An academic study published at the University of Birmingham today finds strong support among Liberal Democrat MPs and activists for their role in the Coalition Government.  However, being in office for the first time was a ‘bitter-sweet’ experience and the party is divided about whether to repeat the experience, after paying a high political price at the 2015 General Election.

Dr Matt Cole, Teaching Fellow in History at the University of Birmingham, monitored twelve Lib Dem constituencies around the country before and after the 2015 election, interviewing MPs, party workers and members, and examining the local campaigns. The study suggests that there are no regrets amongst Lib Dems for the coalition, but there is an understanding that the damage caused to the party’s reputation will take years to heal.

The resulting report, Liberalism in Power: Watching the Titanic‘ (PDF - 1.55Mb) finds that:

  • All MPs and activists interviewed, supported Lib Dem participation in the coalition, but they party were divided about whether to repeat the experience
  • Most MPs believed the Lib Dems had become too close to the Conservatives in public perception, especially to Labour sympathisers
  • Despite the partnership in Government, the Conservative Party spent controversially large sums in apparently safe Lib Dem seats, leading one campaign officer to say “the Tories bought this seat”
  • For the first time, Lib Dem MPs gained no electoral advantage from incumbency or strength in local government
  • The Lib Dem national campaign was attacked by nine of the twelve campaign teams as “appalling”, “useless” and “bland” for its failure to project a clear message, and party leaders were used only to mobilise members rather than to win votes
  • The organisation of both the election campaign and the parliamentary party were criticised for micro-management: the whips were described as “body-snatchers” who had adopted an over-disciplinary approach to backbench MPs; the campaign leaders were dismissed as “arrogant, naive and stupid”
  • All local parties reported a spontaneous uplift in membership following their defeat at the election, but were uncertain about its sustainability.

“Being in national office for the first time was bound to be a shocking and bittersweet experience for the Liberal Democrats” said Dr Cole. “They took pride in their achievements but gained little credit whilst losing their traditional strengths of incumbency and local government success.  The party’s leadership concentrated on making an impact inside government at the expense of making an impact for the party publicly.”

“Inevitably the lessons of the coalition include an element of ‘once bitten, twice shy’; the experiences of those who fought in 2015 should inform the party’s debate on its future direction.”

The report argues that the Liberal Democrats should:

  • In a future government, insist on specific internal and external structural steps to protect its ideological territory and identity.  These could include retention of separate official speakers and fuller control of distinctive policy areas and departments.
  • Sustain pressure for electoral reform and for measures to tighten electoral law on expenditure and to provide support for more equal access to campaign funding.
  • Target a small number of parliamentary seats with the best hope of retrieving representation. Reconstruct local bases in areas neglected by the targeting strategy but with a history of municipal success, drawing on these to inform national policy and strategy.

Dr Cole is a historian of modern Britain, specialising in twentieth century constitutional and party politics, and local history. His research was supported with financial assistance from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Limited, which makes grants to political campaigners on democratic reform, civil liberties and corporate power.

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  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  • The study was carried out by Dr Matt Cole, History Teaching Fellow, University of Birmingham.
  • The research was funded by Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Limited with interviews carried out with campaign groups before and after the 2015 election.