I've recently been doing some statistics compilation about the electoral record of the Liberal Democrat MPs to help some others answer various questions about how much the traditional image of the party is still true. The findings are surprising and I thought I'd share them here.
Of the current 57 Lib Dem MPs, only one has had a break in their Commons service. Mike Hancock was first elected in a 1984 by-election, lost in 1987 & again in 1992, but returned in 1997. (For all these statistics bar continuous ones I use Hancock's 1984 election.)
Just five first entered Parliament at a by-election - and only two since the merger, one in a Lib Dem held seat.
The traditional image of Lib Dem MPs gaining their seat after multiple attempts now covers only the minority of the parliamentary party. No less than thirty-two of the fifty-seven MPs won their seat on their first attempt there. Eighteen had not stood for Parliament at all before, eleven had stood once before in other seats and just three had had two previous unsuccessful candidacies.
Out of the twenty-five who first won their seat after multiple attempts, fifteen had only stood in that seat. Eighteen won their seat on the second attempt, four on the third attempt, two on the fourth attempt and one on the fifth attempt.
On average then a Lib Dem MP has won their seat after 1.63 attempts in that seat and 2.19 attempts overall.
Only fifteen MPs were first elected in an already Lib Dem held seat; the other forty-two gained theirs from other parties. The Lib Dem Cabinet Ministers disproportionately represent the "inheritees", with Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Michael Moore all having inherited their seats. (So too did David Laws, whom Moore net replaced.)
The inheritees are very much at the newer end of the parliamentary party. The longest serving was first elected in 1997, the rest were all in the last decade - 6 in 2001, 5 in 2005 (including one in a by-election), 3 in 2010.
Lib Dem MPs have on average been in Parliament for nearly eleven years. The mid point for election falls at the end of the 2001 intake.
The intakes by general election break down as follows: 1983 - 2, 1987 - 1, 1992 - 2, 1997 - 13, 2001 - 8, 2005 - 17, 2010 - 10. The five by-election entrances were in 1973, 1983, 1984, 2003 & 2005. Only one MP remains from the pre-Alliance era, and only five more from the Alliance days (with two having come from the SDP).
A slightly different picture emerges when looking at how long the party has held each seat since. Lib Dems seats have on average been held continuously for fourteen and a half years. The mid point is within the cluster gained in 1997. The longest continuously held seat is Orkney & Shetland (since 1950).
The breakdowns by general election are as follows: 1950 - 1, 1955-1979 - none, 1983 - 4 (2 Lib, 2 SDP, only one of whom was the sitting MP), 1987 - 2 (both Lib), 1992 - 4, 1997 - 18, 2001 - 3, 2005 - 13, 2010 - 7. Five seats were gained in by-elections in 1965, 1973, 1983, 1994 & 2003.
Three MPs have had parliamentary careers elsewhere - John Thurso was in the Lords for four years before the hereditaries were expelled and both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne served in the European Parliament for 5 & 6 years respectively.
What all this shows is that overall the Lib Dems are slowly moving out of their traditional niche of local campaigners wining after repeat attempts or at by-elections, and towards a more standard party model and breed of politicians; with in particular MPs who make their name in the party nationally before selection and who can get picked in seats different to their locality on merits other than their local record. But it is a slow process, with many of the older style of Lib Dems still in the parliamentary party, and one that may be reversed if the Lib Dems' see a major collapse at the next general election. Nevertheless the party is changing and the old ways of reacting to it are becoming obsolete.
It's also striking how Nick Clegg is very much at the extreme in this shift. He is the first Liberal or Liberal Democrat leader to have entered the Commons in an inherited seat since Clement Davies (leader 1945-1956). He is also one of very few of his party's MPs to have arrived in the Commons with a established parliamentary record. Clegg's election to the European Parliament was entirely due to the party list system whilst he inherited a strong majority and he has not contested any other constituency meaning that at no stage in his career to date has he really had a tough electoral fight amongst the voters at large. This lack of a background in the traditional Lib Dem frontline of street level politics may also explain the growing sense of detachment between the Lib Dem leader and his party; a detachment that could grow to be the Coalition's biggest vulnerability.