“Where we work, we win” – will that Lib Dem maxim survive the 2015 test?

Chris RennardDon’t splutter on your Saturday morning cornflakes, but the Guardian has today published two intelligent articles on the Lib Dems and the strategy which the party is hoping will see us through to the other side of the 2015 election intact.

First, there’s Patrick Wintour‘s analysis — Liberal Democrats bank on ground war to hold on to seats — which uses as its springboard an analysis by Lord (Chris) Rennard, the party’s former chief executive and elections guru:

[Lord Rennard] insists it should not be ground down by low national polls. “The fate of our MPs and candidates will depend much more on what they do in their constituencies than what polls suggest is happening in other seats,” he said. “There will be a national air war and messages, but a lot will depend on a ground war and ensuring that we focus our resources in the right place. In 2010, we spread ourselves too widely. Most forecasts based crudely on national polls assuming ‘uniform swing’ will as usual be quite wrong – providing that we get things right in the constituency messaging and campaign.”

Senior party sources acknowledge its MPs probably face a harder task when their nearest challenger is Labour rather than Conservative. They still believe that in Lib Dem seats faced by a Tory challenge, Labour voters are well used to voting tactically to keep out Conservatives, and – whatever disillusionment they may have with Clegg’s coalition choice, spending cuts and tuition fees – they will recognise the futility of voting Labour simply to punish Clegg. The Conservatives are in second place in 38 Lib Dem seats, of which 20 would fall to David Cameron on a swing of 5%.

If any of Lord Rennard’s quotes seem familiar, by the way, that’s because they’re taken from an interview published in September here, Polls and predictions: The Chris Rennard Interview.

A significant chunk of the LibDem/Tory battles will be in the south-west of England, where this May’s local elections will provide the first major barometer of voters’ attitudes to the two parties since the Coalition was formed:

There have been relatively few electoral tests in the south-west since 2010, so it will be an early gauge of “the range of badness” facing the Lib Dems in 2015. In counties such as Cornwall, Devon and Somerset – the so-called yellow triangle – the Lib Dems did poorly in the equivalent elections in 2009, losing nine council seats in Somerset and 19 in Devon, and taking only 28% of the vote in Cornwall. There is a raft of vulnerable looking seats in the area: Somerset and Frome, Mid-Dorset, St Austell, Torbay, Wells, St Ives and Cornwall North.

And then of course there’s the areas were the Lib Dems will face Labour opposition, including seats in Scotland and the north of England:

Labour is challenging Lib Dem MPs in 19 seats, nine of which could be won on swings of less than 5%. Overall, as an index of Lib Dems’ vulnerability, 14 of their MPs would be thrown out by a swing away from Clegg’s party of just 3%. The optimists in the party point to evidence showing that in the 2012 local elections it did better in areas where it had a sitting MP and the Lib Dems are seen as credible. … The party’s constituency vote fell to just 7.9% (down 8.2 percentage points) [in Scotland in 2011]. Nevertheless, figures such as Danny Alexander, Malcolm Bruce, Menzies Campbell, Alistair Carmichael, Michael Moore and Charles Kennedy look safe from the coming electoral retribution.

The second piece, by Mr Wintour’s Guardian colleague Michael WhiteLib Dems thrive on south coast despite problems in Westminster — focuses on the Lib Dem strongholds of Portsmouth and Eastleigh:

… a funny thing keeps happening on election day. Despite national opinion polls which suggest that Clegg’s support is floating away down the Hamble, the Lib Dem grip on the council has strengthened during the turbulent coalition years. In Eastleigh proper, an old railway-cum-London-overspill town which was once safe Conservative territory, a Lib Dem MP has been in place since David Chidgey won the 1994 byelection. Chris Huhne has held the seat since 2005. And in May 2012 the Lib Dems took 40 of the 44 council seats, leaving the Tories with just four, and Labour, which once hoped to capture Eastleigh, with none at all. …

Lib Dems took office [in Portsmouth] as a minority regime in 2004, with 16 seats out of 42, and were expected by their rivals to fall apart. Instead they keep their squabbles private and now boast 25 councillors to 12 Tory and five Labour ones. All this despite Clegg’s problems. “The most successful years for us were 2011 and 2012 when we twice won nine of the 14 wards up for election. We work hard and people see we deliver on the ground,” says Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Portsmouth city council leader and a national figure in local government politics.

I particularly liked the final paragraph pay-off:

As a Tory core voter, the Boorley Green activist Pauline Solheim … thinks Lib Dems have too much sway over Cameron’s coalition. Her husband gently teases her. “I’m a Norwegian. We are used to coalitions, we understand there must be give and take. People here don’t understand that yet.”

* 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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  • In 2010 the Lib Dem vote increased and the number of seats won decreased. Obviously the reverse could happen.

    As it happens, I think we will lose some seats as a result of the economic difficulties and some important mistakes made in government of which the tuition fee issue probably has the most totemic impact. Disillusion for those of us hoping to change the electoral system could be another factor, but there is no where else to go (except out of England).

  • Bill le Breton 5th Jan '13 - 10:56am

    So, good campaigning MP and good campaigning group eg. Eastleigh and Portsmouth do well. There’s a surprise, but just think what could be achieved both in such places and everywhere else if the central leadership were committed to INTEGRATED campaigning.

    I really think that the Leadership either does not know what that integrated campaigning is or believes in its efficacy. If they did they would not be about to put their name to a Coalition Agreement 2.0 without FIRST raising the issues with local campaigners, encouraging them to campaign on those issues in their communities and using the results of those campaigns to reinforce their negotiations at Westminster before completing the circle by communicating back through local campaigners the results of their engagement. So that wins are owned and so that further pressure can be applied to issues not yet won.

    Campaigning MPs and campaigning groups will do better than the national rating suggests. It is just that having some power at Westminster should be an *advantage* and not, as it is in isolation from the rest of the party, a handicap to their progress and the fortunes of all those standing in elections for the Liberal Democrats.

  • I also like Anthony Wells on the subject

    He leaves me asking whether the unrolling of LibDem-Labour tactical voting against Conservatives will be counteracted by a rise in LibDem-Conservative tactical voting against Labour.

    Tories have no hope across much of northern England and the cities, so will these voters choose to continue wasting their ballots when they can help keep Labour out?

    If so it will reinforce the message that LibDems are the only party which can appeal to the whole country.

  • I read the guardian articles and the comments section below them.

    There are some good points in there.

    First point is that for a ground war, troops are needed to fight it. Given that many liberal democrats activitists have left the party or at best sitting on their hands, is there an army to fight the ground war in all it but the areas where Liberal Democrats are strong or have a base already ?

    Of the 57 contests, 38 , the Conservatives are in second place and Labour a distant third. The Liberal Democrats will need to convince those that voted for them tactically that a vote for the Liberal Democrat will not result in a defacto free market Conservative government. It relies on the urge to block the Conservaties overriding anger on what the Liberal Democrats perceived to have enabled the Conservatives to do in government (Enabling the Conservative government in the first place, breaking the tutition fees pledge, NHS outsourcing, undermining of the welfare benefit system)

    A decent local MP (and their voting record on Tution fees / NHS etc) with strength in the local council may help. There may be some strengths for Liberal Democrats where they hold a strong council position but that is only in a few places.

    There is a chance that people who voted for the Liberal Democrats hate the Conservatives more than the Liberal Democrats, particular after 2 more years of Conservative rule. There is a chance though that many will just not vote as keeping the Conservatives out by voting Liberal Democrats tactictically will not seem to be a tactic that works.
    It is not a great position though for many of the standing MPS in Lib Dem / Con fights to be reliant on a vote cast for entirely negative reasons.

    There are some additional things to consider like whether Scotland will still be a part of the UK, and whether independent, NHS candidates will stand, which could add some surprises and avenue for protest votes to go. Other local factors such as a large student vote, or be subject to failing NHS outsourcing contracts may play a part.
    Given these factors, and some MPS having a large majority or a good individual reputation my prediction is that the Liberal Democrats will get 28 to 35 seats (much better than with the boundary changes). There will be a big drop in the overall votes for the Liberal Democrats nationally though to about 15 percent.

    The picture will be uneven of course and it would be a mistake / disingenuous to pick out the few areas of strength to cover the overall whole weak picture.

  • mark fairclough 5th Jan '13 - 3:25pm

    As the New years Day article showed, in councils byelections nationwide the Libdems get 19% of the vote , because of our electoral system & the Conservatives losing votes to UKIP , that would get the Libdems 7 more seats than at present

  • Tony Dawson 5th Jan '13 - 4:43pm

    ” Liberal Democrats bank on ground war to hold on to seats”

    What else would we rely upon? Prayer? How has it taken the press so long to cotton on to this ‘strategy'(sic)?

    Eastleigh is the Westmorland of the South, Southport is the Portsmouth of the North (six out of seven seats in 2012 leaving us with four times as many councillors as the Tories in our constituency). That’s five parliamentary seats out of 600 plus in the country. Where else have we ‘moved forward’ since the Coalition?

    Mark Fairclough’s arithmetic above would appear to suggest too much brandy in the Xmas pud. 😉 Anyone projecting ANYTHING (good or bad) in parliameentary terms from council by-elections should not be taken seriously.

  • FormerLibDem 5th Jan '13 - 7:19pm

    I think people vote very differently at Local Elections. I might consider voting Lib Dem for a good local Councillor but I wouldn’t do so at a general election. That would reward the Lib Dems for too many broken promises. My sister works as a nurse and says the NHS reforms are going to be catastrophic . That the Lib Dems didn’t use their veto to save the NHS from the ensuing chaos is a terrible stain on the party. And one that won’t wash out in time for 2015.

  • Tim Oliver In my experience, Euros these days are always hostile to us. Generally they seem to attract an entirely different population of voters (many normally non-voters), many of whom could be characterised as fascists.

    Speaking for Devon, there may be a few win-backs from the Tories this May, but I think the loss of Brian Greenslade as Leader after his outing as independent Police Comm candidate won’t help.

  • Peter Reisdorf 6th Jan '13 - 8:49am

    The problem with the statement “Labour voters are well used to voting tactically to keep out Conservatives” is that in my old council ward a significant number of Labour inclined voters won’t do that. That’s why I’m no longer a councillor. We used to ‘squeeze’ the Labour vote in order to beat the Tories, but it appears that a lot of those voters won’t even read our leaflets now and the Labour vote has doubled. I have yet to hear anyone suggest a way of getting over that problem.

  • ray Earwicker 6th Jan '13 - 11:39am

    Unfortunately. the contribution we have made towards the Coalition is neither recognised nor appreciated by the public or the media at large. This is unlikely to change very much in the currrent economic circumstances and we shall continue to suffer from the fall-out as long as the economy falters. Regrettably, the leadership of the Party is also failing to strike the right note with the electorate and a strategic review of both its approach and the image it presents to the public is urgently needed. Poor election results in May would make this inevitable.

  • mark fairclough 6th Jan '13 - 11:46am

    yes sorry guys using the BBC seats calculator, i did miscalculate .
    The figures from all the council byelections still give the Libdems 59 seats .
    Blame that not me lol

  • mark fairclough 6th Jan '13 - 11:56am

    The media especially the BBC wont help , they wont put any focus on on all the council byelections,
    The media just give all the positive spin on Labour & UKIP

  • Commenting reminder: Please remember to respect our moderation policy which basically asks people to be polite, be on topic and be honest (ie don’t pretend to be more than one person or to be someone you are not).

    As you can see from other comments published on the site, wide-ranging and robust debate is fine (including comments critical of the party or the site). However, we do ask for little bit of civility – and the chances are you’ll find that makes your points a little more effective at persuading others anyway!

    If in doubt, a good rule of thumb to remember is to play the ball, not the person.

  • mark fairclough 6th Jan '13 - 12:58pm

    oh for a nice parliamentry byelection in the Southwest ,

  • Mark F I can’t think of a byelection in a Southwest constituency we’d have much chance of winning at present – I may be wrong, but where do you think might be a current prospect?

  • Peter Watson 6th Jan '13 - 2:22pm

    @mark fairclough “The media especially the BBC wont help , they wont put any focus on on all the council byelections”
    Be careful what you wish for.
    The media gives plenty of coverage to national-scale local elections and parliamentary byelections, and Lib Dems get hammered. Winning byelections by stealth is probably the best way.

  • “We used to ‘squeeze’ the Labour vote in order to beat the Tories, but it appears that a lot of those voters won’t even read our leaflets now and the Labour vote has doubled. I have yet to hear anyone suggest a way of getting over that problem.”

    If there is a subsection of voters who won’t read your leaflets, you need to find an alternative way of communicating with them. Use Connect to get a list of Labour IDs (I’d filter on Labour, weak Labour, yellow Labour and red Lib Dem). Then knock on their doors and repeat the squeeze message at them, or send them targeted mailing designed in a way that they get the squeeze message before having a chance to dismiss the leaflet as from us.

  • mark fairclough 6th Jan '13 - 3:36pm

    @Tim13 , there are at least 6 , actually UKIP are eating into the Conservative vote

  • It will be interesting to see if any unwinding of LibDem-Labour tactical voting to keep tories out will be replaced by LibDem-Conservative tactical voting to keep Labour out.

    We should admit we were Labour’s human shield, preventing sufficient scrutiny of their incompetence by gifting them successive landslides.

  • mark fairclough 6th Jan '13 - 4:03pm

    there are a couple of seats down there where Libdems are a close 2nd to the Conservatives & UKIP are 3rd .The Labour party are 4th

  • mark fairclough 6th Jan '13 - 5:47pm

    @oranjepan , agreed on your second point

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Jan '13 - 11:08pm

    The articles suggest the way for Liberal Democrats to win is to work so hard at the local level that people don’t see you in terms of the national leadership. Which fits in with what I’ve been saying about the national party leadership working in a way that is undermining the party, so that the rest of us, if we can still manage to get up the enthusiasm to do it, have to work twice as hard just to stay still and three times as hard to get anywhere.

  • Oranjepan : “We should admit we were Labour’s human shield, preventing sufficient scrutiny of their incompetence by gifting them successive landslides.”

    Currently you are the Tories’ human shield, gifting them the. Raising of the personal tax allowance, the pupil premium etc.

  • Liberal Neil 7th Jan '13 - 3:50pm

    I think: “Where you work very hard, and harder than previously, you are more likely to hold on,” is a more realistic version of your headline!

    It is the case, though, that very strong local campaigns can buck the national swing.

    If the number of seats we hold nationally had been based on the national swing we would rarely have won any in the post-war period.

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