Richard Holden is a former Special Adviser to the Defence Secretary and the Leader of the Lords, and was Parliamentary candidate for Preston in 2015.
What happened to the Liberal Democrats in 2017 in every seat they were defending? They went backwards…
One afternoon a few weeks ago, on my way back from volunteering in Barrow in Furness, I got in touch with James Airey, the candidate for Westmorland and Lonsdale. The seat fell to the Lib Dems in 2005, and has been safe for them ever since. Within a few hours, I was on the ground and trudging on a sunny late-spring day up a single-track street on one of those beautiful Lakeland fells.
Knocking on doors of a collection of nineteenth-century cottages, post-war bungalows and late Victorian semis I found, to my genuine surprise, significant numbers of people saying that they were considering switching from Lib Dem to Conservative. This didn’t just happen in Westmorland; the Lib Dems did badly everywhere they were defending.
This article looks more widely about the seats that the Lib Dems held in 2015, and defended in 2017 in England and Wales. Scotland had a very different election. Nor is it about the excellent winning Conservative campaign in Richmond Park, which the Lib Dems had picked up in a by-election, or the seats the handful of seats in southern England which Lib Dems gained.
So – to the campaign. In any Conservative Association that you visited during the mid-2000s in constituencies in which there was a Lib Dem presence, there was a feeling the ‘yellow peril’ had really embedded themselves, and were proving incredibly difficult to shift. In traditional Conservative seats, this usually meant that the following process had occurred:
- Initially the Lib Dems took Labour council seats in the least affluent wards: “Only the Lib Dems can stop the Tories.”
- Then they’d take Conservative wards on the outskirts of the local town. “Vote Lib Dem to stop Labour.”
- They would move onto the suburban/rural areas. (Spurious ‘winning here’ bar chart in tow at every stage.)
But then something changed. Under David Cameron, Conservatives got their confidence back, and started beating the Lib Dems. Labour, more recently, started doing the same in the cities. By the end of 2015, a small rump just seven seats in England and Wales were held by the Lib Dems.
On to 2017. The outgoing Lib Dem Leader, Tim Farron, would have you believe he’s been forced out over his Christian beliefs by other members of his party. This isn’t the full story. The truth is that the Lib Dems had a terrible election, and Farron almost lost his own seat. Below are some stats that help to explain what happened.
Astonishingly, in every single one of those seats held by the Lib Dems in 2015, there was a swing against them at this election. Moreover, the Lib Dem national vote share fell. They lost four of the seven seats they’d held in England and Wales – two to Labour, one to Plaid, and one to the Conservatives. They now only hold one out of the 293 seats in the entirety of the Midlands, Wales, and the North of England, and that by just 777 votes.
This result is even more shocking, given the Lib Dem’s ability to spend national funds in such a small number of targeted seats – 20-25 overall. They had eight defence seats UK-wide, a handful of target seats in South-West London, three university towns and a small number of seats in Scotland where they were running as “the best Unionist chance at beating the SNP.” Labour and the Conservatives were spreading resources (both cash and volunteers), to varying levels, in at least 15 times as many seats. In Westmorland, we noticed the colossal levels of “national spend” by the Lib Dems – particularly on mailshots.
Given they had so few target seats, and plenty of money and volunteers to put in them, it seems astonishing that the Lib Dems did so badly. However, from anecdotal evidence and people I’ve spoken to it appears that there are four clear issues that combined to harm them: the EU, their leader, the Lib Dem campaign – and their opponents getting their act together.
- The Lib Dem message of a second referendum, basically to ensure that Britain stays in the EU, didn’t work. It may have had appeal in very strong Remain university seats and a couple of South West London seats, but it was a terrible message everywhere else. On the doorstep there was a real acceptance that the ‘will of the people’ in the referendum must be respected.
- Farron himself became increasingly unpopular as the campaign went on. His media appearance became poor and evasive. Those who differentiated themselves from him, notably Norman Lamb, didn’t suffer as much as others who were not as well known, and were more reliant on Farron’s national campaign.
- The Lib Dem campaign – focused on Farron and the EU – was a disaster. This was exacerbated by poorly thought out policies on: tax rises, legalising cannabis and allowing unregulated brothels. Locally, this was often made worse by poor Lib Dem seat-by-seat campaign (beyond vast quantities of paid-for leaflet delivery), and attacks that backfired. For example, in Westmorland and Lonsdale they attacked the Conservative Candidate, who was born and grew up in the constituency, as “not local”. This only served to highlight the negativity already attached to the Lib Dems, and highlighted that Farron himself wasn’t ‘born and bred’ in the area.
- The most important lesson the Lib Dems have taught other parties is that if you are organised, you can win. People often vote Lib Dem not believing that they have better candidates or policies but because, over a very long period, the Lib Dems have campaigned very hard to present themselves as being the “least worst” option. This leaves them very vulnerable to well-fought local campaigns when there are clear choices on offer about the future of the country nationally.
Following this month’s election, every seat that the Lib Dems hold outside Scotland is now a Con/Lib marginal – and so every seat that the Lib Dems hold is also one more that Labour need to take from elsewhere to get Jeremy Cobryn or his replacement into Downing Street.
We Conservatives have shown that Lib Dem incumbency can be tackled, but to win these seats we’ll have to fight hard. That means leaflets, knock & drop survey canvassing (it is quicker), and getting our local candidates on the doorstep whenever possible. Local elections will be crucial in building and maintaining momentum. The sooner we select candidates for local and parliamentary elections in these seats and can start building their name recognition, the better. With seven of the nine Lib Dem seats in England now held with majorities of less than eight per cent of the vote, the next election offers a chance to take the Lib Dems out for good.