Ouch! Lib Dems suffer first anti-government backlash in 80 years

by Stephen Tall on May 6, 2011

The words ‘Good morning’ may seem overly ironic if you’re a Lib dem waking up this morning to the news of the party’s pretty awful 2011 election results. Here’s a quick round-up for those who’ve avoided the media so far today…

Scotland: a huge night for the SNP, with the Lib Dems and Labour both suffering a rout at the hands of the nationalists. With 59 of 73 results declared, the Lib Dems have just four seats, a loss of seven. It sounds like the party will end up with six MSPs, down from 16.

Wales: a good night for Labour, who have a slim chance still of gaining an overall majority of the 60 seats. However, at least here it seems as if the Lib Dems have avoided the horror of the Scottish results: it looks like the party will have five AMs, down from six — though the loss of the Cardiff Central seat is a bitter pill.

England: along with Scotland, it is the northern towns and cities where the Lib Dems have taken the hardest hammering. Just two out of our 14 Liverpool seats have been successfully defended; none in Manchester; and we’ve lost control of four councils, including Sheffield, Hull and Stockport. The Tories haven’t suffered an anti-government backlash in these areas — largely, of course, because they have few seats in these areas. Instead it’s the Lib dems who’ve taken the hit, and we’ve so far suffered a net loss of 270 councillors.

However, most English local election results, especially in the south, have yet to come in. It will be interesting to see how the party fares here, especially where the battle is against our Coalition partners, the Conservatives. There are a couple of glimmers of hope, at least. In Eastleigh, perhaps the party’s flagship council, not only has the party retained control, but we’ve taken three seats from the Tories. In Portsmouth, the party successfully defended nine of the 10 seats, and retained control of the council. Given the majority of Lib Dem MPs face Tory opposition, the degree of edginess felt in the parliamentary party will be significantly affected by how the Lib Dem / Tory battlegrounds look.

National projected share of the vote: This is currently estimated as (with estimated 2007 shares in brackets): Labour 37% (+10%), Tories 35% (-5%), Lib Dems 15% (-11%). That’s better than YouGov’s current polling suggests the party is doing; but only in line with ICM’s. My guesstimate would therefore be that the party’s current national rating is about 12%.

Reaction so far: there’s been no attempt to suggest these elections are anything other than a severe setback for the party, especially given the Lib Dems’ strength has traditionally been in local government. Lib Dem president Tim Farron commented:

“I guess what we’re seeing is something from a personal point of view which is very, very difficult to take, but something I suppose is inevitable. What we’re seeing, I suppose, is the first Lib Dem mid-term for 80 years.”

Nick Clegg has accepted the party’s being punished, especially in the north, for a perception that the Coalition is too right-wing: “there are some very strong memories of what life was like under Thatcherism in the 1980s and somehow a theory that that’s what we’re returning to.”

Paddy Ashdown commented ruefully: “We believed, perhaps a little over-optimistically that the British people would understand the difference between compromise and betrayal.”

While former Liverpool Lib Dem leader Richard kemp, one of the few of the party’s councillors still standing, spoke opf the resilience the party has had to demonstrate over the decades:

“I’ve been a member of this party for 45 years. It was written off before I joined it…There’s always going to be a core of us that are liberal that have nowhere else to go, that are proud to be liberal.”

You can find more Lib Dem reaction over at PoliticsHome here.