The Liberal Democrats took a risk in 2010. Forming a coalition with a Conservative party which disagreed with many of their liberal policies turned out to be a difficult sell, with a tuition fees U-turn overshadowing any talk of a liberal restraining voice on Conservative policy.
The risk backfired in spectacular fashion in May 2015 when the party was reduced to just 8 MPs, even then leader Nick Clegg barely hanging on to his seat. Many thought that it could take decades for the party to recover, if it recovered at all. After 21 council by-election gains in five months, and a surge in vote share in Witney, the Liberal Democrats are suddenly a resurgent force. How has an apparent comeback happened so quickly?
The EU referendum and consequential Brexit have been major sources of in-fighting and concern across the political spectrum. However the result has seen the Lib Dems unite behind a major political opportunity for a much quicker comeback than anyone could have predicted.
While Labour were accused of by-standing and not offering a more emphatic pro-Europe message, Tim Farron and the Lib Dems recognised a big political opportunity. As much of the political left were struggling to form a European argument, the Lib Dems preferred a positive, Europhile message. The following defeat has opened another major opportunity for the party which, if measured in by-election gains and vote swings, they appear to be grasping.
The Lib Dems decision to fight passionately for the European Union and offer a second referendum on the terms of the exit is a relatively risky strategy as it threatens disillusioning the people who voted Leave, as well as those who voted Remain but think the decision must be respected. However, given the Lib Dems starting point of eight MPs and 2.4million votes from 2015, gaining just a small percentage of the 16 million who voted Remain could spark a jump in votes, and a most unlikely political comeback.
The resurgence has also been bolstered by Labour Party tumult. The re-election of Jeremy Corbyn has seen many Labour voters become disillusioned, and they may look for a new home for their liberal ideas. A proportion of Labour voters may be ‘up for grabs’, and almost all other parties from UKIP to the Lib Dems are making their appeals.
At the Liberal Democrat conference in September, Tim Farron left little doubt about who he was attempting to speak to. Praising some of Tony Blair’s achievements and repeatedly mentioning Labour’s vacation from the centre-ground revealed the Lib Dems' appeal to moderate Labour supporters. UKIP’s leadership candidates, and Theresa May, have also been using targeted rhetoric for the very same reason.
It is through their Brexit fight that the Liberal Democrats have really benefitted, and the mixed messages from the other parties have helped define the Lib Dems position, appealing to those who voted Remain. All of these factors have translated into some impressive displays at council elections and in membership numbers. Members now number almost in hundreds of thousands, while the Lib Dems 21 council by-election gains since May 2016 are more than the other main parties combined.
It was in the recent Witney by-election where the comeback message was given its sternest test. In a seat where David Cameron won in 2015 with a majority of over 25,000 and the Conservatives 10th safest seat, the Lib Dems saw a 23.5% rise in vote share cutting the majority of newly elected Tory MP Robert Courts to just 5,702. The impressive result pushed Labour’s vote share down and their candidate into third place. The Lib Dems hailed the result as showing, “We are the only party that can win seats off the Tories,” and all the post-2015 electoral evidence seems to suggest that may be the case.
The news this week that Zac Goldsmith will trigger another by-election by resigning from his Richmond Park constituency over the decision to approve a third Heathrow runway offers the Lib Dems another opportunity to prove their comeback credentials.
The Richmond Park constituency voted 72% for remain, more so than the Witney constituency did, which could be crucial especially if the Lib Dem comeback is being forged on the back of the Brexit issue. There was a 19.35% swing from Conservative to Lib Dems in Witney, if this was replicated in Richmond it would result in a Lib Dem victory and their ninth MP. This campaign could be a pivotal and totemic step to proving a Lib Dem comeback is truly a reality.
Whether these impressive returns will equal a comeback in numbers of MPs at the next election is still unclear. While council by-elections are commonly a good indicator of how a general election will go, nothing is certain. More members do not necessarily equal better results, as Labour currently demonstrates, but the signs so far are good for the Liberal Democrats. If Tim Farron can maintain and capitalise the momentum from Witney, forge another positive result in Richmond, then it may be possible for the Lib Dems to stage the most unlikely of comebacks.