The year 1993 is turning out to be the benchmark for the Liberal Democrat performance in Thursday’s local elections. Though no-one (including myself) was talking of 1993 before Thursday, two numbers both point to that year.
First, it looks as if the proportion of local councillors who are Liberal Democrat will be back to 1993 levels once the final results are in today. Second, the April ICM poll put the party on 15 per cent – the same figure as in April 1993, also one year on from a general election. The equivalent Aprils in other parliaments since then all saw higher ratings for the party – 16%, 18% and 21%.
There is one other sign of 1993 in the air: Paddy Ashdown, party leader in 1993, is now one of the party’s most prominent media front men.
Unlike some ex-party leaders, such as Ted Heath, he has not slunk away into bitterness nor unlike others, such as Tony Blair, has he slipped away into silence on domestic policies. Instead, like the old soldier that he is, he is still plugging away in the studios, serving a new commander. But it will take more than just his media appearances to put the party on the road back to some of its more recent highs.
So how bad is returning to 1993 levels of popularity for the party? There are only subjective answers to that question – many of which I suspect in part depend on the age of the person answering it.
For those who joined the Liberal Democrats in the last 18 months, and may not yet even have been in school in 1993, that may well seem a long time away and a big step back; for those who have seen the party’s ups and downs in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, 1993 looks rather better – and nothing like as bad as the dog days of having a party leader on trial for conspiracy to murder (late 1970s) or the fiasco of the fallout from the Liberal/SDP merger (late 1980s).
Moreover, as the graph above shows, whilst the 2011 results (projected in the graph, so the final point on the graph may move slightly once all the results are in) certainly show a strong dip, the peak of the Liberal Democrat local government strength was a decade and a half ago. The long years of regular progress had long since ended.
So 2011 offers two electoral challenges for the Liberal Democrats: the immediate one about being in government but along the longer run one about a static, or slightly declining, local government base for a long time.