I understand why. Look at the opinion polls and the party is bobbing around the 10% mark. Compare that to the 23% we won in 2010, get your uniform national swing slide-rule out, and you can see why many folk, even quite sensible ones like Peter Kellner, will say something like this…
The Liberal Democrats are facing political extinction with the loss of 80 per cent of their MPs at the next general election, one of the country’s most respected pollsters has warned. Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, said the party was on course to return just 10 MPs to Westminster after the 2015 election if it remained adrift on 10 per cent of the vote.
So far, so accepted wisdom.
But yesterday, the Labour party published its list of key seats they’re targeting in order to win a 60-seat majority in 2015. The list includes 16 Lib Dems seats. (Of course we should treat all such published lists with a pinch of salt: parties publish them for a reason, y’know, and it’s rarely to be helpful either to rival parties or journalists.)
And two months ago James Forsyth at The Spectator noted the Tories’ 40/40 election strategy. It says the Tories are expanding their official hit-list of 9 current Lib Dem seats to 20. Personally I’m dubious about this claim, not because I think Tory HQ is worried about upsetting Nick Clegg (surely the AV referendum showed they have no such qualms?) but because I think Tory HQ will focus its resources on its most likely prospects, and given how good local Lib Dems are at bedding into their constituencies I’d be staggered if they thought 20 seats will turn from yellow to blue.
As Tory peer Lord Ashcroft noted just yesterday:
The Lib Dems will almost certainly do better on the day than their poll numbers currently suggest, since local factors and popular MPs are a more important part of their appeal.
However, Tory HQ has to show their backbenchers that they’re putting up a real fight against the Yellow Peril, and a good round number like 20 leaked to your house mag does the job nicely. Anyway, as all this is hypothetical I’m going to make an arbitrary assumption based on my hunch: that 9 Lib Dem MPs will face an intense, well-funded campaign, fully backed by Tory HQ.
Now let’s do the math: Labour are targeting 16 Lib Dem seats; the Tories 9. That brings us to a grand total of 25. The current Lib Dem tally of seats is 57.
Let’s assume Labour and the Tories gain all their targets. They won’t, but let’s assume they will: that leaves the Lib Dems with 32 MPs, as I tweeted yesterday:
Lab is targeting 16 LibDems seats; Tories are targeting 9. That equals 25 LibDem seats. If ALL lost that still leaves 32 LibDem MPs.
— Stephen Tall (@stephentall) January 8, 2013
Maybe knock off another couple to account for the SNP and Plaid (we can ignore Ukip). That takes us down to 30. We’d have lost half our parliamentary party. That’s bad, disastrous. But it’s not a wipeout, it’s not annihilation.
Here, now, is my best guess on the basis of current polling (which I think will differ significantly from the actual 2015 poll): Labour would win most of their targets while the Lib Dems would defend about half their seats from Tory attack. So let me guesstimate that at Labour winning 12/16; and the Tories 4/9. That totals 16 losses, taking the party down to c.40 seats. Again, that’s bad, verging on disastrous. But it’s still not wipeout, still not annihilation.
For the avoidance of doubt, none of this is to suggest the Lib Dems should be in any way remotely complacent: wipeout remains a possibility. Nor am I suggesting for a moment we should be sanguine about losing even a third of our MPs: turning the clock back to 1997 is a depressing thought. But the words ‘wipeout’ and ‘annihilation’ are glibly thrown about by the media without considering what that means in terms of the actual seats Lib Dems must lose for such a calamity to happen.
Things are grim, yes. But they’re not that grim.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.