Lib Dem lessons after a kicking in Barnsley

Labour lost deposits, too . . . but this is what our party needs to learn from last night’s by-elect

Ouch, Barnsley! If you have ever been to Lib Dem conference and spent the final night at the Glee Club, you will recognise the song "Losing Deposits", sung to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda".

For some of us, there is no need to dust down the Liberator Song Book; that ditty is etched indelibly on our minds.

The kicking in Barnsley will be well analysed over the next 24 hours. It will be deemed to be about the unpopularity of the coalition, which will get worse, as I said on the BBC's This Week late last year.

When it comes to losing deposits, Labour may not have a song, but it does have a record in government. In 2005 in Cheadle, Labour lost its deposit. At the Henley by-election, Labour lost its deposit and came fifth, behind the Tories, Lib Dems, Greens and BNP. It goes even further back. To the 2000 Romsey by-election, when Labour got 3.7 per cent of the vote, and Winchester in 1997 – Labour's prime year – where the candidate got 1.7 per cent of the vote. On both occasions, Labour lost its deposit.

But here are the factors that the Lib Dems need to be aware of:

  1. In local and national by-elections where activists are out and on the doorsteps – explaining why we are in this coalition and why paying down the deficit is critical, and talking about the forthcoming tax break that the Lib Dems have won – our vote holds up.
  2. In local and national by-elections where little work is done and where the vote is boosted by a national campaign, the Lib Dem vote plummets. (It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that there are no Lib Dem councillors in the Barnsley constituency.)

So the activists are critical, and their morale and willingness to get out on the doorstep or make the calls to voters will be critical to the party over the next few months.

Now, where's my songbook?