The Lib Dems are now in danger of excessive optimism

Even on a generous reading, the party is still on course to lose nearly half of its 57 seats.

They're trailing UKIP in the polls and rarely score above 10 points. They've lost a third of their members since 2010 (down from 65,038 to 42,501) and more than a thousand of their hard-won councillors. They ran a deficit of £410,951 last year and are struggling to raise the funds required to fight an adequate general election campaign. So why, ahead of the opening of their conference in Glasgow tomorrow, are the Lib Dems so cheerful?

The first reason is that the next election appears increasingly likely to result in another hung parliament. While the party could yet face a wounding left-right split if forced to choose between the Tories and Labour (both of whom could conceivably win enough seats to form a majority government with Lib Dem support), the thought of again holding the balance of power and negotiating concessions (proportional representation for local government!) is an intoxicating one.

The second is that the party believes both that a significant number of its 2010 supporters will return to the fold before 2015 and that it is performing better than the headline figures suggest. Were the results of the latest YouGov poll (which has them on 8 per cent) replicated on a uniform swing, the Lib Dems would retain just 17 of their 57 seats. But as the party's activists rejoice in pointing out, their vote is holding up, and even improving, in their heartlands. The Eastleigh by-election, which the party won comfortably in the most adverse circumstances (recall the misdemeanours of the two Chris's: Huhne and Rennard), is offered as ultimate proof that they are not heading for electoral apocalypse. Where the party is well organised and where it can appeal for tactical votes from Labour supporters (the Tories are in second place in 37 of the 57 Lib Dem seats), it can still win. It is this faith that explains why those calling for Nick Clegg's head are still limited to maverick non-MPs such as Lembit Opik and Lord Oakeshott. 

But if they were once suffering from an excess of pessimism, many Lib Dems now appear overly optimistic. Even if their vote share rises to 15% before 2015, the laws of arithmetic mean they cannot expect to win many more than 30 seats. The party's intention to fight the next election as "57 Eastleighs" ignores the fact that this simply isn't possible. While the Lib Dems were able to pour thousands of activists and cabinet ministers into the constituency, they won't be able to do so when fighting on 56 other fronts at the same time. After decades of advancement, the party is still on course for its worst performance since 1992, losing around half of its seats. If it isn't dreading the evening of 7 May 2015, it really should be. 

Nick Clegg leaves Number 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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