Can the Liberal Democrats make a comeback? by Jonathan Purcell

The leaking of Labour’s Manifesto prompted a plethora of comparisons to former Labour Party Leader, Michael Foot’s 1983 Manifesto. Whether or not comparisons are valid, this is a discussion for another day. Regardless, it certainly highlights a curiously interesting link between the two elections. After all, Michael Foot faced then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in that election, who Theresa May has been compared to regularly since her appointment as Prime Minister. Both elections also mark a Conservative Party that has been pushing further right wing and a Labour Party that has been pushing left wing.

Needless to say, most of the focus has been on the two major parties. However, this increasing polarisation in UK (and indeed Global) politics, leads to a curiously vacant “centrist” middle ground. The death of New Labour was in 2010, with the appointment of pro-unions “red” Ed Miliband. Nowadays, Ed Miliband may be considered less radical when compared to his successor, but in reality, the death of New Labour along with David Cameron’s resignation as Prime Minister has drastically shifted the political spectrum.

Perhaps now is the time for the Liberal Democrats to re-emerge as a genuine third option for voters. Marginal parties such as UKIP and the SNP have surged since the financial crash of 2008, so why has the “established” third party not done as well in the past? And are these problems solvable to allow the Lib Dems to finally take advantage of their unique lack of competition for the centre ground?

Rise of Tertiary Parties

Indeed, the acceptance of “third” parties has flourished in recent years, even though it has sometimes been at the expense of the Lib Dems themselves. Nonetheless, people are far more willing to vote for third parties now, which has been reflected in Green Party, SNP, and UKIP successes in the last two elections. The perception of third party voting being a “wasted vote” seems to have dissipated especially given the effectiveness of UKIP in pressuring a Referendum. This could lead to a lot of support mounting for the Lib Dems in this election.

Centralisation vs. Polarisation

Some might read this and think that all of the third parties that have seen success recently have been far left or far right parties. It is certainly true that politics has become polarised the world over since the financial crash, but it has now been almost a decade since the Credit Crunch.

It is hard to predict whether politics is just beginning to return to a more normalised central ground, but the Presidential election in France this year points towards that. Macron, a centrist, beat far right candidate Le Pen to epitomise this return to centralised politics. Perhaps the repercussions of Brexit and Trump have shocked voters into a more centralised viewpoint. If this is the case, then the Lib Dems could be on for a hefty return in seats.

However, it is all good and well taking note of broad trends, but in order to truly get a feel for how the Liberal Democrats are going to do, we need to break down their areas of support.

Implications of Opposing Brexit

The Liberal Democrats are also the only major party that are unified in opposition of Brexit. This is in hard contrast to both Labour and the Conservatives who are split, and sending mixed messages about wanting a soft or hard Brexit. This may convince many remain voters, who may have voted Labour in the past, to vote for the Liberal Democrats, in hope of a softer Brexit.

However, this works both ways. This could just as easily prove instrumental to their failure as well as their success in this election. For instance, in 2010, the Lib Dems had 15 seats in the South West, and it comprised a significant proportion of their support. The Conservatives took much of the South West in 2015, and given the importance of the fishing industry and the high pro-Brexit vote, the Lib Dems may have little chance of reclaiming the South West with such an anti-Brexit platform.

The Scottish National Party

As well as the South West, another former Liberal heartland was Scotland. 11 of the Lib Dem’s 57 seats in 2010 came from Scottish constituencies. However, the SNP 2015 landslide saw them take 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats, leaving the Lib Dems with only one Scottish seat in Orkney and Shetland. Given the momentum for another independence referendum, Scottish voters may again vote SNP to make their views heard. This could result in the Lib Dems gaining little or no seats in the Scottish region, which would be a huge blow to a traditionally strong area for them.

Final Prediction

Assuming that the Liberal Democrats face limited success in a resurgence in the South West and Scotland, this would cost them 25 of the seats they won in 2010. However, other areas, such as the South East, Wales and especially London, could expect a reclaiming of former heartlands.

Also, the Lib Dems are expected to take a small number of seats from Labour that they have not ever won due to the perceived weakness of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. In total, this should place the Liberal Democrats with approximately 30 seats, give or take 5. They should not expect to have as disastrous a result as 2015, but it is a far cry from Tim Farron’s talk of the Lib Dems becoming the official opposition.

About Jonathan

Jonathan is a dual citizen who primarily takes an interest in Irish and British politics respectively.

He studies History at University College London.

His primary political interests include foreign affairs and election/campaign strategy.

Jonathan Purcell

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