New Statesman’s advice to Lib Dem-baiters: “Don’t count those pesky Lib Dems out just yet”

by Stephen Tall on October 23, 2010

The latest YouGov poll showing the Lib Dems at 10%, one of the party’s worst ratings in years, has excited comment, especially and not surprisingly among those who are pleased to see the Lib Dems struggling. Less surprisingly still, YouGov’s fndings attract more publicity among our critics than ICM’s polls, which show the party consistently at or around the 18% mark.

Credit, therefore, to the New Statesman’s Sholto Byrnes for bringing a quality on scarce display in political commentary: a sense of perspective:

Ever since I entered journalism I have noticed how quick many, if not most, commentators and political reporters are to dismiss Liberal Democrats as no-hopers not to be taken seriously, frequently rating their consequence by their relatively low numbers of MPs rather than the sizeable proportion of the electorate who have taken a different view – and voted for them. … not only have they been there 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. … In [1989], the recently merged party achieved only six 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 ten per cent.

And yet. In 1992, the Liberal Democrat share of the vote was just shy of 18 per cent, dropping one 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 Liberal Democrat 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 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.

Sholto’s conclusion:

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. … don’t count those pesky Lib Dems out just yet.

Now, before the C-word — complacency — is thrown around, let me be clear… the threat posed to the party by being in the Coalition is a real one. Though the party has been gaining members (just how many we will shortly see when the party publishes the ballot results for the all-member party presidency election), it has lost some long-standing activists, unable to stomach Coalition with the Tories, and/or the polices resulting from it. That trend may continue, both as the spending cuts bite, and if poor local election results unseat hard-working local councillors. The party knew — though perhaps did not fully appreciate back in those heady days of May — that the next few years would be tough ones in which to be a Liberal Democrat.

But just as complacency is entirely the wrong reaction, so too is pessimistic foreboding of the inevitability of the party’s wipeout whenever the next general election is held. We do not, can not, and will not know the political circumstances which will decide it for at least another two or three years (assuming, as currently seems most likely, the Coalition lasts most or all of the Parliament). There is a long way still to go, and it’s way too early to write off the Liberal Democrats.