LibLink: Stephen Tall: Where the parties are at the end of 2013 and what they face in 2014

Stephen has been writing over at Conservative Home again. This time, he’s done his end of year report for each of the main parties.  The Telegraph’s Toby Young even complimented it. Here are some snippets:


With economic growth returning, Labour has deftly segued their economic attack. The assault on public spending cuts that go “too far, too fast” has been ditched, and in its place is a new refrain, “the Tory cost-of-living crisis”. It’s an ingenious line, tapping into the lag between the nascent recovery and people’s wages, with Ed Miliband’s populist pledge to freeze energy prices for 20 months offering his activists a morale-boosting policy to flog.


Mr Cameron finds himself pulled in different directions, shoring up his base with immigration crackdowns and anti-EU rhetoric, while trying simultaneously to placate those Conservatives (including many of his A-lister MPs) wooed way back when he was promising to “let sunshine win the day”. The Telegraph’s well-connected Benedict Brogan recordsthat “It is difficult to find Conservatives willing to say privately that they will still be in power after polling day.” Are they right? As it stands, yes.


We’re used to Ukip polling well in the European elections then largely fading from sight – but this year the Faragistas proved themselves well-capable of mounting an advance beyond this comfort zone. They pushed the Conservatives into third place at the Eastleigh by-election and came within a whisker of repeating the trick at the local elections. Few people would bet against them topping this May’s Euro poll, a feat which could yet spook Tory MPs, no matter how “priced in” such an outcome is.

Liberal Democrats

We face another tough set of local elections, and there is a distinct possibility the party could finish fifth in the Euros. Yet the successful defence of Eastleigh showed that the Lib Dems are hard to get rid of once we’re entrenched – “cockroach-ish”, as party president Tim Farron colourfully described us – and it is this which gives hope that more of our 57 MPs will survive than a simple uniform poll swing would imply. The other glint of light is the failure of both Labour and the Conservatives to convince the voters they have what it takes to govern alone.

You can read the whole piece here.

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  • paul barker 19th Dec '13 - 1:07pm

    The most obvious shift over the year has been the fall in Labours lead over The Tories. In January the lead was 11%, now it averages 5%. We cant know why thats happened but the 2 most obvious explanations are the beginnings of Recovery & the approach of The General Election, either would suggest a continuing trend.
    Sometime next year Labour will lose the “comfort blanket” of a Poll lead & will turn on each other.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Dec '13 - 1:26pm

    Stephen Tall

    We face another tough set of local elections, and there is a distinct possibility the party could finish fifth in the Euros. Yet the successful defence of Eastleigh showed that the Lib Dems are hard to get rid of once we’re entrenched

    This is a good example of the point I was making here.

    Clegg and the Cleggies tell us we must be a “serious” party now we are “in government”, we can’t use the old ways we used to use to win seats, that’s all “protest votes”, that’s all got to change, and there’s no place in the party for those who want to win votes that way. And then we find their only hope IS to use the old way, hoping to cling on in a few places where for historical reasons we are the incumbents and have built up a bit of personal and local support. Just like the Liberal Party in the 1950s.

  • @ Matthew Huntbach

    It’s not even remotely like the Liberal Party of the 1950s. In the 1959 General Election, the Liberals won six seats and 6% of the vote. This time around we are defending nearly ten times as many seats across all regions of the UK.

    Because of the negative effect of both spending cuts and falling standards of living (neither of which could have been avoided, at least without a major Labour-style pre-election spending splurge) we are uniquely unfortunate in the way this has affected our voter base. Lib Dem voters hate cuts of any kind. Labour likes to pretend it can take the pain away somehow, although how it hasn’t quite explained how, and sadly much of our voter base is prepared to believe them our of sheer desperation.

    When independent polling shows that our vote is holding up in the seats we already hold, it makes sense to target our efforts, particularly given our lack of resources and the impact being in government has had on our membership.

    Or what would be your alternative strategy? To fight a truly nationwide campaign trying to build up our vote in areas where we don’t have a chance of winning? To me, that sounds like heroism destined for failure.

  • RC Apart from finding any other fault with your logic, I think you’ll find that over the decades it was the Tories more than Labour who indulged in pre-election spending splurges (which it is widely held by the commentariat that the Tories had been hoping to do that in 2015, by exaggerating austerity policies earlier).

    Matthew can and I am sure, will, speak for himself, but I read him as saying that we could well return to the 50s in Parliamentary representation, and we would then have to employ the strategy we used then to remotely appeal to anyone electorally. He was not saying we are in that electoral position already, in terms of MP numbers – we all know rather better than that here. And you must know that we all know, so why say it??

  • @ Tim 13

    I’m not talking about the Tories’ pre-election splurges because they are irrelevant, having happened 20-plus years ago. Don’t you think that Labour’s massive bout of public spending in 2009/10 is rather more relevant as a reference point for the 2015 election?

    I was trying to explain that because of the body-blows we have faced from being in government at a time of absolutely necessary cuts and uniquely unfavourable economic circumstances beyond our control (high debt levels, high food and energy prices, Eurozone crisis), we do have to employ that strategy i.e. focus on retaining our sitting MPs
    What, precisely, is wrong with that?

    If we were successful in doing so, keeping say 50 MPs I would be mightily relieved, as it might give us a chance to participate in another coalition government and maintain a base for future growth.

    I can’t really understand what you are saying we should be doing instead. If you’d like to explain, I’d be interested.

  • RC 19th Dec ’13 – 2:04pm
    ” Lib Dem voters hate cuts of any kind. ”

    Lib Dem voters that I know would welcome cuts as follows –
    Cuts in the cost of Trident (in fact cutting Trident altogether)
    Cut s in the costs of foreign adventures like bombing Libya and the attempt to bomb Syria
    Cuts in the costs of the House of Lords (as featured in this week’s Mirror)
    Cuts in the costs of the Royals, why pay anything for Prince Charles with his ‘personal’ annual income of £19 million
    Cuts in the costs of the expansion of Heathrow that benefits the rich not the rest – see Simon Jenkins piece
    Cuts in the costs of wasted energy from government buildings that still have inadequate insulation
    Cuts in the costs of the Police Commissioners that nobody wanted and very few people voted for
    Cuts in the costs of demonising groups of people as highlighted by Sara Teather
    Cuts in the costs of the growing danger of nuclear waste from a new generation of nuclear power stations
    A complete cut in the costs of shooting badgers

  • paul barker 19th Dec '13 - 5:20pm

    Further to my 1st comment, there seems to have been an acceleration in the fall of The Labour Lead over this month. That could be a blip or the unwinding of the temporary boost Labour got from their Price Freeze/Cost of Living campaign.

  • Peter Watson 19th Dec '13 - 6:06pm

    @paul barker “there seems to have been an acceleration in the fall of The Labour Lead over this month”
    Polling shows that the Labour voting intention (VI) dropped slightly in the first half of the year and nothing meaningful has happened to any parties support since. The “lead” is just the relatively small difference between two very noisy measurements. Tory VI has not shifted much over 18 months and Lib Dem VI has been moribund for 3 years. There seems little for Lib Dems to cheer in any polling figures.

  • Peter Watson 19th Dec '13 - 6:35pm

    correction: parties support = party’s support

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Dec '13 - 7:55pm


    It’s not even remotely like the Liberal Party of the 1950s. In the 1959 General Election, the Liberals won six seats and 6% of the vote. This time around we are defending nearly ten times as many seats across all regions of the UK.

    Well, I was trying to decide whether to write 1930s or 1950s, but neither was quite right. In the 1930s there were still recent memories of the Liberal Party as being the main government party, so much more than just a junior coalition partner. The 1950s marked a decline more than we have now, but I fear we may be back to that – that’s my point. I couldn’t say 1940s, because that was just too tied up with the war.

    In the 1930s there was still the feeling that the party was going through a bad patch, but could revive and get back to where it was. However, it was clear it was hanging on in places where it was dug in, had a strong local MP, still seemed to be part of the establishment. But it wasn’t moving forward, and when one of these places was lost, that was it, it went forever. It took a long time going, in the 1950s there were STILL a few of these old-time Liberal-held places left – admittedly, mostly where there was a local Conservative-Liberal pact.

    Now it seems to me that the future that Stephen is holding out for here is like this – we can still hold places where we’re strong. Yeah-yeah-yeah – but how are we going to win any MORE?

    So that’s my point – when we started the coalition, we had all this bragging about things being changed, about us being “in government”, about in no longer being all about doggedly winning by local campaigning. But now, while there’s still a bit of that rhetoric around, the line underneath is like that – holding on not because we have a national vision to offer, but because in a few places we have decent MPs and councillors who get a good personal vote. What sort of future does that offer us?

    How the Liberal Party managed to revive from its 1950s position is an interesting story. But I don’t think the Liberal Democrats now would see such a revival if Clegg and those like him hung on to the leadership. What is ABSOLUTELY clear is that the vision that was held out by the political right – that if we became this extreme free market party, small state, low tax, like the Tories but without the old social conservative hang-ups, there was a big bunch of voters who would flock to us – has been show utterly wrong. We are now believed by most people to be such a party. It has not attracted us any significant new support, but it has lost us a LOT of old support.

  • paul barker 20th Dec '13 - 1:55pm

    Voting intention Polls actually have some use for predicting perfomance for Labour/Tories but almost none for other Parties. For us they dont even capture our core support.
    The Labour lead over the Tories declined fairly steadily till Millibands “Price Freeze” speech, the effect of that has worn off & we are back to a steady decline, possibly accelerating over this month.
    This is important first because it matters to Labour & second because it suggests a Tory lead at the General Election.

  • “Voting intention Polls actually have some use for predicting perfomance for Labour/Tories but almost none for other Parties. For us they dont even capture our core support.”

    I suppose it would be absolutely pointless to ask why you think the party’s ‘core support’ is higher than the current voting intention figures.

    But coming back to the real world for a moment, we know that nearly all the pollsters perform weighting based on how people say they have voted in the past, to prevent systematic effects of sampling errors. The only way they could fail to pick up the party’s ‘core support’ is if a lot of people are falsely telling them that they voted Lib Dem in the past, or a lot of ‘core supporters’ are telling them that they wouldn’t vote Lib Dem now. I suppose some of the more paranoid conspiracy theorists might favour the former, but it seems wildly implausible to me.

    There’s certainly room for discussion about the ways in which different pollsters are treating ‘don’t knows’, but precious little about how they treat ‘core supporters’.

  • Simon Banks 20th Dec '13 - 9:14pm

    RC – I can see where you’re coming from and I do support targeting – always have. But in the 70s and 80s the party establishments were seriously interested in making us a genuinely national party, so some effort went into development work where we’d been absent. Now we seem to be disappearing from many of our weaker areas (some of which are weaker for reasons that have nothing to do with their long-term Liberal Democrat potential) and no-one seems to care as long as we hold some parliamentary seats. Is this a good long-term strategy?

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Dec '13 - 9:19am

    Simon Banks

    RC – I can see where you’re coming from and I do support targeting – always have. But in the 70s and 80s the party establishments were seriously interested in making us a genuinely national party, so some effort went into development work where we’d been absent.

    But a major theme of the party establishment NOW is that the party has changed, now we are “in government” we are not just a party of protest votes, we are a party seeking national support for what it stands for according to its national image. It’s what Clegg fills his conference speeches with, it’s the theme of the New Statesman article by his former Director of Strategy to which I so often draw attention, and so on.

    Yet the reality is that the party has been pushed back to trying to cling on to what it has through votes gained more for local support of good MPs and good councillors, rather than gaining support because people like what it is doing nationally.

    Of course targetting works, we have to use it due to the system we are working in. That means we have to be a different sort of party than the one some seem to want us to be – driven by a narrow “classical liberal” ideology. We need to have an image which is at least capable of appealing to a wide range of people.

    The next election will inevitably be fought in a defensive way, but after that we need to consider how we will grow. That is the point I was making about the 1930s-1950s. If we are a party which is purely one of being “in government” and of holding seats where we are “entrenched” there’s no way forward. There’s no reason why new people would join us and be fired up to become active and expand us to new places. So even if we’re not wiped out, we face steady decline.

    As I keep saying the “body-blows we have faced from being in government” are made worse by this continual boasting of our leader and those surrounding him about being “in government” and making out we are a major influence in this government. That’s a continuation of the strategy the party establishment has always wanted to use – the idea that we must look “serious” like the other two parties, that we must drop the “beards and sandals” alternative image, that we will win votes if we look like “proper politicians”. I think this strategy has now been tested to destruction. It hasn’t worked.

    Old-style targetting worked not just because it was targetting, but because it gave a considerable degree of latitude to members to devise their own campaigning themes. It gave them the tools to do it, but did not dictate what they should do. That made the party an exciting place to be, and I think was truly “liberal” as I understand the word. New style targetting seems to be accompanied by a top-down dictation of campaign themes, to the point that even David Steel, the epitome of the party establishment against whom those of us who called ourselves “radical liberals” railed, has now attacked it. If being a member is just being part of the salesforce for an image rigidly dictated from on top, that’s not so exciting to be, and is certainly not “liberal” in my books.

  • nvelope2003 23rd Dec '13 - 1:02pm

    In the 60s, 70s and 80s the Liberal Democrats had charismatic leaders like Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe and David Steel. Mr Clegg is no doubt an intelligent man but charismatic he ain’t. I remember people making time to hear Grimond or Thorpe speak even if they were not supporters. Can you imagine many turning out for any of the present leadership – maybe a few might like to hear Vince Cable just to see if he is as grumpy as he seems. Charles Kennedy was more inspiring – what a tragedy he was brought down by personal problems.

    There is also the issue that people are more conservative or right wing than they were years ago so they are more likely to be interested in UKIP than Liberal Democrats. The leftist agenda is seen by many people to have failed and although they do not like the Conservatives very much they feel more comfortable with them. I would be surprised if they did not get a majority in 2015 and if Scotland votes for independence then it will be hard to get them out again without the 58 Labour, Liberal and SNP Scottish MPs in the House of Commons.

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