Lib Dems are winning seats Labour held since 1935. Has the ‘revival’ begun?  

History suggests divisions in Labour and Brexit could transform party politics


The Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party have always had an intertwined history. The Liberals bore Labour, and then Labour bore the Liberal Democrats in turn.

Having departed from Labour in their ‘Orange Book’ years in the Lib-Con coalition they are now reviving their old act of latching on to the Labour Party.

However, they can no longer approach Labour from the left as they did with Iraq; in the current climate only Trotsky could do that. They are now approaching from the centre, to try and recapture both the centre-left and shy conservatives, either disillusioned with Corbyn or with the Conservatives’ approach to Brexit.

But will it get them back to power in the southwest and in bellwether constituencies for the Lib Dems, such as Cambridge?

If it wasn’t for the Liberal Party, it would be unlikely that there would be a Labour Party or a welfare state. The 1903 Pact between the Liberals and Labour, masterminded by Ramsay McDonald was one of the key contributing factors to the demise of the Liberals in retrospective years.

It was two Liberal intellectuals who were central architects in the formation of our now cherished welfare state; William Beveridge and John Maynard Keynes.

One of the reasons why the Labour government of the 1920s was such a failure was its ardent pursuit, particularly by Philip Snowden, of the neo-classical obsession of balanced budgets. Keynes transformed the Labour party’s notion of economics, by moving beyond this neo-classical fanaticism.

Then there was Beveridge, whose report on Social Insurance and Allied Services in 1942 invited our notion of the benefits system. The Liberal legacy is interwoven into the fabric of the Labour party and the welfare state.

After the Second World War the Liberals very much wandered in the wilderness until the Social Democratic Party gave them a path to back to being germane. The SDP and the early years of the Liberal Democrats under Paddy Ashdown were pitched very much on the centre-left/right faultline.

Tim Farron is trying to revive this age, and in many respects these are very similar times.

The SDP was born out of Labour divisions, was pro-Europe, actively pro-business, and pitching for Labour votes on the centre. In the 1983 General Election it achieved 25.4 per cent, only 2.2 per cent less than Labour’s 27.6 per cent.

Early indications are that history could be repeating itself with a string of council by-elections in solid Labour seats going to the Lib Dems on massive swings.

In North East Derbyshire, a seat held by Labour in parliament since 1935 the Labour share of the vote went  down by a whopping 33.2 per cent, with the Lib Dems up 37.4 per cent.

In Sheffield Mosborough Labour lost three councilors in another seat Labour has held on a constituency level since 1935, as the Lib Dem vote went up by 34.2 per cent.

And last night the Lib Dems took seats from Labour in Plasnewydd in Cardiff Central, a traditional Labour-leaning seat, by an increase of 15.4 per cent.

These are Labour heartlands where the Labour Party should be solidly ahead. A trend is emerging and Farron must be hoping that it continues.

The major difference now lies between Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. In the 80s Thatcher was pro-Europe and an advocate of the common market. Now the Conservatives couldn’t be further away from this position.

Farron is trying to speak directly to shy liberal conservatives in the suburbs and the south-west when he declares the Conservative Party

‘no longer supports business, no longer understands the need for calm economic pragmatism – but instead pursues the nationalist protectionist fantasies of the Brexit fundamentalists who have won the day.’

Farron hits on a key weakness of the Brexit fallout for the Conservatives: do they put the will of the British public on Brexit above business interests?

Liam Fox’s comments on businesses being ‘lazy’ offers an insight into the rhetoric that will start pouring out of fanatical Brexiters’ mouths if they don’t get what they want.

David Cameron only just won the 2015 general election. What supported his victory was the Liberal Democrats imploding in the south-west. For Theresa May to win, even after the boundary changes, she needs to hang on to Lib Dem voters.

Can Farron get enough of the shy conservatives and Labour centrists together to seize the middle ground? We shall see. It wouldn’t be the first time Labour and the Lib Dems have swapped roles, and it might not be the last.

Sam Pallis is a Labour member on the executive of his local CLP and an active Young Fabian. Follow him on Twitter

See: Lib Dems could replace Labour as opposition, says Tim Farron at party conference

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13 Responses to “Lib Dems are winning seats Labour held since 1935. Has the ‘revival’ begun?  ”

  1. Boffy

    Dream on. The Liberals are deader than the proverbial dead parrot! The two things they had going for them in the past was that a) they could pretend to be more radically left than Labour in Labour areas, and more radically free market than the Tories in Tory areas, and b) they had a core base of activists in concentrated local areas. Incidentally, many of them were themselves ex-members of the SWP and other such outfits, the people who got involved in ant-racist and other such campaigning.

    The first advantage of being outrageously two-faced and duplicitous has gone, as a result of their joining the Tories in the coalition. Their mantle in that regard has now been taken over by the SNP and the Greens. But, the second has also gone, because their grass roots organisation has melted away. A large chunk went straight to labour during the coalition period, another bit collapsed into apathy, and has come to Labour under Corbyn, and is being held at bay by the Compliance Unit for having supported another party in the past – a restriction that does not seem to apply to Tories like Sean Woodward or Digby Jones, who can be welcomed with open arms and immediately made Ministers! – whilst another component has drifted into the Greens.

    What is left is largely the free market Liberals, who generally have not been known for their activism. The Liberal brand might win them the odd council seat, especially in low polls, just as the BNP and UKIP could win seats in low polls, but that is the most they can hope for. The best thing would be to simply give the Liberals a decent burial and move on.

  2. Martyn Wood-Bevan

    I have to agree with Boffy! They may make the odd gain in the odd seat for odd local reasons but I wouldn’t create an upward curve out of it, just yet. In the order you describe the gains are 37.4% followed by 34.2% followed by 15.4%. Plotting those results would produce a graph with an accelerating downward curve. Interesting idea but the Labour party election will have ended, no MP’s will have defected to a party that supported the bedroom tax and increased tuition fees and the Lib-Dems will sit alongside UKIP in single figures for the foreseeable future.

  3. Boffy

    To put it it in another historical context, the Fabians, of course, opposed the establishment of the Labour Party. They argued for continued activity within the Liberal Party. Part of the reason for that, and interesting for today, was that they feared the role that Marxists such as the SDF would play in such a Labour Party. So, its not surprising that a century later the Fabians at a time when a left-wing in the Labour Party is again becoming more radical and ascendant in large numbers hanker after a return to their natural home within the Liberals.

    Incidentally, it should be reminded to some of the PLP and their supporters who seem to have a very bad knowledge of the history of the party and labour movement, that the Marxist SDF was one of the four founding organisations of the Labour Party along with the ILP, LRC and the Trades Unions. They should also be reminded that when the SDF became the British Socialist Party, it was an affiliated organisation of the LP, as the Co-op Party is today.

    When the BSP changed its name to the British Communist Party, they should simply have notified the party that they had changed their name, but it was the sectarianism of some within that party, which led them instead to apply for affiliation as the Communist Party instead, in terms which virtually invited rejection of that application, which led to it being rejected and the Communist Party then being banned from membership.

    Even so, the role that Marxists in the SDF and its descendants had played in establishing the Labour Party was reflected in the fact that even after the ban in the 1920’s, a quarter of Labour Party CLP’s in the National Left-Wing Movement continued to allow Communist Party members to have dual membership and had large numbers of Communist Party members within them.

  4. (Peter StJohn Howe ) 'SINJUN'

    Wrong Wrong. The Analysis is based on preconceived leanings.

    On a National level the Libdems have messed it up big time.
    Consider the following :
    *The predictions that were made and are being made by Clegg are 180 degrees out on The Economy and EU stability and effectiveness .
    *Clegg was wrong but his self confidence and Ego made him a big personality which Farron totally lacks ,
    *Any party needs a big character as a leader to whom voters can relate . The lib Dems have not got one.
    *The Lib Dems are peddling lines appropriate to the 1970s or before . The voters have moved on.
    The middle to left ground has been hoovered up by Theresa Mays reorganised Tories.
    *The EU is collapsing and Farron wants a re-run of the referendum , or its equivalent. Political suicide.
    small local successes are not necessarily a good indicator but UKIP has seduced very many LibDem waverers it seems.


  5. Tony

    One big problem they have is that they rarely appear in the broadcast media. Question Time and Any Questions etc. rarely have them on since the general election disaster. The conference season is an exception.

  6. Rebecca Taylor

    There are a few things Boffy appears not to have noticed including:

    * Surge in LibDem membership (now around 80,000 – higher than when Charles Kennedy was leader) since the referendum.

    * The LibDems have not only won several solid Labour seats in council by-elections recently, but have also won seats from the Tories and UKIP too. The seats are in very different parts of the country including Sheffield, Derbyshire, Cornwall, East Sussex and Cardiff. This means the LibDems currently have the best council by-election record of any party since May 2016 (15 gains, no losses, 100% defence rate).

    * The LibDems also had the best English council election results of any party in May. We had an overall gain of 45 seats and gained control of 1 council. This compares to overall losses of 48 for the Tories and overall losses of 18 for Labour at a time when the main opposition party should be winning, especially as I believe the seats up for election in May this year tended to be in Labour strongholds.

    *In Scotland we retained the same number of MSPs (Labour lost 13 seats) and took two constituency seats from the SNP. (We had awful Welsh Assembly results with the exception of the brilliant Kirsty Williams, but the Welsh by-election gain from Labour this week shows that can change).

    This is only a modest start in our party’s fightback, but a serious start it is.

    Depending on how accurate you think social media is, there has certainly been noise in recent days from some Labour members along the lines of “if Corbyn is re-elected I’m joining the LibDems”. A few have already jumped ship, but I think they make up a small proportion of LibDem newbies, most of whom have never joined a political party before. Interesting times….

  7. Boffy

    “Depending on how accurate you think social media is, there has certainly been noise in recent days from some Labour members along the lines of “if Corbyn is re-elected I’m joining the LibDems”. ”

    Which tells you exactly where the Lib Dem corpse is lying. Its seen as a free market outfit, that might provide a home for right-wing Labour careerists, with similar free market ideas, and hope to get themselves some sinecure at a local level, or maybe even an appointment to the House of Lords that well known bastion of democratic principles where so many Liberals are already massively over represented.

    The fact that people like Ed Balls will not touch the Liberals with a barge pole shows that the PLP rebels know that route is a dead end. It would be literally sadistic, necrophiliac, bestiality, i.e. beating a dead horse.

  8. Rebecca Taylor

    @Boffy – I wasn’t referring to Labour MPs, but Labour party members, sorry if that wasn’t clear. And I don’t think Ed Balls would be welcome in the Liberal Democrats; he’s far too illiberal! Funnily enough I was the LibDem candidate in Morley in 2015 and with no money and no time (my full time non political day job was really busy), I got 1400 votes while Mr Balls lost his seat by 400, so I would like to claim a modicum of credit.

    I notice you have not commented on the other points I made, but have reverted to tribalistic “the LibDem are dead” rhetoric. At the last general election, many parts of the Labour party were so dedicated to kicking the LibDems that they forgot to kick the Tories, which helped them beat Labour and win an unexpected majority. The Tories are still thanking you now!

    Not sure where you get the idea that LibDems are free market obsessives from. You write as if we’re like those right wing libertarians who want to marketise everything and regulate nothing. Ironically, we LibDems get accused by right wingers of being “anti-business” due to wanting to do things such as crack down on tax avoidance and better regulate markets.

  9. Boffy

    I never thought you were referring to Labour MP’s. There are plenty of Labour Party members who have thought they had a direct route to becoming a career Councillor, and from there to some other sinecure.

    I’d already replied to the “other points” in response to others comments. Winning Council seats in specific areas, and in by-elections, on low polls means nothing. A gain of 14 net Council seats is hardly anything to write hom about when you have just seen your MP’s reduced from 70 to 8!

    As for your free market ideology, haven’t you read the Liberals history as a party, have you not read your “Orange Book”. David Laws was a more enthusiastic free marketer than George Osbourne, and after he was gone he was replaced by the equally pro-market Alexander. You’ve got away with your two-faced position in the past at local level, but having gone into government as soon as your MP’s smelled Ministerial leather, your true nature has been exposed, and rejected by the voters, which is why a lash up with you, or a return to your kind of politics by the Blair-rights, and their fetish of the “centre-ground” is a non-started.

    Its a bit rich for any Liberal to criticise Labour members for the Tories getting into office. You had the perfect opportunity to prevent that in 2010, but instead found a natural home in government with the most right-wing Tory government for decades. Now Your ex Leader Clegg wants you to lash up another coalition with them, which he had hoped to achieve at the last General Election!

  10. Carol Angharad

    Someone from my CLP went to work in the Tupton by-election (NE Derbys) I was told that very few of the 33Labour Councillors on the District Council came & canvassed or did anything for the candidate, very little on the ward was canvassed & and only one area was knocked up on the day because there were so few volunteers. This person, who is not an avid JC supporter said no one mentioned JC to him on the doorstep. The day when areas who could weigh the Labour vote without doing anything are over. I would suggest this seat was lost because the ward organisation did not exist & no one has been interested in reaching out to voters. The voters are interested in politics & want to hear from us, if you live in marginal council seats you know this, you can also win Tory seats with a lot of effort. The Tories maybe going home to the LibDems but we can win, & won 4 council seats last night.

  11. Derek Emery

    Labour have moved hard left into the long grass to minimise their attraction to ordinary voters. Some ordinary voters will turn to the Lib Dems – the next party right along the political spectrum.
    Lib Dem politics are not right enough for most. They do not map into the wants and needs of the many in social group C, D and E who are conservative with a small c, and are against mass immigration and internationalism because they have been the biggest losers for decades. See Brexit voters are not thick, not racist: just poor
    …This rebellion wasn’t caused by racism or a paroxysm of infantile anger. It was considered. The workers spied an opportunity to take the elite that despises them down a peg or two — and they seized it. They asserted their power, and in the process, blimey: they changed the world…

  12. Boffy

    “This rebellion wasn’t caused by racism or a paroxysm of infantile anger. It was considered. The workers spied an opportunity to take the elite that despises them down a peg or two — and they seized it.”

    Really? In that case it was the biggest exercise in cutting your nose off to spite your face in a very long time, as they put in place an even more right-wing, even more anti-working class section of the Tory Party than were in office before!

    Moreover, those “ordinary” voters (whoever they may be) you refer to, had the opportunity to the vote for the Lib-Dems as an alternative to Labour in 2015, but instead the Liberals got annihilated. They had the opportunity to vote for them in 2016, after Corbyn became Labour Leader, but in the London Assembly elections they came fifth!

    The Liberals and the Labour Right keep talking about this mythical centre ground, and keep telling us that elections can only be won upon it, but in every election over the last few years, it has been shown to be a fantastical construction in the heads of career politicians and journalists who live in the same establishment bubble. If they really believe what they say they would have already gone ahead with a repetition of the SDP/Liberal lash up of the 1980’s, but they won’t because they know its a fantasy.

    It had a better chance of success in the 1980’s, because of the specific conditions, but look at the actual support for parties during that period, and you will see that Labour continued to have the largest support, up until the Falklands War. All the SDP did was to take enough support away from Labour to prevent it winning, and thereby as the Liberals and SNP had done in 1979, it acted as support for the right-wing Thatcherites, just as Clegg acted as support for Cameron.

    But, having fulfilled that role the SDP/Liberal lash-up in the 1980’s disappeared, having put Thatcher in office, and Clegg’s Liberals have disappeared having put Cameron in office, and thereby making way for May, Johnson, Davis and all the other reactionary throwbacks.

  13. David Davies

    If we turf out the Blue Labour tories out of Real Labour, the re-establishment of a cogent opposition will emerge under JC. No one will ever believe the LibDoom again, after Clodd reneged upon everything that he believed in to get what he thought was power.

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