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Tuesday, January 25, 2005


A cunning plan

How will the Liberal Democrats be attacked in the forthcoming general election?

In the 1983 election, when it looked at one stage as if the Liberal-SDP Alliance might overtake Labour (and in one opinion poll, it actually did), the Tories spent £1 million with Saatchi & Saatchi preparing an anti-Alliance advertising campaign. In the event, this ammunition was never used.

This time, with the Liberal Democrats averaging 21% in the polls (which brings a final result of 25% or more within the bounds of possibility), we can expect a serious assault. To work out what form this might take, we need to look at the logic of the situation.

The two main factors in the forthcoming general election result will be the turnout and the switch in votes between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Relatively few votes are likely to switch to or from the Conservatives. The Tories are flat-lining in the polls at only two or three percentage points above their core support (hence their desperate decision earlier this week to play the immigration card).

This situation puts both Labour and the Conservatives in a quandary. Neither wants the Liberal Democrats to do well but neither can afford them to do too badly. Labour needs Liberal Democrat help to prevent Tory gains across the south of England, in seats where Labour is in a poor third place. The Tories need the Liberal Democrats to take votes from Labour in Lab/Con marginals. And both parties need to moderate their attacks to avoid giving the Liberal Democrats too much credibility.

It is relatively easy to predict what Labour will do. The Hartlepool by-election was a dry run for the 'soft on crime/drugs' tactic. In a general election, this may be tempered by a 'more in sorrow than in anger' tone. The temptation the Liberal Democrats must avoid is getting into a playground fight with Labour over who is the most 'tough', since this is a battle on opposition territory that the Lib Dems cannot win. The Liberal Democrats can achieve more if they fight on natural Liberal territory, such as ID cards and Iraq.

More generally, Labour needs to talk up the Tory threat to combat complacency among its own supporters. Labour will hope that this tactic may also encourage tactical voting by Lib Dem supporters.

The Tories are likely to play a more subtle game. They will probably avoid any frontal assault on the Liberal Democrats through national media attacks, but instead come in under the radar.

Whatever the Tories may say in public, they know they cannot win the next general election. To do so would require gaining at least 160 seats. They must play a longer game, which requires re-establishing their credibility in this election to provide a base for victory in 2009 or 2010.

The first thing the Tories need to do is depress the turnout, because they know that the main threat to Labour is complacency among Labour voters. There are two ways of doing this. One is to look as if they can't win by repeatedly leaking to the media about their "private" gloom (box ticked). The other is to encourage general cynicism about politics by alleging that corruption is endemic (box ticked by the tabloids).

Secondly, the Tories understand that a switch in votes from Labour to the Liberal Democrats delivers four times as many seats to the Conservatives as it does to the Lib Dems. Such a switch enables the Tories to win more seats without needing to increase their vote. The key factor is those Lib Dem voters in Lab/Con marginals who voted Labour tactically in 1997 and 2001, but are less likely to do so next time - up to 40 Labour seats are vulnerable to the Conservatives due to this 'tactical unwind' (a topic of perennial interest on the
Political Betting website).

If you want the Lib Dem vote to go up in some constituencies but down in others, the obvious solution is local targeting. For that reason, the Tories will appear simply to ignore the Liberal Democrats in their national campaign, while pouring resources into the LD/Con marginals they wish to win or hold.

The main evidence for this prediction is that the Tories have hired as their campaign manager Lynton Crosby, who masterminded four successive election victories for John Howard in Australia. One of Crosby's key tactics was to lull (Australian) Labor voters into a false sense of security. And he advocates a stealthy strategy for the (British) Conservatives, spending nothing nationally but instead targeting specific constituencies, as today's
Times reported:

A senior Tory source said: "To target the 160-odd seats required to win is preposterous. Crosby is talking specific targeting of specific voters in specific seats rather than preaching in seats nationwide where no one is listening to us and we have no one to deliver the message."
There is a tendency to underestimate the Conservatives because of their apparently hopeless position in the polls. But look at how they have clawed their way back in local elections since the nadir of the John Major years. From a low point in the mid-90s, when they were the third party of local government controlling only about a dozen councils, they now have more councillors than any other party and continue to make gains.

The Liberal Democrats were the pioneers of local community campaigning and targeting strategies. They should watch out for similar tactics being used against them.

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