Since 2011, three major political events have weakened the already marginal role of the Liberal Democrats in British politics. In 2011, the referendum on the Alternative Vote to replace the ‘first past the post’ system for Westminster elections was decisively rejected by the electorate by approximately 68% to 32%. The referendum was part of the negotiations following the 2010 general election between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to secure the latter’s participation in a coalition government.
Secondly, in 2015 the Liberal Democrats fared poorly in the General Election. In 2010 they won 57 seats. This dropped to eight five years later, with the percentage share of the vote down from 23% to 7.9%. Nick Clegg has made a spirited defence of the decision to go into coalition, and the performance of the Liberal Democrats within it, in his recent book Politics: Between The Extremes. However, most commentators feel that Clegg was tactically outflanked by Prime Minister Cameron and had a limited influence of the administration. Therefore, Clegg’s association with a government of austerity, along with the U-turn on tuition fees, ensured electoral collapse in 2015. It is arguable that even if Clegg had been effective in influencing and moderating policy in the coalition, the Liberal Democrats would still have suffered a poor result, as many on the centre-left did not forgive the decision to support the Conservatives in coalition.
Thirdly, the result of the EU referendum in June 2016 was another blow as the Liberal Democrats are the most pro-European of the three major parties in Britain. The vote revealed a significant and deep anti-European sentiment at odds with the political culture endorsed by the Liberal Democrats. The extent of the shock was indicated by the former leader, Paddy Ashdown, who, on hearing the result, told his wife: “This is not our country anymore.”
What now the prospects for the party? The new leader, Tim Farron, who replaced Nick Clegg in July 2015, has had a generally positive press for his leadership performance and some reasonably good satisfaction ratings in the polls. Two developments have been of some succour to him: firstly, a membership surge after the EU referendum of 16,000 in two weeks from those shocked by the result. Secondly, the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn has made it more likely that moderate Labour supporters and members, as well as other Remainers, will switch to the Liberal Democrats.
However, despite these developments and the strong performance at the Witney by-election in October 2016, the future prospects for the Liberal Democrats appear poor, at least at national level. Two important factors would seem to militate against progress.
The first is the lack of political ‘space.’ Theresa May is trying to position the Conservatives, despite Brexit, as a centrist party, with her appeals to the working class and defence of workers’ rights at the recent Conservative conference, and the legacy of the Conservative coalition may prevent many anti-Corbyn Labour supporters from moving towards the Liberal Democrats.
The second factor is the electoral system. Unless support is geographically concentrated, a party needs approximately 30% of the popular vote for the figure to translate into a proportionate amount of seats. Currently, Liberal Democrat support is around 9%.
The feuding in the Labour Party may result in a political realignment that helps the Liberal Democrats. However, if Labour loses the next General Election heavily, it is perhaps more likely that the party will not split but will move back toward the centre under new leadership, as happened with Neil Kinnock after the electoral disaster of 1983 under Michael Foot.