This month's column deals once again with the Liberal Democrats. In our previous piece (LGC, 15
December 2005), we reported on the murmurings of discontent within the party and talk of a coup against Charles Kennedy. Days later Kennedy was forced to resign.
For Liberal Democrats the publication of a YouGov poll showing the party sliding to just 13% must have confirmed their worst fears. A general election on these terms would see two-thirds of the party's MPs defeated.
Other recent polls by MORI and ICM have not been quite as bad, placing the party on 15% and 18% respectively. Is this just another storyline in the Westminster village soap, one which grabs the public's attention for a short while before indifference is restored?
As our previous column made clear, however, fault lines were appearing before Kennedy's forced departure. Despite winning more parliamentary seats in 2005 the party failed to implement its headline strategy of defeating the Conservative party leadership. True, it exploited Labour weakness over both Iraq and tuition fees, but the fact remains that Tony Blair is still prime minister while the transition to his replacement is for now running rather smoother than for the Liberal Democrats.
But with the Liberal Democrats the politics of the pavement provides the party's lifeblood. Without success there to feed and grow it begins to look rather top-heavy, overcome with indecision about whether to seek out votes from the left or right.
And there is strong evidence that the adrenalin rush of local by-election victories is beginning to weaken. Since the 2005 election the Liberal Democrats have lost more by-election seats than they have gained. The party's retained vote (the proportion of by-election voters that also supported it at the previous May election) has dropped to 80%, still good but a sign that the by-election magic is not working as well.
By promising more than could be reasonably delivered at the last general election, the leadership sapped morale from activists already noticing that squeezing votes was not the breeze it once was. Horror of horrors, in more places than ever the party is not fielding by-election candidates.
Especially important for the party's overall health is monitoring what happens when the party does contest, and here the trend is not so good. Lib Dem by-election success comes in two forms. First, its own seats fall vacant and require defending. Second, there are seat gains from other parties.
In the early 1990s, as the fledgling party emerged from the Liberal/SDP Alliance, its success rate ran at about 30%. The Conservatives had yet to crash and Neil Kinnock was leading Labour back from the abyss. Between 1993-94, however, with Paddy Ashdown as leader, the party struck with a vengeance, winning over 40% of seats it contested, mainly from the Conservatives.
But then in 1995, and for some time thereafter, the party struggled. The reason was Blair and the New Labour project. By 1997 the Liberal Democrats' success rate dropped to just 23% - it was not losing seats but forward momentum was becoming ever more difficult.
But surely the good times would return? Only to an extent. Blair's electoral honeymoon, the longest on record, took him beyond the 2001 general election. And even when his popularity declined over Iraq, the Liberal Democrats could not capitalise as well as they had against the Conservatives. Under Blair the Liberal Democrats' success rate peaked at 32% in 2003, falling steadily to 26% during 2005.
The important point to note here is that the Liberal Democrats' star waxes when the governing party's wanes. It feeds on those weaknesses but without a natural vote to sustain it through drought it has a steady slide away from the public eye. And when Labour inevitably runs into problems who will bet that the Liberal Democrats will out-perform the Conservatives in the critical battle for local government votes?
Tory leader David Cameron is positioning his party in such a way that protest voters of all persuasions feel comfortable voting for him. By early March a new Liberal Democrat leader will be elected and restoring the party's damaged reputation will be high on the agenda. As the May elections approach there may not be time to recover.
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher
Directors, LGC Election Centre,
University of Plymouth
By-election results December 2005 - January 2006
Council Ward Result Majority (%) Turnout (%)
01 December 2005
Gateshead Council Felling Lab held 52.1 over LD 20.3
Herefordshire Council Tupsley LD gain from Ind 11.8 over Con 27.0
Thurrock BC Grays Riverside Lab held 16.8 over Con 20.0
Thurrock BC The Homesteads Lab gain from Con 8.1 over Con 23.2
08 December 2005
Amber Valley DC Heage & Ambergate Con held 16.5 over Lab 24.0
Conwy County BCEglwysbach PC gain from Ind 70.4 over Con 49.0
East Riding of
Yorkshire CouncilHowden Con gain from LD 1.7 over LD 36.0
Lancaster City Council John O'Gaunt Lab held 14.6 over LD 23.9
North Lanarkshire Council Kirkshaws Lab held 46.0 over SNP 21.0
North Lincolnshire CouncilBrumby Lab held 45.7 over Con 14.3
North Lincolnshire CouncilRidge Con held 1.7 over LD 31.5
Oxford City Council Jericho & Osney Lab gain from LD 17.0 over LD 33.1
South Hams DC Ivybridge Woodlands Con held 9.3 over Ind 15.4
Torbay Council Churston-with-Galmpton Con held 60.9 over LD 28.3
15 December 2005
Barnet LBC High Barnet LD gain from Con 3.7 over Con 30.4
Bournemouth BCLittledown & IfordCon gain from LD 47.8 over LD 25.9
Carrick DC Kenwyn & ChacewaterCon gain from LD 42.1 over LD 17.5
Croydon LBC Fairfield Con held 21.8 over Lab 28.1
Forest Heath DC Red Lodge LD gain from Con 19.8 over Con 26.0
Gwynedd Council Cadnant PC gain from Ind 16.7 over Lab 36.6
Lewes DC Peacehaven North Con held 46.7 over LD 18.2
Lichfield DC Chadsmead Con gain from Lab 2.2 over Lab 18.6
12 January 2006
Broadland DCSpixworth with St Faiths LD held 31.6 over Con 31.4
Cotswold DC Beacon-Stow Con gain from Ind 27.5 over Ind 31.3
19 January 2006
Cambridgeshire CCEly South & West LD held 29.3 over Con 32.5
Newark & Sherwood DCOllerton Lab held unopposed Unopposed 0.0
26 January 2006
Durham CC Durham South Lab held 16.9 over LD 34.0
Macclesfield BC Prestbury Con gain from Ind 78.9 over LD 25.0
Rushmoor DC North Town Lab held 32.3 over Con 25.5