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30 July 2020

Where next for the Liberal Democrats?

As party members begin voting on their next leader, a new report outlines the challenge ahead for the Liberal Democrats.

By Ailbhe Rea

Where next for the Liberal Democrats? Ballots have opened today (30 July) for the party’s new leader, in a seemingly tight contest between Layla Moran, the party’s education spokesperson, and Ed Davey, the current acting co-leader. 

As party members begin to cast their votes, a report from the academic think tank The UK in a Changing Europe, released today, sets out the electoral landscape the new leader will inherit. 

The challenge is the same whoever wins the Liberal Democrat leadership once ballots close on 26 August: the party lost its leader at the last election and has hovered between eight and 12 MPs across three consecutive general election disappointments since 2015. As the report notes, the party’s recent performance in terms of seats won at Westminster is not dissimilar to the historic Liberal Party, which hovered around that mark for around four decades before the creation of the SDP.  The report issues a stark warning: “While they may escape extinction, long-term paralysis looks like a distinct possibility.”

But the research indicates a window of opportunity at the next general election, despite the opening note of pessimism. 

As both leadership contenders and many party members will tell you, the election of only 11 Liberal Democrat MPs in 2019 belies the extent to which the last general election represented a recovery of sorts by the party. The headline numbers of MPs may be broadly the same, but the party is now second in 91 seats, compared with 38 in 2017. The report, written by Tim Bale, Aron Cheung and Alan Wager, emphasises why this is so significant. 

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They cite research by the British Election Study showing voters are likely to use the results from the previous election to decide whether or not a vote for a particular party is “wasted” in their seat. In 2019, the Liberal Democrats were hampered by their 2017 election performance, where they were not second place in many of the seats they were hoping to gain (hence the party’s beloved “dodgy bar charts” to convince voters). At the next election they are on a much stronger footing to contest seats where they will be seen as the main challengers.

See also: after electoral disappointment for the party in 2019, Ailbhe Rea asks: what now for the Liberal Democrats?

Much of the leadership contest to date has been dominated by discussion of where the party should position itself relative to other parties: specifically, the extent to which it should emphasise its centre-left identity and preference of Labour over the Conservatives. 

On this question, the new report repeats the fact, widely acknowledged by Liberal Democrats, that the vast majority of the party’s target seats at the next election are Conservative-facing: in 23 of the 29 seats where the party could “reasonably claim to be well positioned to win” (these are seats where they would require under a 10 per cent swing), they are the main challengers to the Conservatives, and the next-closest party is a distant third. 

But it also highlights a less often recognised trend: that since the 2015 general election, there have been very few Labour/Lib Dem marginals, and the two parties have increasingly distinct areas of strength on the electoral map. There are only nine seats where Liberal Democrats are the key challengers to Labour, down from 76 in 2010. In 2010 nearly a quarter of Liberal Democrat MPs were defending seats against a Labour challenge. Today, admittedly from a smaller pool, the party has no MPs whose main electoral threat comes from Labour. 

This creates a new paradox. The Liberal Democrats are doing increasingly well in the south and south-east of England, creating what the report describes as “a ‘yellow halo’ of new electoral strength for the party in parts of London, Surrey, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire and Cambridgeshire”, and are doing increasingly well among graduates. Both points are similar to recent electoral trends for Labour. And yet the two parties aren’t in direct competition for first place in individual seats, with “increasingly distinctive and non-concurrent interests at a constituency level”.

Both candidates for the leadership are in broad agreement, despite the debate in recent weeks, that the path back to electoral success lies in establishing the Liberal Democrat candidate as the main centre-left challenger to the Conservative incumbent in an individual seat, thereby scooping up tactical progressives from other parties, then winning over moderate Conservatives. This report confirms the logic of this approach. All that’s left now is for party members to choose who is best to deliver it, and to see if a strategy on paper will prove to be quite so easy in practice, and whether it will be enough to turn around the party’s fortunes.  

See also: the former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron on why the party must not move to the left