Sean Fear’s Friday Slot

Sean Fear’s Friday Slot

    Could the Lib Dems Replace Labour?

An electoral system based on First Past the Post forces voters to choose between two alternatives. Constituencies that are three (or even four) way marginals rarely remain in that position for very long. Sooner or later, they revert to a two way contest. Sometimes, the party that originally held the seat will be relegated to a distant third place.

What is true at constituency level has historically been true at national level. There is a centre-right party, and there is a centre-left party, and the voters have to make a choice between them. However, that may no longer be the case. There are now 92 MPs who are aligned to neither the Conservative or Labour parties, the highest number since the 1920s. Does this suggest an end to the historic choice between two sides, or will this system reassert itself.

The experience of the 1920s suggests the latter. From 1918 to 1931, there was never any doubt that the Conservatives would remain a contender for national political power. On the centre left, things were much more confused. In 1918, 1922, and 1923, the Liberals and Labour were level-pegging, in terms of vote share, and in the latter two elections, not far apart in terms of seats. In 1924, a Conservative landslide saw the Liberals virtually wiped out, but the party’s vote recovered somewhat in 1929. The Liberals’ decision to support the National Government in 1931 saw it win additional seats, at Labour’s expense, before subsequent divisions, and the absorption of the National Liberals into the Conservative Party, saw the Liberals disappear as a party of government. By 1933 at the latest, it was clear that if you wanted to vote out the Conservatives, you had to vote Labour, and vice versa.

Personality clashes between the Liberal leaders, and poor organisation on the ground certainly contributed to the party’s decline. Quite often, rival Liberal factions fielded candidates against each other, and seats that returned a Liberal MP in one election, were left unfought in the next. Strikingly, the Liberals won around 300 seats at least once between 1918-31, but only 24 in all six elections. Worse for the Liberals was the ongoing loss of support among urban working class voters, particularly in mining areas, and the East End. There was a significant body of working class rural voters, and middle class nonconformists, who switched back and forth between the Conservatives and Liberals, but once urban working class voters switched to Labour, they tended to stay Labour. In 1929, for example, an impressive gain of 38 seats from the Conservatives was offset by loss of 19 seats to Labour. When the Liberals did regain urban working class seats, as in 1931, it was almost always because of electoral pacts with the Conservatives, which alienated left-leaning voters in the long term. Labour was utterly ruthless towards the Liberals. The Liberals’ willingness to form anti-Conservative pacts in the 1900s was not reciprocated by Labour in the 1920s, who preferred to see Conservative MPs elected, so long as their rival on the Left was destroyed. The Conservatives preferred to kill the Liberal party with kindness, entering into anti-Labour pacts that ended up by drawing Liberal MPs and members into Conservative ranks.

So, could the experience of the 1920s be repeated, only in reverse? Could the Liberal Democrats eclipse the Labour party, and restore the traditional two-party system in a new form? Labour’s membership has fallen by more than half since 1997, and the Liberal Democrats have almost as many councillors as Labour do, so they’re unlikely to get a better chance.

Unusually, the Liberal Democrats did make a substantial net gain from Labour, in 2005, eleven seats. Importantly, an important section of former Labour voters, left-leaning urban intellectuals, switched from Labour to the Liberal Democrats, because of their anger over the Iraq War, tuition fees, and civil liberties issues. Where such voters are numerous, there are still seats that the Liberal Democrats can gain, such as Oxford East, Islington South, and Glasgow North. And I think there is a good chance that such voters are permanently lost to Labour. However, the Liberal Democrats cannot expect to eclipse Labour with the backing of just these voters. There aren’t enough of them.

To cause real damage to Labour, the Liberal Democrats would have to win back a chunk of the working class voters they lost in the 1920s, in places like the North East, and Yorkshire. To date, there is little sign that they can appeal to such voters, who form the real bedrock of Labour’s support. What’s more, the Liberal Democrats will have to become a good deal more ruthless towards Labour than they have been in the past. The Labour party has consistently used, and then discarded, the Liberal Democrats (and the Liberals), some of whom appear far keener on forming a “progressive alliance” with Labour, than on eclipsing Labour. For example, it’s hard to see what the Liberals gained from propping up Jim Callaghan’s government, or what they will gain from sparing Labour from defeat over the EU Treaty. Labour would never act in this way, if the positions were reversed, as their appetite for power is much keener.

Last night saw just two by-elections. One produced an excellent result for the Liberal Democrats. The other was disappointing for them.

Basingstoke & Deane Borough: Braughurst. Lib Dem 428, Conservative 368. Liberal Democrat gain from Conservative, with a 20% swing. This means the Conservatives have lost overall control of the council, but will retain the Mayor’s casting vote.

Sandwell Metropolitan Borough: Newton. Labour 844, Lib Dem 809, Conservative 587, Green 45. Labour gain from Liberal Democrat. I have been advised that this seat has been held by the Liberal Democrats for 25 years, so they must be disappointed. In all likelihood, the intervention of the Green, and a modest rise in the Conservative vote share was just enough to cost them this seat.

Sean Fear
is a London Tory activist

A note from Mike Smithson: I’m off to London shortly for the PBC party. I’ve put automated comment control on which means that new posters and old posters using new names, won’t see their contribution published instantly. It might be several hours.

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