6 May 2005


Apart from the dismal Tory performance, the big story of the election is how well the Liberal Democrats have done. They have 62 seats in the new parliament, up 11, as a result of 16 gains – 12 from Labour, three from the Tories and one from Plaid – and five losses, all to the Tories. And they took just over 22 per cent of the popular vote, up from 18 per cent in 2001 and 16 per cent in 1997.

Two things are noteworthy here. First, the Lib Dems' support is about the same as that for the Liberal-Social Democratic Party Alliance in 1987, but it is more conveniently distributed, so they have almost three times as many seats as the Alliance won then. They still have an interest in proportional representation, but it's not quite as pressing as it used to be.

Secondly, they have benefited this time as much from anti-Labour protest voting as from anti-Tory tactical voting. Most of their gains are from Labour and they suffered a net loss of two seats to the Tories. And at the next general election they will be fighting lots more seats from second place against Labour incumbents (see previous post).

It's clear that the Lib Dem advance has come to a large extent from having positioned themselves to the left of Labour (at least in the way "left" is understood by most people) on Iraq, the trustworthiness of Tony Blair and education. But it's unlikely that Labour will be as vulnerable to attack on these grounds at the next election. The Iraq war and the row over university funding should be ancient history by 2009, and hysterical Blairophobia should disappear as soon as the prime minister retires. So at the next election the Lib Dems could well find themselves having to appeal primarily to Tory voters who want Labour out rather than Labour voters who want to teach Blair a lesson.

That is not going to be very easy to handle – particularly if the promised referendum on the EU constitution takes place, which will inevitably force the Lib Dems into alliance with Labour in the "yes" campaign. I could well be wrong here, but my hunch is that the challenge could prove too much for Charles Kennedy and his pals and that 2005 marks the high tide of their advance. We shall see.

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