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5 February 2024

Why Labour should fear a Lib Dem collapse

The Tories will be the biggest winners if Ed Davey’s party’s recovery goes into reverse.

By George Eaton

If you want to see a Labour politician’s tribal side, don’t ask them about the Conservatives, ask them about the Liberal Democrats. While the Tories are accorded respect as an enemy that usually wins, the Lib Dems (or “Liberals”) are despised as opportunists, traitors, political amoeba. “I’ll never forgive them for the coalition years,” a shadow cabinet minister confirmed.

But such rhetorical fusillades disguise a quiet truth: Labour and the Lib Dems have tended to rise or fall together. At the 1997 and 2001 elections, both parties benefited from the UK’s anti-Tory turn. In 2015 and 2019, both were savaged by its pro-Tory one. The same trend is witnessed in some earlier contests: in 1951 it was the collapse in the Liberal Party vote (from 9.1 per cent to 2.5 per cent) that helped pave the way for Winston Churchill’s defeat of Clement Attlee. 

In this parliament, the traditional Labour/Lib Dem dynamic has held. As the Conservatives’ vote has collapsed, both parties have advanced: Labour has won five parliamentary by-elections, the Lib Dems have won four. Labour has become the largest party in local government for the first time since 2002, the Lib Dems have enjoyed their biggest gains since 1995. By electing Keir Starmer – a leader who does not frighten soft Tories – Labour has given them permission to defect to the Lib Dems across the “Blue Wall”. 

The media has enjoyed the Lib Dems’ strange rebirth as a plot twist. But for Ed Davey, there are signs the narrative is turning. The Lib Dem leader’s responsibility for the Post Office scandal has been consistently overstated: 20 ministers have held the relevant brief since the Horizon computer system was introduced in 1999. But Davey’s trigger-happy record – he has called for 31 public figures to resign since April 2019 – and his initial refusal to apologise have counted against him. 

Lib Dem aides insist that polling considerations played no role in their leader’s belated repentance. The party has knocked on 300,000 doors so far this year and claims the Post Office scandal is rarely mentioned by voters. But there are straws in the wind: an Opinium poll published on 13 January found that Davey’s approval rating had fallen by 9 points to -13; a Mori poll published last week suggested Lib Dem support had almost halved to 7 per cent. In his own Kingston and Surbiton constituency, Davey is facing a challenge from Yvonne Tracey, a former deputy postmistress. 

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The hunter has become the hunted. Davey has thrived by casting himself as an insurgent but the Post Office scandal has revived unhappy memories of the coalition government and the Nick Clegg apology song.

Rather than contempt, Labour strategists today regard the Lib Dems with magisterial indifference. Their party’s average poll lead stands at 21 points: they have no need of the hung parliament calculations that tortured Ed Miliband in 2015. 

When Nadine Dorries first vowed to trigger a by-election in Mid Bedfordshire last year, Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign director, was urged by some inside the party to give the Lib Dems a clear run against the Conservatives. McSweeney rejected such demands and Labour was rewarded with a majority of 1,192 as the Lib Dems trailed in third. 

That victory set an important precedent: Labour will not defer to the Lib Dems merely because they start as the apparent favourites. But the 2024 election will rarely pit the two parties against each other. Of the Lib Dems’ top 30 target seats, only three are Labour-held – Sheffield Hallam, Cambridge and Kensington – while 23 are Tory-held. 

Yet this is precisely why Labour and the Lib Dems’ fates are, to some degree, intertwined. The Tories’ unexpected 2015 majority was enabled by the “black widow strategy”: after mating with their coalition partners, they killed them. David Cameron’s Conservatives won no fewer than 27 Lib Dem seats, most notably in the party’s traditional south-west fiefdom. 

The reversal of most of these gains – along with a Labour recovery in the “Red Wall” and Scotland – is critical to a Conservative defeat. Should the Lib Dems’ recovery stall, there will only be one big winner: the Tories.

The polls may suggest that Labour has no need to rely on Davey’s party in any sense but polls, as McSweeney regularly reminds the shadow cabinet, can shift with remarkable speed. Peter Mandelson – who loomed over Keir Starmer from the peers’ gallery at last week’s Prime Minister's Questions – has warned that Labour’s “artificial” poll lead will “contract” and that the party could face a hung parliament.

Neither party is planning for such a scenario. The Lib Dems are still scarred by their last experiment with coalition government and Labour is in landslide territory. But should the polls shift, the Tory-Lib Dem battlegrounds will become more pivotal. Preserving the Blue Wall is crucial to the Conservatives’ future electoral prospects.

But there is a deeper reason why Labour should take no joy from Lib Dem malaise. The two parties, though proudly independent, have a strikingly similar critique of the Tories: they have mismanaged the economy and degraded public services. This broadly progressive narrative helped condemn the Tories to three consecutive defeats from 1997-2005.

Yet when the script is ripped up – as it was in 2015 – both parties are left disoriented. It was the twin forces of English and Scottish nationalism that helped condemn Miliband to defeat as Tory austerity and the “cost-of-living crisis” fell down the agenda.

Today, the joker in the electoral pack is Reform UK. The right-populist party last month moved ahead of the Lib Dems in average polling for the first time. As Nigel Farage’s spectre torments the Tories, his new franchise enjoys ever-greater media attention.

Reform is, above all, a problem for Rishi Sunak: 25 per cent of 2019 Tory voters are now backing the party. But its presence could yet complicate matters for Labour and the Lib Dems. It shifts the terms of debate to the right and heightens the risk that all three parties are dismissed as “the Westminster establishment”, united in blame for the Post Office scandal and much else. “They toxify the well completely, Farage is a toxic character,” a senior Labour aide lamented of Reform.

For all the past enmity between them, Labour and the Lib Dems have a shared interest in an election defined by one thing: the defeat of the Conservatives. Their mission now is to avoid the theme changing.

[See also: The woman hunting Ed Davey]

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