I know we’re not supposed to celebrate the end of the Liberal Democrats while the corpse is still moving, but after their historic collapse in the Barnsley by-election this week the prognosis for their continued survival doesn’t look too healthy.
Dan Jarvis was elected as Labour’s newest MP with an increased majority while the Lib Dems avalanched from second place at last year’s General Election to sixth place yesterday – not only behind the Tories but also behind UKIP, the BNP and an independent local candidate. No party has slipped so many places in an English by-election since 1945. Their vote collapsed from 17.3% last year to barely 4% meaning over 8 out of every 10 voters who backed the Lib Dems last year abandoned them yesterday. They must be quaking in their sandals as they gaze over the brink into electoral oblivion.
There is quite a contrast with the result in Oldham just a few months ago where the Lib Dems suffered a drop in support but clung on to second place as Labour held the seat comfortably. What seems to be happening is that previously disillusioned Labour supporters who backed the Lib Dems, believing their now-abandoned pre-election claims to be a progressive party opposed to immediate spending cuts, have come home to Labour. But Tory voters, seeing the Lib Dems propping up their right-wing Government, are more comfortable lending their votes to that party to keep Labour out. There were lots of disaffected Labour supporters in Barnsley last year who’ve moved back to Labour, but precious few Tories to replace them, so the Lib Dem vote collapsed. In Oldham, former Labour voters similarly abandoned the Lib Dems but Tory voters helped them hold on to second place, so they didn’t collapse in the same way.
So what does that mean for Lambeth? We also had a by-election last year for a council seat in Tulse Hill after Labour had won back the council with an increased majority. That was before the reality of what the Lib Dems had done had really sunk in – at that point they hadn’t abandoned so many of their election pledges. But they lost badly anyway as Labour’s majority increased, and it was clear even then that former Labour voters were coming home while the Tory vote collapsed as their supporters swung behind their Lib Dem coalition partners.
If that pattern continues, and there’s no reason to think it might not, the next council elections will be disastrous for the Lib Dems in Lambeth. They stand to lose three seats in Bishops Ward (Waterloo) where they borrow large numbers of traditional Labour voters, and one seat each in Oval (Kennington) and Vassall (North Brixton) for the same reason. In Streatham they rely more heavily on natural Tory supporters to hold onto nine council seats in Streatham Wells, Streatham Hill and St Leonards. But in Streatham Wells and Streatham Hill, where the Lib Dems have very small majorities, there is barely any remaining Tory vote that hasn’t already swung behind them while there is a large Labour vote that will swing away from them – we see exactly that pattern at GLA elections in those wards. In Clapham Common they hold one seat, but as the Tories hold the other two in a close three-way marginal there is no longer any reason for Tory voters to be uncertain whether to vote Conservative or Lib Dem to keep Labour out; they will vote Conservative.
If the pattern we’ve seen working in Oldham and Barnsley is repeated in Lambeth, the Lib Dems will see their councillors slashed from the 15 they currently have. They could even face total wipe-out. They face this prospect not only in Lambeth but right across inner London and, I suspect, other urban areas across Britain where their support for the Tory-led Government will cost them dear. The chilling cry in US jails as a convicted prisoner walks to their execution is ‘dead man walking’. The same chill must be running down the spine of every Lib Dem councillor in Lambeth.