by Stephen Tall on October 31, 2013
Lewis Baston, a research associate at Democratic Audit who is perhaps the nearest the UK comes to a Nate Silver, has published a pamphlet called Swing Seats: The key battlegrounds of the 2015 election (not available online yet). It’s a forensic analysis of the constituencies that will decide the next election, and digs much deeper than the national polls on which so much political commentary relies.
I was on a panel – together with ConservativeHome’s Paul Goodman and the Fabian Society’s Marcus Roberts – to discuss its findings yesterday. Below are 10 points I jotted down from the report which have a particular bearing on the Lib Dems.
And Lewis was bold enough to make a forecast even 18 months out (scroll down to point 9). The good news for me (and others) is that my vow to run naked down Whitehall if the Lib Dems end up on 24 seats or lower looks like it’ll be unrealised.
1. Importance of Eastleigh noted: showed how Lib Dems can defend marginal seats. This, he says, steadied the nerves of some, though many remain pessimistic about the party’s fortunes in 2015.
2. The South West of England will be a key Lib Dem / Tory battleground – both sides hope to take seats from the other and Ukip is a wildcard.
3. Highlights party’s ‘Dragon’s Den’ process for allocating resources to seats so that activists who are “eager and energetic” are rewarded, not just doling out cash simply on basis of which seats are most winnable on paper. This is based on the experience of Redcar and Ashfield, a surprise gain and a near-miss in 2010, thanks to local parties working their socks off.
4. Incumbency will help the Lib Dems, say party strategists. “Their political opponents largely accept this.”
5. Willingness of party activists to campaign ‘away from home’ in winnable seats and that the new party IT system, Connect, is helping with this.
6. Though the party may have difficulty holding seats where the current MP is retiring, this may be offset by gains from the Tories where they are standing down.
7. As a result, he concludes that current Lib Dem share of vote (c.10%) very unlikely to mean massive reduction in in number of Lib Dem MPs.
8. He predicts a lib Dem vote share in 2015 of 16%.
9. Labour would edge the Tories by 36% to 34%, with relatively few seats changing hands. This would likely mean a second hung parliament, with Labour the largest single party. He reckons Ukip will end up on 8% (which is bad news for Dan Hodges).
10. His conclusion: “The next election will resemble the last election more closely than most people believe” – Heath’s Law (Anthony not Edward).
Lewis’s ready-reckoner sounds about right to me (though my bet would be on the Lib Dems attracting 14-15%, but I’ll be delighted to be proved wrong). We know national poll ratings are not the be all and end all for Lib Dems: after all, our vote dropped from 1992 to 1997, yet our number of MPs more than doubled. That happened thanks to ruthless targeting of winnable seats and unprecedented tactical voting – and though I think tactical voting will diminish, I think it will prove pretty stubborn in the Lib Dem / Conservative battlegrounds.
One interesting anecdote. I spoke afterwards to a businessman. He’s voted Conservative all his life, but has decided to vote Lib Dem in the 2014 European elections as the best way of making clear his pro-Europeanism.
Never extrapolate from a data point of one person, of course. The party will have an uphill struggle in next year’s elections with the risk we could even finish in fifth place behind the Greens. However, Nick Clegg has made clear the party will fight an unashamedly pro-European campaign. That should motivate party activists. It will also probably play better among our key audience – the ‘Lib Dem market’ of 25% of voters who would consider voting for us and who pragmatically believe the UK is ‘better off in’ – than keeping schtum in case the voters notice we’re pro-European. Even among anti-Europeans we may earn some respect for sticking to our principles. And that won’t hurt us in 2015.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.