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Lib Dem incumbency: immune to government?

July 20th, 2013

Local factors could mean they’ll be as hard to shift as ever

The biggest and longest-lasting movement in opinion polling since the 2010 general election has been the loss of at least half of the Lib Dem vote, most of which has gone to Labour.  By contrast, despite the spending restraint and what at times has been a strained relationship between the Conservatives and their traditional supporters, the last YouGov poll showed only a 1% direct net swing from Con to Lab (compared with a 5% swing from Con to UKIP).

Does this mean that swathes of Lib Dem MPs are doomed in 2015?  Election predictors based on a uniform swing suggest maybe but how do we factor in what we know is a traditional Lib Dem strength: local presence and popularity?

    Most Lib Dems seats were won because of strong and sustained local activism, which carried council election victories into a Westminster win.  That was necessary to prove relevance and distinctiveness and enabled candidates to run almost as local independents, outside and above the normal party structure.

     Despite local election losses over the last few years, the first part remains the case; the second, less so.

It is now far harder for Lib Dem MPs to lead the sort of local campaigns they used to.  Campaigns are far more effective when they’re against something than for it but when you’re in government there’s a good chance that your party is in some way responsible for what you’d like to campaign against.  Even if it isn’t, there’s a greater expectation that Lib Dem ministers might be able to do something about it (which on occasion they might, but far less frequently than the public might think).

That’s even more true for the third of the Lib Dem parliamentary party which are ministers.  Not only is it extremely difficult for them to campaign directly against the government but the demands of office also eat up time.  Simply getting about and being the sort of visible local MP that’s been the template for re-election is harder than when by far the largest part of their job was to be the member for South Bodminshire or wherever.

Likewise, the Lib Dem electoral machine has benefitted candidates hugely in the past from being able to rely on negative votes from other parties to stop a third (usually Labour to stop Tory but not necessarily).  Government and coalition has severely limited the scope to play that card in 2015.  The Lib Dems are not None Of The Above to anything like the extent they were.

    So, is it all hopeless for Clegg’s army?  Far from it.  For a start, the Lib Dems still enjoy a particularly loyal and active membership, to their local MP if not necessarily to the leadership – and it is local campaigns which will matter here.  Councillors, where they survive, will also remain a prize asset for their party, with Focus leaflets delivering regular examples of small but tangible achievements. 

UKIP – the main alternative NOTA party in England – does not have anything like the same activist and councillor base, either in numbers or motivation.

Also, many of the Lib Dem seats have the Conservatives in second with Labour far behind, blunting the impact of anti-government sentiment, though life will be more difficult for Lib Dem MPs representing urban areas, or parts of Scotland or Wales where the nationalists are strong.

Entering government after appealing to the electorate as political outsiders was always a massive jump in the party’s character; something which has inevitably impacted on their polling and will likely cost them seats.  Even so, they still have many of their traditional strengths to fall back on.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Lib Dems hold on to at least half the seats the predictors suggest they’d lose on a raw swing.

David Herdson