Yesterday’s three by-elections are a return to the sort of results the Liberals suffered in the late 1970s, during the Lib-Lab Pact and the Thorpe affair.
The third place ahead of the Tories in Middlesborough shows, as in Manchester Central last week, that effective local campaigning can limit the damage. But the lost deposits in Croydon North and Rotherham show that local campaigning is not sufficient to withstand a nationwide electoral tsunami. The 8th place in Rotherham is particularly dire, worse than anything the Liberals achieved in the late 1970s.
The Liberal Democrats, as a party of government, can no longer attract the sort of protest votes that are now benefitting UKIP and other minor parties. What these by-elections have revealed, yet again, is the party’s fundamental weakness, the lack of a core vote.
I analysed this problem in an article in Liberator 347 (August 2011). Yesterday’s by-election results, together with the continuing poor opinion poll ratings, have only confirmed this view. They also confirm that the electoral strategy invented by Richard Reeves and promoted by Nick Clegg – that the Liberal Democrats’ target vote is ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ – is complete and utter bollocks.
POSTSCRIPT (1): Simon Hughes, interviewed on Radio 4’s World at One today [zap forward to 16:17], attributes the Liberal Democrats’ dismal results to the three constituencies being “safe Labour territory” and to that old chestnut, the mid-term blues (“the two governing parties suffered, as they often do in the middle of a parliament...”).
POSTSCRIPT (2): Peter Chegwyn, Liberal agent in the 1976 Rotherham by-election, reminds me that, despite ‘mid-term blues’ and the Jeremy Thorpe scandal in full swing (Thorpe had resigned as party leader only a month before the by-election), the Liberal Party still finished 3rd and kept the National Front in 4th place. Peter was also agent in the 1981 by-election in Croydon North-West, which the Liberals famously won. He wonders how the Liberal Democrats managed to win only 3.5% of the vote in Croydon North, as more than half the constituency used to be in the old Croydon North-West.