Are the Lib Dems finished?

In 2010 it was all going so well for Nick Clegg and his party. 57 seats in Parliament, 65,000 members, a chance to have a real influence in how the country was governed with a coalition with the Conservatives. Just 5 years later the picture was a lot bleaker. 8 seats in the Commons, 60,000 members, no leader and big names like Vince Cable and Danny Alexander without seats.

Many reasons have been suggested for why the party suffered such a catastrophic defeat last year, some of the most likely ones include how they lost ground to the Tories in the south and the SNP in Scotland, how they were hurt by being a part of an unpopular coalition with the Conservatives and the way that they weren’t distinctive enough, just somewhere in between Labour and the Tories.

A year on, the party shows few signs of recovering. Whilst membership is up to 70,000 under new leader Tim Farron, the Lib Dems have little impact in the House of Commons with just 8 MPs and get precious little coverage in the media. Britain’s former third party is now dwarfed in the Commons by the SNP (which has 54 seats) and a poll this week suggested that they are up just 0.2% on their 2015 performance to 8% of the total vote share.

OK so maybe in 2020 the Lib Dems will be able to gain a few seats and will have 15, maybe even 20 MPs by then. But the real question is can they ever get back to being the UK’s 3rd party and have 50, 60 seats again. The answer to the first part of that question seems to be no. With the SNP’s 54 seats looking very safe, at first glance it seems that it will be extremely hard for the Lib Dems to overtake them.

Around 20% (10) of the seats that Clegg’s party lost last year were to the SNP in Scotland, seats that are unlikely to be re-taken at the next election. However, there are two possible events that could have an effect on Farron’s party:

The first is a second independence referendum for Scotland. If Scotland vote to leave the UK, as current polls suggest is possible if there was another referendum, the Lib Dems would clearly be the 3rd largest party (giving them access to more funding). But that doesn’t mean a lot as there is a limit to what a party can do with only 8 MPs: more seats is what they really need. The good news for them is that if Scotland left the UK they would only lose a single seat… but so would the Tories and Labour.

Something else that could make a difference to the Lib Dems’ fortunes would be if Corbyn manages to fight off a challenge to his leadership in the coming months. First of all, as current polls suggest, Labour would lose lots of seats. However, the Lib Dems’ strongest region is the South-West where Labour is traditionally weak. This means that of the seats that Labour loses, few would be in areas that the Lib Dems could capitalise on as Labour had few seats to start with in the South-West.

Conservative Labour Lib Dem UKIP
2015 election result 37 30 8 13
2016 ICM poll 47 23 8 13

This week’s ICM poll (see table) indicates that the vast majority of votes lost by Labour would be gained by the Tories and that the Lib Dems would fail to capitalise on this (their vote share is unchanged). In addition, most of the seats in England that the Liberal Democrats lost were to the Conservatives. In this way, having Corbyn as Labour leader would disadvantage the Lib Dems as it would make the Conservatives, their main rival, stronger.

My case here is a bit of a generalisation but the point is clear, while the Lib Dems could gain a little by two (not that likely but possible) events, there doesn’t seem anything on the horizon that could dramatically boost the party’s fortunes. For me, the Lib Dems aren’t ‘finished’ but I really can’t see them ever being able to return to the party that they once were. In a time of political turmoil the poll indicates that the party has failed to sell itself as a safe pair of hands, something it once prided itself on.

The only real alternative seems to be to form a new party, possibly with Labour MPs if they defect following a Corbyn victory. I think that the Lib Dems need a new face and a new name. Realistically there is nothing else that they can do that will transform them into the party that they once were and with just 8 MPs the party is too small to win over the masses. Only time will tell if this actually happens but Farron needs to be bold as if the Liberal Democrats don’t do something now, they will struggle even more to connect with voters. Politics can often be a slippery slope, something that Tim Farron and his team really don’t want to find themselves going down.