“The Liberals in particular are a classic nuisance party, one that has not won a general election on its own since women won the vote. The party should either disband or sit down with Labour and agree never to contest at least winnable seats, in return for an agreed role in government. This must be what the electorate would welcome and is being denied.”
Simon Jenkins www.theguardian.com
Anyone who predicts the outcome of general elections from byelections should stick to the horses. This applies especially to periodic Liberal Democrat upsets such as last week’s at Chesham and Amersham in Buckinghamshire, where they overturned a blue majority. This was nothing to do with choosing a government, rather it was passing judgment on Johnson’s “algorithmic” deregulation of rural planning in the south-east. It was about “taking back control”, community politics not party politics.
The Lib Dems stand for nothing radical or recognisable, just a vaguely left-of-centre outlook on life. Local issues aside, they appeal to those who vaguely agree with Labour, but cannot quite vote that way. As across Europe, the effect is to split the left-of-centre vote and thus empower the right. Over the weekend, the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, appeared to rule out any formal progressive pact. “We don’t need stitch-ups and deals,” he said. “I’m very sceptical about all that.”
Were Britain to be ruled by one-person-one-vote nationwide, it may well have returned a left-of-centre government in three of the past four elections. In the 2010 general election, the Tories won 36.1% of the vote, Labour and the Lib Dems together picked up 52%. In 2017, the Tories won 42.4% and Labour and the Lib Dems 47.4%. The last election in 2019, which was a Tory triumph in terms of seat numbers, saw the party win 43.6% of the vote, with Labour and the Lib Dems just ahead on 43.7%. In every one of these cases, the Tories still entered Downing Street.
First-past-the-post cannot be entirely blamed for this, though an additional member system as in the devolved assemblies in Wales and Scotland would partly redress it. The real cause is simply the refusal of the two major parties of the left to agree any form of alliance, local or national, against the right. The seismic upheaval of Brexit has seen a much-cited shift in the socio-economic underpinning of the left, of lower-income voters moving right and higher-educated voters moving left. In theory, that aids the Lib Dems, but it merely aids them in splitting the left.
Nationally, the Lib Dems are a Westminster club. When in the 2000s their leader, Charles Kennedy, pondered veering to the left of Tony Blair’s New Labour, he decided against it. But his party should then have set aside personalities, disbanded and thrown in its lot with Blair. A modern fusion of Labour and the Lib Dems should be forcefully capitalising on a Tory party steeped in corruption allegations.
If the Lib Dems are vacuous at Westminster, they are lethal at the constituency level. As has been pointed out, Labour’s red wall in the north has not stopped crumbling, while the idea that Chesham represents an equivalent blue wall failure is fanciful. All the Lib Dems (and Labour) are doing is ensuring the left-of-centre stays unrepresented in seat after seat where it enjoys an electoral majority. The Liberals in particular are a classic nuisance party, one that has not won a general election on its own since women won the vote. The party should either disband or sit down with Labour and agree never to contest at least winnable seats, in return for an agreed role in government. This must be what the electorate would welcome and is being denied.
At present Davey is simply determined to keep the Tories in power. He already has a knighthood. Johnson owes him an earldom.