My Total Politics column: The coming Lib Dem battle to persuade the “persuadables”

by Stephen Tall on October 20, 2014

The Lib Dem spinners were more than a little nervous in the lead-up to the party’s conference in Glasgow. Not about headline-grabbing policy defeats at the hands of the party grassroots — carefully constructed compromises had been hammered out in advance. Nor about any last-minute tilt at unseating Nick Clegg — even those unhappiest with his leadership have come to accept he will lead the party into the May 2015 general election.

What did trouble them was the change in the usual conference order. Traditionally, the Lib Dems are first up among the three main parties. That normally means fine-ish weather, and, more importantly, that political journalists are a little sunnier, too: less tired and cynically acerbic than usual.

But this year, the Lib Dems were last up, displaced by the Scottish independence referendum. Would the press pack — which had already been on the road for a month, missing their families and subsisting on an away-from-home diet of canapés and late nights — take it out on Clegg & Co? The party’s media team decided to send them small gifts, such as bunches of bananas, to cheer them up each morning.

In the end, they needn’t have worried. Going last worked well for the party. Labour’s ominously flat conference will be remembered for Ed Miliband’s glaring forgetfulness in his conference speech: his Freudian failure to mention the deficit or immigration was an astonishing gift to his opponents. By contrast, the Conservative conference was remarkably chipper. David Cameron, his position too weakened by Ukip’s insurgence to be able to withstand his party’s push to the right, gave his delegates the red meat they’ve been demanding: the promise of yet more hardline policies on social security, immigration and Europe.

It was all teed-up perfectly for Nick Clegg to remind the party faithful (and, believe me, those of us who’ve stuck by the party this far really are the faithful) of the key Lib Dem message: “The Liberal Democrats will borrow less than Labour, but we’ll cut less than the Tories. We’ll finish the job, but we’ll finish it in a way that is fair.”

It’s an adroitly triangulated pitch which has been carefully tested by the party’s own private polling and found to be popular not only with current Lib Dem voters, but also with those who say they are open to the idea of voting Lib Dem — “the persuadables”, as the party’s campaigns director Ryan Coetzee terms them.

Collectively, this group — which includes current Labour and Conservative voters as well as those who are undecided — is the Lib Dem “market” (another Coetzee label which can leave the party’s more organic activists wincing). Such voters respond especially well to party lines of which you can expect to hear much more — “Labour wasted their opportunity and ruined the economy”, “You can’t count on the Tories to care about others” — including the need for the next government to be balanced and sensible. In short, they like the idea of the Lib Dems being in power to leaven the worst effects of single-party rule.

There is a problem, though. Those identified as supporters or potential converts represent only a little more than one-fifth of the electorate. In other words, the upper limit of the potential Lib Dem vote next May is less than the actual share of the vote the party won in 2010.

Fortunately, the party has a secret weapon. Actually it’s not a secret, but somehow that doesn’t lessen its potency. It’s known as incumbency, the ability of Lib Dem MPs to dig in locally — “like cockroaches”, as party president Tim Farron once remarked — enabling them to buck the national trend.

The latest batch of Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polling, focusing on Lib Dem must-win seats and released in the run-up to the conference, showed just how important it is for the party. When the public was asked how they would vote in a general election in the Lib Dem / Tory battlegrounds, just 20% named the Lib Dems. Yet, asked how they would vote in their own constituency, 32% opted for the Lib Dem candidate, a sizeable uplift of 12 per cent.

Such is the value of incumbency. Though the party realises the loss of a swathe of Labour-facing seats won on an anti-Iraq, anti-fees, anti-Brown backlash is inevitable, two-thirds of its MPs will face Conservative challengers, and they are all still in play. 

It’s that reality which accounted for the dominant mood in Glasgow: a grim, doughty determination to beat the odds. Talk privately to senior Lib Dems and most believe the party should hold at least 30, perhaps even 40, seats if they really buckle down in the next six months.

Their campaigning activity is closely monitored by party HQ; those whose efforts are found lacking get the hair-dryer treatment from Paddy Ashdown, the former Royal Marine who Clegg, very smartly, put in charge of the party’s 2015 campaign. It was Ashdown who led the Lib Dems when the party doubled its tally of MPs in 1997. He’s also a trained killer. His full skills-set may be needed in the next six months if the Lib Dems are to survive the next election.