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Lib Dems have work to do to convince doubters the party has a future

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The Liberal Democrats face stiff challenges. The party is no longer the electoral force it was and its claim to be the party of protest is challenged by Labour in most areas and even the Greens in others.

At June’s General Election that party’s vote share fell to under 8%, slipping to a level last seen in 1970. The latest opinion polling evidence suggests that it is becalmed.

True, the party did increase its parliamentary seats from eight to twelve, but the peak of 2005 when 62 were elected is a distant memory.

The 2017 campaign strategy of becoming the natural home of Remain voters was poorly conceived and executed.

Historically, a feature of Lib Dem success is its local government base.

Tim Farron (right) and Vince Cable during a visit to Twickenham on the campaign trail
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Tim Farron oversaw a modest upturn in the Lib Dems’ fortunes at the election

But the reversion to two-party politics seen announced at the last General Election was evident across local councils before then.

The decline in Lib Dem councillors is dramatic.

In the mid-1990s it accounted for one in five councillors.

But in 2010 Nick Clegg entered a coalition with David Cameron and the Conservatives. A year later the party lost over 800 council seats.

Further losses occurred and with it two-thirds of the councils it controlled.


Sir Vince Cable on the campaign trail with former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron in Twickenham

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Can Vince Cable transform the Lib Dems?

Joining the coalition seriously undermined the party’s foundations.

This attrition has had a huge impact because its councillors formed its campaigning force.

It is hardly surprising that their decline spilled over into elections to devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales.

In the 2016 elections, the party was relegated into fifth place in Scotland. In the Assembly of Wales the party is reduced to a solitary representative.

Parliamentary and council by-elections normally rejuvenate the Liberal Democrats.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg pose outside No 10 on 12 May 2010
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Nick Clegg’s decision to join David Cameron in a coalition has cost his party

In the absence of the former it falls to the local government variant to provide momentum. But this is not happening.

Since June the party has shown a net loss of seats and instead it is Labour that makes most of the running in these contests.

Instead, the party must await next May’s local elections to improve morale.

A quarter of its parliamentary seats lie in southwest London and it is in the boroughs of Kingston, Sutton and Richmond where it once held power that it should re-establish its council presence.

But gains in parts of England more challenging than this are also necessary to convince doubters the party has a future.

:: Professor Thrasher is an Associate Member of Nuffield College, Oxford.


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