Is this the end for the Liberal Democrats?

The election results show that the space for anti-establishment parties is on the right and the left, not in the centre.

Max Kiefel
15 May 2015
Former Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy PM Nick Clegg.

Flickr/Liberal Democrats. Some rights reserved.

Nick Clegg, the outgoing leader of the Liberal Democrats, argued in his resignation letter that ‘the history books will judge our party kindly for the service we sought to provide to the nation at a time of great economic difficulty and for the policies and values which we brought to bear on government – opportunity, fairness and liberty…’ This sentiment was clearly rejected by the electorate as the Lib Dems suffered a swing against them of 15.2%, amounting to a loss of 49 of their 57 seats.

The general explanation for this demolition is convincing. The party abandoned its traditional supporters – students, recent graduates and middle class professionals – in joining the Tory-led coalition government. This explanation leads to a deeper analysis: there is no space for the Lib Dems’ brand of centrism in British politics. And worryingly for whomever the party chooses to be Clegg’s successor, the nature of the new minor parties demonstrate there is little space for the Lib Dems in British politics at all.

No room in the centre

The structure of the contemporary British party system is a product of the major parties’ ideological convergence. This began in the 1970s as neoliberalism began to weaken the power of the organised working classes. Thatcher’s economic restructuring towards a services-based economy led to significant unemployment for the working class. In turn, cutting key elements of the welfare state, such as the access to public housing, led to the division of the working class. These reforms split the working class as the more aspirational and socially mobile joined the ranks of the lower middle class.

However, neoliberal reforms created substantial long-term economic insecurity and unemployment for unskilled and lower educated members of the working class. In their account of UKIP’s rise, Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin provide compelling analysis of the working class’s decline. They show that between the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964 and Tony Blair’s “New Labour” in 1997, blue-collar voters declined from 50% to 30%, trade union membership fell from 40% to 21%, and the number of people living in public housing dropped from 30% to 14%.

Similar indicators reveal the expansion of the middle class in the same period. Home ownership rose from under 50% to over 70%, the completion rate of tertiary education from 5% to 20%, and those who worked in middle class jobs increased from 30% to over 50%. The sheer size of the middle class ensured it had the sole power to determine electoral outcomes. Instead of representing partisan social divisions, the major parties attempted to appeal to “mass” interests in society. This led to the preponderance of middle class economic and social liberalism in party agendas.

Using data from the Comparative Manifesto Project, the graph below confirms Tony Blair’s influence over Labour policy as the party converged quite rapidly on the centre ground in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In this way the British party system came to be structured almost exclusively around middle class values.

Post-WWII Major Party Ideological Trends

Manifesto Graph
Source: The Manifesto Data Collection, Comparative Manifesto Project 2013.

Despite this limited policy space, the Lib Dems grew in the early 2000s by taking progressive stands to the left of Labour on issues that did concern the middle class. They targeted Labour’s policies on tuition fees, climate change and the Iraq War. This saw the party gain widespread support among students and middle class progressives, helping the party to expand in urban areas and develop out of its base in south-west England.

But, as was acknowledged by former leader David Steel, the Lib Dems’ popularity was enhanced by its reputation as a party that could provide opposition to the political establishment. In this way the Lib Dems developed a niche in British political space by avoiding centrism at all costs and effectively understanding its base.

As is well established, by joining a Tory coalition the Lib Dems quashed this identity. Students were betrayed by Clegg’s walk back on abolishing tuition frees, while in supporting austerity the party lost any moniker of progressive liberal zeal. Clegg’s vision for the party to be ‘a steely, liberal outfit that wins voters’ respect by being a hard-nosed kingmaker rather than through opportunistic posturing’ patronises those voters that had supported the party’s rise.

In reality, the Liberal Democrats’ push to the centre in order to provide ‘responsible governance’ and ‘make the Coalition work’ served to demonstrate that there is no space in British politics for a small, centrist, socially liberal but economically neoliberal political party.

The rise of the minor parties

So where do the Lib Dems go now? With the political establishment entrenched for now, the results of the 2015 general election are a clear indication that the space for anti-establishment parties is on the right and the left, not the centre.

The SNP, UKIP and the Green Party, while clearly from different points on the spectrum, together commanded just short of six and a half million votes. For UKIP and the Green Party this vote share only translated into one seat each, yet its gain in votes amidst the Lib Dems’ collapse does represent the latent anti-establishment support in England.

The remarkable rise of the SNP is a good starting point. While Labour was undoubtedly the biggest loser in Scotland, the Lib Dems also suffered an effective wipeout as they held just one of their eleven seats.

This result served as a clear message that Labour and the Lib Dems were at odds with the values and interests of the Scottish people. The SNP’s campaign portrayed the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems as all in cahoots, pointing to their alliance under the Better Together banner. While the SNP’s manifesto indicates a left-wing ideology, its anti-establishment narrative rests on the Scottish people as being ignored and abandoned by Westminster.

Importantly, the Lib Dems’ showing in Scotland indicated Scottish supporters of the party had changed their notion of opposition. In the past, Scottish Lib Dem voters were voting against the Labour party. In voting against the Lib Dems and for Scottish nationalism they found a new, more radical form of anti-establishment, that opposed Westminster rule entirely.

South of the Scottish border, the Lib Dems did not lose many voters directly to UKIP. UKIP’s radical right attack on the political establishment clearly comes from a different base to the Lib Dems. But what the Lib Dems have lost to UKIP is their status in England. UKIP more than doubled the Lib Dem vote. While they only won one seat in the process, UKIP did come second in 120 seats, predominantly in the North and East. Only Labour and the Tories finished with more second place results. In comparison the Lib Dems managed just 63 second place finishes.

While it lacks the seats to show this status, UKIP can now claim to be the third party of English politics and can campaign in many of these seats as the only viable alternative to the Tory/Labour establishment. Ford and Goodwin show UKIP has given voice to many voters who were abandoned under the middle class-centric party system. There is little room for Lib Dems to contend here.

A Green Party billboard.

Flickr/samsaundersleeds. Some rights reserved.

It is the Green Party that has attracted many of the Lib Dem voters in England. While the Green Party finished with just one seat and with less total votes than the Lib Dems, they have emerged in areas that show there is latent support for the left.

Running on a clear anti-austerity agenda, the Green Party retained Caroline Lucas’ seat in Brighton, while finishing second in four seats: Manchester Gorton, Sheffield Central, Liverpool Riverside and Bristol West. The first three seats indicate a left-wing threat in working class Labour areas, but it is the latter that should be of most concern to the Lib Dems. In Bristol West the Green Party enjoyed a 23% swing to finish behind Labour and ahead of the Lib Dem incumbent, Stephen Williams.

This result typified the incursions the Green Party has made in south-west England, the Lib Dems’ traditional base. Considered alongside the Green Party’s success in urban areas in the North and in London, this indicates the party’s growing support stems from similar groups who had formerly backed the Lib Dems in the early 2000s. The Green Party’s results in both Lib Dem and Labour heartlands show it has the potential to go much further than the Lib Dems ever did. In the current electoral climate, a party that attacks the establishment from the left has more space to grow than by attempting to temper it from the centre.

The major parties that comprise the political establishment face major hurdles. For David Cameron’s majority government, the pending referendum on Britain’s place on the EU will likely see internal tensions spill into the public domain. Equally, the Labour party appears torn on whether to return to Blairism. This will present anti-establishment parties with plenty of opportunity, as previously silent voter blocks vocalise their disdain for the mainstream. There does not appear to be any space for the centrist Lib Dems in this new dynamic. 

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