At the 1983 general election, which took place the year after the Falklands war, the then Liberal/SDP alliance (the two parties from which the Lib Dems were formed following a merger), polled 25.4% of the vote but won only 23 seats. Labour, under the erratic and even hapless leadership of the late Michael Foot, and offering a radical left wing manifesto (unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from NATO and the nationalisation of banks and leading companies were some of the more moderate policies) that Gerald Kaufman called the “longest suicide note in history”, won 27.6% of the vote and 209 seats. Even the most tribal Labour supporter would agree that the 1983 result was unfair, even profoundly undemocratic.
The first-past-the post electoral system has entrenched the unfairness of the two party system and meant that the Lib Dems appeared destined to remain a minority party – until, that was, the 2010 general election, after which the coalition government was formed, shutting Labour out of power for a full five years because of the introduction of fixed-term parliaments.
Clegg has evolved a clear message that the Lib Dems are the party of the centre ground and can act as a moderating influence
On first appearances, the experience of government has not been good for the Lib Dems. Having aspired to replace Labour as the second party of British politics in 2010, they now trail the UK Independence Party in the polls. Their leader Nick Clegg’s personal poll ratings are even worse than those of Labour’s Ed Miliband, who is so unpopular there have been mutterings that he would face a leadership challenge if only the party could find a credible alternative candidate.
Since the general election, the Lib Dems have lost more than 1,000 councillors and a third of their members. They have 11 MPs in Scotland (out of 57 altogether) but only one or two of these are expected to retain their seat in 2015. Meanwhile, the party has increasingly been struggling to fund its campaign operations.
Yet, at the same time, senior Lib Dems, certainly those on the liberal, free-market wing of the party, such as Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws, are surprisingly chipper. They were hugely encouraged that the party managed to hold on to the seat of Eastleigh in the by-election that followed the resignation of Chris Huhne.
As the result in Eastleigh demonstrated, their activists remain formidable local campaigners and are highly motivated and adept at defending hard-won territory. Their national poll ratings may be terrible but their support has become highly localised and is indeed resilient.
Clegg knows this and that’s why his confidence has returned of late. He no longer looks so fatigued and anguished. He knows too that, because of the failures of the Labour Party to offer a coherent alternative to the coalition, and because the Conservatives have been decisively beaten in Scotland and much of the north of England, neither of the two main parties seems capable of winning a majority in 2015. The vagaries of the British electoral system, under which Labour needs a lead of just 1% on a uniform swing to win a majority, while the Conservatives require a lead of 7%, are now paradoxically a source of further encouragement to Clegg, the ardent campaigner for PR who has benefitted from first-past-the-post.
Unless there is a dramatic change of fortunes or a black swan event, the Lib Dems will again hold the balance of power at Westminster after the next election.
What’s more, Clegg has evolved a clear message: the Lib Dems are the party of the centre ground and can act as a moderating influence on Labour’s statist profligacy and Conservative arrogance. In short, all the indicators suggest that parliament remains hung and the Lib Dems who, by 2015, will have had five years in power, may well be set for another five. And to recall that a former Liberal leader, David Steel, was roundly ridiculed when, in 1981, he closed the party’s annual conference with the declaration: “Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for government!”