Thursday, 27 April 2017

What can Lib Dems hope for from the General Election?

It's just over a week since Theresa May announced she would be seeking a General Election on 8th June, and MPs of various parties (including Labour's turkeys, intent on voting for Christmas) agreed, under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, to the Prime Minister's request.

Aside from the obvious fact that the FTPA now joins the likes of baby cages, the Sinclair C5, hydrogen airships and The Pussycat Dolls as ideas that seemed good at the time but were later proved to be anything but, there is the question of the timing. It's reasonably obvious to any semi-informed person that the Prime Minister is determined to use Labour's weakness to her advantage and claim a "mandate" for her Brexit approach. It's even more startlingly obvious that, with 20 MPs under investigation for possible misdemeanours committed during the 2015 election, it was in her interests to act quickly to ensure she didn't lose her majority. Quite what advantage there is for Labour in agreeing to this I don't know.

It's not an election I'd want now. I'm not remotely thrilled with the possibility of an increased Tory majority, let alone one on the scale of what the forecasters are predicting. That said, interestingly, the mood in the party is very different. Many activists are delighted with what they see as an opportunity to take the fight to the Conservatives. There's a lot of excitement. There's a sense that the momentum is with us after Witney and Richmond Park. The party's been doing extraordinarily well in local by-elections, with arguably the most sensation result of them all being Stephen O'Brien's victory in Sunderland's Sandhill ward - the kind of result that makes it believable we can win anywhere. Many also believe that the Liberal Democrats will be an obvious repository for the votes of "the 48%",  who have been consistently ignored (at best) by the Prime Minister. Tim Farron's message that we are "the real opposition" has inspired many to get involved with the party - membership exceeded 100,000 last week. We have some terrific candidates and not just former MPs like Julian Huppert and Jo Swinson, but also the likes of Kelly-Marie Blundell (Lewes) and Sue McGuire (Southport) to use just two examples.
Will Jo Swinson be returned
in East Dunbartonshire?

But - and there is a but - we shouldn't get too carried away after a couple of very good by-election results. Polling is showing steady movement in the right direction, but it's nothing to get excited about. The same polling is also suggesting a dip in support for UKIP, with implications for us in England. There's also been the ridiculous questioning of Tim Farron on whether homosexuality is sinful, which has damaged his credibility and image (while he hasn't helped himself with his responses, the line of questioning was totally inappropriate), and the furore over David Ward that led to the leader making a statement indicating Mr Ward had been "sacked". Instead of talking about the real issues, the first week of campaigning has been dominated by questions about religious belief and anti-Semitism. Such things have an effect.

And then there's this: a study from Electoral Calculus that suggests the Liberal Democrats will actually lose seats. It's certainly an interesting read. Essentially, it observes that the "Brexit effect" will be minimal at best, that Conservatives are gaining Remain voters rather than losing them while simultaneously winning over UKIP supporters, that while the Lib Dems will gain some seats it faces a challenge to hold onto what they already have, and that Labour is in complete disarray. The data study projects the following outcome: Conservatives 422, Labour 150, Lib Dems 6.

It's certainly true that holding Carshalton & Wallington, Southport and Richmond Park will be tough, not least as the Greens appear to be standing in Richmond Park this time. But, lest we forget, we won the former two seats in 2015. Tom Brake has the valuable incumbency factor. It's also true that the "voting trajectory" diagrams within the study, which show overall movement towards the Conservatives, are based on current polling. And it's undeniably the case that we don't have that much of a "core vote". But is it reasonable to conclude that our parliamentary presence would be reduced?

I don't think so. I'm not contesting the research that has gone into the polling, nor questioning the expertise behind it - just as I didn't question the quality of the political scientists who predicted a Remain win in last year's referendum. Or those who failed to foresee a Conservative majority in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. Or even someone like John Curtice who, days before the Scottish elections of 2011, predicted that "few constituencies would change hands". That's because it's not the experts who are necessarily at fault but a system of polling that struggles to recognise electorates are becoming increasingly complex and that a General Election is, after all, a series of 650 local contests.

There was not a pollster anywhere who foresaw a Trump victory, or the Liberal Democrats losing seats in 2010. It's wise to treat these things with some caution. Polling also tends not to take into account tactical voting or the reality that parties such as our own focus energies on a limited number of constituencies. I'm also not entirely sure it's possible to ascertain the nature of the "Brexit effect" from opinion polls alone.

What can we expect from this election then? I think, at the very least, it would be surprising if the party went backwards in terms of both vote share and seats. While I wouldn't make the case for a Lib Dem "surge" or "revival", there are signs of improvement - and not just in by-elections. The local elections next week will probably give a better indication than data studies of the state of the parties, and those that make gains will feel confident of replicating that performance a month later. The Liberal Democrats have moved on from 2015 in many ways, and from such a low base surely the only way is upwards?

Vince Cable is hoping to regain
Twickenham for the Lib Dems
One thing I do accept from the Electoral Calculus analysis is that our chances are best in seats where our closest challengers are Labour. I fully expect us to regain Cambridge, and would certainly fancy our chances in Burnley, Bermondsey & Old Southwark - and possibly also Cardiff Central if the predicted Labour to Conservative swing in Wales is accurate. But there are also seats held by Tory incumbents - Lewes, Eastbourne, Twickenham, St Ives, Torbay, Cheadle and Bath - which we should be able to target effectively. The fact that some of those constituencies' current MPs are under police investigation over election expenses can only help our cause. I wouldn't want to make predictions in Scotland, where the vast majority of seats require huge swings to dislodge SNP MPs, but we're not targeting East Dunbartonshire and Edinburgh West for nothing.

There is also the one factor that pollsters always overlook, because it's impossible to quantify: positivity. Already this election feels very different to the last one. The party feels it's in a better place than in 2015. There has been justified cause for optimism with good progress in local by-elections and the Richmond Park victory. Of course, that progress is being made from a very low base but there has been a renewed confidence and it's become infectious. 100,000 members is testimony of an ability to reach out to people previously uninvolved in politics. Contrast that to the mood in 2015, when everyone had a gut feeling they'd probably lose and there was a general sense of despondency. It's that positivity that can make a difference in a tough campaign, and something I personally believe can provide that edge in marginal contests. Political battles have many elements, including psychological.

While I can't help but feel depressed about the likelihood of an increased majority for the Conservatives - and all that means and symbolises - I think it's realistic to expect the Liberal Democrats to make some progress. What I would say is that it's a marathon and not a sprint: getting back to 1992 levels - 20 seats - would be a decent achievement in itself. But we may do better - it certainly isn't outwith the realms of possibility.

As for the prediction of six seats - if that happens I'll be eating some headgear...

No comments: