“Where we work, we win” – will that Lib Dem maxim survive the 2015 test?

by Stephen Tall on January 5, 2013

Chris RennardDon’t splutter on your Saturday morning cornflakes, but the Guardian has today published two intelligent articles on the Lib Dems and the strategy which the party is hoping will see us through to the other side of the 2015 election intact.

First, there’s Patrick Wintour‘s analysis — Liberal Democrats bank on ground war to hold on to seats — which uses as its springboard an analysis by Lord (Chris) Rennard, the party’s former chief executive and elections guru:

[Lord Rennard] insists it should not be ground down by low national polls. “The fate of our MPs and candidates will depend much more on what they do in their constituencies than what polls suggest is happening in other seats,” he said. “There will be a national air war and messages, but a lot will depend on a ground war and ensuring that we focus our resources in the right place. In 2010, we spread ourselves too widely. Most forecasts based crudely on national polls assuming ‘uniform swing’ will as usual be quite wrong – providing that we get things right in the constituency messaging and campaign.”

Senior party sources acknowledge its MPs probably face a harder task when their nearest challenger is Labour rather than Conservative. They still believe that in Lib Dem seats faced by a Tory challenge, Labour voters are well used to voting tactically to keep out Conservatives, and – whatever disillusionment they may have with Clegg’s coalition choice, spending cuts and tuition fees – they will recognise the futility of voting Labour simply to punish Clegg. The Conservatives are in second place in 38 Lib Dem seats, of which 20 would fall to David Cameron on a swing of 5%.

If any of Lord Rennard’s quotes seem familiar, by the way, that’s because they’re taken from an interview published in September here, Polls and predictions: The Chris Rennard Interview.

A significant chunk of the LibDem/Tory battles will be in the south-west of England, where this May’s local elections will provide the first major barometer of voters’ attitudes to the two parties since the Coalition was formed:

There have been relatively few electoral tests in the south-west since 2010, so it will be an early gauge of “the range of badness” facing the Lib Dems in 2015. In counties such as Cornwall, Devon and Somerset – the so-called yellow triangle – the Lib Dems did poorly in the equivalent elections in 2009, losing nine council seats in Somerset and 19 in Devon, and taking only 28% of the vote in Cornwall. There is a raft of vulnerable looking seats in the area: Somerset and Frome, Mid-Dorset, St Austell, Torbay, Wells, St Ives and Cornwall North.

And then of course there’s the areas were the Lib Dems will face Labour opposition, including seats in Scotland and the north of England:

Labour is challenging Lib Dem MPs in 19 seats, nine of which could be won on swings of less than 5%. Overall, as an index of Lib Dems’ vulnerability, 14 of their MPs would be thrown out by a swing away from Clegg’s party of just 3%. The optimists in the party point to evidence showing that in the 2012 local elections it did better in areas where it had a sitting MP and the Lib Dems are seen as credible. … The party’s constituency vote fell to just 7.9% (down 8.2 percentage points) [in Scotland in 2011]. Nevertheless, figures such as Danny Alexander, Malcolm Bruce, Menzies Campbell, Alistair Carmichael, Michael Moore and Charles Kennedy look safe from the coming electoral retribution.

The second piece, by Mr Wintour’s Guardian colleague Michael WhiteLib Dems thrive on south coast despite problems in Westminster — focuses on the Lib Dem strongholds of Portsmouth and Eastleigh:

… a funny thing keeps happening on election day. Despite national opinion polls which suggest that Clegg’s support is floating away down the Hamble, the Lib Dem grip on the council has strengthened during the turbulent coalition years. In Eastleigh proper, an old railway-cum-London-overspill town which was once safe Conservative territory, a Lib Dem MP has been in place since David Chidgey won the 1994 byelection. Chris Huhne has held the seat since 2005. And in May 2012 the Lib Dems took 40 of the 44 council seats, leaving the Tories with just four, and Labour, which once hoped to capture Eastleigh, with none at all. …

Lib Dems took office [in Portsmouth] as a minority regime in 2004, with 16 seats out of 42, and were expected by their rivals to fall apart. Instead they keep their squabbles private and now boast 25 councillors to 12 Tory and five Labour ones. All this despite Clegg’s problems. “The most successful years for us were 2011 and 2012 when we twice won nine of the 14 wards up for election. We work hard and people see we deliver on the ground,” says Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Portsmouth city council leader and a national figure in local government politics.

I particularly liked the final paragraph pay-off:

As a Tory core voter, the Boorley Green activist Pauline Solheim … thinks Lib Dems have too much sway over Cameron’s coalition. Her husband gently teases her. “I’m a Norwegian. We are used to coalitions, we understand there must be give and take. People here don’t understand that yet.”

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.