Winning Here?

A poor performance at the recent general election and an imminent leadership contest has led to much soul searching within the Party. In recent weeks a number of articles in the press have rumoured potential leadership candidates and the ideas that they will campaign on.

One article in particular that caught my interest was Wera Hobhouse’s pitch on PoliticsHome that the Party should abandon a strategy of equidistance and instead align itself closer to the centre-left and the Labour Party. The debate around the equidistance strategy is not a new one, and I doubt Wera will be the only candidate making this case when the leadership election comes around.

Certainly aligning closely with the centre-left is a strategy that has paid off in seats such as Bath. Despite the Conservative vote standing still since 2015, the local Liberal Democrats have successfully brought Labour and Green voters on side to win the constituency in 2017, and then increase their majority to over 12,000 in 2019.

I was interested to see how well this strategy might play out nationwide, and so, using’s list of potential Liberal Democrat target seats, I calculated just how many of the top 50 Lib Dem target seats could be taken from the Conservatives by adding the Lib Dem, Labour and Green votes together.

As it turns out, the number is surprisingly small; in only 13 of the 50 seats would squeezing Labour and Green votes be enough to get us over the line. Meanwhile, 7 of those 50 seats are not Conservative facing, and so require Conservative voters to be squeezed in order to achieve victory.

The question then is this: is 13 extra seats the limit of our ambitions for our Party? If not, then how do we attract the current Conservative voters we need to win in many other seats across the country if we have abandoned our current equidistant strategy?

What works in a handful of seats is not guaranteed to work elsewhere. As the Political Editor of the New Statesman Stephen Bush has pointed out, “Across the seats the Liberal Democrats failed to win in 2019, the Labour vote is as low today as it was in 2005 and 2010, two of the most successful nights in the Lib Dems’ modern history.”

The difference in those seats is that the Conservative vote has gone up, and as a Party we will need a strategy to win some of those votes back. Those who argue in favour of abandoning equidistance will have to explain how their plan will help achieve that in order for their argument to win out.

* Alan Muhammed is Liberal Reform Co-Chair & works as a Management Consultant. He is a former Guildford Borough Councillor & Lib Dem HQ Campaigns Staffer.

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  • Certainly moving further left is unlikely to win most of those seats back, but it doesn’t seem like equidistance is working either as it just leads to both sides assuming that you’re really closer to the other [1], the left pointing to Coalition and the right pointing to Brexit. Moving further right would be an option – abandon places like Cambridge or Sheffield Hallam as lost for the foreseeable future, and become a centre-right alternative to the Conservatives in the majority of target seats.

    With Labour, Green, SNP and Plaid already competing for centre-left votes, and the collapse of UKIP and the Brexit party leaving the Conservatives uncontested in practice for everywhere between centrism and the far right, there’s likely more room for an alternative centre-right party than yet another alternative centre-left one.

    There are obvious downsides to that approach as well, of course.

    [1] See also the failure of TIG/CHUK’s purely centrist approach to excite anyone except a few journalists.

  • To be honest I have never understood this debate. We are Liberal first and foremost. We all need to have clarity of direction on this. We will not go into formal coalition again and would support either party that will introduce pr without a referendum. If not don’t pick up the phone.

  • We can start by talking Facts. Compared to The Election before (the usual comparison) 2019 was not a poor performance in terms of Votes, our Vote share went up by Half.
    We got nowhere in Seats because The Tory & SNP Votes also went up.
    Clearly the Targeting didnt work everywhere but that has very little to do with Strategy.

    We need to make a dinstinction between The Greens (GPEW) with whom we share Values & Labour who are our Enemy as much as The Tories.

  • @Paul, you are living in a dreamworld, it was an abysmal result after a risible campaign. Normally our ratings rise during an election campaign, and then get squeezed back during the final week. This last campaign, uniquely, saw us losing almost half of the support that we started with.

    By any historical standard our vote shares in most seats were pitiful; comparison with the post-coalition elections is highly misleading. Unlike back then, when we were bombing in almost every electoral contest we faced, this time we had just scored a brilliant Euro-election result, had a long string of very positive local by-election results, and a pretty good set of council elections. The appalling 2019 campaign managed to throw all of this away.

  • Peter Watson 11th Feb '20 - 1:47pm

    @Paul Barker “We need to make a dinstinction between The Greens (GPEW) with whom we share Values & Labour who are our Enemy as much as The Tories.”
    Exactly what “values” are shared with the Greens that are not shared with Labour or even the Tories or SNP or PC? It’s not enough to make vague claims and assume everyone has the same understanding. Ultimately all of the political parties and their members want to make the world a better place, they just disagree on how best to go about it.
    Sometimes Lib Dems look fixated on the wrong things: debating the meaning of labels like “Liberal”, claiming to be not like such and such a party, or looking for a marketing opportunity to exploit a gap in the centre-left/centre/centre-right”.
    Perhaps the party should just concentrate on putting together the policies it believes will make the world a better place and then decide afterwards whether they make the party look liberal, a bit left, a bit right, etc.

  • David Evershed 11th Feb '20 - 2:13pm

    We should be liberal rather than left or right.

    But are we are a party of economic liberals; social liberals; or both (or neither?).

  • @David, you might be Liberal first and foremost; I’m a [Social] Democrat first an foremost– I don’t think either wing of the party has or should have primacy.

    That being said, I don’t think being an SDP-ish member conflicts with running from a centre-centre-right position — I’d view it as doing as much gently-centre-left stuff as is practicable without scaring off the centre-right voting bloc.

    As an SD I of course disagree with @Paul Barker — Labour want to achieve many of the same goals as us, but in my view can’t bring themselves to make the compromises necessary to bring their dreams to partial fruition.

  • If equidistance is the fundamental guiding principle then no thank you very much. A party defining itself in relation to others is doomed, it has no concrete identity.

    If we’re talking more about keeping sufficient distance from either main party in order to nark ourselves out as distinctive then ok. But that doesn’t mean being rigidly equidistant; being halfway for the sake of it is silly.

  • Obviously some people understand what they mean by being a centre party. I do not. Although many people use such terms they appear to have a range of meanings.
    Ignored on many discussions are the qualities of the candidate, and the local organisation.
    As far as the European elections were concerned, they were the best publicised of any that we have had. People who voted would have known they weren’t voting for a government. No doubt many wanted to fire warning shots to one or more parties. If we wanted to capitalise on it, then we should not have made assumptions about their future voting.

  • Brian Ellis 11th Feb '20 - 6:56pm

    Winning here means we have to return to the basics of all year round campaigning.
    We should be proud Liberal Democrats meeting people where they are face to face and standing side by side with them in the community. We need to stand firm on the core values, of openness, compassion, tolerance and equality. We should reclaim green agenda, upon which campaigned long before it became fashionable.
    There are plenty of campaigning opportunities out there we can get on with without having a party leader. I joined the then Liberal Party in 1971, I have fought and won a number of elections it what was once a moribund area. Leaders come and go the party continues because of our deep rooted values. The arguments about being equidistance, or closer to Labour or Tory are pointless, first and foremost Winning here should mean we are seen as clearly different from the other parties.

  • Alex Macfie 11th Feb '20 - 8:41pm

    Ian: No, Paul B has a point. Bath wasn’t a dream, nor were Richmond Park or St Albans. They happened, in reality. If we are going to work out what went wrong in the last election and improve on that result, we will need to learn what to do from where we did do well.
    It’s difficult to compare the general election result with the Euro election result 7 months before. We had an easy ride in the Euro election, because the Tories and Labour mostly sat it out, resulting in many of their tribal supporters staying at home. We probably got the support of many EU citizens who did not have a vote in the general election. Nonetheless, we still won more votes in the latter.

    Also the media mostly ignored the Euro-election campaign, whereas they froze us out or stitched us up in the general election. A major cause of our failure in the general election campaign is we were “trolled to death”, and we lacked an effective strategy for fighting back. Unfortunately, this may be the “new normal” — forget what happened to our poll ratings in elections past; in the future we’re going to have to face an overtly hostile media environment, where we are either frozen out of the discussion, or stitched up with audiences stuffed with hyper-partisan opponents who despise our very existence, as in the BBC QT Leaders’ Q&A, for instance. Based on what happened there, let no-one ever say that we need to apologise for Coaition. Jo tried that, and it failed. The problem being that the ones who demand apologies from us are precisely those who have no intention of accepting them. Having a leader unconnected with the Coalition will probably help us, but not that much, as our enemies will find something else to attack us with. And we need a strategy for fighting back against the trolls, and putting them back in their box. Otherwise, we can expect the same sort of outcome in the 2024 election as in 2019.

  • The Local Elections will be a painful reminder to the Lib Dems that they have been almost erased from the current mainstream media. How can you get your message out when there is no attention from TV or press and social media is swamped with the Right and Left. The future looks very very bleak.

  • Tory waverers were just scared of a Corbyn government. We could have run an absolutely brilliant campaign and would have got at best another 2% of the vote and maybe 3 more MPs.

  • Alex Macfie 11th Feb '20 - 9:13pm

    Silvio: Actually Lib Dems generally find it easier to win votes in local elections, precisely because they are local. In general elections, you need the national media attention to get any traction with voters, but in local elections, because each contest, each authority, is different, it is much easier to get good results from successful ground campaigns. In general elections, the national media just ignore us; in other elections they ignore everyone.

  • Silvio, Alex is right about the lack of national TV coverage during local elections is no hindrance. I was involved in the 2019LE ground campaign and many voters did not know who the Lib Dem leader was due to lack of publicity (despite Vince visiting us during the campaign). The result was a Lib Dem triumph.

  • Laurence Cox 12th Feb '20 - 2:23pm

    Abandoning equidistance is something that can only be considered when we know who the next Labour leader is. If it is continuity Corbyn candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey, then we cannot support her socialist ideas any more than we can support Johnson’s right-wing Tory ideas. Keir Starmer is a soft-left candidate with whom we can talk because he understands the need to build a left-of-centre coalition, but Lisa Nandy is the nearest to Tony Blair in recognising that Labour needs to change fundamentally to be electable again. Lisa Nandy is Frank Byers’ grand-daughter so she has some Liberalism in her background. I omit Emily Thornberry because it is not clear she will get enough nominations to reach the members’ vote, but otherwise I would place her together with Keir Starmer.

  • Laurence Cox 12th Feb '20 - 7:10pm

    @Lynne Featherstone – Starmer’s pledges:

    1. Increase income tax for the top 5% of earners, reverse the Tories’ cuts in corporation tax and clamp down on tax avoidance, particularly of large corporations. No stepping back from our core principles.

    2. Abolish Universal Credit and end the Tories’ cruel sanctions regime. Set a national goal for wellbeing to make health as important as GDP; Invest in services that help shift to a preventative approach. Stand up for universal services and defend our NHS. Support the abolition of tuition fees and invest in lifelong learning.

    3. Put the Green New Deal at the heart of everything we do. There is no issue more important to our future than the climate emergency. A Clean Air Act to tackle pollution locally. Demand international action on climate rights.

    4. No more illegal wars. Introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act and put human rights at the heart of foreign policy. Review all UK arms sales and make us a force for international peace and justice.

    5. Public services should be in public hands, not making profits for shareholders. Support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water; end outsourcing in our NHS, local government and justice system.


  • Laurence Cox 12th Feb '20 - 7:11pm


    6. Full voting rights for EU nationals. Defend free movement as we leave the EU. An immigration system based on compassion and dignity. End indefinite detention and call for the closure of centres such as Yarl’s Wood.

    7. Work shoulder to shoulder with trade unions to stand up for working people, tackle insecure work and low pay. Repeal the Trade Union Act. Oppose Tory attacks on the right to take industrial action and the weakening of workplace rights.

    8. Push power, wealth and opportunity away from Whitehall. A federal system to devolve powers – including through regional investment banks and control over regional industrial strategy. Abolish the House of Lords – replace it with an elected chamber of regions and nations.

    9. Pull down obstacles that limit opportunities and talent. We are the party of the Equal Pay Act, Sure Start, BAME representation and the abolition of Section 28 – we must build on that for a new decade.

    10. Forensic, effective opposition to the Tories in Parliament – linked up to our mass membership and a professional election operation. Never lose sight of the votes ‘leant’ to the Tories in 2019. Unite our party, promote pluralism and improve our culture. Robust action to eradicate the scourge of antisemitism. Maintain our collective links with the unions.

    I would hope that as Liberals we would be able to support most of these.

  • Peter Hirst 12th Feb '20 - 7:15pm

    The Conservatives are basking in their ge victory at present so things are not normal. This will settle as the realities of Brexit appear. We need either to reform the voting system or achieve a breakthrough of epic proportions to regain the influence of 2010. I’m not sure which is more likely.

  • @ expats It’s a lot easier to dismiss progressive and radical policies by using the adjective ‘lefty’ to describe them rather than by giving a reasoned argument to oppose them. It’s pretty typical of this post Charles Kennedy party over the last ten years or so unfortunately.

  • This is beyond depressing. The members who understand the void that the Lib Dems have slipped into are never going to be listened to. Labour being a bit Lefty…is that all you are worried about because it’s the least of the party’s problems. The Local Elections are coming and another savaging is on the cards but don’t worry as long as you can call out Labour for being too Lefty it should soften the blow.

  • Appalling election result. Appalling leader – based on disastrous decisions. Anyone with times membership take a look at very funny Morland animations. Including election one where swinson is saying sorry for everything. The bbc qt “debate” was an ambush but not helped by Swinson saying coalition hot everything wrong. If next leader disowns time in govt ( like labour’s done) then I’m out!

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