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Thursday 2nd February 2012 | 20:00
A voter exodus, combined with boundary changes, could spell disaster for Liberal Democrat MPs. In such a climate, the party may need to learn new ways of connecting with voters - and hone a national 'brand'
Pundit after pundit, looking at the terrible Liberal Democrat vote share since the election, predicts the inevitable demise of the party; the current forecast on Electoral Calculus suggests Clegg’s party will be reduced from 57 to just 14 seats at the next election.
Some Liberal Democrat strategists will however argue that the party’s overall share of the vote doesn’t matter – and that much as the election is always lost nationally, it can be “won” locally in particular constituencies. Indeed, amid their dismal local election performance last year, some pointed to a few comparatively solid results in ‘seats that matter’ from Bath and Portsmouth to Colchester and Redcar.
Liberal success in by-elections since the late 1950s combined with their commitment to assiduous community activism to produce a campaign strategy for winning a handful of seats at general elections. By attempting to put a wall around constituencies away from the national campaign and fighting each seat as if it were a by-election, activists and resources could be targeted effectively and a local political climate where the party ‘could win’ generated.
In such a situation, the party’s campaign is fragmented and local – in numerous places – not national. It is not so much that they shift their positions to suit the political affiliations of Labour or Conservative-leaning seats (an exaggerated claim of their opponents), it’s that their style of localised paper-based ‘community campaigning’ is often seen as devoid of politics entirely.
Lord Ashcroft, who has published the most comprehensive study of Lib Dem voters since the election, found that 43% of those who voted for the party in seats they won cast their vote because they ‘liked the candidate in their area or thought the party ‘did a good job locally’ (48% in seats they hold against Conservatives and 37% in those against Labour). A further 11% were persuaded away from their party of first choice by a tactical message (“Only the Liberal Democrats can beat X here”).
It is just for these reasons that boundary changes have the potential to be so devastating; tampering with geography in a party for whom locality is supreme. Labour and Conservative seats, due to the broad regional strength of both parties, are more likely border on seats of the same party – with any changed seats cut from a similar political fabric. Conversely, Liberal Democrats, having spent years cultivating this locally isolated political climate in each seat, are far more likely to see any changes absorb territory with much lower levels of support.
As such, even in areas where most MPs are Liberal Democrats, such as Somerset, many voters will be personally loyal to the individual ‘hardworking’ MP (29% in seats won, according to the Ashcroft study). As such, a Jeremy Browne Liberal Democrat vote is not necessarily a David Heath or a David Laws one. The collapse of the party’s vote in many seats where the incumbent vacated at the last election, such as Harrogate (Andrew Jones MP overhauled a staggering 10,429 majority when Phil Willis departed), seems ominous.
Some point to the success of the party in gaining victory in changed seats they would ‘inevitably’ lose. Malcolm Bruce’s redrawn Gordon in 1997 or Sarah Teather in Brent Central in 2010 spring to mind. But those were wave elections against candidates of an unpopular government. Now, with Liberal Democrat support having more than halved since the last election, persuading voters who have never supported the party to do so will prove vastly more difficult. A YouGov@Cambridge poll for PoliticsHome.com last May revealed more people said they would ‘never’ vote for the Liberal Democrats than the other main parties (38% against 31% for Labour and 30% for the Conservatives). There is also far less time for this persuasion; the 2010 boundaries were known in 2002, giving the likes of Sarah Teather, elected in 2003, seven years of planning and campaigning. Much as some preparatory work will begin soon, the final proposals will only be voted on in October 2013.
Whether they like it or not, the Liberal Democrat brand has developed a national identity in a way in which it didn’t before. It will need to adapt to and even take advantage of this fact – simply relying on local factors will not be enough. Indeed, while 43% of Liberal Democrats in seats they won based their support on the local situation, 45% cited belief in policy, values or what the Liberal Democrats could do on a national level. These groups will need to be identified and wooed in different, individualised ways.
Solutions to this are almost certainly technological and strategic, and it’s clear they’re looking across the pond for inspiration. Liberal Democrat HQ has recently purchased a state-of-the-art national campaign database, provided by the same firm used by the Obama campaign. They would also do well to look at voter modelling and microtargeting technologies used to great effect by the Obama and Romney campaigns. These are able to highlight the likelihood of each voter to support the party, what the basis is for that support and the best way is to communicate with them. Such an approach may enable the Liberal Democrats to better insulate their “local” brand at a national level, allowing them to stop losses from the influx of barren areas newly incorporated by the boundary changes and re-engage with disaffected Lib Dems unhappy with the Coalition.
The emphasis of pundits of the way in which Nick Clegg steers his party through the day-to-day difficulties of Coalition government may well pale into insignificance compared to the way in which it plays out locally.
An edited version of this article appears on pages 6 and 7 of The House magazine.