The 12 Op-Eds of Xmas (Day 9)

by Stephen Tall on January 2, 2009

Throughout the festive season, LDV is offering our readers a load of repeats another chance to read the 12 most popular opinion articles which appeared on the blog during 2008. The fourth most popular opinion article was by, erm, me, and appeared on LDV on 27th June…

What does Henley mean for the Lib Dems?

“A bit disappointed” probably sums up the reaction of most Lib Dems on hearing the result from Henley. But it’s a response that deserves some cool, detached analysis – because the underlying message from Henley is more complex than either Lib Dems who throw up in their hands in despair, or Tories who bray in triumph, are currently admitting.

Reasons to be disappointed:

Well, they’re fairly obvious:

1. The party put in a big effort, fought a vigorous campaign, and had an excellent candidate in Stephen Kearney. We wanted to win – though, realistically, a 15% swing against the Tories in the current climate was always a tall order – and didn’t.

2. What we certainly wanted to do was close the gap on the Tories. In the end, though our vote increased, the gap widened, albeit marginally.

3. With the Labour vote collapsing, we would have hoped to pick up a majority of those disgruntled with the government. But it was the BNP, Tories and Lib Dems (in that order) who shared the spoils, with the rest spread among the minor parties.

There are some who will stop there – you’ll find them on the Lib Dem blogs, you’ll certainly find them on the Tory blogs – and conclude Henley was nothing but a disappointment for the Lib Dems. They’re wrong to do so, and miss the bigger, more complex, picture.

The other side of the coin:

First off, the Lib Dems are caught in a curious Catch-22 campaigning bind. As one of the biggest reasons the public say they won’t vote Lib Dem is because they don’t believe we can win, the party tends to hype its chances (hence the leaflet bar-charts and ‘Winning Here’ slogan). Oftentimes, this pays off, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: eg, the spectacular Dunfermline by-election victory two years ago. Inevitably, if we don’t win the result can end up looking that much more disappointing.

Secondly, we judged how we might do at Henley against our performance in the 2006 Bromley by-election, when there was an astonishing 14% swing away from the Tories to the Lib Dems. But the political weather has changed a lot since then. Two years ago, the Tories and Labour were more or less tied in the polls in the mid-30s%. That’s not now the situation. Nor is Tory campaigning marked by the complacency they used once to exhibit (and on which, to some extent, our success was based).

Which leads on to my third point. If current opinion polls are to be believed, the Tories’ popularity is in the mid-40s% and the Lib Dems in the high-teens to 20%: that represents a swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories since the general election of some 8%. Yet in Henley, the Lib Dems more than held their own, even increasing our vote share to the highest the party has seen since the heady days of the Alliance in 1983. That is no small achievement, given the public clearly no longer feels a need to punish the Tories. Would we have liked to do better? Of course. But the real question is: should we have reasonably expected to do better?

And, fourthly, the Tories will claim this as a triumph; that’s hyperbole borne of relief that they withstood the pressures of the Lib Dems’ campaign. For sure the Tories did well, increasing their vote by 3% (though their vote-share was still lower than in 1992). But this was no return to two-party politics. In the 1974-79 Parliament, the Tory vote went up by over 11% in by-elections in Tory-held seats. That in Henley Labour’s vote collapse was split pretty evenly between the BNP, Tories and Lib Dems tells its own story of our increasingly fragmented party political system.

So, yes, of course we should look at what we might have done better in Henley. But a fair analysis needs to recognise, too, that we sometimes set ourselves the task of clearing a bar that is just too high. Anything other than outright victory, or a significant swing, is seen by some Lib Dems as failure. That’s just not always going to be realistic. In parts of the country, we know we will be on the defensive against the Tories at the next general election, trying to hold on to Lib Dem seats. (Though that doesn’t rule out some surprise victories either). And it’s clear that Labour’s massive unpopularity presents us with a significant opportunity to make gains.

We need to campaign with a belief we can win tempered by a realistic appraisal of what is possible. That might not be the easiest message to sell to the party; but it’s the way to avoid disappointment and achieve definable results.