Opinion: The next election?


Three Lib Dem gains in council by-elections coinciding with Tim Farron’s election as leader are great news. They invite the language of a gradual comeback to a much improved result in 2020.

But is the next General Election five years away?

In the normal course of events the Conservative majority of 15 would be vulnerable to defections and losses through by-elections. In the last parliament, there were two defections from the Tories to UKIP and 21 by-elections. It is entirely possible that they would seek form a minority government, but the Tories would lose their overall majority of just eight seats moved to other parties. In the normal course of events, that happening in this parliament would be far from implausible.

The EU referendum adds another layer to this. Events in Scotland since September offer a sharp reminder of how much a referendum can affect the whole political landscape. Among the possible scenarios are:

  • a victory for the “yes” campaign leading disgruntled eurosceptic Tories to conclude they have no future in the Tory party and defect to UKIP;
  • the fissure in the Tory party over Europe becoming so toxic that some of the Europhile Tories move to the LibDems;
  • divided loyalties among Tories who are cool towards the EU but believe in the a United Kingdom and realise the pressure for Scots independence would rise if we had a “no” vote creating a very difficult working environment in Westminster;
  • this Europe referendum leading to a new party emerging from the Tories, much as the last one led to the formation of the SDP out of the Labour party.

Each of these would point to an early general election.

On top on of that, I have heard one Tory MP talk of repealing the Fixed Term Parliaments Act as it was “only there to appease Liberal Democrats in coalition”. If they do that, then all bets would be off. In case that sounds far-fetched, a story in The Independent suggests Labour are heading for oblivion. That might well be an exaggeration, but I could understand huge pressure in the Tory party for a General Election before the Labour Party have found a solution to that problem.

The prospect of an early General Election, probably at short notice, lends an urgency to getting PPCs in place so there is time to do the things in the community and in the media that build support and trust. Those things take time, and are an alternative to deploying vast financial resources we don’t have.

But this is about more than just the next general election. An active PPC helps build the support that pays dividends in local and European elections. My own instinct is that PPCs will also have a key role in the campaign over the EU referendum, both pushing for a “Yes” result and helping “Yes” votes translate into support for the Liberal Democrats.

Now we have sorted our own leadership election there are plenty of reasons to be ready for a general election sooner than we think, and plenty to be gained by preparing well in advance.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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  • An election before a referendum is most unlikely. Moreover Osborne’s strategy seems to require 5 years. Nonetheless you are right to highlight the EU fissure in the Tories; the reason why there is to be a referendum at all.

    I think we need to be very, very careful about how we handle a referendum campaign. To win it, Cameron will pile on the negative reasons and the fear factor, including the SNP bogeymen again. ‘Yes’ votes borne out of fear will not translate to us. I think that anything other than an overwhelming vote to stay in will create a backlash, from which we shall have to do our utmost to avoid.

    I do not think we should contemplate standing alongside the Tories, nor do I think we should squander our depleted resources. We must put the positive case for cooperation across Europe for trade, the environment and security and minimise the fears and dangers of a Brexit. In fact though I do think there are some very real and alarming dangers, but highlighting them will do us no good at all if the vote is to stay in. If there were a vote to leave, the chaos would be both economic and political and consequently social. A backlash would work for us and a number of Conservatives might well defect.

    By-elections are rather random, we would be very lucky to have one where we can make a strong impact. A couple of ‘wrong’ by-elections just before a referendum in which UKIP prosper could be a horrible nightmare. The problem is that UKIP are likely to bang on ever more raucously about immigration and my guess is that Labour will try to tap into the anti immigrant agenda, trying to prove how ‘tough’ they are, rather than defend immigrants’ rights.

    Labour may well have their problems, but so do we. The most recent polls had us on 6%, we have a leader who is largely unknown outside Lib Dem circles and a brand that needs a much stronger definition. Developing our local strengths and planning to have PPCs in place early can certainly help, but overall we need to aim to put forward the principles of Liberalism in a way that makes it hard for people to claim that they do not know whatt Liberal Democrats stand for.

  • Richard Church 20th Jul '15 - 9:00pm

    The repeal of the fixed term parliament act was not in the Tory manifesto. That means it would be very difficult to get any repeal bill through the House of Lords. Without its repeal an early General election would require a two thirds majority in the House of Commons. It’s not going to happen.

  • I am a eurosceptic Labour voter who will back Corbyn in the leadership – purely because the others are corporate bots and I also think on certain issues, we need to return to the left (rail / post / utility re-nationalisation), higher corporation tax and so on.

    That said I like Farron. He has a personality, he does not appear to be another corporate drone, he has principles and he seems to have a sense of humour. I’d hope any pro-EU campaign he does is separate from the Tories, and that he focuses on more than the corporate line, unlike Clegg did with Nigel Farage, and covers other issues such as human rights and working with other nations. I want out, but I think Farron can put a decent passionate case for in.

    As a side note, I hope Farron will also see the TTIP for what it is too. Charles Kennedy seemed very sceptical of it.

  • If the Tories were to lose their overall majority then there are 10 DUP / UU MP’s waiting in the wings with a list of requests.

  • Martin,
    There has been one ICM poll that put us on 6%, not “polls” (unless you count Scottish ones, which have us on 5 or 8%). Other polls since the election had us on 9% and 8%. We are basically unchanged nationally but locally people seem prepared to give (lend?) us their vote again, where we are credible…

    I agree that we should mount a positive EU campaign. As Goatboy suggests, Farron is the man for this, and could gain us respect in the process. From the perspective of 8% though, I don’t think the Euro campaign is particularly fraught with danger for us, but I don’t want us to be associated with a fear-based campaign – leave that to the Tories

  • Defections happen usually when a party is on the wane. If you were a Tory MP would you defect to UKIP, Labour or the LibDems?

  • Just as the consequences of a “No” vote in the Scottish referendum were unpredicted (and perhaps unpredictable), one has to believe that a “Yes” victory in the EU referendum might yield something quite different from the status quo ante. But at this point I have much less confidence in the ability of Yes to win the EU referendum than I had for the eventual victory of No in the Scottish referendum. If Brexit goes ahead, then I would certainly expect another complete change in the political landscape, once again in ways that are very difficult to predict. But certainly in that case UKIP would lose much of its attractive force.

  • Also, all Party members really need to stop trying to find their comfort zone in unrealistic (not to say impossible) scenarios. This was a huge flaw in this year’s campaign — very few people, and none at the top, were willing to admit to just how dire the situation was. The time has come to be very frank, both within the upper ranks of the Party and between the leadership and the members, about what the Lib Dems can realistically hope to achieve; and not cling to fairy tales about the imminent demise of this or that party which will presumably put the Lib Dems back in play. Miracles are not going to happen. The Liberal Democrats are going to have to scratch and claw their way back to a position of influence; it is not going to be handed to them.

  • Neil Sandison 21st Jul '15 - 8:24am

    Agree with David 1.as I look at those tory MPs in former Liberal Democrat seats I am reminded that we still need to fight them tooth and claw. They showed no mercy to their former cabinet colleges at the general election .Our mission must be to replace Labour as a coherent opposition .We will only return to power by hard work ,a clear Liberal Democrat narrative and policy objectives that the public understands and can sign up to. Our Euro referendum campaign must be about the reform agenda not the Status Quo . It must be about expanding trade and job opportunities, not creating trade or tariff barriers by isolationism .We must put emphasis on what we cannot do as a nation on our own in terms of fighting international crime trafficking and human slavery , climate change impacts ,food security, large scale migration from civil war zones .Britain should be leading Europe when it comes to soft power and upholding international law in Europe.

  • Andrew:

    We are the most obviously pro European party in England. Euro-bashing does affect us. To some extent in the last EU elections we became proxies for anti EU sentiment. Nick Clegg actually argued well in the first debate (I think the reaction spooked him and those offering advice for the second), but had little impact against a tide of media backed EU bashing fronted by Farage. We really do have to be wary of how the EU referendum campaign might unfold and scare tactics about immigration could be difficult for us. I think we will have to be very alive to the dangers and will have to plan for the aftermath on the assumption that the Yes vote will win.

    Yes, Farron is well suited to putting forward the positive case. He could garner useful publicity by publicly disagreeing ith Cameron, if Cameron stokes up a fear based campaign.

  • Bill le Breton 21st Jul '15 - 8:37am

    As ever, David-1 writes great sense. (I’d like to meet up one day, David-1, anonymity guaranteed, my email [email protected] )

    There will have to be a great deal of scratching and clawing.

    However, what we now have is a ‘barnstorming’ leader. We probably haven’t had a person capable of communicating in this fashion since Gladstone. It could be very, very interesting.

    Here are some questions which I hope his team are exploring:

    How does a barnstorming orator operate in the world of modern communications? I suppose a clue is that the barnstormer went to the people – not town hall but barn meetings. It’ll be a virtual barn.

    How would the Midlothian campaign ‘happen’ today?

    How do we maximize the ‘meeting’ of our new leader with people; 40+ million of them; when the mainstream media platforms are both unavailable and less suited to him? He will expose and be opposed by cynicism.

    He, like the previous leader, has often divided reaction among members, but what should and must unite us is this aspect of the new leader – his uniqueness as a communicator in a political environment that turns many people off and which challenges – in fact threatens – the culture of the Westminster Village.

    It is going to be an extraordinary three or four years.

    Everyone here has a choice. Climb on board or do it your own way. My judgment is that if we climb on, we are going to experience an extraordinary journey – which may just discover a Liberalism for our own era.

  • Given the move to 600 seats instead of 650 – would it not make sense to at least wait until the conclusion of the Boundary Commission report, rather than selecting PPC’s for seats that will not be in existence at the next GE.

  • peter tyzack 21st Jul '15 - 9:48am

    you are right Lennon, but so is Mark.. and the first big job is to get lots of new candidates through the approval process, and get more returning officers trained up and ready.. we are sadly depleted in both. I do hope that the Candidates Office have got themselves in order.

  • Lennon, We have five years to build something that can survive a General Election Campaign by the Tories who are now convinced they can wipe us out. Five years to recover from probably the biggest self inflicted disaster that has befallen any political party ever, where 50 constituencies have lost their Lib Dem MP and most if not all of their paid staff. My view is that we just can’t afford to wait until 2018 to get one of the cornerstones of our constituency rebuilding in place. If we leave it until then, we won’t even have cleared the site of the previous debris by 2020 never mind have a thriving, self sustaining organisation in place!

  • paul barker 21st Jul '15 - 1:55pm

    This is the calm before the storm, both major Parties are badly split & its not guaranteed that either will survive even the next few years. We have to get everything in place now for another General Election & for defections.

  • Bill is right about the barnstorming but we have to underpin that with gut policy as well as rhetoric. We’ve had 30 years of Thatcherite consensus in which the assumptions are that we must pander to the wealthy and hit the poor when there is a recession. I think people have had enough of waiting with their caps held out for wealth to trickle down. They are ready for a new politics and I hope that new Liberalism will be the answer but we have so much work to do to make this happen. Because the current view is that the economy determines what sort of society we can have, we must be consulting with economic thinkers who have a different approach even if they are not members of the party. We need Tim’s energy to bring them in and a group of economists to work together to establish the basis on which our party can build policies that come from the Liberal gut but which are practical. Without this PPCs don’t have a hope of converting people with a lukewarm set of policies which can’t be implemented.

  • John Roffey 21st Jul '15 - 3:09pm

    I thought that TF’s first speech as leader in the HofC struck the right note – a rejection of the need to cut public expenditure further, but to raise more tax from those who should be paying more – particularly, in my view, the largest corporations.

    As Sue S points out – there is little trickle down effect from global corporations whose main shareholders are unlikely to live in the UK – and therefore will be unlikely to spend their profits within UK communities.

    Clearly there is a need to do whatever can be done to ensure these global monsters do pay the most possible under the existing rules – but there are so many ways that this can be legitimately avoided – it is little wonder that Osborne only expects to recover only a few extra £bn through this route.

    Osborne has tried to encourage global corporations to invest here – this is clearly a recipe for long-term decline and the general impoverishment of the people. What is needed is UK small and medium businesses [who generally do pay their tax in full] to replace those from overseas – and what is required is a UK government that provides legislation to encourage this to happen.

    Whereas it is to be expected that a Tory Chancellor would wish to provide advantages for the UK business community at the expense of its workforce and the unemployed. Osborne’s wish to do the same for overseas global corporations might be described as weird or even extremely weird. Is the best he can offer low paid jobs working for overseas corporations – who avoid paying UK Corporation Tax – and remove the majority of their profits from the UK to spend them within some other community?

    A quote from an oil company executive recently reported: “Corporations are driven by one thing, making as much profit as possible. If they’re socially responsible in the process, that’s dandy. If not, too bad. Either way profit comes before people and planet”

  • Forget the next election. It is the nine months that are important. We have to put the Greens out in the cold, secure our base and target say 100 gains next May in England and Wales and whatever we can muster in Scotland. We must keep our feet on the ground, deal in the reality of incremental electoral gains and beware the fantasies of Ashdown and co in recent years. I am optimistic, but it must be one step at a time.

  • Thought experiment, re-next election :
    Workington (English seat), but bordering Scotland, has been generally a safe Labour seat for many decades, but then again so were many Labour seats in Scotland until last May.
    Suppose the SNP were to put up a candidate for Workington? There’s nothing to stop them as far as I can see? If they won it,.. would…… :
    ~ Workington be effectively under Scottish rule despite being in England?
    ~ Workington be entitled to vote in any new Scots independence referendum?
    ~ Mean that an SNP MP could (circumvent and) vote in any proposed EVEL legislation?
    ~ Reduce Labour’s power even further in the North?
    Ukip got 20% of the vote in Workington in May. Ukip is considered on one level, an anti Westminster vote. But,.. so is the SNP.? So, whilst it seems counter intuitive, what has the SNP got to lose by putting up a candidate in Workington?

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Jul '15 - 11:01pm

    The Fixed Term Parliament Act contains a provision that an early general election can happen if
    1) the government loses a vote of confidence (with precise wording as in the Act)
    2) the government loses a vote of no confidence (with precise wording as in the Act).

  • I look forward to watching this great “advance” in the Holyrood elections next year.
    In a partial PR system it is difficult to be wiped off the map…but I wouldn’t be surprised.

  • John Dunn

    Once Independent we would welcome those in Workinton and elsewhere to move North to help build a better, fairer society. We don’t wish to be part of the wider system. That is why we refuse to take seats in the Lords – unlike the 100 LibDems who enjoy the un democratic, unelected cess pit.

  • david thorpe 31st Jul '15 - 4:51pm

    this piece is based on a pleaqsant, but sadly false premise.

    The by election wins mean nothing-we won elections such as those in 2010 and 2011-earls court for example-and indeed another in grover-where we won on the day tim was announced as leader- didnt help on egenarl election day-because we win on differnetial turnout-nothing else-if this is going to be the latest false assumption of the party then we are doomed

  • Richard Underhill 31st Jul '15 - 5:38pm

    david thorpe 31st Jul ’15 – 4:51pm The elected councillor is usually an important canvasser and caseworker.

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