Is Martin Kettle right – could the Lib Dems eclipse Labour?

by Stephen Tall on February 20, 2009

LDV has eschewed mention of the past week’s opinion polls, three of which have shown the Lib Dems to be the chief beneficiaries of the recent slump in Labour support. As our regular readers will know, we just don’t believe there’s anything to be gained from looking at any one individual poll in isolation – the media and blogosphere’s slavish fixation on statistically insignificant percentage changes is usually just an easy distraction from discussing substantial issues that actually matter.

But it hasn’t escaped the attention of Guardian columnist Martin Kettle, who today ponders (with all the necessary caveats) if we’re actually beginning to see a real seismic shift in the electoral landscape:

Thanks to Cable, the Lib Dems also think they may have stumbled upon their Iraq moment. It is certainly possible. Just as the party’s opposition to the Iraq war reaped large electoral dividends in 2005 – when a million Labour voters moved to the Lib Dems – so their clarity of analysis and prescription on the financial crisis equips the party to make a powerful pitch to voters in 2010. The longer the recession goes on, the stronger will be its three-part pitch – Labour has failed, you can’t trust the Tories and the Lib Dems got it right. It will frame the attempt to defend the party’s 63 seats next year. More important still, it provides them with a powerful weapon in the northern Labour seats in which the Lib Dems are looking to pick up new victories when the election comes.

Mr Kettle even considers – over-optimistically, in my view, but, hey, the party’s due a dose of over-optimism – whether the Lib Dems could repeat the succes of last year’s local elections, and knock Labour into third place:

The main shift in public opinion, after all, remains from Labour (and Lib Dem) to Tory. But this secondary Labour to Lib Dem swing, if sustained through to a general election that Labour loses badly, may do more than simply enable Clegg’s party to hold its own. If accompanied by the Lib Dems’ usual campaign dividend (a 6% improvement from start to finish in both 1997 and 2001, but only 2% in 2005), and by significant tactical voting (a recent internal poll for the party found only 15% of voters would never think of voting Lib Dem) we could be witnessing the first election since 1983 in which there is a real contest for second place in the popular vote.

His conclusion?

A generation ago, there was much hot talk about breaking the mould of British politics. It didn’t happen, and the sensible pragmatist will still say such a thing is unlikely. But these are exceptional times and the old political order cannot expect to emerge unscathed. The strange death of Labour England? It can’t be ruled out.