‘Nothing matters much and very little matters at all’, the Tory prime minister Arthur Balfour is supposed to have said. As the only major party leader of the twentieth century to have lost three general elections and won none at all, Balfour could have done with taking life a little more seriously.
But it is an aphorism that Lib Dem activists would do well to bear in mind and to help them keep their nerve. Unfortunately journalists, especially in the broadcast media, can’t get away with saying ‘This latest scandal, while no doubt embarrassing, is of no lasting importance and will be soon forgotten.’ So they have to talk of crises, damaging revelations etc.
In the past 20 years there have been two periods of genuine difficulty for the Lib Dems. The first was 1988–90 with the disasters of the European elections etc. But the Lib Dems had a stronger local base than either the Greens or the SDP and a parliamentary by-election in a seat where we had a strong local government base helped trigger recovery.
After Blair took over the Labour Party and dashed for the centre ground, our raison d’etre seemed in doubt. There was a steady trickle of defections from the Lib Dems to Labour from those who felt that they would rather be in a bigger, stronger centre party than a smaller weaker one. But even then it soon became clear that we could capitalise on the Tories difficulties in those areas where we and not Labour were the clear challengers. So we gained more seats even as our share of the popular vote declined.
As I said in a previous post, the real threat is if a national mood develops that the Labour government has delighted us long enough and it’s time for a change. If the Tories start to build up big opinion poll leads we are in difficulty. There is no sign of that happening yet. And, at risk of sounding like Dr Pangloss, I suspect that even if we did fall back at the next election enough Lib Dem MPs holding on against the tide to leave us closer to today’s 62 MPs than the 20 of 1992.