British Liberal Democrat Revival Starts to Look More Likely

The liberals have been winning local elections by casting themselves as the only pro-EU party and an alternative to Labour.

British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron answers questions from reporters in Brussels, February 18, 2016
British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron answers questions from reporters in Brussels, February 18, 2016 (ALDE)

After they formed a coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010, Britain’s Liberal Democrats only lost elections — local, mayoral and national.

The low point came in May 2015, when the party lost 49 of its 57 seats in the House of Commons. Big names, like Danny Alexander and Vince Cable, were voted out. Liberal strongholds across South West England simply vanished.

Liberals have talked up a “LibDem revival” since that dismal election result and commentators have dismissed it as sheer optimism.

But could there be something to it after all?

Hope

Liberal Democrats have been gaining local council seats in the South West. Party moral is high. Many seats have already selected candidates for the 2020 election: a next generation of liberal party leaders is waiting in the wings.

Last year’s Richmond Park by-election in particular gave the party hope, bringing back memories of their 1983 upset victory in Bermondsey. The Liberals won that South London constituency that year with a 44-percent swing, the largest ever in British political history. In Richmond, a Conservative majority of more than 22,000 was overturned.

A revival is also underway outside affluent London suburbs, in former liberal heartlands. LibDems have won elections in areas that supported Labour for decades, including North East Derbyshire and Sheffield.

Shadow of Brexit

The only party that seeks to reverse last year’s Brexit referendum is even polling better in placed that voted overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the European Union.

In Sunderland, which voted 60 percent against EU membership, the liberal vote share went up 42 percent and they won.

The same in Hertfordshire, which also voted to leave: an increased vote share of 24 percent and another liberal councilor.

By successfully casting themselves as the party of the 48 percent who voted to remain in the EU — and as a center-left alternative to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour — the Liberal Democrats have had their best local election results in twenty years, with a net gain of 28 seats.

It may just be that the LibDem revival is really happening.

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