Opinion: Capitalising on Labour’s woes, defending against a rising blue tide

It appears inevitable that the next General Election will leave the country with a radically changed electoral map. The combination of an economic crisis, a discredited and divided Labour Government, and an underlying desire for ‘change’ looks certain to make the 2010 General Election the most significant this century.

I intend to write two articles which I hope will prompt debate inside Liberal Democrat circles about how our party can best prepare for the dual challenge of winning at the expense of Labour, whilst ensuring that so many seats won since 1997 are not lost to a rising Conservative tide.

To be clear, I am approaching this issue with a keen eye on psephology; the focus is more upon how we should campaign in key marginal seats as opposed to what the overarching Liberal Democrat policy platform should be. Today I will focus upon our battle with the Conservatives; outlining our potential vulnerability and then discussing ways in which we can best repel the real threat that is posed by David Cameron’s party.

As many Liberal Democrat activists will be very aware, the great majority of our Parliamentary seats were won at the expense of the Conservatives. When they were at their lowest ebb in 1997, the party made 25 gains from the Tories, with more following in 2001. 2005 was a more mixed picture, despite our increased share of the vote nationally, we recorded a net loss of two seats against the Conservatives, perhaps an early indication of how tough the battle may be this time around.

All Liberal Democrats must accept that David Cameron’s party will pose a great threat to us in 2010. The polls currently have the Tories consistently above 40% and on the swings currently being predicted, as much as half of our Parliamentary party would be in danger of losing their seats. I realise that polls are not foolproof and am fully aware that uniform swings do not occur in reality; but it is clear that the Conservatives are a resurgent force and are set to record a dramatically higher share of the vote than in 2005.

Whenever I have seen discussion on this subject discussed before, Lib Dem activists in LD/Con marginals tend to cite 3 factors they believe are essential to LD campaigning in these seats:

1. Promoting the Lib Dem MP, the ‘incumbency factor’,
2. Not overplaying national issues and selling the LD candidate as a ‘local champion’,
3. Squeezing the Labour vote.

I believe that at the next election, our strategy has to move on from a reliance on these three a campaigning techniques. In most instances, we have squeezed the Labour vote to a rump of about 10%, and little more can be done to bring this number down further. Equally, with a strong national mood for ‘change’, I believe that national issues may be of greater importance to lots of voters than the concept of having a ‘local champion’ as their MP. This is not to detract from these strategies, but to assert that on their own, I don’t believe they will be sufficient to win a straight fight against the Conservatives.

I want people from across the party to read this article and make their own suggestions as to how we can develop new ways to beat the Conservatives… Here are a couple of my own:

1. I believe we must make a big effort to make a contrast between our positive vision for changing Britain and the Conservatives’ insistence on talking the country down. The Conservative party is becoming more and more negative, continually talking of ‘the broken society’, stirring up fear about crime and social breakdown and appealing to people’s worst instincts. We must draw a clear line between us and them on this issue – reaffirming that we are in politics not to talk Britain down but to reshape the country with a set of bold policies.

2. The Tories will clearly play the card that the only way to bring about ‘change’ is to vote for them, as only they can defeat Labour. We must emphasise that in opposition, Lib Dem MPs have brought about change as well. The Gurkha victory is of course the single best example of this, but at I am convinced that we must always make every effort to reinforce to the electorate that we do wield power in Parliament and that our MPs can exert real power on their constituents behalf.

I hope that this post succeeds in getting people thinking about how best to fight the Tory challenge. I look forward to you responses!

* Andrew Lewin is a Lib Dem member and activist in Hertford and Stortford.

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15 Comments

  • Steve Travis 7th May '09 - 12:42pm

    Niklas – agree, and we should play up the Vince factor – “we were right before anyone else was”.

    Another danger not discussed here is the Tory jibe of “a vote for the Lib Dems lets Labour in”. They will be playing this for all its worth – only a Tory MP will guarantee you a change, the Lib Dems might let Gordon back in etc. We need to prepare our defence against this.

  • Alix Mortimer 7th May '09 - 12:56pm

    A direct counter challenge to the point Steve makes would be to point out that the Tories are so far ahead in the polls that an overall victory is very likely even if they do vote for us. Wouldn’t necessarily work in marginals, but I think a lot of people are quite hazy about the connect between their own ballot paper and the national government.

    A more positive version of this negative point might be: vote for us because we’ll keep the Tories honest on the economy, taxation and civil liberties. Treat it as if they’re already in power and need effective opposition which Labour can no longer provide.

    (Which has the merit of basically being the truth!)

  • The next parliament’s prospects for the LDs are not solely determined by the number of seats won, but also the distribution of the other seats. Losing 15 seats but facing 285 Tory and 285 Labour MPs is surely more promising than having 70 MPs but facing 350 Tories and another 5 years of irrelevance, and the behaviour of LD sympathisers in Con-Lab marginals is a key factor in determining which outcome occurs. What is being done to address this?

  • Andrew – should this debate not be in the private members only forum???

  • Alix Mortimer 7th May '09 - 3:11pm

    “,so your saying ,the lib dems should lie to the british public”

    Which part of “Which has the merit of basically being the truth!” did you not understand, tykejohnno?

  • I can think of quite a few Lib Dem seats where there are still plenty of Labour votes to be squeezed and even 10% if squeezed well could make the difference.

  • David Heigham 7th May '09 - 4:28pm

    The themes that can catch on nationally are becoming clear. LibDems are:

    – “The Party of the Underdog” :Stephen Tall’s inspiration,
    – “The Party of Freedom” : Labour don’t know where this ground is; and Cameron conceded it when he did not back David Davis,
    – “The Party that knows What Needs to be Done” : ground largely captured by Vince.

    I doubt if anyone central can say how to balance these appeals in a particular constituency; but together they look potentially powerful in a lot of places.

  • paul barker 8th May '09 - 5:53pm

    just a historical note on liberal/libdem losses, the last time we lost half our MPs atone go was 1970. In fact the last election we had any loss was in 1992, about one in ten. Just remember that many of the commentators talking about tory landslides now thought that 1997 would be “a damn close run thing”.

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