Given the fact that the Lib Dem election campaign had failed to launch right from the start, and that many (myself included) were predicting electoral meltdown for the Liberal Democrats, a net gain of three seats could be viewed as a positive result for the party in context. However, I feel alienated from most Lib Dems’ general sense of “hope” arising from this election; I just don’t see it.
The party lost five seats and gained eight. The national vote share for the party went down even further from the very low 2015 level. Apart from where the party managed to hold or gain seats, the situation was generally dire: there are seats where the Lib Dems used to be the main challenger where deposits were lost, and constituencies the Lib Dems held very recently in which the party came fourth. This wasn’t a rebuilding of the Liberal Democrats we witnessed on June 8th; it was a clinging on for dear life. And the victories seemed to come where they did for two main reasons: one, a Remain Tory vote going to the party probably because of Brexit, which despite a poor pitch to these people, there was enough of a desire for such an option to be on the ballot to make Lib Dem victories possible (helped by the Tory vote being lower than expected overall); two, the SNP meltdown meaning that in seats where the Lib Dems were the only realistic challenger to the Nats, the party could capitalise. There were secondary reasons which were very important as well: decent targeting this time out, as well as incumbency/people returning to fight seats they had lost in 2015 helping name recognition win out.
I don’t wish to be overly negative here, but my thoughts at present are that the Lib Dems will take all of the wrong lessons away from this result. Tim Farron’s leadership wasn’t sufficient during the campaign, and his speech following the result was titled “Challenging the Conservative orthodoxy”, which was mostly a rant against the Tories with nary a mention of Labour at all. For those of us genuinely scared about what a Corbyn premiership would have entailed (and might still entail), this was a massive oversight.
Part and parcel of this is a sort of “good riddance to Clegg/at least that’s the end of the Orange Bookers” thing going on within certain sections of the party. After Thursday’s result I remain more convinced than ever that the Lib Dems trying to be a soft left party, in competition with Corbyn’s Labour and the Greens, will not work long term. When I look at the two factors that helped the Lib Dems stay afloat seat wise, they are both extremely transient: who knows where the Brexit debate will be by the time the next election takes place, leaving this plank very vulnerable, and if the SNP melts down totally or rebuilds itself from here, either way the Scottish Lib Dems could be in a bad position in a new four-party politics up there.
The biggest thing I took out of the election result was this: two party politics is back with a vengeance in England and Wales. And the split that animates that from here might well be those who would be happy or at least fine with Corbyn being prime minister, and those who are horrified by that prospect. I don’t see how that bodes well for the Lib Dems at all.