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Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)

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Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)

Posted on 16 September 2008 by admin

Some Lib Dems are tempted to tack rightwards to win back votes from the Tories. But it’s an extremely risky strategy

The Lib Dems are not in such a dire polling position as Labour. But the party is facing a big dilemma of electoral strategy – which, in turn, poses ideological issues that are surfacing in Bournemouth this year.

The problem stems from the step change in Lib Dem parliamentary representation came in 1997, when the party gained a swathe of rural and suburban seats from the Conservatives. In 2001 and 2005 the Tory vote was also at a low ebb, but if – as seems likely – it revives significantly in 2010, a lot of Lib Dem seats are at risk. History suggests that Conservative revivals are generally bad for the Liberals – in 1924, 1951, 1970 and to a lesser extent 1979 the party fell back as the Conservatives swept up a lot of the anti-Labour vote. What strategy would be most effective in holding onto the ex-Tory marginals, and can this be combined with gaining ground from Labour?

The new right-of-centre Lib Dem pressure group Liberal Vision thinks it has an answer: to embrace an agenda of tax cuts and social libertarianism that will appeal to right of centre voters. The group, as was surely intended, caused a splash with its list of Lib Dem MPs threatened by the Conservative revival – some MPs on the high risk list such as Adrian Sanders of Torbay were apoplectic with fury about it. But its identification of the seats at risk was broadly accurate. If the Conservative vote generally is going up, places such as Romsey, Carshalton and Hereford look extremely tricky. But is a move to the right actually going to protect their vulnerable incumbents from a Tory tide?

The argument is pretty unconvincing. While polling demonstrates that there is an appetite for a small state among a lot of voters, whether the Lib Dems can appeal to this feeling is questionable, because (even though its current policies are very cautious) the Conservatives have such a strong brand image as a party of tax cuts. The Lib Dem right also seems to forget that although many of the seats it holds are affluent and suburban and vulnerable to the Tories, they depend on the votes of people with left of centre values in those areas – their wins often come courtesy of tactical voting or outright conversion of Labour-inclined people. Too much rightwing posturing will alienate these voters.

But what about winning seats from Labour? The Lib Dems have talked, rather unbelievably, about shifting resources to the top 50 Lib Dem targets from Labour. To achieve anything like that assumes a complete meltdown of the Labour vote. It is not completely impossible that Labour will follow the economic markets downhill in a collapse of epic proportions. But this is at the outer end of the range of possibilities, and more worthy of a bit of contingency planning than a large commitment of scarce resources.

Rightwing liberalism will not help win seats from Labour. Their leftwing profile in 2005 helped the Lib Dems build strong votes among a particular category of seat: academic, professional suburbs and college towns. The easiest seats to gain from Labour (other than Rochdale, which already has a Lib Dem incumbent but becomes theoretically Labour under new boundaries) tend to be in the same sort of places that swung strongly in 2005. Oxford East, Edinburgh South, Hampstead & Kilburn, Islington South & Finsbury, Aberdeen South, Edinburgh North & Leith, Durham City and Norwich South are the logical successors to the seats that went Lib Dem in 2005 like Cambridge and Bristol West. While many of these seats were Conservative at one time, their electors are often liberal, environmentally minded people who were permanently turned off the Tories by Thatcherism and may desert the Lib Dems for the Greens or even Labour if the party sounds too rightwing.

Further down the target list there are a few seats that could plausibly pack a surprise, such as Swansea West, Burnley and Sheffield Central and probably a couple of seats that look safe from the 2005 numbers. But picking off a serious number of these is unlikely without a massive Labour meltdown (and even the current polls indicate only around a 3% national swing from Labour to Lib Dem). In seats where the Conservatives are still in contention (except maybe Watford, with its local scandal) it will be difficult for the Lib Dems to persuade floating voters not to join a national Tory tide. After all, seats such as Hastings & Rye followed the national trend in 1997 and elected Labour MPs despite the party running third in 1992, and it is reasonable to expect Conservatives in seats like Hampstead & Kilburn and Ealing Central & Acton to fancy their chances of winning. In some Scottish seats, the rise of the SNP (who polled poorly in 2005 but can expect much better at the next Westminster election) will interfere with Lib Dem chances, making places such as Edinburgh North & Leith and Glasgow North more difficult than they look on paper. Overall, again barring that meltdown, potential Lib Dem gains from Labour look more like 10-15 than 50.

Electorally, therefore, the Liberal Vision approach looks dubious. There is probably little mileage in going any further right than Clegg has already steered the party. The tax cuts approved at conference yesterday can be plausibly presented as being about fairness to low and middle income families, and therefore compatible with the liberal consciences of people who voted for them on the basis of their opposition to the Iraq war and tuition fees. A slide to the right would risk this core Lib Dem vote for uncertain reward. The Liberal Democrats should perhaps ask themselves why Cameron has found talking like a social liberal to be a route to electoral success, and fight him on their turf rather than charging into Tory territory.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/16/libdemconference.liberaldemocrats

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Could Ming bounce? (14 September 2007)

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Could Ming bounce? (14 September 2007)

Posted on 14 September 2007 by admin

Lib Dems 07: The Lib Dems need an urgent rethink after a bad year when they’ve been pushed to the political margins.

The Liberal Democrats assemble in Brighton after a bad year. More perhaps than the other parties, their morale is sensitive to performance in mid-term elections and the May 2007 elections were pretty poor. In the Scottish and Welsh elections in May, the Conservatives penetrated some historically Lib Dem territory areas. While both constituencies voted in Lib Dem assembly members, the party list vote in both the historic fiefdom of Montgomeryshire (where the Lib Dems have lost only once in the last century in general elections) and Brecon and Radnorshire went to the Conservatives. The farcical Lib Dem participation in Welsh coalition talks, in which the party managed to get nothing despite its good bargaining position, cannot have improved their standing. There was a similar tale in Scotland, where the Conservatives were ahead in the Borders. The English local elections were a bit more variable; with some good results in seats the Lib Dems need to defend against the Conservatives such as Eastleigh, Taunton and Teignbridge, but defeats in others, like North Devon and Torbay. Losses were worse in areas where the Lib Dems might have hoped to build on local success to win future contests, such as in South Norfolk and Bournemouth where they were virtually wiped out.

ICM polling data this summer suggests more severe problems than in the local elections. The Lib Dems are apparently down a massive nine percentage points in the south and seven points in London (and five points in Scotland and Wales combined). In the north and Midlands, where the party has been historically weaker and has fewer seats at stake, its existing support has held up better. However, the exposure to losses in the south and the London suburbs should terrify the party. On a 9% swing to the Conservatives across the south, few Lib Dem seats east of St Ives would survive the deluge. With southern losses on this scale, and with possible losses in Wales and Scotland, they could be talking about as few as 35 MPs. Nick Clegg, sitting on a secure majority in the intellectual Yorkshire suburbia of Sheffield Hallam, might end up leader more or less by default. Such a collapse is unlikely, as Lib Dem MPs are good at insulating themselves against the tide through personal votes and hard campaigning, but the Lib Dems are currently facing the prospect of serious losses to the Conservatives and a wounding retreat from their 2005 foothold in Labour territory.

While the anti-Labour wave of 2006-07 has subsided, so it seems has the immediate honeymoon of the Brown bounce, leaving a field that is very competitive between Labour and the Conservatives. Both parties are if not revitalised at least putting on a better face than they did in 2005. The Conservatives have tried hard to reassure liberal, professional England that they are not the whingeing, negative party they seemed in the last few elections, and have been thinking afresh. The 2005 election was about electing a third term, fag-end Blair government tainted by Iraq, and people did so unwillingly. Since taking office, Brown has worked hard, and successfully, to draw a line under that period.

With Labour and the Tories renewed and pushing towards the centre, electors may ask what is the point of the Liberal Democrats? And even if they have an answer to the question, it may be difficult to make themselves heard as the media-political environment takes shape around a presidential head-to-head between Brown and Cameron.

There are two strategies available, to slog on and hope the climate improves, or to shake it up. More or less the only way the party has to shake things up is to dispose of another leader. Rumblings against Charles Kennedy were audible at the 2005 conference, and Ming Campbell is no doubt well aware that 2007 in Brighton is a big test for his own leadership. Whether getting rid of him would accomplish anything, or just divide and demoralise the party further, is debatable. The Lib Dems are in an unenviable position, and what makes it all the more horrid is that there may be absolutely nothing they can do about it.


http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/14/couldmingbounce

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