Could history repeat itself? In 1962, the then moribund Liberal Party captured “true blue” Orpington in a by-election, on a massive 26 per cent swing. The prime minister, Harold Macmillan, had been a proven election winner, but by then he was seen as out of touch and beset by sleaze (the Profumo scandal). He decided to go before he was pushed.
His hapless successor, Alec Douglas-Home, fared no better and lost 60 seats to Labour at the 1964 general election. Labour achieved a narrow win then, followed by a landslide at the second attempt in 1966. The Liberals added three seats to their six, and got up to 12 seats in 1966. My contribution, as a keen Liberal student, was to campaign for Labour in a Tory-Labour marginal.
The yellow canary in the mine sang again in the run-up to the 1997 election. By-elections were won by the Lib Dems in safe Tory seats (Newbury; Christchurch; Eastleigh). The Conservative government was beset by economic crisis, sleaze, divisions over Europe and sheer exhaustion. Tony Blair’s Labour Party gained 145 seats in the general election. My contribution was to get elected as a Liberal Democrat MP, one of 26 additions, bringing the party’s total to 46.
A lot has changed since then: the financial crisis, coalition government, the rise of Scottish Nationalism, Brexit and now, the pandemic. But the voting system and (in England and Wales) the relative strength of the parties remain essentially the same. What, therefore, can history tell us about the future in the light of the Lib Dems’ spectacular victory in North Shropshire?
The first and obvious point is that even the most committed Liberal Democrats like me don’t expect to win the general election, which is due to be held by 2024. We did embrace that possibility in 2010 for a few days during the election campaign (“Cleggmania”) and for a few nanoseconds in 2019 after the European elections. But a more realistic if optimistic outlook is the prediction of “party strategists” that the Lib Dems could take 30 more Tory seats (and a few more from the SNP). Even a total haul of 25-30 seats at the next election could put the party in a position nearly as influential as in 2010.
For the bigger picture we should concentrate on a series of round numbers: 40; 80; 120 (rounded because of all the quirks produced by parties outside England). Forty is roughly the number of seats opposition parties need to win from the Tories to deprive them of an overall majority; 80 is the number of seats Labour needs to win to be the largest party (though the more the Lib Dems gain Tory seats, the more that target comes down); 120 is the number of seats Labour must win to get an overall majority (more for a clear working majority).
Miracles can happen, but, as of now, the first target looks well within reach; the second achievable with difficulty; and the third conceivable but highly unlikely. While tacit cooperation and tactical voting could make for bigger gains by Labour, the Lib Dems (and the Greens), boundary revisions and the recent moves to suppress voting – such as ID requirements – make really big shifts very difficult.
If that analysis is correct, we are looking at minority government which can be as stable and appealing as the opposition parties allow. They must prepare themselves and the public for it. We need a grown-up discussion of what minority, non-Tory, government might look like.
A lot of political commentators criticise Keir Starmer (and, to a degree, the Lib Dems’ Ed Davey) for being dull and worthy; boring but honest. Impatient activists demand “vision” and “compelling narratives” along with Obama-like inspirational speeches and glamour. That is irrelevant nonsense. Boring and dull are good. Worthiness and honesty are very good. There is no shame in dullness. Clement Attlee was apparently as dull as dishwater. The mature democracy of Germany revels in it. The world’s most successful social democratic country, Sweden, has over a century’s experience of dull winners.
If a “hung parliament” looms, as it surely will, the electorate will be told by the Tories to expect “chaos”. Dull and stable will do very well instead: parties working together, not necessarily in coalition but with a shared agenda. It would include measures to reach net zero; fairer, more progressive tax; and a commitment to growth built around an industrial strategy.
The most compelling message, however, at the next election will be negative and dull: an end to incompetence and corruption. Labour will likely add to that with a 199-style pledge card containing a few, simple, easily delivered commitments. The Lib Dems will want a similar device, having learned painfully the cost of extravagant pledges in 2010. The main challenge to Labour – and the Lib Dems – will be to avoid getting too excited about issues which antagonise or baffle the public, such as trans rights or Palestine.
There are however some issues which cannot be ignored. One is Europe. Research shows that people’s identity is now more strongly attached to Remain or Brexit than to political parties. But making headway at the next election will involve winning back Brexit-voting red wall Labour seats and southwest rural Lib Dem seats, in addition to making progress in the affluent Remainer suburbs and Scotland. The Lib Dems have illustrated in Chesham and Amersham and now in Shropshire that it is possible to do both.
Labour has so far avoided the E-word altogether. That is not sustainable. It is surely possible to adopt a suitably technocratic formula: respecting Brexit but undoing some of the economic damage by committing to greater regulatory convergence, alignment of trade policies and a single market which allows a brake on migration.
The real reason for Lord Frost’s resignation, I suspect, is that he realised that renegotiating the Brexit agreement is impossible and he got out before humiliating capitulation forced him out. Fixing the mess will be high on the agenda of a new government.
A second issue is Scotland. Labour cannot make a breakthrough without retrieving Scottish seats from the SNP. Labour has, in Ian Murray, an impressive presence at Westminster (albeit the sole MP; Lib Dems have four) and, in Gordon Brown, a respected and thoughtful statesman figure. But, if I were Keir Starmer, I would be spending plenty of time in Scottish factories, universities and whiskey distilleries and getting to Hampden Park to cheer on Andy Robertson’s team.
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He must also work out what to say to the inevitable question: will a minority Labour government agree a deal around independence with the SNP? The answer should be no. Indeed Starmer has an opportunity to lay down the gauntlet in the opposite direction: would the SNP really risk further years of Conservative government, in protest at the absence of a further, divisive referendum on independence?
A third issue is constitutional change. The arguments are somewhat remote from the electorate but crucial to working partnerships in minority government. The agenda is clear: voting reform for the Commons; ending the corruption of Lords appointments and party donations; radical devolution and decentralisation of decision making and revenue raising. There are still a few Labour dinosaurs but the willingness to change is seemingly greater than a generation ago.
Even as a former Lib Dem leader trying to be dispassionate about the electoral outlook, I am struck by one vivid contrast. The party is dismissed as irrelevant when it gets 11.5 per cent of the popular vote in an election and a dozen seats. Our German Liberal colleague, Christian Lindner, regards 11.5 per cent of the vote as a triumph and gets to run Europe’s most powerful economy. It is just possible that North Shropshire could be the start of an electoral shift from the Tories which will lead not just to a change of government but to deeper political reform with better – and more German-style – cooperative government in future.
Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015