The 2019 European Election and Liberal History

Everyone knows the 2019 European election result in the UK was remarkable – but do you realise quite how much? 

It was the best Euro election result for the Liberal Democrats or their predecessor parties ever. 

This is true in terms both of seats (16) and votes (20.3 per cent). The party’s previous best seat performance was 12 in 2004, though the UK then had 78 seats in the European Parliament, rather than its current 73. Our previous best vote performance was right back in 1984, when the Liberal-SDP Alliance scored 18.5 per cent. That was in the days before PR, when the country was divided up into giant Euro-constituencies fought on first past the post; the Alliance won none of them. Post-merger, the best Liberal Democrat performance was 16.1 per cent, in 1994.

The Liberal Democrat performance looks even better when compared to the other main parties, outpolling both Labour and the Conservatives by large margins. This has never happened before. 

The last time the Liberal Party won more votes than Labour in a nationwide election (i.e. a general or Euro election) was in 1918 (by 25.6 per cent to 20.8 per cent), though only if you combine the votes of the two factions the Liberal Party was then split into, led by Lloyd George and Asquith. And in that election the Labour Party fought only just over half the seats, and the two Liberal factions about two-thirds, making comparisons tricky. The Labour Party, on 14.1 per cent this year, has never scored even remotely this badly since it started contesting all UK seats; its previous low point was 27.6 per cent, in 1983.

The last time the Liberals beat the Conservatives in a nationwide election was 1906, the year of the great Liberal landslide: 48.9 per cent and 397 seats for the Liberals to 43.4 per cent and 156 seats for the Unionists (as Conservatives were known then). The Conservative performance this time, a mere 9.1 per cent, is staggeringly bad; the party’s previous low was three times as much, 29.2 per cent in 1832 (though throughout the nineteenth century many seats went uncontested, and MPs’ allegiances were often fluid, making calculations difficult), or, in the modern era, 30.7 per cent in 1997.

The last time the Liberal Party came second in nationwide election? In terms of the popular vote, the two elections of 1910, though in each case the Liberals won slightly more seats than the Unionists; both elections were very finely balanced. 

And the last time neither the Conservatives nor Labour finished in the top two? Never.

If you’d like to know more about Liberal history, whether about elections, personalities, policies or philosophies, a good starting point is the Liberal Democrat History Group’s booklet Liberal History, which covers 350 years of Liberal history in a mere 32 pages. It’s now available in print, ebook and audio versions, and at a discount for bulk orders of 40 or more copies – perhaps a welcome gift for the new members who’ve joined your local party over the last few weeks? For details, see here.

* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and former Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee.

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6 Comments

  • Time to move on, next stop Peterborough 6th June, heck only 10 days away.

  • Richard Underhill 28th May '19 - 12:02pm

    “The Labour Party, on 14.1 per cent this year, has never scored even remotely this badly since it started contesting all UK seats; its previous low point was 27.6 per cent, in 1983”
    The Labour manifesto in 1983 was described by a Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history” after they accepted that the Labour manifesto should include all the policies approved by the Labour conference.
    The consequences for Labour were losing a record number of deposits, as Liberal leader David Steel commented and a reform of the deposit system from 12.5% to 5% and an increase in the individual amount from £150 to £1,000.
    Was someone in the Thatcher government sympathetic to Labour’s plight?
    Labour leader Michael Foot, ‘one of three left feet’, went to the Durham Miners’ rally and announced that he did not intend to resign.
    Jeremy Corbyn was elected, so were Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy.

  • 2 important things that needs to be remembered;

    -very low turnout, meaning the most motivated (and largely better engaged, though not always for the better) voters participated (one of Lib Dems’ advantages in byelections). True there was switching and returning to the Lib Dems, but of the 30% of the electorate that votes in GEs but didn’t in this Euro Election, a small % would be casting a vote for the Lib Dems at a GE (a problem Lib Dem councillors and council candidates find when their local election coincides with a GE). Conservative and Labour suffered as much from their GE voters not voting as they did from defection to other parties (much more so in the case of Labour I suspect)

    -I suspect a fairly large proportion of LD voters in this Euro election were quite soft. A fair number will be frustrated Labour and Conservative remainers whose values (Brexit aside) are better represented by Labour or Conservative respectively (more so in Labour supporters’ case), and who may not cast a “protest vote” again for the Lib Dems at a GE.

  • The analysis at https://lordashcroftpolls.com/2019/05/my-euro-election-post-vote-poll-most-tory-switchers-say-they-will-stay-with-their-new-party/ is very interesting.
    Not only does it show that we lost a few voters to Green and (!) Brexit and gained a lot from previous Labour and (somewhat less) Conservative voters. It also shows that many of our new voters now intend to stay with us. And its final chart on voting in the next General Election puts Lib Dems, Conservatives and Brexit Party all on 17 to 18%, with Labour just ahead at 21%. Of course this could all change as parties get new leaders, but it means we start with a stronger position than we have had for a long time. (Thanks to Mark Pack for flagging up that survey in his Polling Unpacked emails.)

  • Adam Killeya 29th May '19 - 2:48am

    Labour got 15% in the 2009 Euros and the Tories 23% in 2014, both being third in those respective elections. The overall point being made about their poor performance is of course still sound.

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