The Lib Dem retreat to seat-by-seat campaigns. The right tactic, but not a long-term strategy

Stephen LloydThe Guardian’s Rafael Behr has written of his experiences in Eastbourne, a seat won from the Tories by the Lib Dems’ Stephen Lloyd in 2010. His majority, 3,435, would need a swing of just 3.9% to be wiped out. The recent Lord Ashcroft poll of Tory / Lib Dem marginals indicated an average swing away from the Lib Dems to the Tories of 3.5%. This, then, is the kind of seat within the Tories’ reach and which they need to win if they are to gain an overall majority. So what did Mr Behr find?

This Sussex seaside resort was Tory for most of the past century. It was snatched by the Lib Dems in a famous byelection upset in 1990 but lost again in the general election two years later. It stayed blue until 2010, when it was finally cracked by Stephen Lloyd, a former businessman who had been closing in on the seat through the two previous general elections.

Lloyd is now dug in. He has busied himself conspicuously and, judging by my unscientific survey of the town’s residents, his toil has yielded high levels of recognition and support, some of it close to admiration. Local schemes to help the young unemployed come up more than once.

Indeed — you can read about Stephen Lloyd’s focus on building local jobs (‘The Dignity of Work’) here: “I work closely with all the statutory authorities, the local FE college, Job Centre Plus, the Chamber of Commerce, training companies, charities, work programme providers and the local council, all of whom are trying to do the right thing for our neighbours. It hasn’t been easy and we still face real challenges with the state of the economy, but there is no narrative in Eastbourne of ‘shirkers’, or accusations of people being ‘work-shy’; instead there is a genuine collective desire to help get people back into work.”

Rafael Behr’s conclusion from visiting Eastbourne is good news for the hard-working local MP. It’s much less good news for the national party:

For Lib Dems there is the added problem of a party identity that has become a drag on local candidates. Eastbourne’s enthusiasm for Lloyd is parochial. “I’ll vote for him,” says Dee, a young health club worker. “But I’ve lost all interest in them as a party.” Liz, a cafe owner in the town centre, is harsher. “I voted Lib Dem and almost instantly regretted it.” She is now undecided. “The Tories are wicked, they punish all the wrong people … Labour are responsible for so many of the problems we have.” She is scathing about Nick Clegg – “so weak”, “a wet fish” – but expects Lloyd to keep his seat. … Now the Lib Dems are drifting back to their roots, campaigning seat-by-seat for individual MPs, respected for good deeds in their patch. There are worse ways to get by in politics and, given the difficulty Labour and Tories face building a majority, a shrunken band of Lib Dems might yet find their way back into government in 2015.

In short, there remains a good chance that many of our MPs and some of our target seats can buck the national trend in May 2015. But, outside our bastions, the picture is likely not to be pretty.

It’s worth remembering that in 2010 the Lib Dems finished in first or second place in almost 300 seats around the country. That result meant we could genuinely claim to be a national party. Below is a graph showing the distribution of constituency vote shares for the Lib Dems at the last election. As you can see, a large number were clustered in the 15-25% range, enough for a decent third place or distant second place:

lib dem vote share 2010
(Graph taken from Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s book, Revolt on the Right.)

Those are the kinds of seats where — as we saw in last month’s Newark by-election — the Lib Dems are especially vulnerable to a collapse in our vote. On one level, it’s irrelevant: in lots of places where we had little chance of winning a seat we now have even less of a chance, but the outcome is unchanged.

On another level it obviously does matter. First, because polling well in a wide range of seats demonstrates strength across the country, not just in pockets. Secondly, because we need a pipeline of target seats for the future (especially given our vulnerability as incumbent MPs stand down). Thirdly, because a party in retreat electorally will find it much harder to advance politically.

Oh, and there’s another reason: party management. As MPs come to realise that their brand is more important than the party’s there will be ever more temptation to project themselves as independent Lib Dems. Sometimes this will be for entirely principled reasons — disagreements over policy — other times because it’s the locally popular thing (the two may may or may not always be the same thing). Either way it could become much harder to project a coherent vision of what it is the Lib Dems stand for.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • londonliberal 31st Jul '14 - 4:21pm

    i completely agree with caractatus. Coalition has been an unmitigated disaster for the libdems as a political force. The party has been hollowed out to little more than a shell of its former self, having lost the activists that made it effective locally. Increases in membership in recent months are welcome, but they won’t compensate for what has been lost since 2010.

    The worst thing about the whole sorry state of affairs has been seeing Libdem MPs with their tails up at Westminster looking so happy at their proximity to government. The memories of those crumbs of power that they’ve been feeding on in the last few years will be all they have once they’re thrown out in nine months’ time, i’m sad to say.

  • paul barker 31st Jul '14 - 4:26pm

    We have always had to run 2 parallel campaigns in General Elections – one to get MPs & the other to get Vote share. Its always been painful trying to strike a balance & next May it will be worse than usual. Obviously, under present conditions we will have to go for MPs, for now.
    However, I am not yet convinced that the pattern of the last 18 Months, Labour slowly declining & Tories rising even more slowly; will continue all the way to the Election. The shift has been substantially slower than usual & a possible explanation is our introduction of Fixed Term Parliaments. Without the traditional stories about “Snap Elections” the voters have been able to ignore the need to make a decision for even longer than usual. At some point people are bound to start thinking about how they will Vote in the real Election & then Polls may shift very quickly.
    On top of everything else we need to be prepared to change our campaign right up to the last minute.

  • Tony Dawson 31st Jul '14 - 5:03pm

    @Caractatus :

    It’s the wrong tactic and not a strategy – but it is the Lib Dem leadership strategy :-((((( It doesn’t work and it’s not going to work.”

    It is most certainly NOT the Leadership’s strategy. It is the tactic adopted by some of those Lib Dem constituency parties who are fed up with the lack of ANY leadership strategy.

  • David Allen 31st Jul '14 - 5:10pm

    “I’ll vote for (Stephen Lloyd),” says Dee, a young health club worker. “But I’ve lost all interest in them as a party.” … “Liz, a cafe owner in the town centre, is harsher. “I voted Lib Dem and almost instantly regretted it.” She is now undecided.

    That sums up how little faith we can place in a localist – incumbency strategy. We may retain a residue of “Dee” votes for good individual MPs like Lloyd – though since there will also be many “Liz” voters who fall away, we will often just end up with gallant close second place positions. But even those MPs who survive will do so only because of the good things they have done locally, like Lloyd’s local employment schemes. Not because of where they stand.

    As the election draws nearer, these local issues will be overlain by the drumbeat of national campaigning. Dee will hear only arguments as to which side the Lib Dems might plump for in coalition, alongside scornful comments from both major parties that they won’t have a chance of getting back into government. This, as you see above, turns Dee right off. She doesn’t want to think of us governing the country any more. Once she sees Lloys as a coalition pawn, she may find someone else to vote for, too.

    To win anywhere (other than far-flung highlands and islands) in a national election, you must have a credible national narrative. Clegg doesn’t have one.

  • Peter Hayes 31st Jul '14 - 5:25pm

    There are other creditable narratives. A council doing the right thing and gaining seats from Tories or independents and a LibDem MP with a reasonable record of rebellions. But in a Lab/Lib seat it may be lost already.

  • What Caractacus said.

  • Peter Hayes 31st Jul '14 - 6:14pm

    Jennie, what I was saying we need to go back to the grass roots and regroup. We have done it before and as a minority party will probably have to do it again. Maybe the Orange bookers were right that what we did in 2010 was right for the country, I am not totally convinced, but we are paying the cost and nothing other than localism will minimise the damage next year. In the north we are probably dead, or are already, but there are seats in the South West we can hold if we hold our nerve and get the right policies at conference (and bind the leadership to them).

  • I think this as evolved because local candidates are having to campaign by de-emphasising the party leadership. It’s hard to see how that will work in a general election.

  • Stephen Hesketh 31st Jul '14 - 9:24pm

    “There are worse ways to get by in politics and, given the difficulty Labour and Tories face building a majority, a shrunken band of Lib Dems might yet find their way back into government in 2015”

    As a party loyalist, it genuinely hurts me to say it but a shrunken band of Lib Dems led by a Centrist would be just about the worst outcome for us as a long term political force.

    Were that to happen, I fear we would see a complete haemorrhaging of our traditional left of centre Liberal Democrat members and what is left of our voters.

    We almost certainly need a break from office during which time we need to have a leadership campaign based on each candidates vision of what the party should stand for, a much strengthened Federal Executive (to prevent a future leader’s flight of fancy) and a genuine agreement as to our actual key policies for 2020 .

    Yes, unforeseen circumstances arise and leaders need flexibility but I for one have seen and heard more than enough of premeditated repositioning projects resulting in us being moved away from our traditional values, members and supporters. It didn’t work for Labour and even less so for the Liberal Democrats.

    At least we can probably take some comfort from that.

    @paul barker 31st Jul ’14 – 4:26pm
    “On top of everything else we need to be prepared to change our campaign right up to the last minute.”

    I think the biggest single problem we have, sorry I’ll start that again, I think the second biggest problem we have is that people no longer know what we stand for. We need a very clear message that, as a very minimum, we, the Liberal Democrats campaigning membership believe in and can work for. If we don’t believe it why would the electorate?

    A lack of commitment to the policies our philosophical roots should reflect has got us where we are in this Parliament.

    Forget the Liberal bit of our name for a moment, if nothing else the Democrat element should have ensured our pledge was a pledge. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t believe this and that it should have been an absolute red line issue for us.

  • And, Stephen Hesketh, is that at the Birmingham special conference, we as a party believed we had achieved that. We had 3 amendments massively passed, strengthening party resolve on tuition fees. Actually, Clegg should have been forced out for defying such a strongly expressed party view.

  • David Allen 1st Aug '14 - 12:39am

    Clegg should have been forced out for that and for any number of other errors and betrayals.

    But he wasn’t, because too many of us are wimps and losers.

    Bush wiped the floor with Gore. Gore was far more intelligent, rational and caring. But Bush was a street brawler, and Bush wanted to win.

    If we want to survive, we need to “grow a pair”. Yes, I have deliberately chosen to use coarse, nasty, popular language. I have chosen it to make my point.

    Either Clegg goes, or we all go. If we choose the latter, we deserve oblivion.

  • Paul In Wokingham 1st Aug '14 - 7:56am

    If we see our VI fall every time the leader appears on TV during the campaign to present our manifesto.

    If we see Lib Dem vote share collapse to less than 10%.

    If opinion polls show that those voting LD are doing so because who say they like the MP, not the Liberal Democrats.

    If the parliamentary party is reduced to 20 to 30 MPs, consisting only of those with a long history of incumbency and a strong local government base providing a pool of activist foot soldiers.

    If all of that…. then do we as DEMOCRATS feel we would have the moral mandate to participate in a post-GE coalition government? I would suggest that the most we could morally do is provide supply and confidence.

  • Alun Williams 1st Aug '14 - 9:19am

    All this speculation. Nobody knows. Perhaps Clegg will regain public trust. Perhaps not. But we should certainly hear more from Malcolm Bruce especially since he was so effective on the post – election edition of “Any Questions?”

  • Is the end nigh?

  • The Coalition was a necessary evil. We would attract similar disrespect if we had not formed a coalition. The country was in a mess and it would have been irresponsible not to have formed a stable government.
    We have lost a lot in the short term and we have a lot to pick up.
    One burning issue we all seem to forget is the lack of social housing and those who are relying on food banks to feed their families.
    We are one of the richest countries in the world and this situation should not exist here.
    I would like to see every local MP address this in local constituencies and collectively as a grave national issue.
    We could spend years whinging about the coalition and our position in the political spectrum would not improve.
    It happened , it is almost over. Live with it and move on

  • Judging from this weeks local election results so far, the end is nigh. They are too awful to print out. Will we ever learn.

  • Stephen Hesketh 1st Aug '14 - 1:22pm

    @Tim1331st Jul ’14 – 11:27pm
    “And, Stephen Hesketh, is that at the Birmingham special conference, we as a party believed we had achieved that. We had 3 amendments massively passed, strengthening party resolve on tuition fees. Actually, Clegg should have been forced out for defying such a strongly expressed party view.”

    Tim, I do hope you are not looking for me to offer a contrary view.

    NC is not the only one to have behaved in this way. I might also cite Ed “no special favours” Davey.

  • One of the very few benefits of incumbency will be that we can enter an election campaign with bold but costed policies like the personal allowance rise that we can say, we said we would do it, and we did it – rather than the “they’ll say anything but can’t deliver” argument that dogged us for so long.

    And let’s avoid navel gazing tinkering with constitutional issues and concentrate on what matters to voters.

    Bold does not have to be expensive, just deliverable and defendable

  • Simon Banks 1st Aug '14 - 3:25pm

    It’s worth unpicking some of the factors in Stephen’s third reason why the seat by seat strategy is damaging long-term. In the first place, people move. Populations are increasingly mobile. At any general election, a fair number of voters in a Liberal Democrat held or target seat will have moved from somewhere not a target. Secondly, constituency boundaries change – and will change on a large scale after the next general election. Thirdly, the impression of Liberal Democrat strength in one constituency can be weakened, and activists’ morale can be lowered, when they travel a few miles, maybe to where they work or shop, and find us invisible. This is particularly powerful in cities where we have one or two strong constituencies. The constituency boundaries are rarely real for anything other than parliamentary elections and are not known by most residents. Fourth, there isn’t much point targeting and appealing to people to go to their local target seat if we have no organisation or hardly any active supporters in adjoining areas. Fifth, of course, parliamentary elections are not the only ones that matter. Even a group of five or ten Liberal Democrat councillors can make a real difference, and the difference between having 20 councillors on a 57-councillor authority and having 29 is massive. If it doesn’t make a big difference to local people, we should be ashamed. And to achieve such numbers we nearly always need to elect some councillors in wards outside our strongest parliamentary constituencies.

    At this stage, concentrating on the “strategic seats” is necessary; and as long as the national brand is unattractive, local campaigns will have to concentrate on things which actually can win us votes. But once the general election is over, there has to be a major shift of priorities. The chief executive, the leader (whoever it is) and the president (whoever it is) must give a firm lead in this, along with regional parties.

  • David Allen 1st Aug '14 - 5:57pm

    “Once the general election is over, there has to be a major shift of priorities”

    Towards finding gainful employment outside Parliament, and thereby continuing to eat hot dinners, I fear.

    There may simply be too few people motivated to try to resuscitate a rump party in Parliament. I can envisage Clegg surviving as leader simply because the potential challengers have lost their seats or lost interest.

    Not only are we on 7% in the latest poll, but, of those “supporters”, 47% said they might change their minds over the coming nine months. That could take us down to below 4%.

  • Freddie Burke 1st Aug '14 - 7:38pm

    As a Liberal Democrat supporter somewhat like those mentioned in the interesting article in the Guardian I thought I would come on here to ask simply; why hasn’t Clegg been pushed?

    I’m sure this has been asked but, frankly, it seems like a no brainer. Certainly he is now so toxic that anyone else will surely be better able to put any Lib Dem message across in the run up to the next election.

    I will be voting Lib Dem’s regardless (in spite also of the fact that my current MP, Steven Williams has an almost non existent presence in my area, Bristol West) because I wish to see the party simply survive, I believe British Politics needs an alternative to Labour and Tory, neither of whom represent my views.

    But ask the average voter and they will immediately associate Nick Clegg with lies over tution fees and his subservience towards the Conservatives. I know there are limited alternatives to him within the party but surely something must be done, essentially to save them from a return to 1974 numbers of MPs?

  • I think the tactic will work and constituencies like my own, where Lib Dems have been wiped out more or less, will have to wait for resources. There’s a Cyril Smith stench in the air in these parts so best focus all efforts on the Stockport area and forget northern Gtr Manchester. Fortunes can change rapidly in politics so I wouldn’t start writing off Clegg just yet. It needs some bold and imaginative policies with big red lines attached to them and 5 more years is very possible even probable. Miliband is ripe for decimation on personal character and charisma bypass grounds and will perform abysmally in a general election campaign. Labour voters will acquire fond memories of Gordon. Tories will struggle with UKIP competition. Lib Dems made a single but huge mistake on tuition fees that a new red line policy could help correct and some winning speeches close to the election and heavy seat targeting could well limit the damage. Coalition, far from being an unmitigated disaster, has been the making of the party, best government I can recall in my 50+ years. But we’re not getting the message over yet. I just hope someone has a plan which says bide your time, don’t start shooting until you see the whites in their eyes, and the guns start blazing around February.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Aug '14 - 2:19pm

    @Stephen Hesketh

    ” I think the second biggest problem we have is that people no longer know what we stand for”

    . . . .and by ‘people’ I presume you are meaning people outside of the present Lib Dem ‘leadership’ for whom this apparent ignorance seems to be almost a ‘given’. I say ‘almost’ since I have to give Nick Clegg 8 out of 10 for his latest statement regarding the Middle East. “Quite Extraordinary”, to quote David Coleman.

  • Localism won’t help in the long-term, it is what helped get you into this mess in the first place.

    The Lib Dems always pretended to be an anti-Tory centre left group of people who (unlike Labour) were also socially liberal in Scotland. In the South on England, they were something else.

    As soon as all those different local groups got into national government as a national party they were in trouble, they could no longer be one thing in one area and another thing in another.

    No serious party behaves like this, you have to have a clear and consistent message and purpose nationwide or it’s just not a proper national party.

  • Stephen Hesketh 3rd Aug '14 - 7:46am

    @Tony Dawson … yes and yes.

    Indeed. NC has, at long-last, remembered he is first and foremost the elected leader of the Liberal Democrats rather than deputy PM.

    How different things might have been for our party and he himself had this not been forgotten for the first four years of this parliament.

  • Katherine Hesketh-Holt 3rd Aug '14 - 8:33am

    I think the review of the European elections identified concerns as we move towards the general election: association with Tories, tuition fee fiasco and clear message. It concerns me that I cannot see any real movement within party leadership to address these yet.

    Just this week I have discussed the forthcoming election with friends – not members of the party, but regular lib dem voters – and they have totally dismissed the idea of voting for us in the next election. They have seen too much betrayal from those at the very top.

  • Stephen Hesketh 3rd Aug '14 - 9:05am

    @Katherine Hesketh-Holt 3rd Aug ’14 – 8:33am

    Sadly, this has been my experience in talking to friends and colleagues also. We can only hope that NC’s recent pronouncements, if continued on that and other topics, can do enough to convince our core voters that we are indeed moving back to our historic more left of centre progressive reforming, redistributive (wealth and power) position

    NC admitting to these core voters that, besides achieving some success, we had also made mistakes in government that we had learnt from would be a good start.

  • I’m constantly amazed by the people who don’t want us to be in government next parliament. Up until 2010 not a single Liberal policy had been implemented nationally in England in my lifetime. All those years of conferences and policy papers, ultimately coming to nothing.

    Coalition is about compromise, there was always going to be problems going into coalition with any party. Even now I’m proud of the policies that have made it onto the statute book, from the 10K income tax threshold, increasing capital gains, gay marriage or the pupil premium. I hope we’re in government next year to continue getting policies approved at conference implemented

    We just need to get better at differentiating ourselves in government. We made a lot of mistakes at the start, especially on tuition fees. That was never Lib Dem policy and we shouldn’t have associated ourselves with it. There’s nothing wrong with disagreement with our coalition partners, something we’ve started to learn on things like the bedroom tax, unqualified teachers etc.

    We do however need to look at how we deal with ‘on the hoof’ policy making when in government. Our party systems are designed around endless opposition and couldn’t deal with coalition politics and the daily horsetrading that ensued. How can we stop ministers going ‘off piste’ and developing policy that’s not been approved by the party?

    I hope that’s something the Federal Executive looks at, so if we are ever in power again we can stop things like the tuition fee debacle happening again. The grassroots could see it was a terrible idea but had no way to stop it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Aug '14 - 12:11pm

    Mr Wallace

    The Lib Dems always pretended to be an anti-Tory centre left group of people who (unlike Labour) were also socially liberal in Scotland. In the South on England, they were something else.

    What else? I first joined the Liberals in the South of England because they were an anti-Tory centre left group of people who were also socially liberal, and I never saw them as anything else but that, until the recent infiltration by extreme free market people.

    You seem to be supposing that the Liberal/LibDem vote in the south of England is some sort of right-wing vote. I suspect you are one of those people who has no idea of the reality of life in southern England, who thinks that the whole of southern England is inhabited by people with well-paid jobs in the City of London or as top civil servants or the like, who speak in “BBC English”, which you wrongly would call “southern English”. You are wrong, wrong, wrongity-wrong, you could not be more wrong if that is what you think.

    I joined the Liberals because I grew up on a council estate in Sussex with parents on low wages, and I was SICK of the Labour Party being full of people like you. The Labour Party had this cozy arrangement with the Tories whereby they would have this electoral system that meant the Tories got all the seats in the south and they got all the seats in the north. So people like my family were denied representation, denied a voice in Parliament, and as the ultimate insult not even believed to exist.

    Far from appealing to Tory toff types, the bedrock of Liberal support in the south was people like us. The Liberals won our votes because they WERE the party of the left in the south, able to defeat the Tories in a way that Labour with its northern and urban image could not. Large parts of the south became Tory-Liberal battlegrounds, and I can ASSURE you that the way the Liberals won votes was to appeal to those who needed a politics of the left but one grounded on the lives we led, not on Labour’s traditional heavy industrial area support, or its more recent urban trendy support.

  • Stephen Hesketh I was just adding weight to what you had already expressed. I certainly didn’t have any thoughts you might disagree!

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Aug '14 - 10:22am

    Freddie Burke

    As a Liberal Democrat supporter somewhat like those mentioned in the interesting article in the Guardian I thought I would come on here to ask simply; why hasn’t Clegg been pushed?

    Membership of the Liberal Democrats divides into approximately three equal numbered parts. One third Clegg fans, one third who’d chuck him out tomorrow, one third who also dislike him but use the line “it would damage us to have a leadership election now”. It’s the last third joining up with the first third to block what is needed to push Clegg out that is keeping him there. That is, even with many of those who would be anti-Clegg having left the party, my estimate is that the majority of party members dislike him and wish he were not our leader.

  • Matthew: re “it would damage us to have a leadership election now”

    I think the problem is that the damage could well be longer term than a change of leader when the coalition is over. There are two aspects: the legacy of a coalition narrative, whilst I take your oft repeated point that the narrative needs to be reconstructed and suffers from a naïve starting point, we cannot afford a narrative that coalition government does not work; the other aspect is that a leadership election is implausible: lack of really suitable alternative candidates; that there would be enormous pressure this side of an election for a Gordon Brown style anointment; that further divisions could further deplete morale and the membership.

    I know you have suggested that Clegg could remain as DPM while an election was carried out. Even if this worked and resulted in a more radically Liberal leader, the upshot of the general election would leave the leader tainted by failure, precipitating a further leadership change.

    To me it seems that we need to salvage what positives and lessons we can from the coalition and look to a rebuild after the next election, allowing a new leader time to establish an identity. We can be certain that out of government post 2015, we shall revert to being disdainfully ignored by the media. It will be very difficult to achieve a hearing; the danger is that, as before with tuition fees, there will be a temptation to go for dramatic presentation of policies in order to catch attention.

  • “We can be certain that out of government post 2015, we shall revert to being disdainfully ignored by the media. It will be very difficult to achieve a hearing …”

    And it will be worse than a reversion to the situation before 2010, when your position as the third party was unchallenged. Whether or not UKIP actually outpolls the Lib Dems, they will be able to present a very strong case for equal air-time after 2015. Not only that, but the Greens may not be too far behind in the popular vote.

    Instead of two and a half major parties, there will be two major parties and two and a half in the second rank.

  • “You seem to be supposing that the Liberal/LibDem vote in the south of England is some sort of right-wing vote.”

    Entirely right, Matthew Huntbach, in that it wasn’t.

    Unfortunately at the next election, in my constituency (Yeovil) at least, I suspect it will be. The Tories will get in regardless: sufficient LibDem support there will flow to Ukip and either Labour or the Greens (if the latter stand) or both. The very passionate opposition to the Tories in the south that you well describe, ably shepherded by our previous MP over the years, is broken.

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