The Lib Dems and the 2010 general election … ‘The future’s bright, the future’s gold.’

by Stephen Tall on February 3, 2010

I have an article published in the January edition of the Government Gazette, the monthly magazine of the Centre for Parliamentary Studies, looking at the Lib Dems’ prospects for the coming general election. Here’s what I say …

A missed opportunity. That was the consensus, inside and outside the Liberal Democrats, on the party’s general election results in 2005.

The disappointment was the greater as realisation dawned that the unique set of circumstances of that election – an unpopular government and an even more unpopular opposition – might never again be repeated. What could have been the Lib Dems’ breakthrough yielded only an extra ten seats.

What, then, can the party look forward to at the 2010 general election?

Some media commentators (and pessimists within my own party) believe we will be doing well to avoid a wipeout. Though the Tories’ ratings have slipped significantly since the summer of 2008, David Cameron’s party is polling regularly at around 40%, while the Lib Dems hover in the high teens. That represents a swing of some five per cent towards the Tories since 2005, enough to see off many Lib Dem MPs, especially in the south and south-west of England.

And yet few actually expect the party’s parliamentary representation to be decimated. A seemingly well-sourced article in The Times in December 2009 reported that the Tories were withdrawing resources in some seats they had been fighting hard; cited was the Lib Dem seat of Cheadle, in Cheshire, which would fall to the Tories on a swing of (yes, you’ve guessed it) five per cent. The paper went on to add that ‘some incumbent MPs, particularly Lib Dems, are putting up fiercer-than-expected resistance’.

This anecdotal data has polling evidence to back it up. In summer 2009, YouGov conducted the largest yet survey, of some 240 marginal seats with a sample of around 35,000 voters, for PoliticsHome.com. It forecast the Lib Dems would win 55 seats, a decrease of eight on the party’s current standing.

This is, in my view, an under-estimate for two reasons. First – and it’s an especially relevant consideration when looking at Lib Dem MPs and the party’s target seats – it is the ability of a local party to organise an effective ‘ground-war’ campaign which often marks the difference between a successful hold or gain, and a near-miss. Such battlegrounds go largely undetected by opinion polls.

And secondly, the party’s poll ratings nearly always increase during the course of a general election campaign: by an average of 3.9% in every election since 1979 (bar the ill-fated 1987 ‘Two Davids’ Alliance campaign).

There’s a very simple reason for this. The news media – which for four years and eleven months of each Parliament is generally happiest ignoring the Lib Dems – is at last obligated by law to give the party a fair crack of the broadcasting whip.

The London media’s obsession with referring to ‘both parties’ must seem a bizarre 1950s’ anachronism to the four-tenths of the UK where the Lib Dems are in either first or second place. For instance, in Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Liverpool or Oxford – to name just five cities – the Tories have not been able to elect an MP or a councillor for many years.

This levelling of the media playing field has an especial pertinence for the 2010 general election campaign: it will be the first ever in which there have been televised debates between the leaders of the three major parties.

This is a fantastic opportunity for Nick Clegg in his debut election as party leader, and one for which his two predecessors, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, would have given their eye teeth. Of course, there is the chance of a gaffe, a ‘mis-speak’, which will derail the party’s campaign. But the potential rewards of appearing at the top table – of being regarded by the public as an equal citizen with Messrs Brown and Cameron – vastly exceed that risk.

In fact, Clegg starts 2010 as officially the most popular of the three party leaders: all polling companies which measure the party leaders’ popularity have the British public ranking him ahead of David Cameron (just) and Gordon Brown ( by miles). But up to one-third of voters have yet to form an opinion, either positive or negative. After a solid year building his profile – on issues ranging from the Gurkhas, to MPs’ expenses, to Afghanistan, to calling on the Speaker to quit – he has emerged well from the shadow cast by Vince Cable’s political superhero status.

It will be a big moment, too, for the individuals at the top of the party structure in what will be the first general election in the modern Liberal Democrats’ history when Lord (Chris) Rennard, the party’s chief executive who retired last year, has not been in the campaigning hot seat. Interim chief executive Chris Fox and director of campaigns Hilary Stephenson will be key players, along with former MD of Saatchi’s John Sharkey and ex-Bell Pottinger director Jonny Oates; while Lib Dem MPs Andrew Stunell and Danny Alexander will provide the links in to the Parliamentary party.

For all its newness as a general election team, this is a talented, experienced and demonstrably successful group of professional campaigners. Great results can (and will) be expected of them.

My prediction?

This will be the first change-making general election since 1997, and I’ve a hunch the Lib Dem result may well resemble it, at least in one regard: the party’s share of the popular vote declined slightly compared to the previous 1992 election, yet its parliamentary representation increased.

There will, no doubt, be losses to the Tories in 2010 – though I’d expect at least one surprise victory, and many resilient holds – but these will be more than offset by gains from Labour: the scale will depend both on the month-long campaign itself, but also on the months-long campaigning already taking place up and down the country.

The prize at stake is huge. Yes, there’s the chance that the 2010 election will produce a hung parliament, with the Lib Dems in the role of so-called ‘kingmakers’. More importantly, there’s the chance to usurp Labour in its so-called ‘heartlands’, establishing the party’s opportunity to turn even more of the electoral map gold at the election-after-next.

Nick Clegg’s stated aim is for the Lib Dems to replace Labour as Britain’s leading progressive party in opposition to the Tories. This could just be his moment.