Once they were a truly national party, with a mighty army of councillors, built up over years of local elections fought bitterly street-by-street. From this base, the Liberal Democrats hoped to flood Parliament and win a hundred MPs.
But that strategy is now going into reverse. Far from growing as a national party, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are on the retreat, and are being driven back into the Celtic fringe from which they emerged nearly 30 years ago. The yellow tide that once terrified the Tories is going out. The only question now: who will gain?
None of the three main parties had much to be proud of in May's local elections. Labour gained a modest 291 seats. The Tories lost 335. Both were victims of the Ukip insurgency. But amid the fall-out the Liberal Democrats managed to hide under the table – and have until now avoided being confronted with the full significance of their loss of 125 seats.
The party argued they had done well in certain counties, and, if the results were repeated in a general election, they would have held on to most of their MPs.
That is true. But the results also revealed that despite enjoying three years in Government, the Liberal Democrats may once again be becoming merely a regional player.
In the eighties and during the Blair years the Lib Dems built up a formidable local strength which they were ultimately able to convert into seats in Parliament. They mastered the art of local campaigning – picking the local issues, targeting the literature, identifying the voters needed in each ward and marshalling the loyal volunteers.
By 2008, they were a truly national force, with 4,500 councillors and virtually matching the Labour Party’s strength at the time.
But in the 2010 election – after the weeks of ‘Cleggmania’ – that strategy of converting local seats into seats in Parliament that had worked faultlessly for the last two decades suddenly stalled. They went in with 62 MPs. They said they were on course to win up to 100 constituencies. But they in fact lost five, falling to 57. And if the results of last month’s vote were repeated in a national contest today, they would probably lose some more.
And the cost of Coalition is the party is no longer even the party of protest. They are now ‘old protest’. ‘New protest’ is UKIP. The Lib Dems are consistently trailing Ukip in the polls - in today's YouGov tracker, by 11 points to 14.
The retreat under Nick Clegg’s leadership has been rapid. Having had 4,500 Councillors, within five years they have now fallen to roughly half of that.
This will make it harder to organise for elections. And since the Party imposes a levy on all sitting councillors, this decline will be hitting them hard financially.
As for last month’s result, forget the party’s rhetoric about the vote shoring up.
In May the Liberal Democrats lost 125 seats - proportionately, more than the Tories. In many places they not only lost but were beaten into third or fourth place. They failed to deny Tories control of Somerset, a county in which four of the five MPs are Lib Dems, and they were a net loser in Dorset and Hampshire. These are both counties where the party has always argued that they were in with a chance of taking further Parliamentary seats.
Many of the small towns of southern and eastern England where the Liberal Democrats had developed a solid foothold have fallen back into Tory hands or have been snatched by UKIP - Chelmsford, Guildford and Malvern to name a few.
And, to cap off a grim night, they came seventh in the South Shields by-election, sandwiched between the British National Party and the Monster Raving Loony Party. The party lost its deposit with just 1.4 per cent of the vote. Tim Farron, the Lib Dem President, admitted the party were "obliterated".
This is not a sound basis from which the Liberal Democrats can launch a truly national campaign, or even claim that they are a truly national party.
They are being driven back into the Celtic fringe from which they fought so doggedly to expand in the 20 years from 1985. And, crucially, they are becoming much less competitive in the seats which in 2005 and 2010 they were serious contenders.
This should not, of course, give the Tories undiluted pleasure. As the Liberal Democrats are driven back, many of their former voters are going to Labour, boosting Ed Miliband’s chances of seizing the string of Tory marginals he needs to enter Downing Street. If Nick Clegg can halt the decline then both he and David Cameron may benefit.
Rob Hayward OBE was MP for Kingswood Bristol and now works as a political analyst.
This article first appeared in the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/liberaldemocrats/10090978/Liberal-Democrats-Is-the-yellow-tide-going-out.html?fb