Raising the dead

480953528It’s no fun being a Liberal Democrat. But that’s sort of the point. It’s a party whose purpose is to lose – witness the past ten years. In opposition, people couldn’t agree with Nick enough. But the sight of a Liberal Democrat actually in government, making decisions and having to compromise, proved the swiftest antidote to their support it was possible to have. Then, after taking one of the worst electoral shellackings of the twenty first century, people are once again signing up in droves.

In theory, a party that exists for beaten liberals is pretty well attuned to the zeitgeist. From a branding point of view, it feels just right for the moment. But a friend of mine posed a very good challenge the other day. He, like me, had predicted that the Lib Dems will finish with more than 30 seats. But he’d then been challenged to name which ones they were, and couldn’t. And, on the spot, I struggled too.

So how would the Lib Dems perform the greatest comeback since Lazarus?

It’s just a flesh wound!

Don’t underestimate just how badly beaten up the Lib Dems are. It sounds bad enough to say that at the last election they went from 49 seats to 8, but that’s only the start of the bad news. It isn’t just the fact that they lost – it’s how they lost.

  • The UK system can create a situation where you can lose a lot of seats without losing voters (Ed Miliband lost 26 seats, but actually increased Labour’s vote share). But the Lib Dems didn’t just lose a few crucially placed supporters – they lost two voters in every three.
  • They lost all but one of their seats in Scotland – a traditional reservoir of support and home to two of the past three leaders.
  • They lost every seat south of London – which you wouldn’t have got odds of 1000-1 on before election night.
  • Their vote in the north, where they had in effect been the second party, vanished completely.
  • And since the Lib Dems depend heavily on being good constituency MPs, the loss of so many incumbents destroys one of their greatest selling points.

It’s a sobering fact that there would have been more surviving Lib Dem MPs if, instead of the 2015 election, the entire parliamentary party had been infected with ebola.

Indeed, the scattering of remaining Lib Dems has something in common with a map of survivors after some terrible disaster – not so much reflecting a plan or strategy as a question unto god of ‘why me?’

Not playing by the old rules

The conventional way to win an election campaign is to build support in the most marginal constituencies, erode down opposing majorities and get yourself back into power. That would mean that Lib Dem seat number 30 would be Portsmouth South, where they are 5,200-ish short.

But this strategy probably isn’t going to work. And it probably doesn’t need to for the Lib Dems to meet or beat my expectations.

Instead of campaigning in these sorts of places, the most visible Lib Dem event so far has been in Vauxhall, where Labour lead them by 22,500 votes. ‘Labour’ for the purposes of this argument is the arch-Brexiteer Kate Hoey, representing a constituency that voted 77% remain.

The Lib Dems aren’t planning to re-fight 2015. Like the Tories, they’re betting on a new political landscape, based around a Leave/Remain split. Any doubts they may have had on this score were settled by the Richmond Park by-election, where they overturned a conservative majority of over 23,000, largely on the incumbent’s publicly pro-leave stance. If they can win the Remain vote on a large scale, they have traded a losing hand for one that wins – at least where they choose to play.

Predicting earthquakes

I challenge anyone to predict the scale of their success at this with any accuracy. If Richmond Park were repeated in every seat in the country, Tim Farron would be in Number 10. How far short of that these trends stop is anyone’s guess. But a good outcome for the Lib Dems is built out of the following elements.

  • Holding their existing seats (not tricky) and resurrecting some of the victims of 2015 based on personal followings
  • Picking up seats where Remain is strong – London and the university towns in particular, and possibly some northern city centres
  • Profiting from principled voting by arch-remainers in places which are less strongly pro-remain, but where the Lib Dems have historic strength.
  • Ditto in Scotland from a tactical unionist vote.
  • Lastly, hoovering up votes from people who can’t bring themselves to vote Corby or Tory, and are willing to give the Lib Dems a go. Ideally, achieving this through signing a ‘progressive alliance’ with the Greens.

Safe bets are places like Cambridge and Twickenham. If they don’t take Bath they’re doing badly; if they can pick up Oxford East and Abingdon, then they’re doing better than expected; and if they can regain Manchester Withington (big student population) then it bodes very well indeed. Some historic Lib Dem seats like Taunton and Yeovil will be necessary to get to 30, but expect most of them to stay Tory. In Scotland, watch North East Fife (St Andrews) to see if students + tactical unionists = Lib Dem pickup. The shock results, if there are any, will be in London constituencies along the Thames – Bermondsey, Vauxhall, and for a real surprise Kensington or even Putney.

Does that get you to 30? It can do. Does it let the Lib Dems become the third-largest party again? Only if they’re very lucky. But if there’s one party whose performance we’re most likely to get completely wrong, it would be the Lib Dems.

Theresa May Does

This morning, no work was done in Whitehall. From about 10:30 until 12:00, the day was given over to speculation, gossip and armchair psephology. Was she calling an election? What was the significance of the lectern not having the Downing Street crest? It was either that, or start tearing up our work-plans on a speculative basis.

Most people are sick of elections; not least the PM. You got the sense that she really had intended to avoid this. But ultimately, there comes a time when the open goal in front of you is impossible to ignore. Many’s the person who judged Gordon Brown on the basis that he could have gone to the country in 2007 and won, but didn’t – forever after he was Bottler Brown.

And life for Theresa May is not going to be easy. She may have no opposition, but with a majority of 14 she is at the mercy of every crank and crackpot in her own party. If the story turned against her (and it almost certainly would, given how tough Brexit will be), every assessment of her failure would end with the words ‘if only she’d called an early election…’.

This looks like an election no one can lose. But…

If you’re in the Tory Party, you’ve never had it so good. The poll leads here require Borisisms to capture their magnificence – whopping; ginormous; stonking – up to twenty percentage points according to some pollsters. It shouldn’t be possible to lose an election from a start like that – anything less than an absolute massacre would look like a failure.

But don’t get carried away. This may be a lot closer than it first appears. Let’s take a look at the seats with the smallest majorities in 2015.

majorities

It’s fair to say that Chris Matterson, Labour MP for City of Chester with a majority of 93, will be spending the campaign polishing his CV. Indeed, the Tories need to go a lot further than this list if they’re going to claim victory. But note a few quirks in this list:

  • A lot of these seats with small majorities are already Conservative. In 2015, the Tories were really good at targeting the marginal voters that matter. Winning a lot of seats means overturning a lot of majorities in the 1,000-3,500 range – definitely doable, but not simple.
  • A lot of these Labour seats are in areas that voted remain – especially London. London hasn’t followed the rules in the last few elections. Indeed, if someone wants to have a bet over whether Wes Streeting will retain Ilford North on a majority of 589, I’ll offer you good odds.
  • The blue seats aren’t all Labour-Tory marginals. Quite a few of them are Tory-Lib Dem seats, whose dramatic fall to the blues was the shock event of election night 2015. The impression is that this was a one-off, as the Tories played off the fear that a Labour-SNP coalition was in the offing unless people voted for David Cameron. This fear has probably passed by now – and detailed Tory polls apparently suggest the government could lose a lot of these seats.

My instinct says that the government starts the story down about 15-30 Lib Dem seats, and probably won’t win more than two or three seats in London no matter what. That means that they need to collect about 40-50 Labour seats in the north and midlands to come out noticeably ahead.

To put this in context, Copeland – the by-election win a few weeks ago that was seen as a huge victory for the government – was Labour’s 27th most marginal seat. To get up to 40-50 without a lot of London seats, the Tories need to win old mining towns; chunks of post-industrial cities like Stoke and Bolton and Barnsley. To me, that sounds quite hard.

It goes one of three ways…

Fortunately, we’ve been busy testing out the election mechanics that will dominate this general. In a laudable commitment to evidence-based political science, we have had three by-elections that have tested a lot of the factors that will determine the final outcome.

theresa-may-by-election-copeland-771819First, we have Copeland. The government is betting the house that this story can be repeated up and down the country. It was an area that had been Labour since 1935, but where no one could remember why. Labour fought a campaign on tested tactics – cuts and the NHS. The Tories made it all about Corbyn, and they won. Not only did they secure a big swing from Labour, but they also drew in a big share of the UKIP vote too. Do that everywhere and they’ll have their dream outcome.

votes-are-counted-in-the-richmond-park-by-electionThat’s the good news for them. The bad news is Richmond Park. Tories walk in with a majority of 23,000, and go home empty handed. This isn’t just London – this is deepest, darkest Remainia, where people happily fly EU flags outside of their houses. The Lib Dems are working to make sure it isn’t a one-off. It won’t win them a majority, but it can take a lot of seats off of the Tories (Lib-Dem-Labour marginals now being almost totally extinct).

corbynstoke-1400x788And then there’s Stoke Central. The ‘capital of Brexit’ where Labour fielded a deeply flawed candidate under an atrocious leader, and the UKIP leader still couldn’t pick up the seat. People look at this election and ask if Labour will collapse – but you could ask that question equally of UKIP. A strong UKIP would seal Labour’s defeat – instead, it looks like the party isn’t going to be able to eat into Labour’s old heartlands. That probably puts a floor on how far Labour can drop.

All of that is a lot more complexity than you usually see in a general election. So anyone who says they know the outcome is being very brave.

Stupid prediction time

What do I think? I think the government will do this. To be honest, if the government can’t pick up a seriously increased majority under this situation, when Labour is this badly broken, I think it would be a pretty awful indictment on the democratic system as a whole.

But ask me the question in betting terms, and I think the value is in predicting a hung parliament. Not because it’s likely, but because it’s more likely than you’d think. Labour can only get so battered; I don’t think it’s unbelievable that the Lib Dems could end up with 40-50 seats if luck is with them. And while my base assumption is that the UKIP vote from the last election can be convinced to back the Tories in current circumstances, I’ve never been confident of how much of the UKIP vote is ‘a plague on both your houses’ and therefore not really in play.

That’s what makes this exciting. I have no idea what will happen. Expect May to win – maybe with a majority of 20-50. More than that, she’s done well. Less than that, and she’ll look like Don Quixote on a battlebus. And all the obituaries will end ‘If only she hadn’t called an early election…’

All politics is national (for now)

votes-are-counted-in-the-richmond-park-by-election

Waking up this morning, and hearing the results of the by-election in Richmond Park, I had my first warm feelings about democracy for a long time. Setting aside the wider politics, as a local I have been wanting to see the back of Zac Goldsmith for many years – and finally my neighbours have agreed with me. Next time, Zac, show up in Parliament and do your job.

But it’s the wider story that really matters. This is a really, really important by-election result. First, a bit of context for those who haven’t been watching closely:

  • Richmond Park is historically a Lib-Dem/Conservative marginal. Zac Goldsmith had held the seat for the Tories since 2010.
  • Zac resigned in the wake of the decision to build a new runway at Heathrow, as he’d promised to do at the general election.
  • The Conservative party, after some deliberation, decided not to put up a candidate against him. UKIP and the Greens also both stood aside – UKIP because Zac was a Brexit backer, the Greens because they wanted to give the Lib Dems the best run at victory.
  • So the contest boiled down to a Zac-Lib Dem contest, with Zac standing in for the government.

And Zac got a thumping. A 23,000 vote majority vanished in one go, and the seat turns yellow.

On the back of that, you can now rule out an early general election.

Why? The only reason that the Tories have a majority in parliament at all is that they took 24 Lib Dem seats across the south. Without those, they stand virtually no chance of holding a majority in the house. While some of those are probably lost to the Lib Dems for good, if a 23,000 seat majority isn’t safe then some are definitely in play. And for each one that’s lost they need to take another seat in what has historically been seen as Labour’s heartland.

Not only that, but the Lib Dems have shown that they are the political lightning rod for the hardcore Remain voters. If anything, that’s a bigger problem for the government. Not because these people can carry many constituencies; but because under a first past the post system a few thousand votes in the wrong place can play merry hell with a candidate’s majority. If many of those Remainers were previously voting Conservative (as they were in Richmond), they can be added to the pile of people who are just generally voting against the government. It would take just 1,800 well-placed Tory voters across the country switching to the Lib Dems to wipe out the government’s majority – even though they wouldn’t win a single seat for themselves.

small-majorities

Theresa May’s caution already meant she passed up a general election when she looked guaranteed to win; now, when she’s likely to lose, she will certainly bottle it.

(There is one caveat here – the same logic applies in reverse if the Tories are fully allied with UKIP, and UKIP tell their voters to back the government. I’ll come back to this ‘unholy alliance’ option on another occasion).

But if there is no election, then the parliamentary maths just got that bit nastier – the working majority goes down to 13. Now, you only need seven grumpy Tory MPs to hold the government to ransom – coincidentally the same number of Secretaries of State that Theresa May sacked from the cabinet on coming to power. And, on the back of the Richmond result, the critics will feel bolder.

If you want to get a preview of what this will look like, the Garrick theatre has just put on a revival of the play This House, about how the 1974 Labour government bled itself to death as its majority ticked down ever closer to zero. It’s great theatre. It’s going to make fascinating current affairs.