With recent polls putting the Liberal Democrats at 10% of the national vote (in a virtual tie with UKIP and half their general election vote in 2010), it is safe to say that most Liberal Democrat activists are starting to get just a little on the edgy side about the next election (now less than 21 months away, assuming there isn’t a vote of no confidence as in Germany a few years ago).
The most recent polls suggest that Labour have a lead of 7% over the Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats suffering a double blow of a swing away from them to both Conservative and Labour (suggesting a virtual Lib Dem wipe-out with only Orkney and Shetland and Sheffield, Hallam remaining in the Lib Dem column). Whether this turns out to be correct or not depends on the local constituency parties, however for the Liberal Democrats there is another problem that regularly haunts them at general elections. A retiring MP.
At the start of modern electoral history in 1950, the Liberals (as the Lib Dems were known there) didn’t have to worry about retiring MP’s. With only nine members in the House at the 1950 general election, their biggest worry was actually winning seats in the first place. This was proven in 1951 when they managed to make three net losses.
The first case of a retiring Liberal MP came at the 1970 general election when J Davidson (Aberdeenshire West) and P Bessell (Bodmin) both stood down from Parliament. The 1970 General Election was not on the face of it all that bad for the Liberals (polling 8% of the vote, a reduction of 1% on the 1966 general election) but thanks to the Conservatives increasing their share of the vote by nearly 5%, a 3% swing from Lib to Con threatened to wipe out over half the parliamentary party (including both seats where the MP was standing down). As we know that election was a Liberal disaster and they did lose six seats but it’s what happened in the two retiring seats that has come to mark the Liberal Democrats’ trouble.
Aberdeenshire West (Change on Election 1966): Con +7%, Lab -2%, Lib -10%, SNP +5%. Con GAIN from Lib on a swing of 8.5%
Bodmin (Change on Election 1966): Con +7%, Lab +1%, Lib -8%. Con GAIN from Lib on a swing of 7.5%
And so started a process that the Liberal Democrats seem to have come to accept.
- Whenever an MP stands down, the Liberal Democrat vote collapses compared to the national average – see chart above
So what the prospects for the two seats the Lib Dems currently hold where the MP has announced their retirement
This means that there is the potential for Dorset Mid and Poole North to become a Conservative GAIN from Liberal Democrat on a swing of 7.5% from Lib Dem to Con and the potential for Berwick upon Tweed to become a Conservative GAIN from Liberal Democrat on a swing of 7% from Lib Dem to Con which if repeated in every single Liberal Democrat constituency at the next election would see a minimum of 26 Conservative gains and 8 Labour gains from Liberal Democrat (and reduce the Liberal Democrats from 57 seats to a maximum of 23 seats). So whilst the polls may be saying Lib Dem wipeout, I believe that the Liberal Democrats will come out of the next election with a number that while disappointing compared to recent elections will be in line with the long term average for the Lib Dems.