Who’d have thought it? Last year the Liberal Democrats were to all intents and purposes dead and buried, their policy vacuum, lack of principles, tactical naivete and hypocritical pursuit of power cruelly exposed and found wanting by the great British electorate. Those classic values of Liberalism – tolerance, compromise, Europeanism – lay shattered by the seedy experience of five years cohabiting with the Tories and justifying their ruthless attack on the powerless in our society in the name of ‘austerity’. The Lib Dems seemed to be on their way, and many felt justifiably, into the dustbin of history. Even in Cornwall, their share of the vote at the general election was virtually halved. At its peak in 2001 it had reached the dizzy heights of 43.9%. In 2015 it plummeted to just 22%.
Since that election however, there’s been eight by-elections to Cornwall Council. The Lib Dems have won six of them, even places like Newlyn East and Four Lanes, where they weren’t even able to find candidates in the last council elections in 2013. They’ve won two seats from the Tories, two from Ukip and another from an Independent for a net gain of five. The Tories held on to Menheniot and gained a seat from Ukip at Camborne. Even in those two seats Lib Dems came second, only 14 and 60 votes respectively behind the successful Tory.
In terms of votes, Lib Dem domination at these by-elections was not so marked. But even in this respect they’ve increased their vote by 50% when compared with 2013. In contrast, the Tory vote has fallen, Labour’s held steady, MK’s halved, Ukip’s collapsed (they’ve lost half their six seats and now have one fewer councillor than MK), and the Greens are nowhere. On these trends the Lib Dems could rather amazingly even be contemplating an overall majority in next year’s infrequent general election to Cornwall Council.
This looks like more than a dead-cat bounce. The Lib Dems are winning seats in areas they haven’t previously been able to find, like Four Lanes, and making a comeback in places like Newquay. Party fragmentation helps and on a low turnout of around 33% Lib Dem support still only equates to fewer than one in seven voters. But, in our Victorian excuse for a democracy, that’s all it takes.
On social media, some have cheered on the Lib Dem resurgence from the safety of their sofas. Of course, a Lib Dem councillor might well be better than a Tory or Ukip councillor, but only in the sense that it’s better to suffer from a cold than the flu. And not always. For instance Ukip’s Derek Elliot at Four Lanes consistently opposed Cornwall Council’s frenetic housing and population growth plans. Will the Lib Dems’ Nathan Billings do the same? Especially as the Lib Dem group running Cornwall Council with the Independents seems to have found it impossible to make a strong case against the recent 16% hike in Cornwall’s housing target.
What we’re seeing is the familiar old swing of the pendulum. Fed up with the Tories? It’s back to the Lib Dems. The reason we shouldn’t get over-excited by these tweedledum/tweedledee politics is that when you vote Lib Dem you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get. Put simply, elected Lib Dem representatives have a long record of fine words but feeble deeds. Moreover, there’s often a major disjunction between what they say when they’re in London and when they’re in Truro. Or between Lib Dems in Cornwall and Lib Dems over the Tamar.
To mark the current Lib Dem party conference, over the next five days I’ll be examining their record in four areas – Devonwall, the Cornish Assembly, the cross-border constituency and the ongoing transformation of Cornwall into a lifestyle choice.