South West under siege from Tory “lovebombing”?

Lib Dem constituencies in the South West (map from the Independent)

Lib Dem constituencies in the South West (map from the Independent)

The Independent has a piece today on the Lib Dems’ General Election prospects in the South West:

On the Cornish doorsteps, the Conservatives’ man for the Camborne and Redruth seat at the next election is detecting signs that his party is on the verge of a major breakthrough. “There is a feeling here that the Liberal Democrats have not delivered locally,” he says. “There’s everything to play for.”

His quiet confidence in defeating Julia Goldsworthy, the high-profile Liberal Democrat MP, would seem misplaced were it not for a set of extraordinary local and European election results that hinted Nick Clegg’s party could be in serious trouble at the next election. The Tories made gains in formally staunch Lib Dem heartlands, even winning control of Devon County Council, ending 20 years of Lib Dem rule.

They surprised themselves with the extent of their progress, but the Tories’ successes were no accident. While attention has been focused on David Cameron’s attempts to win back key marginal seats from Labour, particularly in the Midlands, his election strategists have marked a siege on the Liberal Democrats in the South West as the second front crucial to delivering a Conservative majority at the next election. Far away from the political hot house of Westminster, they are diligently pumping a healthy slice of Lord Ashcroft’s millions into claiming the region. It is part of a plan to wipe out the steady gains the Lib Dems have made since the party first appeared on ballot papers in 1992.

Local election victories never ensure similar success at a general election but the national evidence looks similarly ominous for Mr Clegg. The latest polling by ComRes for The Independent suggests the Tories are on course to win nine seats from the Lib Dems in the South West alone, an electoral disaster that would see senior figures like Ms Goldsworthy, Andrew George, and Nick Harvey ejected from the Commons.

Taunton MP Jeremy Browne highlights the use of Ashcroft money in the region:

“They’re pouring money at it. They spend more in advertising in the local paper than I spend in campaigning in its entirety over the year. Compared to the Tories our resources are tiny. It makes you wonder how these local papers can possibly be objective when so much money is flowing into them from the Conservatives.”

However, Browne points out that there’s more to it than money:

“People are quite often amazed at how much work an MP can do when they have a Liberal Democrat. Only one party has increased its share of the vote at the last three general elections and that’s the Lib Dems. We should be able to consolidate our gains.”

Not without dodging the Conservatives’ “love-bombs”, however. Says Tory chairman Eric Pickles:

“In a time of intense national emergency of financial ruin we will be pursuing a centre-right position and we will not be ideological in our approach. We need to create a broad coalition, so we’re looking very much for Liberal Democrat voters. To get them, we want to show them that they are more likely to see their concerns, such as ID cards, the environment and sustainability, achieved through a Conservative government.”

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  • I think Pickles suggestion of 30 LD seats at the next GE is absolutely absurd.

    But I do think we have to concentrate our energy on Labour rather than the Tories – they are the weak party, the party without any energy!

    Of course we should fight hard for every single seat. But realistically we should be prepared to lose some seats in the South-West to make gains from Labour in the North, maybe in Scotland, and in cities throughout the country.

    If Norwich North showed us anything, it was that we can’t simply be the “none of the above” party any more, because the minor parties have that honour now. That means we need to articulate our vision very clearly, and have a laser-focus on those seats where we can do best.

    In general election after general election we have punched above our national vote share weight in seats where it counts. We need to do the same again.

  • ‘the Lib Dems’ General Election prospects in the South West:’

    Not good, probably hold onto a couple of seats,on the positive side at least Jullia will have more time with her taxpayer funded Rocking chair.

  • Ah Julia, our very own Frank Spencer, bless er.

  • Pickles is a total nutcase, but you’d hardly expect him to say “oh, I don’t think we’ll make many gains from the Lib Dems, they’re well dug in in the South West” would you?

    Reading the whole article, it’s so pro-Tory I was left wondering what they’d been putting in the Indy’s water fountains! They’re also doing the same in the Borders – it’s how they won Roxburgh & Berwick from us last time out in the Scottish Parliament.

    It’s a good example though of why the Tories will never agree to restrictions on party funding this side of a GE. Afterwards, if they win with a large majority, watch them implement funding restrictions that limit donations to parties from trade unions (damaging Labour) whilst Ashcroft stays safe and free from investigation on an offshore island…

  • The credentials of the local Tory candidates in the South West have yet to be tested under the scrutiny of a local election campaign, and one suspects that when they are, the party will appear far less attractive. For example, the Conservative candidate quoted in this story, George Eustice, is a London-based spin doctor, who has spent his whole career in London and only gave the constituency a second thought when he wanted to be an MP. He has no track record of campaigning in the area and has not yet assured local people that he will quit his second job if elected. Moreover, he stood against his own party in 1999 when he tried (and failed) to win a seat for UKIP in the European elections.

    As for the local elections – there are signs that people in the South West are already regretting electing the Tories. One new Conservative councillor in Cornwall caused outrage when he told a local parish council meeting that he would not do anything for six months because he had other work commitments. A couple of weeks later, the Conservatives failed to adopt a Lib Dem motion calling for a freeze on their allowances, sparking anger from local people. So before the Tories start celebrating, they should look at the party’s dismal track record in the South West, both recently and historically.

  • I think the map shows council districts, rather than constituencies, at least in the case of Devon. “Teignbridge” is both. But it seems very strange that the Independent cannot get even that right!

    However, it does describe the sitting MP for Torridge & West Devon as “unknown”. This seems to be a reference to Geoffey Cox, a Conservative MP and a tremendously successful barrister. One wonders who they can have been talking to – and where, Westminster or West Devon? – that he should be “unknown”.

  • I disagree with you Kate, i think we need to attack BOTH !
    ‘The Tories will say anything, do anything to get power’ should be our line to soft Labour & floating voters.
    Official – as admitted by Eric Pickles.

  • Kate, you make a good point ( I am surprised Martin Land has not popped in to attack you yet, perhaps he is still in bed) and I think for us there are some pretty easy wins to be had against Labour. Against the Tories we need to defend what we have first of all and then consider, given our spartan resources, which seats to actively target. What you say about labour is common sense, most of our gains in 2005 came against Labour. We need the Party to be perceived as opposition to both main parties and not too cosy to one of them which is the mistake Charles “hic” Kennedy made prior to 97.

  • dominic Hannigan 6th Aug '09 - 11:56am

    Anyone annoyed by this story, thought I’d post the link below to cheer you all up:

  • Given the state of the polls, hanging on to these seats has to be the priority. Targeting Labour seats will only redistribute seats on the opposition benches and leave the LDs with another 5 years on the sidelines. In fact, targeting Tory voters in Labour seats toward the higher end of Tory ambitions, (eg Plymouth Sutton/Devonport, Maj: 11%) might be the best way to avoid post-2010 irrelevence.

  • Daniel Bowen 6th Aug '09 - 2:27pm

    Hugh, that’s Eric Pickles’ recipe for the minimum possible number of seats.

    We have the best opportunity ever to break into territory Labour considers its own. We passed up an opportunity in 2005 and it potentially cost us 20 seats. To pass it up this time would be simply insane.

  • Pickles is getting increasing profile as the ‘front’ for the Tory campaign. Now that Chris Rennard has moved on we need someone to speak to the media, on and off the record as Pickles does, and talk up our chances, and rebut the more outlandish claims by the other parties.

    Andrew Stunnell would be the obvious candidate.

    Pickles is getting a reputation as some kind of political genius because he has led the successful shooting of fish in a barrel in Crewe and Nantwich and Norwich North.

    We need someone on the airwaves and speaking to the political journalists talking up our own chances, and I suspect it needs to be an MP as they have a higher profile than party workers.

  • Gareth Epps 6th Aug '09 - 9:45pm

    This is of course a gift to the usual Tory cheerleaders and attack dogs of the less intelligent kind, but is clearly written by someone without the first clue about campaigning. It is Tory spin hook, line and sinker.

    I agree that a successful and respected campaigner – and Andrew Stunell fits the bill perfectly – needs to take these journalists to one side, or preferably get them out on the doorsteps, to find out how it actually is. This reporter clearly hasn’t listened to a single voter.

    The notion that Andrew George’s St Ives seat is particularly absurd, and goes to show Pickles for the buffoon he is and showed himself to be on Question Time over expenses. And that’s kinder than the savaging the hapless hack deserves.

  • “The notion that Andrew George’s St Ives seat is particularly absurd, and goes to show Pickles for the buffoon he is ”

    Whatever Pickles may be he is hardly a buffoon.

    Politician talks up their chances in election shocker. Nothing new there.

    What do you expect him to say ? I doubt there are more than a handful of Tories who think they will take Andrew George’s seat.

    It is no different to the crap we had from Saint Rennard and co at the last election that we are closing the gap, posied to take this seat or that seat. It was all BS too. Mind you I guess they are our bullshitters so that makes it okay. I think to underestimate Pickles and the Tories, as Gareth is witlessly doing, is not only complacent but is very dangerous too.

  • “It is no different to the crap we had from Saint Rennard and co at the last election that we are closing the gap, posied to take this seat or that seat. It was all BS too. Mind you I guess they are our bullshitters so that makes it okay. I think to underestimate Pickles and the Tories, as Gareth is witlessly doing, is not only complacent but is very dangerous too.”

    Have to agree with you there, on the misunderstimating thing.

  • All the strategists and PR bods are missing the fact that the Tories are seeking out and destroying the Libdems. They know if the Party got itself together it could cause them REAL problems.

    However we sit on our hands and do not take the lead. We should be fighting for this party, and fighting hard. We all know what the evil Tories are about, but do the disconnected public at large, really know what the Libedems are about???

    Maybe we should ask people around the country how they would describe the Libedems in a sentence; and see which key words keep on coming up. I think you may be shocked and very worried!

  • Oranjepan,

    Drop the snarky tone.

    In terms of closing the gap, we hardly did with the Tories so you are being a little selective there. Rennard was telling us at the last election in plenty of seats in the South West and south we only needed a final push to beat the Tories, private polling showed the gap narrowing etc etc etc.

    It was rubbish.

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