It’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.
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.