It is quite informative to look at the plight of the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 General Election and compare it with previous elections since 1918.
During World War One, the Liberal Party split between the mainstream party, led by Herbert Asquith, and a breakaway faction run by David Lloyd George, who was much closer to Conservative thinking on the war and headed a coalition as Prime Minister from 1916, mostly made up from Conservatives. In the 1918 election, two rival parties fought: the Coalition Liberals (Coalition Lib) under Lloyd George, and the Liberals under Asquith. The two Liberal Parties won 163 seats between them, as follows:
1918: Coalition Con, 332; Coalition Lib (Lloyd George), 127; Labour 57, Con 47, Lib (Asquith) 36, Sinn Fein 73.
In the next election, in 1922, the Coalition Liberals became the National Liberals, and together they won in total 115 seats; at the same time Labour significantly increased their representation. Labour under Ramsay MacDonald did even better in 1923, though a reunited Liberal Party under Asquith went back up to 158, at the expense of the Conservatives. The following year, following a successful motion of no confidence against a Labour minority government, the Conservatives made massive gains, with a cataclysmic loss of 118 seats for Asquith’s Liberals. No centre party has ever made a really significant come-back from this 1924 result. Labour took a great many Conservative seats in 1929 and then the reverse situation happened in 1931, with Labour suffering the worst ever defeat in its history, losing 241 seats and reduced to a rump of just 46. But Labour was able to come back and win a moderately respectable 154 seats in 1935 under Clement Attlee, who would of course lead the party to historic victory in 1945. 1931 for Labour was not like 1924 for the Liberals, who made only modest gains to 59 seats in 1929, and split again over the calling of an election at the outset of the Great Depression. The Liberals under Herbert Samuel chose to remain within the National Government, whilst Lloyd George split from it, and another grouping under John Simon was formed in support of Conservative protectionist policies as against free trade from the other two factions. Between the three factions a total of 72 seats were won. In 1935 the Liberal vote plummeted again to 21, with Samuel himself losing his seat (a precedent, also matched by Archibald Sinclair in 1945, of which Nick Clegg is sure to have been aware, and must have been glad to have avoided).
1922: Con 344, Lab 142, Lib (Asquith) 62, National Lib (Lloyd George) 53
1923: Con 258, Lab 191, Lib (Asquith) 158
1924: Con 412, Lab 151, Lib (Asquith) 40
1929: Lab 287, Con 260, Lib (Lloyd George) 59
1931: Con 470, Lab 46, Liberal National (John Simon) 35, Lib (Herbert Samuel) 33, National Labour (MacDonald) 13, Independent Liberal (Lloyd George) 4
1935: Con 386, Lab 154, Lib (Samuel) 21
The first four decades after World War Two saw a long period in the wilderness for the Liberals, never rising to more than 14 MPs prior to 1983, and in several elections falling to just 6. Archibald Sinclair, who served in the wartime government, oversaw the fall of the party to 12 seats in 1945 and the loss of his own seat (like Samuel before him), but his successor Clement Davies did even worse in three miserable elections with 9, 6, and 6 seats. Jo Grimond did little better after taking over the leadership in 1956; the most he could muster was 12 seats in 1966, but then Jeremy Thorpe, who took over the following year, took the party back down to 6 seats again. However, the uncertain elections of 1974, only the second of which produced a wafer-thin majority for Labour, benefited the Liberals a little, gaining 14 and 13 seats respectively. David Steel managed to avoid the complete disintegration of the party following Thorpe’s resignation and subsequent trial for conspiracy to murder, and they held onto 11 seats in 1979.
1945: Lab 393, Con 197, Lib (Archibald Sinclair) 12
1950: Lab 315, Con 282, Lib (Clement Davies) 9
1951: Con 321, Lab 295, Lib (Davies), 6
1955: Con 344, Lab 277, Lib (Davies) 6
1959: Con 365, Lab 258, Lib (Jo Grimond) 6
1964: Lab 317, Con 304, Lib (Grimond) 9
1966: Lab 364, Con 253, Lib (Grimond) 12
1970: Con 330, Lab 288, Lib (Jeremy Thorpe) 6
Feb 1974: Lab 301, Con 297, Lib (Thorpe) 14
Oct 1974: Lab 319, Con 277, Lib (Thorpe) 13
1979: Con 339, Lab 269, Lib (David Steel) 11
The achievements of David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy should not be underestimated in terms of building a solid third force in British politics. Not only did Steel manage to hold the Liberal Party intact following the Thorpe resignation, but he also formed an electoral alliance with the new Social Democratic Party which broke away from the right wing of Labour in 1981. Together, the SDP-Liberal Alliance won 25.4% of the vote in the 1983 election, not much less than the disastrous 27.6% achieved by Labour under Michael Foot, but the first-past-the-post electoral system translated this into 23 seats for the SDP-Liberals as compared to 209 for Labour. Running as a tighter alliance under the joint leadership of Steel and David Owen in 1987, they nonetheless did not gain seats and lost one.
1983: Con 397, Lab 209, Lib (Steel) 17, SDP (Roy Jenkins) 6
1987: Con 376, Lab 229, SDP-Liberal Alliance (David Owen, David Steel) 22
Very soon after the 1987 election, Steel proposed a merger between the parties, which was supported by the vast majority of Liberals but bitterly split the SDP, with their leader David Owen amongst those most strongly opposed. Nonetheless, the merger went ahead, and Paddy Ashdown became the new leader, the party eventually deciding upon a name of Liberal Democrats (previously Social and Liberal Democrats). A rump SDP of anti-merger members, led by Owen, continued for two years and contested various by-elections (including an important one in 1989 in Richmond, Yorkshire, caused by the appointment of Leon Brittan to the European Commission; the Social Liberal Democrats and Owenite SDP between them gained more votes than the Conservative winner, future leader William Hague), but eventually wound themselves up in 1990 during financial difficulties, whilst a smaller rump of anti-merger Liberals never achieved any real profile.
In the 1992 election, won with a small majority by John Major’s Conservatives against the predictions of pollsters, Ashdown actually lost two seats (and vote share fell from 22.6% to 17.8%), taking the party down to 20, much bruised by the previous five years, the wounds they had created and a good deal of ridicule in the media. However, Major’s government went from crisis to crisis from the withdrawal of sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on ‘Black Wednesday’, September 16th 1992, onwards, and then was mired in a series of scandals, sexual and financial, as well as major party division, with a small anti-EU faction holding great power as Major’s majority dwindled. In 1997, despite the immense popularity of Labour leader Tony Blair, the combination of massive Tory unpopularity with the experience of four Tory election victories made many extremely cautious, and thus prepared to take part in an unprecedented amount of anti-Tory tactical voting. Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats actually fell in terms of percentage share of votes (from 17.8% to 16.8%), but this tactical concentration led to a near doubling of seats. Exactly how much this is down to Ashdown, how much to wider political trends essentially independent of his particular leadership, is unclear, but certainly the party’s position rose during his leadership. His successor, Charles Kennedy, achieved an increase to 52 seats (and 18.3% of the vote) in 2001, and an enviable 62 (with 22.0% of the vote) in 2005. Kennedy’s tenure has been marred by his resignation in 2006, at the age of 47, with reports of his drinking problem (though that was never a problem for Winston Churchill), and now he has ignominously lost his seat to the SNP. But it should not be forgotten that, even in the face of a seemingly impregnable Labour Party under Blair, he took his party to a representation they had not seen since the 1930s. Furthermore, he was the one senior Lib Dem figure to oppose the coalition in 2010, a position which with hindsight looks extremely wise.
1992: Con 336, Lab 271, Lib Dem (Ashdown) 20
1997: Lab 418, Con 165, Lib Dem (Ashdown) 46
2001: Lab 413, Con 166, Lib Dem (Charles Kennedy) 52
2005: Lab 355, Con 198, Lib Dem (Kennedy) 62
Kennedy’s successor Menzies Campbell was found to be uninspiring, and only remained leader for a little over 18 months, before being succeeded by Eurocrat Nick Clegg (with Campbell’s deputy Vince Cable acting in a transitional leadership role for two months). Following a strong media campaign in support of Clegg, and performance in television debates which was widely admired, certainly in comparison to an unpopular Labour incumbent in Gordon Brown, Clegg achieved a smaller than expected 1% rise in votes, whose distribution actually meant a loss of five seats to 57. But this was little commented-upon as the hung parliament led to the Tory/Lib Dem coalition. But the result from this week took his party to just 14.0% of their seats in 2010.
2010: Con 306, Lab 258, Lib Dem (Nick Clegg) 57
2015: Con 331, Lab 232, Lib Dem (Clegg) 8, SNP 56
Nick Clegg has completely undone the achievements of Steel, Ashdown and Kennedy, and pulled off the unenviable feat of a percentage loss of seats which exceeds even that achieved by Arthur Henderson for Labour in 1931, and a worse percentage loss for the centre parties than in any other election since 1918. In terms of numbers of seats, he has taken the party back to the types of numbers associated with Clement Davies in the 1950s or Jeremy Thorpe in 1970. He can at least console himself with the fact of holding onto Sheffield Hallam and thus avoiding the fate of John Samuel and Archibald Sinclair when they were Liberal leader (and Henderson as Labour leader in 1931).