What does Glenrothes mean for the Lib Dems?

by Stephen Tall on November 7, 2008

In the scheme of things, it seems unlikely that this week will be best remembered by history for a by-election in Scotland; but, still, the Glenrothes was (as politicians under the kosh of bad polls are prone to note) about real votes in a real election.

And the Lib Dems tanked. The party’s vote dropped by 10%, our meagre 947 votes failing to save our deposit, with the added ignominy of finishing behind the Tories. None of which can be any reflection on our candidate, Harry Wills. But it must cause the rest of us to reflect. In a thoughtful post over at Himmelgarten Café, ‘Costigan Quist’ makes the point well:

Why, the question is asked, were we able to win from 10% in 2003 but found ourselves crushed from 13% in 2008? Is it that we’re just not as good at fighting by-elections as we were?

It’s a very reasonable question to ask. But I don’t think it’s the right one. Too many things are outside our control in any by-election: local issues, the strength of the other parties and the national mood for a start.

It just isn’t sensible to take different by-elections at different times in different parts of the country and say “we won in X, so we must have failed if we lost in Y.” That could be true. It could be that we lost because we ran a bad campaign or missed a trick. But the result alone doesn’t show it to be the case.

So a better question to ask, and a better question for both the by-election team and critics to answer is what could we have done differently than would have made a difference?

There is one very obvious answer to ‘Costigan’s’ question: the Lib Dems could have thrown the kitchen sink at the campaign (as we did, for example, in Henley) in order to prop up our vote, and avoid potentially damaging headlines. We chose not to, reckoning Glenrothes was a two-horse race (the voters agreed), and that it would be a waste of cash and manpower.

In any case, there’s a mighty difference between a by-election – which is almost always a referendum on the governing party, with a clear binary choice – and a general election in a safe Labour seat (as Glenrothes was in 2005), where voters are more likely to vote for a party to whose policies they feel closest.

The bigger issue for the Lib Dems, I think, is this: the party has made explicit its strategy of targeting the 50 most-vulnerable Labour seats at the next general election. This has attracted some internal party criticism, less for the strategy itself, than for making it so public, with the implied acceptance that the Tories are now in the driving seat. But there is, perhaps, now a practical problem. That the media-vaunted ‘Brown Bounce’ – however soft, as John Curtice observed in the Independent this week – has a certain reality.

The SNP did not lose the Glenrothes by-election because they failed to win new voters: their vote went up by a pretty impressive 13% to 13,209, a figure they believed would give them a narrow win on a low turn-out. The SNP lost because Labour turned out their vote, as The Guardian described:

Labour found 6,000 more voters than expected. “I saw people coming out to vote for Labour who haven’t voted for 20 years. I need to think about that,” said Tricia Marwick, the SNP MSP who won the equivalent Scottish parliament seat of Central Fife from Labour last year. Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, said: “The sharpness of some of the negative material shows there was some serious brains being in by Labour.”

It is this, rather than the simple fact of the Lib Dem drop in support, which should give the party greatest pause for thought. Labour’s (and the Tories’) campaigning has improved since the days when Lib Dems used to be able to pick off by-elections at seeming will.

To date, there have been only two by-elections in which the Lib Dems started in second place to Labour: Dunfermline, in which we memorably triumphed; and Ealing Southall, where we achieved a 5% swing from Labour, but failed to take the seat in a three-way fight.* But times have changed, both for the Lib Dems and the Government. Glenrothes showed the potential effectiveness of Labour’s get-out-the-vote operation, and the enduring importance of the party’s core vote.

None of which means the party’s ’50-seat’ strategy is wrong. But it does point to the hard work ahead.

* Edit (7/11/08): This sentence originally read “To date, there has been only one by-election in which the Lib Dems started in second place to Labour – Dunfermline – in which we memorably triumphed.” I omitted Ealing Southall, and have updated the article accordingly.