At the end of last month, the always-sharp Paul Waugh laid out the Liberal Democrats’ strategy for the election, which rests on difference and confidence.
Difference as seen through their Brexit policy – no second referendum, no Brexit, just Remain (at all costs) – and their leader: female, young-for-Westminster, with small children, Scottish, oh and did we mention she wants to Remain?
Confidence as seen through what they apparently call ‘bicep-kissing’: boasting of their closeness to gaining loads of seats, amping up their prospects for supplanting the Labour Party, endlessly referring to Swinson as the next Prime Minister.
Both make some sense, in that they address key weaknesses in their brand (as the promise-breaking allies of a bigger party) and electoral position (as a wasted vote, fodder to be squeezed, or at best a source of MPs to either be ignored or become promise-breaking allies of a bigger party). Together, the campaign holds some potential in peeling voters from the Conservatives and Labour alike.
For each element of the strategy, Swinson herself is front and centre. The rest of her party fades into the background, particularly those who have always been Lib Dems – some defectors from the Conservatives and Labour appear as props for their new leader, but as with the other parties in this personality-dominated election she is the dominant figurehead and mouthpiece for the whole campaign.
The approach is risky, but failure at this crucial pre-Brexit election would threaten Swinson’s nascent leadership and strip the Lib Dems of their only well-known policy, so taking risks is justifiable.
That’s the logic of the campaign. But is it working?
Look at this poll of polls, compiled by Patrick English of the University of Exeter (other polls of polls are available):
That clearly shows the widely-reported story of the Brexit Party being squeezed by the Conservatives, helped along by Nigel Farage’s concession last week of the risk of splitting the Leave vote and resulting withdrawal of over 300 candidates.
But it also shows the Lib Dem vote tailing off (which might explain why the Conservative lead over Labour has grown a bit, but not as far as the evidence of BXP/Conservative switchers might lead you to expect).
This is the opposite of what you’d expect to see if a bicep-kissing differentiation strategy was catching hold nationally. There’s no sign of a Cleggmania-style wave breaking so far.
It doesn’t appear to be a case of the party brand alone, either: Survation’s numbers on preferred Prime Minister show Swinson losing more points month-on-month than Jeremy Corbyn, with the Lib Dem leader slipping into third place by a narrow margin. That might not mean that they dislike her particularly (not least because some won’t know who she is), but if your strategy rests on people buying that you are a possible next Prime Minister, it’s not a good sign when the polls find your ratings on that front declining.
Of course, Lib Dem success doesn’t necessarily need a massive national wave. The party only won 12 seats at the last election; a well-targeted, hyper-local campaign, playing to what have historically been their doorstep strengths, could deliver several times that number without the national polls picking it up. The Conservatives managed a version of this in 2015, ironically in the seats they gained from the Lib Dems, and you could argue that putting on millions of votes in seats where they’re a distant third would really be a waste of resource and effort.
They wouldn’t say no to such localised gains, and they may yet happen: recent local election results attest to the potential of their message and their machine when deployed well. But we know they began the election gunning for a much bigger prize – a major national surge in support, a tide which might raise those marginal and target seats but also deliver gains elsewhere and propel the Liberal Democrats to the status of second party.
That simply doesn’t seem to be happening so far. Which explains why the Lib Dems are fighting so hard for opportunities to put Swinson in the limelight, even to the point of unsuccessfully going to the High Court today to try to force ITV to include her in tomorrow’s TV debate.
If they get such opportunities, she might still not succeed – but without that shot at the big time, her problems look set to continue.