The Decline of the Liberal Democrat Franchise

(Photo: New Statesman)

By Daniel Wright-Mason – Deputy Editor

In the corporate world, a franchise is often seen as a competent financial investment – allowing businesses to trade off an already established brand to attract more customers on a local level. When it comes to politics however, this approach is one of risk and is often incompatible with the creation of a unifying cohesive message. What is even more dangerous is when a political brand rapidly loses popularity, causing unavoidable damages for all participating franchises. This has been a problem faced by the Liberal Democrat Party in the UK for the past decade.

After their inception in 1988 from the ashes of the Liberal Party and Social Democrat Party, the Liberal Democrats saw growing success on both the national and local levels, leading to over a decade of consistent electoral gains after 1993 – even having more councillors than the Conservatives in 1995. They often did this through building strong regional heartlands which they would then expand on to usurp either one or both of the two major British parties. This however, led to the development of completely different regional identities. In Russell and Fieldhouse’s 2005 book on the Liberal Democrats, they refer to this problem as the ‘dual identity hypothesis’, in which the national and regional aspects of the party are frequently at odds with each other. This notion is furthered by John Ault, who claimed that much of the Liberal Democrat success in the 1990s and 2000s was because of their ‘abandonment of equidistance’, and embracement of federalised ‘franchises’ was the key to their growth, and their search for an ‘independent identity’ risked holding them back.

The purpose of this article will therefore be to highlight three key ‘franchises’ of the Liberal Democrats during this period, and how their differing regional identities have been used to create a political chameleon that changes its political colours in order to blend into a local environment. However, events such as the Coalition government and Brexit have brought the national brand of the Liberal Democrats under scrutiny, which has led to severe damage to many of their local ‘franchises’.

Franchise One: Non-Conformist Liberals in the Southwest

A traditional heartland for the Liberal Democrats has been in the rural areas of the Southwest of England, particularly in the counties of Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset. Between 1993 and 2009, they were the biggest local party in all three counties, fully controlling them for a total of 32 years during this period. Similarly, on a national level they saw consistent success, consistently polling as the biggest or second biggest party. At their peak in 2005 they held 11 of the 21 parliamentary seats in the joint counties, with the Conservatives holding seven and Labour holding three – making them the definitively most successful party.

Part of the reason for this success was because of perception of the Liberal Democrats as the heirs to traditional non-conformist liberal principles that had been the cornerstone of the old Liberal Party. Much of the primarily rural English Southwest regained a strong historical connection with non-conformist liberalism, due to its association with the Methodist church, which continued to hold a large degree of influence within the region.

Similarly, much of the Southwest had been largely devoid of the mass industrialisation of the previous century, which had bred the growth of more radical socialist politics and had been a major factor in the decline of the Liberal Party in the early 20th century. Because of this, the appetite for the labour movement was less apparent, and so the Liberal Democrats found success in these areas by appearing as a ‘softer’ opposition to the Conservative Party. This message was further established by Somerset MP and Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown in 1992, when he claimed that he wanted to be a ‘non-socialist alternative to the Conservative Party’. Overall, this perception as a soft non-conformist liberal alternative was very effective for the party in the Southwest, and accounted for their consistent success in the 1990s and 2000s.

Franchise Two: Nationalism Lite in the ‘Celtic Fringe’

This perception as a ‘softer’ alternative to the Conservative Party then changed when moving into other parts of the ‘Celtic Fringe’, which groups Cornwall with both Scotland and Wales. The Liberal Democrats consistently dominated the rural areas of North Scotland and central Wales, often being the second biggest party in the 1990s and 2000s. Because of this, successive Liberal Democrat leaders Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell held seats in these areas. This success continued at a local level, leading to the party going into coalition with Labour in Holyrood for 8 years, as well as in the Senedd for 4 years.

Much like Southwest England, many rural areas of Scotland and Wales also have high rates of religious nonconformity, which was very likely a factor in the performances of the Liberal Democrats. However, the parties in these areas also gained success through the branding of themselves as a ‘Nationalist Lite’ party. This was mainly shown through positions on stronger devolution to both Scotland and Wales, including extended control over areas such as broadcasting, energy, drugs and abortion. This position allowed them to forge a regional identity as a more nationalist alternative to the dominant Labour Party, but also as a unionist alternative to the independence parties of Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Due to the more radical political leanings of Scotland and Wales, this led to the Scottish and Welsh Liberal Democrats attempting to frame themselves as a more radical alternative to the Labour Party, in complete contrast to their narrative in the Southwest of England. This perception did prove popular however, and allowing a successful Liberal Democrat franchise in the ‘Celtic Fringe’ for most of the 1990s and 2000s.

Franchise Three: Neither Left nor Right in Inner London

Meanwhile, the early 2000s saw an impressive result for the Liberal Democrats in London local elections, causing a political stir by taking control of councils in Islington and Southwark in 2002. In these areas the Liberal Democrats were the only significant opposition to Labour, and so tailored their political agenda to gain a more conservative audience. When in office, the Liberal Democrat Islington council enacted ‘slash and burn’ cuts to the public and voluntary sector, as well as undermining council housing and voting against the introduction of free school meals, the latter of which was also repeated by the Liberal Democrat council in Southwark. This strategy of standing as a de-facto conservative party in areas with little Conservative party support was also utilised by Liberal Democrats in other urban Labour heartlands during this period.

However, subsequently after the invasion of Iraq, many Liberal Democrats in London and elsewhere began to campaign against Labour ‘from the left’, claiming that they were the more progressive party in more radical areas. This narrative allowed for a shock win in the Brent East byelection in 2003, despite it being the 494th Liberal Democrat target seat, as well as in seats like Hornsey and Wood Green. This worked especially well in the 2005 election, with reports that of every 8 votes Labour lost, 7 went to the Liberal Democrats.

These shifting political narratives within London at this time perhaps best highlights the effectiveness of the Liberal Democrat franchise, as different groups were able to be an opposition to Labour ‘from the left’, which attracted many Labour voters, whilst simultaneously being an alternative to Labour ‘from the right’ in places like Islington.

A Tarnished Brand: The Decline of the Liberal Democrat Franchise

Whilst the assumed goal of any political party is to gain national relevance and prominence, it could be argued that this was the worst case scenario for many Liberal Democrat ‘franchises’. After going into coalition with the Conservative Party in 2010, it could be argued that the Liberal Democrats lost their ability to be different things to different people, as a national identity was forced upon them. The party’s time in government was disastrous for their public perception, with their approval rating dropping by an unprecedented 44% by 2012. This national identity was further expanded after the 2016 EU Referendum, in which the Liberal Democrats established themselves as the most prominent ‘remain’ party, despite much of their heartlands (with the exception of Scotland), voting heavily to leave the EU.

This resulted in many voters who were content in voting for their local franchise of Liberal Democrats definitively rejecting the new prominent national identity of the party, which translated into a disastrous series of elections. Between 1992-2010, over 50% of Liberal Democrat seats were in either the ‘Celtic Fringe’ or Southwest England, but they have failed to win a single seat in any of these regions besides Scotland since 2010, going from 23 seats in these regions in 2010, to two in 2015 and four in 2017 and 2019.

This analysis perhaps shows that the wisdom of John Ault prevails as truth, in that the key to the Liberal Democrat success was in its abandonment of pursuing an independent identity. During the 1990s and 2000s, the party was effective in being a political chameleon, with local groups utilising the tag and badge of the Liberal Democrats (much like buying into a franchise) but campaigning with widely different ideologies and messages in order to appeal to different voters in different areas. The peak of this was arguably in 2005, in which the party managed to retain its narrative as the ‘soft’ opposition to the Conservative Party in Southwest England, whilst portraying itself as a more radical alternative to the Labour Party in areas such as London. However, the subsequent Coalition government and EU referendum broke the image of many of the regional franchises by forcing a cohesive national identity on all voters, leading to a near complete destruction of the Liberal Democrat heartland, and no obvious avenue for a return to prominence.

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