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Where next for the Liberal Democrats?

Chris Adams

MHP’s Senior Account Manager Chris Adams reflects on the Liberal Democrat 2019 general election campaign.

This was a disappointing night for the Liberal Democrats, but one where the headline figures tell a very different story to the data underlying them. Despite increasing their share of the vote by a larger proportion than any other party – almost doubling their share of the vote – the Liberal Democrats have failed to make the gains in MPs which were predicted at the start of the election.

As the campaign developed, insiders were already talking about this feeling like a 1992 election, which saw the newly merged Lib Dems go down by two seats to 20 MPs (despite being on almost 18% of the vote) as the Conservatives clung on to power under John Major. Campaign bosses knew that this election was going to be tight – political realignment in a first-past-the-post system cannot happen overnight – but many were still talking about returning around 20 MPs just a few days ago. The loss of Jo Swinson’s seat in East Dunbartonshire by just 149 votes will come as a bitter disappointment, highlighting the danger of what many will see as an overly ambitious general election strategy, albeit one which seemed more credible in September.

Ironically, that result bucked the trend in Scotland, where the Lib Dems gained votes and, thanks to their victory in North East Fife, stayed still in numbers of seats despite the SNP onslaught: the only party to do so. Lib Dems will also take heart from increased majorities in many of their held seats, even where the incumbent stood down such as in Twickenham, and in the additional gains of Richmond Park and St Albans with substantial majorities.

In many target seats the Liberal Democrats also finished a close second, often slashing Tory majorities by tens of thousands. They gained around 20-30% of the vote in seats such as Esher and Walton, Winchester, South Cambridgeshire, Wimbledon, Hitchen & Harpenden, Finchley & Golders Green, Cities of London & Westminster and Wokingham. There were also significant gains elsewhere in seats like Guildford, Woking, Mole Valley, Henley, South East Cambridgeshire and Wantage. These add to the list of already close results in seats like Cheltenham or Lewes, and even in Carshalton and Wallington and Eastbourne where the party’s losing margin remains relatively slim.

Despite now only having 11 MPs and having been unable to return any of those who defected to them in the last Parliament, the Liberal Democrats have solidified their position as the main opposition to the Conservatives in the south of England. Come the next election, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Liberal Democrats make similar gains to those seen in 1997, especially if Labour elect a more centrist leader to replace Jeremy Corbyn.

While this result may be disappointing to many Liberal Democrat activists, the underlying data remains positive for the party. The real question will be whether the Lib Dems can consolidate this result and rebuild their local government base over the next few years. In the meantime the party is sure to provide a small, diverse and effective group of opposition MPs, who will no doubt continue to punch above their weight in Parliament.