After the Liberal Democrats’ election disaster, what becomes of the broken-hearted?
“Heartbreaking” was the term used by Liberal Democrat candidate Vikki Slade when her two-year campaign to succeed Mid-Dorset and North Poole MP Annette Brooke ended in defeat.
That night, the number of Lib Dem MPs was reduced from 57 seats to just eight. The Lib Dems also lost every one of their seats on Bournemouth council and 12 of their 18 in Poole.
Yet the party has been talking of a ‘fight back’ and has picked up almost 11,000 new members.
Vikki Slade said the membership surge had been repeated locally.
“Even if people wanted to give us a bit of a bash for the coalition, I don’t think anybody thought we would be destroyed in the way we have,” she said.
She believed there had been a late swing to the Conservatives.
“I think the main thing people have told me – people who’ve admitted they wanted to vote for me but didn’t – is the fear of the SNP,” she said.
“People who up to the day before were going to vote for me, on the day, hesitated and said ‘I’m going to play it safe’.”
Douglas Eyre entered politics in the 1970s when there were no Liberals on Bournemouth council – and has seen the party return to that position.
Mr Eyre, who led the council during the Lib Dem gains of the 1990s, said: “I still like the idea of coalition government. I like the idea of governments locally and nationally that represent the majority of the electorate.
“That last government represented well over 50 per cent. The team we’ve got in government has overall control on 37 per cent.
“I’ve spent most of my political career preaching the word that politicians should work together for the greater good. It’s no good me turning around and saying it’s the wrong thing to do.”
On Bournemouth council, the Conservatives received 36 per cent of the vote but won 94 per cent of the seats.
Mr Eyre was sceptical of a move to the left but acknowledged “the heart of the Liberal Democrat party is left of centre” and that some members “couldn’t live with” the coalition.
Former Poole council leader Brian Clements lost the Newtown seat he had represented for 30 years.
“I really do believe that when we entered the coalition, we did it for the right reasons. I was one of well over 1,000 people who went to a special conference at the NEC to confirm that the party was supporting that,” he said.
“Even then, we all knew Angela Merkel was quoted as saying that in a coalition, the smaller party suffers.”
He said a left of centre coalition had not been possible in 2010.
“Longer term, people will come to realise we were making a difference. I think they will come to realise, as the government’s right wing starts to take control, how much suffering there will be and how the Liberal Democrats held them back,” he added.
Cllr Mike Brooke, leader of the Lib Dems on Poole council and husband of retiring MP Annette, said of the results: “It was a tsunami. Several of us independently have described it as a tidal wave. It’s changed the political map of the country.”
He said there should be more pressure for electoral reform. “We’ve got to get rid of the vast numbers of safe seats. The vast majority of people in this country make no difference to the government,” he said.
But he insisted his party was optimistic. “The Liberal Democrats have surged in terms of membership. Everyone is very upbeat. We’re not going to be written off,” he said.
“In Poole there are only six of us. We’re the main opposition party and we will be opposing wherever we can. We will be ensuring democracy, or at least trying to.”
But of Bournemouth, he said: “Who is going to hold that council to account? Democracy is dead in Bournemouth.”