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Tuesday, December 07, 2004


Must try harder

How many seats will the Liberal Democrats win at the next British general election? If one is looking for a reliable guide, the best people to ask are not the pollsters or pundits but the gamblers.

The excellent
Political Betting blog is worth following for that reason. This recent posting and discussion thread are particularly illuminating.

The Liberal Democrats currently hold 55 seats. Two of these are by-election gains and unlikely to be held. Another (Shrewsbury) is due to a defection and is bound to be lost. The party will also lose one seat in the Scottish boundary changes. So the true base is 51.

The next general election is likely to take place on 5 May 2005. There is disagreement among punters over exactly how many seats the Lib Dems will win but the consensus is that any gains will not be dramatic. The highest prediction is 80 seats and the lowest 50. Most punters forecast between 60 and 70 seats, while current spread betting is a more optimistic 71-75. Predictions of the Lib Dem percentage vote range between 21% and 26%, with most punters forecasting around 22%.

Whichever way you look at it, this means only incremental gains – and that’s not good enough if the party wants to be a serious contender for government. For that, you need a national image, but the Liberal Democrats lack a coherent strategy, a clear identity and a target demographic. Instead, they are relying on local campaign tactics, via an aggregation of local targeting efforts.

This approach can only ever deliver incremental gains. It also stymies any attempt to develop a national identity, since it gives local campaigners an effective veto over national strategy. For example, a cosmopolitan and progressive identity, which would suit campaigners facing Labour in urban centres, is unwelcome to party members campaigning against the Conservatives in rural areas, whereas rural concerns about hunting play badly in urban areas.

In most general elections, it is rare for there to be a swing above 10% in any one constituency. On this basis, the Lib Dems cannot hope to gain more than 19 seats (15 Tory and 4 Labour seats with a majority below 10%). Meanwhile, there are 16 vulnerable Lib Dem constituencies (i.e. captured in 2001 with a majority below 10%).

Predicting the result next time remains difficult. There are several significant variables, which provide scope for argument:

- Will the turnout fall yet further – and whom would this hurt or benefit?
- Will UKIP take sufficient votes from the Tories in key marginals to affect the result?
- Will there be a ‘tactical unwind’? – Labour holds up to 40 seats thanks to Liberal Democrat voters voting tactically to keep the Tories out. Many of these voters, disillusioned with Labour, may return to the Lib Dem camp.

Leading Liberal Democrats have made much of the collapse of Tory fortunes in the inner cities. The obverse of this is that the Tories have been targeting rural and suburban constituencies and may win back more marginal Lib Dem seats than is expected.

This brings us to the ‘2009 breakthrough’ theory. It has become an article of faith among many leading Liberal Democrats (especially MPs hoping to succeed Charles Kennedy) that whoever is the next party leader will become prime minister in 2009.

The theory goes like this. Labour will win in 2005 but, by 2009, will be a busted flush and cannot hope to win a fourth term. Who will succeed? The Tories cannot break out of their rural English heartlands. Hey presto! It’s the Liberal Democrats!

Some optimists even believe the Lib Dems will overtake the Tories in 2005 in terms of the popular vote, if not seats. The basis of this belief is an alleged ‘iron law’ that the Lib Dems always add 6% to their poll ratings during the course of a general election campaign so, if they start on 22%, they’ll end up with 28%.

Let’s deal with the latter fantasy first. A study of past general elections shows that this ‘6% rule’ has not always applied. Furthermore, election and poll results suggest there is a solid base of 28% of the electorate that will always vote Tory regardless.

In any case, between now and 2009, the political landscape will probably be transformed. We are likely to experience a deep economic recession, an increasing popular distrust of the political classes and further turmoil on the international stage.

The Liberal Democrats cannot rely on statistical determinism or local tactics. They need a clear ‘brand image’ and a clear idea of which section of the electorate they are targeting. There is no sign of this happening. Worse, another incremental gain can be presented as a ‘good result’ and defer any serious reconsideration of strategy.

Still, we can always take the long view. With a constant rate of small incremental gains in parliamentary seats, the Liberal Democrats should achieve an overall majority before the 22nd century is out. That leaves plenty of time to “prepare for government”.

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