Left Out Liberal

A left-wing/liberal look at the UK's General Election of 2005.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Analysis: Lib Dems - Where Now?

This is a very disappointing result for the Lib Dems. Large amounts of resources were poured into their "decapitation strategy" and by the end of the night it weilded no more than the head of Tim Collins, whose impression on the electorate is so weak that his ineffective performances at the despatch box will hardly be seen as a great loss for the Conservatives. But a win is a win, isn't it?

Yes and no. Most people had already written off Oliver Letwin - he was doomed. David Davis was looking a little shaky. Theresa May was in trouble, and even Michael Howard could have paid the price. The strategy was simple: appeal to Labour voters in any way possible - they switch, they get a Lib Dem, and they get to celebrate in the fact that they ousted a top Tory. Pretty good deal, huh?

Yet it didn't turn out that way. In fact, in all of these constituencies, the majorities actually increased, and it took off significantly in a couple. But the media seems to have taken this as Lib Dem votes shifting away to the Tories because they're so left-wing.

But if you look at the numbers, this doesn't appear to be true. The Lib Dem vote generally holds steady. It is the Tory vote that takes off, while the Labour vote either goes down a fraction or stays steady. The possible scenarios:

- The media was right, and Lib Dem voters deserted for the Tories, but it was made up by Labour voters coming to the Lib Dems
- The Labour voter had already been squeezed to its maximum and all that was left is those who will vote Labour till they die.
- The Tories managed to perform extremely efficient "get out the vote" operations. This is borne out by the fact that turnout increased significantly in a lot of these places.

The final scenario is the most likely. The Tories had a too strong local machine.

Election night arrived, and the news was coming in from constituencies that the Lib Dems had failed to remove their targets. I became very glum.

Then it became apparent that there were big swings taking place. When Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central was declared with an 11% swing to the Lib Dems, and even after some significant swings in Sunderland just an hour before, it started to become clear that big things were happening in the country. I went from glum to angry.

The big things happened. Cardiff Central, Leeds North West... Manchester Withington! Rochdale, Hornsey, Bristol West, Cambridge... Solihull! Brent East!

Labour heartlands. Falling to massive, positively enormous swings to the Lib Dems. And they weren't only "just scraping them"... they were coming out with healthy majorities. It made for a fascinating night.

My anger turned to frustration. It was now clear: the Lib Dems had targeted the wrong seats. Many people were predicting protest votes from Labour to Lib Dem, but not on this kind of scale. All across the country, the Lib Dems took seats that appeared to be by accident rather than by design. Sure, the candidates will have worked hard, but no one would have ever expected so many people to change their mind. Perhaps if the Lib Dems had turned its resources away from the decapitation strategy and worked more on going after disaffected Labour supporters, they could have produced some deeply shocking results.

In many places, they have now become 2nd place to Labour. They have closed the gap, and if the swing were repeated next time now more people realise there is a genuine chance for change, they could continue to rise. But in many respects, there was a chance of a Lib Dem tectonic shift in Labour heartlands. If the effort had been put in, it could well have been achieved. It wasn't, and I feel this has been a missed opportunity. I fear that the electoral circumstances may never be this favourable again.

Meanwhile, their flank to the Tories has been exposed. There are many of them now sitting on wafer thin majorities, many of whom are key figures in the party. This presents a serious dilemma... move back to the centre in order to defend these once Lib Dem heartlands (including the South West which is now looking dangerous) ... or go for an all out assault on Labour - an assault which could bear massive dividends if it split the Labour movement between those who feel the Lib Dems are now holding their old socially progressive territory and those who want to hold the centre ground.

This is a dilemma they must quickly resolve. They now have four or five years to plug away at this. A new leader probably won't help... but the fact is that in 2009, Charles Kennedy will have been leader for 10 years. There must be some new talent rising through the party. They desperately need it if they are to continue their slow but steady rise in British politics.

They may have to accept that they're going to lose seats to the Tories. But there aren't many, and there is far more to gain by continuing to gun for Labour core support. But this is a very difficult future for them. They already look opportunistic when compared with the Liberal Democrats of old. There aren't too many committed libertarians any more within the Lib Dem movement - most of them are quite keen on state intervention in health and education. So there is a chance to remould the party into something quite different. But if Labour try to redress the balance, the Lib Dem seats on this front will topply like dominoes. Gordon Brown could be enough to bring the likes of Manchester Withington back into the fold, and if the Lib Dems then lose seats to the Tories, they could end up much smaller than when they started.

This is actually a very difficult time for the Lib Dems. Sure, more seats are good, but they still don't have a heartlands. We still don't know who the core vote of this party is. They need to start consolidating their gains more. I just wish I knew how...


At 7:47 am, August 29, 2005, Anonymous pamela Brewster said...

While one has to intellectualize the bitterness evolving silently in the hearts and minds of Liberal Democrats, this is somewhat short process for some of us. I fell for all these old ccots whoo are


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