Why the Lib Dem surge was at just the right time

by Stephen Tall on May 6, 2010

Okay, so the heady days of ‘Cleggmania’ – with the Lib Dems briefly in first place in the polls as high as 34% – did not last until election day itself.

Few of us expected it to, really, though it was delicious while it lasted. The fact that every single one of the nine final polls showed the Lib Dems in the 26-29% range, neck-and-neck with Labour, would have been beyond our wildest imaginations just one month ago.

But, still, there’s a percpetion in the media that the Lib Dems have somehow faded in the final week of the campaign – that, in the words of Labour home secretary Alan Johnson, the party has suffered a “slow puncture”. That misconception does deserve challenging, as it gets to the heart of why the media so often underestimate the Lib Dems’ strength.

Ask a journalist what they think would be the ideal situation for the Lib Dems, and they’d probably assume that we’d want a final last minute surge to build momentum going into polling day. I’m not going to deny that suddenly gaining an extra couple of per cent in the final polls wouldn’t have been nice – of course it would – but it probably wouldn’t make much actual difference to the outcome.

That’s because the Lib Dems’ success tonight will depend much more on the party’s ruthlessly effective targeting strategy – identifying the hundred or so seats where the party have a realistic chance of winning today, and developing the next tier of a hundred seats where the party might win the election after that.

And to deliver that kind of successful, focused targeting strategy requires resources. Money, yes, but, at least as importantly, able and willing volunteers ready to pound the streets delivering leaflets and identifying potential supporters.

What Nick’s win in the first debate achieved was to inspire a huge number of new supporters to become involved in the Lib Dem campaign early enough for it to make a real difference to tonight’s results. Had the surge happened any later it might have been too late for its effect to have been fully felt.

The Lib Dems’ targeting strategy has its critics, both within the party and beyond. But we will see its impact tonight. In 1983, when the Alliance polled 25% it won just 23 seats. Tonight, if the Lib Dems poll an equivalent percentage, we would expect to secure at least 75 seats. The simple truth is that under our first-past-the-post electoral system targeting is the only way for a party like the Lib Dems, with support spread across the country, to win anything like a reasonable number of seats.

A late surge might be a morale-booster for the Lib Dems, might have resulted in some more uplifting front-page headlines: but its effect in terms of seats won would most likely have been negligible. The early surge which Nick Clegg helped the party achieve will offer a far more enduring legacy for the party.