Will 2024 be the year of the Lib Dem revival?

Michael Dowsett, Associate Director

Today marked the start of ‘manifesto week’, with the Lib Dems kicking off with their offering to voters. Front and centre are major pledges to boost access to health and social care and take the UK back into the EU Single Market, along with action to tackle pollution of waterways by sewage – a longstanding campaigning issue for the party.

Their manifesto launch follows what over recent weeks has been the party’s most effective general election campaign since ‘Cleggmania’ caught the national mood in 2010. That said, recent form has set the bar low for Ed Davey. From losing over 80% of their seats in 2015, to seeing their 2017 campaign dogged by then leader Tim Farron’s views on homosexuality, and Jo Swinson’s hubristic assertion that she was Britain’s next PM ending in her losing her own seat in 2019, few Lib Dems will have fond memories of the party’s efforts over the past decade.

Even with the party’s clear positioning on the EU issue providing hope for a quick recovery, the spectre of a Corbyn government in ’17 and ’19 was sufficient to keep enough Remain-minded Conservatives in the blue column to inhibit a significant comeback.

With the Labour Party dominant in the polls and plenty of energy on the right since Nigel Farage’s re-entry into the political fray, one might have expected Britain’s traditional third party to have also struggled this time around. Instead, a combination of eye-catching campaign stunts – from Davey falling off a paddleboard in Lake Windemere to drumming ‘We Will Rock You’ with pensioners in Hampshire – and telling the leader’s own compelling personal story, has proven an effective way of keeping the party in the picture.

Yet helpfully for the Lib Dems, their prospects in this election are unlikely to live and die by the amount of cut-through they get in the so called ‘air war’. Their polling, at around 10%, is in the same ballpark as in the last three elections, and well below the 20% plus they scored in 2005 and 2010. Yet Tory weakness in their heartlands, combined with the Lib Dems knowing where their target seats are and the party’s renowned ground game, look set to deliver them scores of seats in Parliament and restore their status as the third largest Westminster party, given the SNP’s woes in Scotland.

Contrast this with Reform UK, who have little ground operation and are reliant on their most effective media performer – Nigel Farage – to boost their national level of support to the point where they can win individual seats.

Crucially for the party’s long-term future, the cohort of seats that are likely to return Lib Dem MPs will be more demographically and ideologically coherent than in their mid-2000s peak. Then, the party’s Parliamentary representation was a diffuse agglomeration of traditional Liberal strength in the Celtic fringe, Tory shire seats, and big city and university town constituencies who rebelled against New Labour – an alliance which quickly dissolved once the 2010 Coalition was formed.

Instead, the class of 2024 will be strongly concentrated in southern Home Counties and shire seats typified by above average levels of affluence, a highly educated population and widespread adherence to social liberal values – in line with the type of seats the party gained in 2017 and 2019 when Brexit was a prominent electoral issue.

This arguably provides a surer footing for the party retaining a prominent group of MPs going forward, particularly if the Labour leadership remains committed to the centre ground and the Conservatives take a more populist turn in opposition. It may also provide a path to the party entering government in the future without experiencing the kind of catastrophic electoral blowback seen in 2015, assuming they can use Ministerial office to advance an agenda which delivers on their new core voters’ priorities.

With Labour seemingly set for a landslide on polling day, today’s manifesto launch will be seen as little more than a sideshow for many, ahead of the main event on Thursday, when Keir Starmer will unveil his blueprint for government. However, in a time of electoral volatility, even a big Labour win doesn’t set the party up for a decade or more in power. Lack of delivery on domestic policy and more geopolitical volatility could see a more closely fought contest next time around; one in which the Lib Dems could once again be kingmakers and considering how their policies can be delivered in practice rather than just published in seldom-read manifestoes. If this ends up being the case, the type and magnitude of gains they make this time around will be key to explaining why.

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