Liberal Democrats, and before them Social Democrats and Liberals too, are well used to a surge in poll figures seeing them overtake another party and so generate a flurry of excited predictions about the future of British politics.
Yet more often than they would wish, such surges have often subsequently largely or completely receded. So it is no surprise that Liberal Democrat insiders have been reacting with calm analysis to the smattering of polls showing UKIP overtaking the Liberal Democrats in national voting intention polls.
The over-taking has, so far, been symbolic rather than real – even the best polls for UKIP are, strictly speaking, showing the Lib Dems and UKIP in a statistical dead heat (once you remember to take into account margins of error).
Moreover, UKIP has two weaknesses that make its political fortunes look less rosy. The first is one many Liberal Democrats can sympathise with: support spread fairly evenly across the country. Britain’s first past the post systems for English and Welsh council elections and the Westminster Parliament punishes heavily parties with evenly-spread support. First past the post gives victory to parties whose support is geographically concentrated, and it was the partial move from even spread to geographic concentration thanks to targeting that saw the Liberal Democrats win far more seats than its predecessor, the Alliance, despite polling fewer votes. (Although the 2010 result showed how much of a handicap this feature of the voting system still is.)
The second is related and again draws on the lessons of history – in this case that of the continuing SDP under David Owen after the formation of the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Superficially Owen’s continuing party had several things going for it, but it was hugely hobbled by the paucity of its grassroots structures.
UKIP is certainly in a better place than David Owen’s party was in this respect, but the number of candidates going in to the council elections shows – and the number of councillors elected in them will show – the Liberal Democrats in a far stronger position than UKIP.
That sort of disparity of local strength is what helped keep the Liberal Democrats as Britain’s third party ahead of the challenges of David Owen’s party, and also ahead of the Green Party’s challenge too. It is what will also keep it ahead of UKIP.