Lib Dem poll disaster

Don’t rub your hands with glee just yet.

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Ever since I entered journalism, I have noticed how quick many, if not most, commentators and political reporters are to dismiss the Liberal Democrats as no-hopers not to be taken seriously, frequently rating their consequence by the relatively low numbers of Lib Dem MPs, rather than the sizeable proportion of the electorate that has taken a different view – and voted for them.

My colleague George Eaton does not come into this category, but the poll showing that prompted his earlier posting – Liberal Democrats down to 10 per cent – appears to have elicited the usual glee at any misfortune for the party.

However, not only have they been here before, but it's been much worse. Those with longer memories will remember the chaos after the merger between the Liberals and the Social Democrats in 1988.

The new party was initially burdened with the cumbersome name of Social and Liberal Democrats, often contemptuously referred to as "Salads", after the initials SLD, while Dr David Owen's continuing SDP split the vote in a series of by-elections that might have been won with the full former-Alliance vote, most notably in Richmond, Yorkshire, in 1989, where a combined SLD-SDP vote would have deprived the Tory candidate of victory.

As that Tory candidate was William Hague, this provokes a series of intriguing what-ifs. (Would he have entered parliament soon enough to be promoted to the cabinet under John Major? If not, who would have won the Tory leadership election after their 1997 defeat? If it was Ken Clarke, how much sooner would the Conservative recovery have begun? Et cetera.)

In the same year, 1989, the recently merged party achieved only 6 per cent in the European elections, being beaten into fourth place by the Greens. It was a woeful and dispiriting time to be involved with the party, and I can recall ratings far lower than 10 per cent.

And yet. In 1992, the Liberal Democrat share of the vote was just shy of 18 per cent, dropping 1 percentage point in 1997, back up to above 18 per cent in 2001, and rising to 22 per cent in 2005 and 23 per cent in 2010.

For all that the coalition with the Conservatives may hurt the Lib Dems badly in the short run, the party has a habit of recovering from all sorts of disasters – not least the end of Charles Kennedy's leadership, the perceived weakness of his immediate successor, Ming Campbell, and the sad tabloid exposure of another contender, Mark Oaten – and achieving a share of the vote that would be hailed as a great success in countries that do not have such a skewed electoral system as ours.

Ever since 1983, roughly one-fifth of the population has voted for the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors. It seems to irritate the hell out of those who believe, for some bizarre reason, that only the two big parties have a right to govern. But as David Cameron said in the last Prime Minister's Questions before the Labour leadership vote, in which he estimated that Harriet Harman and her husband, Jack Dromey, had seven ballots between them: "Isn't democracy a wonderful thing?"

Yes, it is – and don't count those pesky Lib Dems out just yet.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman