For those of us who were Conservative activists in the 1990s and the early 2000s we were often in awe of the Liberal Democrat campaigning efforts. The Liberal Democrat activists would enter an area, secure a foothold on the local council, eventually take control of the council, and in plenty of these areas take the parliamentary seat shortly thereafter.
Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh, Winchester, and Romsey are seared on the minds of so many. It is one of the reasons the Lib Dems went from 20 parliamentary seats to 62 seats between 1992 and 2005. Like an STD once the Liberal Democrats took hold of an area they were bloody difficult and painful to get rid off.
The Liberal Democrats have always relied much more on their activist and councillor base than the Conservatives and Labour parties because the other two are much better financially resourced than the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats apply a 10% tithe to councillor allowances to help fund the party, what they lacked in money they more than made up in activists campaigning. Then enter David Cameron.
The moment David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives something fundamentally changed for the Liberal Democrats. Within a month of Cameron becoming leader Charles Kennedy was forced out as Liberal Democrat leader, before Cameron reached his second anniversary as Conservative leader he was facing his third permanent leader of the Liberal Democrats. I think the Liberal Democrats realised Cameron was the sort of leader that would bring back Con to Lib Dem switchers.
As we can see in the table above the Conservatives started increasing their lead over the Liberal Democrats in that period 2006 to 2010 but the Liberal Democrats started taking some serious losses the moment David Cameron invited them to form a coalition with him. Nick Clegg must have felt like Emperor Valerian and become a human footstool for David Cameron whilst the Liberal Democrat councillors must have felt like the Bulgars after the Battle of Kleidion.
Even after that performance in 2019 the Liberal Democrats still only have just over a third of the councillors the Conservative do. If the Liberal Democrats want to recover from the Cameron and coalition years then they need many more 2019 local election results, 2021 would indicate 2019 was an outlier.
These defeats must have had a demoralising effect on the Liberal Democrats which we’ve seen in subsequent general elections.
What must really alarm the Liberal Democrats is that whilst the 2019 was the Brexit election their pro EU stance didn’t help that much in the way that Boris Johnson managed to unite the Pro Brexit vote, that performance by Jo Swinson becomes even more dire when you factor that the Labour party was led by Jeremy Corbyn with all his damaging baggage, they should have done much better.
Does it mean the Liberal Democrats are facing an existential crisis, quite possibly, looking at the target seats for the next general election a swing of 5% gains them only 15 seats, a swing of 10% gains them 29 seats, much lower than their 2005/2010 performances, and this is before the anticipated boundary changes.
With Sir Keir Starmer’s ratings doing a palpable impression of lemmings hurtling off a cliff perhaps all is not lost for the Liberal Democrats.