Could Ming bounce? (14 September 2007)
Lib Dems 07: The Lib Dems need an urgent rethink after a bad year when they’ve been pushed to the political margins.
The Liberal Democrats assemble in Brighton after a bad year. More perhaps than the other parties, their morale is sensitive to performance in mid-term elections and the May 2007 elections were pretty poor. In the Scottish and Welsh elections in May, the Conservatives penetrated some historically Lib Dem territory areas. While both constituencies voted in Lib Dem assembly members, the party list vote in both the historic fiefdom of Montgomeryshire (where the Lib Dems have lost only once in the last century in general elections) and Brecon and Radnorshire went to the Conservatives. The farcical Lib Dem participation in Welsh coalition talks, in which the party managed to get nothing despite its good bargaining position, cannot have improved their standing. There was a similar tale in Scotland, where the Conservatives were ahead in the Borders. The English local elections were a bit more variable; with some good results in seats the Lib Dems need to defend against the Conservatives such as Eastleigh, Taunton and Teignbridge, but defeats in others, like North Devon and Torbay. Losses were worse in areas where the Lib Dems might have hoped to build on local success to win future contests, such as in South Norfolk and Bournemouth where they were virtually wiped out.
ICM polling data this summer suggests more severe problems than in the local elections. The Lib Dems are apparently down a massive nine percentage points in the south and seven points in London (and five points in Scotland and Wales combined). In the north and Midlands, where the party has been historically weaker and has fewer seats at stake, its existing support has held up better. However, the exposure to losses in the south and the London suburbs should terrify the party. On a 9% swing to the Conservatives across the south, few Lib Dem seats east of St Ives would survive the deluge. With southern losses on this scale, and with possible losses in Wales and Scotland, they could be talking about as few as 35 MPs. Nick Clegg, sitting on a secure majority in the intellectual Yorkshire suburbia of Sheffield Hallam, might end up leader more or less by default. Such a collapse is unlikely, as Lib Dem MPs are good at insulating themselves against the tide through personal votes and hard campaigning, but the Lib Dems are currently facing the prospect of serious losses to the Conservatives and a wounding retreat from their 2005 foothold in Labour territory.
While the anti-Labour wave of 2006-07 has subsided, so it seems has the immediate honeymoon of the Brown bounce, leaving a field that is very competitive between Labour and the Conservatives. Both parties are if not revitalised at least putting on a better face than they did in 2005. The Conservatives have tried hard to reassure liberal, professional England that they are not the whingeing, negative party they seemed in the last few elections, and have been thinking afresh. The 2005 election was about electing a third term, fag-end Blair government tainted by Iraq, and people did so unwillingly. Since taking office, Brown has worked hard, and successfully, to draw a line under that period.
With Labour and the Tories renewed and pushing towards the centre, electors may ask what is the point of the Liberal Democrats? And even if they have an answer to the question, it may be difficult to make themselves heard as the media-political environment takes shape around a presidential head-to-head between Brown and Cameron.
There are two strategies available, to slog on and hope the climate improves, or to shake it up. More or less the only way the party has to shake things up is to dispose of another leader. Rumblings against Charles Kennedy were audible at the 2005 conference, and Ming Campbell is no doubt well aware that 2007 in Brighton is a big test for his own leadership. Whether getting rid of him would accomplish anything, or just divide and demoralise the party further, is debatable. The Lib Dems are in an unenviable position, and what makes it all the more horrid is that there may be absolutely nothing they can do about it.