Clacton and the Lib Dems’ post-2015 wastelands problem

by Stephen Tall on September 4, 2014

Clacton Pier.The Clacton by-election triggered by Douglas Carswell’s defection from the Tories to Ukip will take place on 9th October – David Cameron’s birthday, but also the day after the Lib Dems’ autumn conference concludes.

That’s not great news for the Lib Dems on two counts. First, it means the media will likely be obsessing more about Clacton than what’s happening in Glasgow (unless, that is, Yes Scotland has won the referendum).

And secondly, the party’s not expecting a great result. There have been two constituency polls conducted to date (Survation and Lord Ashcroft): both have pointed to a sizeable win for Carswell, who will will become Ukip’s first elected MP, and both have shown the Lib Dems likely to lose their deposit, with just 2% of the vote. That would be down from the respectable 15% we scored in May 2010.

If that happens, it would be the 10th deposit the party has lost this parliament. The singing of “Who’ll come a-losing deposits with me…” at Glee Club, the traditional end-of-conference knees-up, may have a certain anticipated poignancy.

Of course, it’s not seats like Clacton that will determine how the Lib Dems do next May: it will be the 75 battleground seats which the party is looking to defend or where it could advance. On one level, then, it can join the ranks of by-elections like Newark and Wythenshawe and Sale East. The party needs to focus its resources, financial and human, where it can win.

But that means that in vast swathes of the country the Lib Dems will, if we’re not careful, disappear from view. At the last election, there were some 300 seats where the Lib Dems finished either first or second. I’d be surprised if we make three-figures this time around. That leaves a lot of barren areas where a handful of Lib Dems will do their best to fight the good fight but without the means to make anything of it.

A big priority for the party, post-2015, will be to re-build in those areas. The alternative would be to accept a retreat into our heartlands and ceding our claim to be a national party.

* 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.

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