The Liberal landslide of 1906 was, George Dangerfield observed, a victory from which they never recovered. One hundred and four years later, the success of the Liberal Democrats in 2010 – one million extra votes and Nick Clegg’s appointment as Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government – now looks very similar.
“The little party always gets smashed,” Angela Merkel told David Cameron in 2010. But there was nothing inevitable about the Lib Dems losing 48 seats on election night. It reflected something much more profound than the sense of betrayal engendered by voting to treble tuition fees: the failure of the Lib Dems to say what they were for.
Sure, it was obvious what they opposed. Clegg’s conference speech in 2013 bragged of 16 Tory policies the Lib Dems had blocked. The party said it was needed to give the Tories a heart and Labour a head. But in the process the Lib Dems assumed an almost robotic tendency, seeming to define themselves entirely by adopting the midpoint between Labour and the Conservatives on every issue. The Lib Dems became the anti-conviction party, who needed to check what everyone else thought before they worked out what they did.
Some Lib Dems had seen the perils of this approach. The electorate did not want an “insipid moderation”, Jeremy Browne warned this year. “Whatever liberalism is, it is not defined by where the other parties choose to pitch themselves or by measuring the distance between them and splitting it in half.” Once the party of the radical centre, the Lib Dems sleepwalked into repreenting mushy and timid centrism.
It could have been different. Clegg made a poor strategic choice when ministerial positions were allocated. He should have made the party own complete departments. Clegg could have become Education Secretary, declaring the Lib Dems the party of education and social mobility. As smaller coalition partners do in New Zealand, the Lib Dems could have been awarded ministers outside cabinet, free to criticise the government over decisions they had no say over.
The upshot of these failures came on Thursday. In aggressively briefing against the Conservatives, the Lib Dems had disowned their own role in government – making it easier for Lib Dem-Tory swing voters to vote blue. For a party who had just been in government for the first time since World War Two, the Lib Dems had surprisingly little positive to say about the experience.
Still no one expected election night to be so dire for the party. The Lib Dems now have just eight seats left – the lowest number at a general election since 1970, when the old Liberal Party won a mere six. The underlying belief that sustained the Lib Dems – that at least 25 assiduous incumbents could cling on by fighting by-elections divorced from the national campaign – proved delusional.
The foundations for this belief came in the Eastleigh by-election in February 2013, when the Lib Dems survived the Chris Huhne saga and terrible national opinion polls to hold onto the seat. But it now looks like a pyrrhic victory: defeat would have meant the end of Clegg’s time as party leader and forced an urgent rethink of the party’s strategy. The Lib Dems were willfully ignorant of the real lesson of Eastleigh: that despite pouring all national resources into the seat, they had still suffered a 14% fall in votes and only clung on because of Ukip splitting the vote. Not so this week: as Ukip fell back, Mike Thornton was thumped by 9,000 votes.
Reports of the death of uniform swing have been exaggerated. No matter how popular, incumbent Lib Dems have not been immune to the wider campaign, and the Conservatives framing of the election as a choice between Cameron and a Miliband-Sturgeon coalition.
Many were confused why David Cameron spent so long campaigning here in the final days of the campaign. Well now we know: he said he needed to “destroy” the Lib Dems there to win a majority. How he did: 27 of the Tories’ 35 gains were at the Lib Dems’ expense. The 14 Lib Dems seats from Cheltenham to St Ives have become none.
“People were saying they wanted clarity, a government not beholden to the SNP. That message chimed with people right at the end of the campaign,” Gavin Grant, chair of the party’s western counties region, told the Guardian. “The trend among switch voters – those deciding between ourselves and the Conservatives – was away from us. There was a desire for certainty.” The warning signs should have been there five years ago: despite Cleggmania and all those extra votes, the Lib Dems actually lost a net five seats in 2010 – including a net nine to the Conservatives.
In five years time, the Lib Dems might be in a position to reclaim some of these lost seats. One way or another, scaremongering about the SNP’s impact will not resonate in the same way. The imminent cuts under a Conservative minority government might make many of those who switched from the Lib Dems to the Tories – or who abandoned the Lib Dems for the Greens or Labour – reassess the Lib Dems’ role in government. Given Labour’s appealing brand in swathes of England’s south and west, the Lib Dems are well-poised to take up the mantle of opposition to the Conservatives in these areas, especially if there are by-elections in seats which the Lib Dems lost in 2015.
But it is also possible that the worst has only just begun for the Lib Dems. In areas like Bristol West and Norwich South, the Green Party shows signs of attracting the young, socially and environmentally conscious voters for whom the Lib Dems were once a natural home. The boundary changes that the Lib Dems delayed once will come in 2018, reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600 – Tim Farron is one of the MPs who could be worst affected. Both Labour and the Conservatives might now try to entice the rump of remaining Lib Dems to defect. A split in what remains of the party, as occurred in the 1930s, is also possible.
For now the remaining Lib Dems – more than a black cab’s worth, but only just – have learned a painful truth. The electorate wants more than a party whose entire raison d’etre lies in splitting the difference between the Conservatives and Labour.