Why did the Liberal Democrats lose?

After my post Why did Labour lose?, I felt it was only fair to ask the same question of the Liberal Democrats. The party went into the election with a clear message on Brexit, a new leader, and some high-profile candidates. Why then did they do so badly?

First Past the Post

Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for reform to the voting system, and this election made it painfully clear how disadvantaged they are by First Past the Post. Despite winning roughly 1 in 9 votes, and increasing their vote share by more than any other party, they were rewarded by a net loss of one seat, leaving a total of eleven MPs in the Commons.

Part of the problem for the party is that it lacks a core number of safe seats which could be more or less taken for granted, with resources being concentrated into marginal but winnable areas. Of the constituencies currently represented by a Liberal Democrat, only Orkney & Shetland and Westmorland & Lonsdale have remained with the party in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Instead the party gets support spread across the country, which results in many largely wasted votes under FPTP.1

Jo Swinson

Unfortunately Jo Swinson did not appear to connect with the wider electorate. With barely time to get used to the role, she performed poorly in the debates and didn’t impress voters (according to most polls). It may not have helped that Swinson had been part of the coalition government, and in particular backed its austerity programme, which came back to haunt her in interviews.

Had the party not sold itself as ‘Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats’ (why they chose this presidential-style branding is a mystery to me) and presented her as a candidate to be Prime Minister (totally unrealistic), perhaps they would have done a bit better.

Even more embarrassing, Swinson ended up losing her seat to the overjoyed SNP. Since the party’s rules are that the leader has to be a member of the House of Commons, she had to step down and be replaced on an interim basis by Ed Davey, her rival in the previous leadership election.

Brexit focus

A focus on Brexit was perhaps understandable, given that the party had done well in the recent European elections and was looking to pick up the Remain vote. However, Brexit was not the only issue of importance to voters, and if you were looking for improvements to the NHS, policing, education etc., you may have felt that the Lib Dems weren’t catering for you. Whilst the party did have policies across a wide range of areas, the message received by the electorate seems to have been that stopping Brexit was all that mattered. I follow politics in detail and I can’t name a signature policy other than ‘stop Brexit’.

As with Labour, in Scotland if you were pro-remain then you would probably vote for the SNP as a more realistic alternative to the Conservatives, and they have certainly proved a more effective opposition than either Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

Jeremy Corbyn

It might seem strange to blame a party’s results on the leader of another party, but in this case I think it is warranted given how toxic Corbyn appears to have been on the doorstep. In particular, those in Lab/Con marginals may have felt that voting for the Liberal Democrats would let Labour in and a Corbyn-led government more likely, and that a Johnson Brexit was the least-worst option. Whether this happened or not is difficult to tell, but it did come up time and again on the campaign trail.

Where to now?

As with Labour, the Liberal Democrats need to hold a leadership election as soon as possible. Unfortunately the list of potential candidates is hardly inspiring, consisting of a failed past leader, a former coalition minister, and some new faces who may not be willing to thrust themselves into the limelight just yet (though they at least have minimal baggage). Setting a new direction for the party post-Brexit and re-establishing its former role as the third force in UK politics is a tall order, and I don’t envy whoever ends up with the job.

  1. The total number of votes a party receives can still affect how much short money is allocated to the party, so votes are not entirely wasted.

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