LibDems And The Mathematics of Desperation

If you want to find someone really good at maths the best place to look right now is in Lib Dem HQ in Great George Street, not far from the House of Commons.

Lots of people in the UK’s third-largest party are spending many waking hours doing calculations, including the most simple one, which is to work out whether it will remain the third largest party after the May 7 election.

Much of the calculus taking place also involves trying to work out how many seats the party can save. Few number crunchers talk of gains in these chastened times and, although one official spoke optimistically of the party’s chances in Watford with that wistful way people talk about winning the Euromillions, forecasters spend their time analysing the scale of the carnage in Scotland and the likelihood of repelling Tory advances in the south west.

That’s just the basic level maths, the stuff most people with a GCSE can work out. Then there are those doing the further maths, the really hard stuff, upon which so much depends: the dizzying number of formulae and probabilities that will determine the shape of the next government.

Despite this grim prognosis, most believe the patient will live 

Candidates looking for resources are being hauled before election co-ordinator Paddy Ashdown where, in a Dragon's Den-style grilling, they give a detailed account of their campaigning efforts so far before receiving any money from the main party coffers. Those who have failed to deliver the required number of leaflets or knock on a sufficient number of doors are sent to the back of the queue. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

Some of the figures associated with the Lib Dems are easier to grasp than others. Its average poll rating, for example, you have been long able to count on two hands. Yet any student of recent Lib Dem election results can tell you that the national polls are deeply misleading.

The Eastleigh by-election shows that, even in the parliamentary mid-term, when your sitting MP has been jailed and the betrayal on tuition fees remains raw, there is a resilience and bloodymindedness to this gentlest of political parties. Unsurprisingly, Lib Dems are clinging onto Eastleigh as some kind of holy relic, that if rubbed often enough and is showed sufficient penance will guide them to success at the election.

For they are also aware their fortunes in the former stronghold of Scotland are looking pretty gruesome, with Danny Alexander expected to be among the casualties.

And they know they are vulnerable because so many MPs (David Heath, Don Foster, Menzies Campbell, Malcolm Bruce and Alan Beith, to name a few) are stepping down in seats that were held because of their incumbency and personal vote.

If things were not yet sufficiently miserable, they know they are struggling to fend off Labour in the university cities of Cardiff, Manchester and, some fancifully suggest, Sheffield.

Despite this grim prognosis, most believe the patient will live. The pessimists are predicting they will be in the high twenties when the seats are counted, the optimists suggest anything over 35 will be triumph.

The final number will be crucial when Nick Clegg looks for backing for a coalition proposal from the parliamentary party and the wider membership.

If the party is reduced to a rump and if, crucially, that rump includes more Cable-ites and fewer orange bookers, then it is hard to see why the party would vote for another alliance with the Tories, unless its members want to prove that turkeys do, on occasion, vote for Christmas.

Should Clegg return with more than 30 MPs then the prospect is very different. While we paid a price (dear, dear Danny) ultimately it was worth sacrifice, he might contest.

The Lib Dems are entering this election very differently to the election of 2010. Whereas five years' ago they made clear the party with the largest number of seats would have the first right at coalition building, this time round they are setting no such condition.

Some are suggesting the right of the party is deliberately leaving its options open should David Cameron fall short of leading the largest party, others say it offers the Lib Dems the chance to work with Labour. While it is obvious that Labour and the Lib Dems are closer on policy, if not personality, it does not follow this is the best recipe for a second Coalition.

With the Tories, the Lib Dems have been able to present themselves as the acceptable face of the government. They would struggle to define themselves so clearly in a Lib-Lab coalition, with the danger that the party is consumed by Labour to such an extent that its identity is lost or it ends up being both the smaller and the nastier party: like the Tories, but without the clout.

In the end, the Libs will do a deal with Labour or the Conservatives if the offer is right. The larger parties will name their price, and many surmise that Labour's could be Nick Clegg's head. In their favour, the Lib Dems — who at least have the providence of having been a responsible party of government — will look eminently desirable compared with the option of having to find accommodation with the SNP or UKIP, who would be more likely to govern to a narrower agenda.

The real challenge for the Lib Dems is something they have not had to consider seriously for more than a century — renewal in office. The longer they stay in government the greater the atrophy. Already they have become a party of regional strongholds and they cannot claim truthfully to be a national presence. In places such as Liverpool, where the party ran the council, it no longer registers on the dial.

This is familiar to all parties in office but the consequences are much more severe for an organisation that was reborn and then sustained through its grassroots, and it is nothing without them.

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror

More about the author

About the author

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror. He has worked in Westminster for 15 years including spells on the Birmingham Post, Scotsman and the London Evening Standard. A hispanophile, he has also written for El Mundo and has a deep interest in Spanish and Catalan history, culture and food.

Follow Jason on Twitter.

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