Election notebook #3: Lib Dem targets; Tory landslide upside; ‘Coalition of Chaos’

by Stephen Tall on April 22, 2017

What are the Lib Dem targets? In past elections, it’s usually been pretty obvious which seats the Lib Dems can hope to win – find which ones we came second in last time and where we’re within c.10% of whichever is the governing party.

On that basis, there are 16 seats the Lib Dems would hope to win: 9 from the Tories and 3 each from Labour and the SNP. That would take the party’s tally to 25 MPs (if we hold our gain in Richmond Park). A decent haul, though not quite the breakthrough some more excitable commentators (and activists) have been touting.

The question is: does Brexit upset that rule-of-thumb? Should the party be looking less at how we did in 2015 and more at which seats have the highest Remain vote-shares instead? In which case, suburban seats like St Albans (Tory majority 15,316) or urban seats like Vauxhall (Labour majority 12,708; 22,466 over the Lib Dems) come into genuine contention.

After all, in 2005 the Lib Dems scored some spectacular swings against Labour in seats where the Iraq war was especially unpopular (such as in my own then home of Oxford East) while our so-called decapitation strategy against top Tories with slim majorities — including one Theresa May in Maidenhead — proved an almost complete failure. (The sole exception was Tim Farron in Westmoreland.)

The truth is we just don’t know. Which is a little worrying because, before we all get too carried away by the Lib Dem resurgence, the spectre of 2010’s Cleggmania haunts us.

For a couple of weeks which now seem fantastically long ago the Lib Dems plauibly looked like they might top the poll and certainly beat Labour. Party activists got distracted, suddenly believing their patch might triumph, and our target seats suffered as a result. Though the Lib Dem vote went up our total number of MPs went down. Which is what happens when third parties take their eye off the ball in a first past the post system. There’s a risk history will repeat itself.

**

There are few upsides to the likely Tory landslide, but one might just be the axing of bonkers policies from their 2015 manifesto. Notably, the promise to protect the ‘triple lock’ — which guarantees decent increases in the state pension for all pensioners regardless of their income even as the working poor are hit by further benefits cuts — and the economically illiterate guarantee the party wouldn’t raise income tax, national insurance or VAT in the next parliament. The former was required last time to fend off Ukip’s appeal to older voters, but it’s no longer a threat. And the latter was made on the assumption that if the Tories ended up in power it would be in coalition, and they could drop it and blame the Lib Dems. With victory this time all but guaranteed, the Tories can afford the luxury of a bit more honesty. On that score, at any rate, good.

**

Can the Tory threat of a ‘coalition of chaos’ work? In 2015, fear of another hung parliament and Ed Miliband cutting a deal with the SNP was one of the key reasons Lib Dem / Conservative waverers ended up plumping for Cameron and handing him his surprise win. The Tories clearly want to try and repeat the trick, suggesting an alliance of Labour, SNP and the Lib Dems could thwart Brexit.

Conventional wisdom seems to be this won’t work in 2017, with polls pointing to a handsome Tory win. But I wonder. The Tories don’t need to convince the country as a whole that such an outcome is remotely plausible; they need persuade only the few thousand voters in those seats which might change hands, especially the Tory / Lib Dem marginals. Their friends in the right-wing media can always be called upon to help — as tonight’s risible effort from the Mail on Sunday shows: ‘Tory lead cut in half’ even as the Tories hit 50% in the polls — so don’t be so sure history can’t repeat itself.

You can imagine the direct mail: “You live in one of the 18 seats which could decide this election. Don’t take the risk of letting in Corbyn and seeing Brexit defeated: vote Conservative.” No wonder Tim Farron has moved quickly to promise the Lib Dems won’t go into coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives. Given the party wouldn’t vote for it this time anyway, best to make virtue of necessity and hope the message reaches the same voters absorbing the Tories’ campaign literature.