he enters the voting booth.

  5. I agree with much has been written here.

    The problem with the comments by William Lonergan is, however, that in the current first-past the post system, the voter will vote for whichever party is best placed in his/her constituency to serve the majority of their interests. That will not be the Lib Dems in most places.

    So concentrating on the voters priorities will only help when we, together with others, have achieved the major reforms of the country’s institutions advocated by Riichard Burnett-Hall.

    • Derek Deedman makes a very valid point re the problem with the first past the post voting system. However we are stuck with it, certainly for the next general election and the coming local elections. The problem is that unless we can get enough people to vote for us and enable us to get a decisive share of power, particularly at a local level, we are pretty much stuck at square 1. I believe that the party needs to concentrate on the coming local elections and where necessary form a strategic alliance with like minded parties to defeat the Conservative, particularly in England. Thanks to Boris’s ineptitude it looks as if Scotland is going to press hard for independence from the UK. That is going to give us a problem of whether or not we support a new referendum on Scotland’s future.

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