What lessons does the past offer for the future?
If there is one thing history teaches us it’s that the Liberals invariably face a challenging time at the polls following a period of Labour government.
Indeed, taken together, the evidence from a string of post-Labour government 20th century elections makes for depressing reading. That said, recent electoral history does offer a glimmer of hope.
This downward trend in Liberal support began with the election of the first – minority – Labour government of 1923, when Ramsay MacDonald became prime minister with Liberal support.
The Liberals came within a whisker of Labour in the popular vote, taking 29.6 per cent to Labour’s 30.5 per cent, but, with 159 seats to Labour’s 191, were obliged to let Labour try to form a government. But less than a year later, when MacDonald’s government collapsed and Britain again went to the polls, the Liberals crashed and burned, so to speak, polling 17.6 per cent of the vote and emerging with just 40 seats.
In 1931, following the election of another minority Labour government two years earlier, in 1929, things were complicated by the emergence of a National Government, which saw the Liberal vote split three ways with disastrous consequences, as well as a collapse in the Labour vote.
But the usual pattern re-emerged in 1951, when the Conservatives took office after the 1945-51 Labour government, and the Liberal vote slumped to a historic low of 2.5 per cent, with just six Liberal MPs surviving.
Following a Liberal revival at the 1964 election, and the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government (when the party gained 11.2 per cent of the vote), the party again lost ground in the subsequent 1966 (8.5 per cent) and 1970 (7.5 per cent) elections — even if, thanks to the vagaries of the electoral system, it emerged with three more seats (12 in all) in 1966 but just six in 1970.
Fast forward to 1979, and the Liberal Party again saw its vote fall back – to 13.8 per of the vote compared to 18.3 per cent in October 1974 – with a consequent drop in seats. Then leader David Steel is convinced the party’s victory in the Edge Hill by-election just weeks before the 1979 poll gave the party “a valuable eve of election bounce”.
However, the evidence from the last two elections — following the 1997-2001 Labour government — is less clear-cut.
In 2001 the party emerged with 1.5 per cent more of the popular vote (18.3 per cent) and six more seats (52) than in 1997; and the upward trend continued in 2005 when the party gained 22.1 per cent of the vote and 62 seats.
So have the Liberal Democrats finally reversed the traditonal downward spiral of support sufferd by the Liberals after a period of Labour office? And does this bode well for the next (most likely 2010) election?
It’s hard to say. The Liberal Democrats are undoubtedly stronger and better organised than the Liberal Party was for many a decade beforehand. And depending on how the electoral dice land, there is even a possibility that the party could end up holding the balance of power at the next election.
However, the key factors in determining whether or not the Liberal Democrats can again buck the trend of electoral decline are likely to be (1) the strength of the surge in Conservative support, (2) the size of the drop in Labour support, and (3) the extent to which the Lib Dems can hold on to their vote in their electoral strongholds up and down the land.
All one can say with any real certainty at this stage is that 2010 is likely to present the party with its toughest electoral challenge for many a year.
* York Membery is a contributing editor to the Journal of Liberal History.