Is there any chance of the Liberal Democrats influencing the next UK Government?

By Callum Delhoy,Consultant

In the UK’s Parliamentary, first-past-the-post system, it can be easy to discount the minor parties in the House of Commons who aren’t in Government or His Majesty’s Opposition. The largest two parties often take advantage of this fact, believing their electoral chances are stronger if voters are limited to two, binary options; but recent years have led to a change in tactic in this regard.

Less than a week after the 2023 Local Elections, in which the Liberal Democrats exceeded expectations by gaining over 400 new councillors, Rishi Sunak spent PMQs repeatedly accusing Kier Starmer of being too ‘busy plotting coalitions’ to be ‘delivering for the British People’. 

Such accusations are an obvious call-back to the success of a similar line when it came to Labour and the SNP in the 2015 election. A number of political commentators point to the cut-through of that election’s Ed-Miliband-in-Alex-Salmond’s-pocket poster as a key factor in Labour’s loss in that election, so it’s easy to see why Conservatives would seek to replicate such an impactful accusation.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s much truth to it. The latest General Election prediction by ElectoralCalculus on April 27th puts Labour at 409 seats: well above what’s needed to secure a majority Labour government. Conservatives and Conservative aligned papers will, though, still wish to repeatedly bring up the idea of coalitions; hoping to portray Labour as only able to enter government through ‘backroom deals’. This is despite the only two coalition / confidence-and-supply Governments since WW2 both being created by the Conservatives through such deals.

However, given how long a year is in politics, it’s well within the realm of possibility that Labour’s lead may be diminished in that time. As such, it is worth thinking about the Liberal Democrats’ chances in the next General Election, whether they’ll have enough seats to enter such a government, and what their demands from Labour would be in such a case.

Electoral chances

Local Election results aren’t ideal for extrapolating into General Election predictions – especially given the Liberal Democrats’ historic over-performance in this arena – however in this case it can illustrate the danger they pose to the Conservatives across many previously safe blue seats.

This threat is illustrated by the two main demographics Liberal Democrat strategists are now focussing on. The first is simply disillusioned Conservative voters who are disappointed by the lack of economic growth & Government instability over the past 8 years. Although these groups will likely revert to voting blue after a change in Government out of economic self-interest, the Liberal Democrat’s success in gaining control of Windsor & Maidenhead councils this month illustrates that the Conservatives cannot take such voters for granted, even if they’ll never switch to Labour.

The second are what Liberal Democrat’s refer to ‘Surrey Shufflers’. This group, made up of young professionals and their families who move out of London (to either raise children or, increasingly, because they’ve been priced out of the capital), may instinctively wish to vote Labour; however the lack of any Labour presence in such London-adjacent seats leaves the Liberal Democrats as the only viable alternative. 

So, if these two groups truly turn yellow, and Kier’s popularity wanes ahead of the GE, what could that mean for potential cooperation?

Coalition Consideration

Given the Liberal Democrats’ internally perceived failings from their time in coalition, i.e believing the media seemingly attributed all Coalition successes to the Conservatives & its failings to the Lib Dems, any future negotiations will be centred around one clear policy ask which they can hail as a victory: action on electoral reform. Although Labour Party conference voted for a manifesto commitment to implement proportional representation for general elections at their September 2022 conference – there’s little chance a Labour majority government would actively harm their own electoral chances in such a way. 

Additionally, given that the only change that occurred the last time the Liberal Democrats secured a referendum on PR in 2011 was that Dominic Cummings learnt how to mastermind an electoral referendum from the shadows, Ed Davey’s extraction of such an ask from Prime-Minister-in-waiting Kier Starmer will certainly not be straightforward.

The only other issue the Liberal Democrats care enough about to be satiated in a coalition deal with would be Brexit. Both the Conservatives and Labour party leadership are keen to not return to an eternal re-hashing of the 2016 vote; so pushing for a policy of re-joining or a second EU referendum would be politically untenable. 

Any coalition discussion, then, would be fraught to say the least. In the unlikely event Kier’s polling lead is decimated and he’s determined to command a Parliamentary majority, the severity of the necessary concessions to the Liberal Democrats would likely cause too much Labour internal instability to be feasible. More likely would be a confidence-and-supply deal for some minor electoral reform, potentially bringing in Single-Transferrable-Vote (STV) for local elections across England and Wales.

Regardless, the Liberal Democrat’s success in the coming years is directly tied to the electoral failings of the Conservative party. Before 2015, there were a substantial number of Labour / Liberal Democrat marginal seats across the UK. As of 2019, it was less than 5. Whether the Conservatives are able to court their dissatisfied voters back after this month’s locals are yet to be seen – but it’s safe to say that, if they can’t, we’ll be seeing a lot more yellow on the green benches of the commons soon enough.

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