In 1935, George Dangerfield wrote a book called “The Strange Death of Liberal England,” charting the downfall of the UK’s once mighty Liberal party in the early 20th century.
We’re going to need a sequel.
The Liberal party’s successors, the Liberal Democrats, got absolutely thrashed in Britain’s general election on Thursday. They’re on course to lose more seats than pretty much any pollsters or analysts had suggested, and may be left with fewer seats than an at any time since the party was founded.
Forecasts suggested the Lib Dems might lose half of their 57 MPs — but the results suggest they could even go down to fewer than ten. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has survived, but he now leads a party that is a shell of its former self. In one seat, Castle Point, the candidate got 0.2% of the votes, the worst for a Liberal in any constituency for 150 years.
What’s left of the party is a mess, with most of its leadership swept away in the bloodbath. Three of the five Lib Dem cabinet ministers — Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Danny Alexander, were all defeated, along with many other ministers.
One obvious leadership candidate, Tim Farron, held on to his seat with a solid majority. But the prospect of leading a party that can now fit into a minibus is probably not as inviting as it previously was. Other possible contenders are Norman Lamb, the MP for North Norfolk, and Alistair Carmichael, Scotland’s only remaining Lib Dem MP.
The Lib Dems already saw a similarly awful result in the European elections last year, when the party lost 10 of its 11 members of the European parliament.
This isn’t a minor setback. The Lib Dems have won seats in the past by building up local government bases over years and decades — then using that local knowledge and recognition to campaign for parliament. After five years of constant, repetitive defeat, the party’s council base is depleted, and it might face a period in the wilderness like the decades that the Liberal Party experienced in the mid-20th century.
There’s a pretty obvious international comparison to be made. During her second term in office, Angela Merkel went into coalition with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which got one of its best election results ever in 2009. By 2013, it was reduced to a husk, getting less than 5% of the vote and no representation in parliament at all.
In fact, Angela Merkel even told David Cameron this five years ago. The German Chancellor reportedly told Cameron that “the little party always gets crushed” in a coalition.
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