The Lib Dem retreat to seat-by-seat campaigns. The right tactic, but not a long-term strategy

by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2014

Stephen LloydThe Guardian’s Rafael Behr has written of his experiences in Eastbourne, a seat won from the Tories by the Lib Dems’ Stephen Lloyd in 2010. His majority, 3,435, would need a swing of just 3.9% to be wiped out. The recent Lord Ashcroft poll of Tory / Lib Dem marginals indicated an average swing away from the Lib Dems to the Tories of 3.5%. This, then, is the kind of seat within the Tories’ reach and which they need to win if they are to gain an overall majority. So what did Mr Behr find?

This Sussex seaside resort was Tory for most of the past century. It was snatched by the Lib Dems in a famous byelection upset in 1990 but lost again in the general election two years later. It stayed blue until 2010, when it was finally cracked by Stephen Lloyd, a former businessman who had been closing in on the seat through the two previous general elections.

Lloyd is now dug in. He has busied himself conspicuously and, judging by my unscientific survey of the town’s residents, his toil has yielded high levels of recognition and support, some of it close to admiration. Local schemes to help the young unemployed come up more than once.

Indeed — you can read about Stephen Lloyd’s focus on building local jobs (‘The Dignity of Work’) here: “I work closely with all the statutory authorities, the local FE college, Job Centre Plus, the Chamber of Commerce, training companies, charities, work programme providers and the local council, all of whom are trying to do the right thing for our neighbours. It hasn’t been easy and we still face real challenges with the state of the economy, but there is no narrative in Eastbourne of ‘shirkers’, or accusations of people being ‘work-shy’; instead there is a genuine collective desire to help get people back into work.”

Rafael Behr’s conclusion from visiting Eastbourne is good news for the hard-working local MP. It’s much less good news for the national party:

For Lib Dems there is the added problem of a party identity that has become a drag on local candidates. Eastbourne’s enthusiasm for Lloyd is parochial. “I’ll vote for him,” says Dee, a young health club worker. “But I’ve lost all interest in them as a party.” Liz, a cafe owner in the town centre, is harsher. “I voted Lib Dem and almost instantly regretted it.” She is now undecided. “The Tories are wicked, they punish all the wrong people … Labour are responsible for so many of the problems we have.” She is scathing about Nick Clegg – “so weak”, “a wet fish” – but expects Lloyd to keep his seat. … Now the Lib Dems are drifting back to their roots, campaigning seat-by-seat for individual MPs, respected for good deeds in their patch. There are worse ways to get by in politics and, given the difficulty Labour and Tories face building a majority, a shrunken band of Lib Dems might yet find their way back into government in 2015.

In short, there remains a good chance that many of our MPs and some of our target seats can buck the national trend in May 2015. But, outside our bastions, the picture are likely not to be pretty.

It’s worth remembering that in 2010 the Lib Dems finished in first or second place in almost 300 seats around the country. That result meant we could genuinely claim to be a national party. Below is a graph showing the distribution of constituency vote shares for the Lib Dems at the last election. As you can see, a large number were clustered in the 15-25% range, enough for a decent third place or distant second place:

lib dem vote share 2010
(Graph taken from Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s book, Revolt on the Right.)

Those are the kinds of seats where — as we saw in last month’s Newark by-election — the Lib Dems are especially vulnerable to a collapse in our vote. On one level, it’s irrelevant: in lots of places where we had little chance of winning a seat we now have even less of a chance, but the outcome is unchanged.

On another level it obviously does matter. First, because polling well in a wide range of seats demonstrates strength across the country, not just in pockets. Secondly, because we need a pipeline of target seats for the future (especially given our vulnerability as incumbent MPs stand down). Thirdly, because a party in retreat electorally will find it much harder to advance politically.

Oh, and there’s another reason: party management. As MPs come to realise that their brand is more important than the party’s there will be ever more temptation to project themselves as independent Lib Dems. Sometimes this will be for entirely principled reasons — disagreements over policy — other times because it’s the locally popular thing (the two may may or may not always be the same thing). Either way it could become much harder to project a coherent vision of what it is the Lib Dems stand for.

* 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.