Chris Huhne writes: Don’t underestimate the Lib Dems

The new conventional wisdom at Westminster is that the Conservatives are heading for an overall majority at the next election, and that the Liberal Democrats are therefore bound to take a pounding. On this view, the Lib Dems’ fortunes are inextricably linked with Labour and we are supposed to lose seats as we did when the Conservatives won in 1951, 1970 and 1979.

I don’t believe a word of it. After each Liberal Democrat advance – in 1997, 2001 and now 2005 – the commentariat has written our obituary. But we went on to increase our seats at the next election. We can and will do the same again.

The politics, the party and the electoral arithmetic are all fundamentally different to the previous periods of Labour to Tory swing. Unlike 1979, we are not associated with the Lib-Lab pact propping up an unpopular Labour government or the Thorpe scandal.

Unlike 1951 and 1970, we are major political players with 63 MPs instead of 6. We have a fifth of all councillors controlling big cities like Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield.

Our poll ratings have recovered since the beginning of the leadership contest, when they averaged 13 per cent. We have recently averaged 17 per cent, better than at the same time of the electoral cycle in two of the last three parliaments. It is a good platform from which to make our usual advance during an election campaign when the media have to give us fair time.

The seductive danger of the conventional wisdom is that it was right once. The Liberal Democrats’ electoral battlegrounds used to be overwhelmingly with the Conservatives even after 1997. As Professor John Curtice wrote then:

“The Liberal Democrat party is still heavily dependent for its success on it being the Conservatives rather than Labour who are unpopular. Labour/Liberal Democrat contests barely exist. There are just seven seats where the Liberal Democrats came second and were within 30 per cent of Labour in first place”.

All that has changed, which is why Nick Clegg recently announced a new targeting strategy to go after 50 Labour seats. As Professor Curtice pointed out in his analysis of the 2005 election, there is now a big electoral battlefield with Labour. We won twelve Labour seats in 2005, and can now win many more. We can now make gains from both Labour and the Tories.

Mr Curtice said: “These advances in Labour-held territory have two important implications for the party’s future prospects. The first is that it is now significantly less vulnerable to any future swing from Labour to Conservative. Because hitherto the party’s best prospects have been so heavily concentrated in Conservative territory, the party stood to suffer significant net losses if there was a swing from Labour to the Conservatives, even if its own vote held steady. Now this is far less the case”.

Look at the electoral arithmetic of the new boundaries, and make that conventional assumption that the Tories win an overall majority. They would have achieved a 6.9 per cent swing from Labour, nearly half as large again as the biggest post-war swing to the Conservatives of 5.3 per cent. Such a big swing seems unlikely given that 1979 saw the winter of discontent, rubbish in the streets, and corpses unburied.

But let’s play the swingometer game. A narrow overall majority of one for the Tories – if the Lib Dem vote stays the same – would mean Tory gains of 116 seats. But the net effect on the Lib Dems, if the same swing were repeated uniformly in every seat, would be a loss of five seats. We would win 57 instead of 62 seats last time.

This is not, though, the end of the story. We would have arrived at this position by winning 8 seats from Labour, and losing 13 seats to the Tories. But would we? This fails to take into account our track record in defending our turf once we win it.

The Nuffield general election study said: “The party for whom the personal popularity of their incumbent appeared to matter most, however, was, as in previous elections, the Liberal Democrat party”. The Lib Dem incumbency factor was worth an average of 6.6 per cent of the vote in 2005.

Out of the 13 Lib Dem seats which the Tories would in theory win if they got an overall majority – including my own Eastleigh – five are being defended for the first time by new MPs who can expect the “incumbency bounce” to lift them out of danger. We would also win another seat nominally lost to the Tories due to boundary changes.

Because we have younger MPs, there is only one new seat which is more vulnerable because of a retiring incumbent. Even if we lost there, overall Tory gains from us would be cut from 13 to 8. Add back the gains from Labour and we would have the same number of MPs.

There is everything still to play for at the next general election. Where we work we win, and everyone knows that Lib Dems work. Our opponents underestimate us at their peril.

* Chris Huhne is the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastleigh and shadow Home Secretary.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Spot on Chris!

    Incumbency can be key.

    I can remember times in the 1980s when we were fifth in the polls (behind the SDP and Greens) on –6% or something, and still comfortably holding my Council seat.

    And in the 90s when the Blair bounce was going to see us off, and we kept increasing our majorities!

    Happy days!

  • I also wish to state that the home affairs policies unveiled by Huhne are strong, & hopefully the more reasonable sections of the electorate will agree. 🙂

  • broncodelsey 5th Sep '08 - 11:19am

    No mention of the possibilty of Lib Dems losing seats to Labour,anyone really believe that Sarah Teather will defeat Dawn Butler in Brent?

    The so called ‘incumbecy factor’ is totally misleading,it’s simply the fact that at Westminster elections the Lib Dems never have to defend their record in office.In all other elections where they have a record to defend they lose like all the other parties,nothing to do with hard work,incumbency,just what they have or haven’t achieved.

    The past 3 elections where the Lib Dems have made gains have been when the Tories have been unpopular,diifficult to see an angry electorate desperate to get rid of Labour,allowing some bed-blockers to get in the way.30-40 Lib Dem MP’s in 2010 will be agood result.

  • Hywel Morgan 5th Sep '08 - 11:20am

    “Out of the 13 Lib Dem seats which the Tories would in theory win if they got an overall majority – including my own Eastleigh – five are being defended for the first time by new MPs who can expect the “incumbency bounce” to lift them out of danger.”

    I think he’s spot on with this but I really hope this sentence doesn’t come back to haunt him big time!

    An ultra-pessimist (and I tend towards that as regards elections) would wonder if the “incumbency bounce” was a factor of post 1997 anti-tory feeling at elections. There wasn’t much incumbency bounce for Richard Wainwright in 1970, Paul Tyler in 1974 #2, Ronnie Fearn in 1992 or Liz Lynne in 1997 – though they are millenia ago in terms of our campaigning techniques and incumbency protection strategies.

  • Liberal Neil 5th Sep '08 - 12:38pm

    “broncodelsey Says:
    5th September 2008 at 11:19 am
    No mention of the possibilty of Lib Dems losing seats to Labour,anyone really believe that Sarah Teather will defeat Dawn Butler in Brent?”

    I seem to remember being one of a very small number of people who beleived she would win the Brent East by-election.

  • Liberal Neil 5th Sep '08 - 12:40pm

    As James and others have said I think Chris has got this about right.

    Whatever the overall national swing we know from experience that we are capable of reducing the swing against us in seats we are defending and at the same time winning much larger swings against Labour in seats where we are on the attack.

    If the national poll position puts us on a small loss of seats then my money would go on us making modest overall gains.

    The question is what can we do to do better than that.

  • David Allen 5th Sep '08 - 1:03pm

    Chris is talking sense about the favourable battleground we are fighting on. Simon is talking sense about the fact that we still need to fight a better fight!

  • ‘There is still all to play for…’, I agree 100%.
    Some things are in our control – policies, work on the ground etc – all which I think are being done fairly well.
    Things outside our control,can alter the political landscape very quickly,I’m sure there will be one or two more ‘events’, before the GE!!

  • Brian Nusgrave 5th Sep '08 - 2:06pm

    I believe Nick Clegg’s comment about targetting 50 Nulab seats was exactly what was required. We stand a good chance of gaining a tranche of these, whilst there is an equally good chance of our holding the vast majority of our present 63 ( including Chris’s). Chris’s comments are in my view spot-on and should be made widely known. However, we do need to have an effective and well rehearsed riposte to the inevitable Nulab jibe that a vote for us will ” let in the Tories”. This was the recent response in the local press of the Nulab candidate in Sheffield Central to the idea that we were to target the seat. Nick MUST be very careful in what he says about a minority Conservative administration.

  • The incumbency bounce is real. In recent local government elections, Lib Dems have done significantly better in areas where we have MPs. Our vote has remained steady or has increased in those places, though it has dropped nationwide.

    We have also tended to do better in seats we are targeting for the next GE, be they Labour or Conservative. Look at St Albans, where we took control of the council in May. Our vote went down in those parts of the Borough not in the constituency, but it went up in those parts that are.

    Trolls salivating at the prospect of a Lib Dem wipe-out will be sorely disappointed.


    Further Result from Thursday 28-8-08

    Crewkerne TC,
    LD Robin Pailthorpe 1317 (59.7)
    Con 814 (36.9)
    Lab 75 (3.4)
    Majority 503
    Turnout 38.6%
    LD hold

    And the Tories think they are going to unseat David Laws?

  • Steve Travis 5th Sep '08 - 2:41pm

    Brian – the simple response to Labour saying that a vote for us will “let in the Tories” is to say that the alternative, given the voters are deserting Labour in droves, is a Tory.

    Unfortunately for us, the polls indicate that currently the net effect is a swing directly from Labour to the Tories bypassing us completely, so there is a lot of work to do.

  • neverapriest 5th Sep '08 - 2:54pm

    Brian Nusgrave – of course apart from the 50 Labour seats there are a handful of three-wayers, harder to predict, but where a backdrop of Labour being hammered and a credible Lib Dem campaign will result in further potential gains. Places like Ealing/Acton, St Albans and Reading East.

  • This is a great article because I think Chris is being a bit over-realistic of our prospects.

    But that is his job. My job as an activist is to be relentlessly positive and point out how to apply the lessons of our previous successes in order to gain more successes.

    In my area (and we are moving forward, not a target) we have more activists than ever before, we deliver more leaflets than ever before and we have more councillors than ever before.

    We think we can overturn conventional wisdom by working our socks off and making sure the result is down to our efforts in talking to voters, not the efforts of a select group of backroom journalists talking to their editors.

    Simon says Nick Clegg has been invisible – he should tell that to all the people Nick has been meeting in his town halls up and down the country!

    Simon says the recent spate of by-elections are good indicators of the public opinion in the country at large – he should tell that to all the people in the other parts of the country who haven’t had their say!

    Simon says 2005 was a high-water mark – I say 2005 was only just the beginning of the redefinition of our party as the party of moral, intellectual and political leadership!

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 5th Sep '08 - 9:48pm

    “Our poll ratings have recovered since the beginning of the leadership contest, when they averaged 13 per cent. We have recently averaged 17 per cent, better than at the same time of the electoral cycle in two of the last three parliaments.”


    The average figures for national opinion polls from the months of September, 3 years into the last 3 parliaments (from are:

    September 1995:
    CON 28 LAB 52 LD 16

    September 2000:
    CON 36 LAB 39 LD 18

    September 2004:
    CON 32 LAB 33 LD 25

    But I grant that our poll rating was similar to the current one in 1995 and 2000, even though it was 8 points higher under Charles Kennedy at the same point in the last electoral cycle.

    But of course the huge difference is in the Tory lead over the Liberal Democrats. In those three years it was 12, 18 and 7 points.

    Now it is 29 points. It’s ridiculous to pretend that isn’t going to make a big difference, whatever local factors – such as the advantages of incumbency – may apply.

    I don’t actually understand why there seems to be such a determination to minimise the Tory threat to our parliamentary seats. Positive thinking is one thing, but surely this is more an issue of false security and over-confidence – especially if the question is whether to concentrate resources on defence against the Tory threat, or to dissipate them in a quest for largely unattainable gains from Labour.

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