Politics

This is what would happen if the Liberal Democrats became the official opposition

For a hundred years, British politics has been a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives. Could this change?

The Liberal Democrats could one day be the official opposition, experts say. Liberal Democrats / Flickr

Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey has spent much of his election campaign falling off paddle boards, riding rollercoasters and dashing across obstacle courses.

He could eventually end up in an equally treacherous location, experts suggest: the opposition front bench.

For more than a century, British politics has been a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives. But polls are predicting an unprecedented electoral drubbing for the incumbent Tories on 4 July. The scale of that wipeout could propel the Lib Dems – who currently boast a paltry 15 parliamentary seats – up the pecking order to second place.  

“The astonishing is, it [the Liberal Democrats in opposition] is not a crazy idea,” explained Nigel Fletcher, co-founder and research director of the Centre for Opposition Studies.

“In a scenario where the Liberal Democrats are potentially going to be able to benefit from tactical voting from those who want to get rid of Conservatives, they’re likely to see quite a significant uptick in their number of seats beyond their vote share.

“It’s not a mad idea to think there could be a crossover [where the Lib Dems overtake the Conservatives]. And even without that crossover happening, the fact that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would be closer in seat numbers than they have ever been before – that will change our politics.”

Could the Lib Dems become the official opposition?

Around 11% of people plan to vote for the Liberal Democrats at the upcoming election. This is a slightly lower vote share than they won in 2019, when they clinched 11 seats.

But dire Conservative fortunes and a rise in tactical voting means that Davey’s party could increase their parliamentary presence nearly sixfold.

The latest YouGov polling, estimated that the Lib Dems could end up with 67 seats – 57 of which would be gains from the Conservatives. The Tories, meanwhile, are on track to win an estimated 108 seats. They will still, by these projections, be the second party in British politics. But it could have serious implications for the next general election.

“It’s perfectly possible now that this could be a historic moment of realignment,” Fletcher says.

“100 years ago, the Labour Party overtook the Liberals to become one of the two main parties. Because that’s such a long time ago, we kind of think that it’s not likely to happen again, but it’s perfectly possible that could happen.”

The Conservatives are being “squeezed from the right and the left”, Fletcher explains, as Nigel Farage’s Reform UK party continues to hoover up right-wing voters.

“The thing that will be important for the next election will be which parties have secured second place in constituencies across the country,” Fletcher added. “Once they’re in that second place, then a party can point to that in the future election to say they should be the ones who receive the anti-incumbent vote.”

If the Liberal Democrats come second in a large number of constituencies, they will be well-placed to make gains the next time Brits go to the polls, which is expected to be in 2029.

If they did secure second-party status, the party would gain several procedural and financial advantages, in addition to increased media exposure. The opposition receives funding for running the leader’s office, short money for each of its seats, and guaranteed speaking time in parliament.

“We don’t have a system that makes it easy for there to be a pluralist multiplicity of parties competing for power, but if one party makes the breakthrough to second place, it’s very hard for the party who has been bumped into third to make its way back,” Fletcher says.

Ed Davey has dismissed suggestions that he could be an opposition leader as ‘idle speculation’ – but said he hoped his party would be ‘very influential’ in the next parliament.

“I believe that we can and need to be,” he added. “The Tories have left the country in a terrible mess, and we’re determined to get rid of as many Tory MPs as possible.”

What would the Liberal Democrats look like in opposition?

The Liberal Democrats in opposition to a Labour government would reshape Britain’s political landscape.

The Lib Dems – traditionally more centrist than their left-wing Labour counterparts ­– have adopted a more progressive policy programme under Ed Davey. Their manifesto calls for taxing the wealthy and big business to fund a free social care system and has been praised by Greenpeace for “excellent” plans to end sewage pollution (though the same analysis criticises them for a failure to commit to ending new oil and gas projects).

But a Lib Dem opposition party would probably shift back to the centre, Fletcher said.

“They would need to define themselves against the Labour Party, and doing that from the left would be challenging,” he explains. “So I think we would probably see them opposing labour as competitors for the centre, to win over disaffected Conservatives, which that would be a change for them as a party.”

As Reform UK make gains on the right of the political spectrum, and the Greens increase their presence on the left, the competition for the middle of British politics will likely heat up.

The Conservatives, Fletch warns, may get left behind.  

“Whatever happens in terms of the size of the Labour majority, what’s happening with the opposition parties is potentially extremely significant,” he said. “I don’t think that the current political discourse quite appreciates how close we are to something truly historic happening.

“I think we should be ready for something that will completely transform our politics for a long time to come.”

Ed Davey’s election campaign stunts have captured a great deal of media attention. But as he launches himself down a slip-and-slide and drums with pensioners, it’s certain that this transformation is on his mind.

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