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Oliver Nottidge is a final-year History and Politics student at Oxford University

The Lib Dems may be riding high in the polls, but they don’t seem to be on course for huge seat gains.

Taking a hard line on Brexit has helped the Lib Dems recover in the polls. All pollsters now give the party between 17-21% of the vote, up around 10% from where they were before the European elections. However, as UKIP found in 2015, what matters is seats rather than votes. There’s no point in people voting for you if they are doing it in the wrong places.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, the Lib Dems knew this only too well. The party was scarred by results such as 1983, where the Liberal-SDP Alliance got a huge 25.4% of the vote but only won 23 seats because its voters were distributed too evenly across the country. It is no wonder that the party was at the forefront of the campaign for proportional representation.

But in 1997, things began to change. The Lib Dems started to play the electoral system a lot better. Helped by an informal pact with Labour not to campaign hard in each other’s target seats, they gained 26 constituencies even though their vote share went down. They became the largest third party for nearly 70 years and did even better in 2001 and 2005. Crucially, there were now Lib Dem heartlands – in the South-West, in Scotland and in the wealthier parts of outer London. These seats largely fell into one of three categories – rural or small-town seats with sizeable working-class populations, right-leaning middle-class suburban or large town seats and left-leaning urban constituencies. Crucially, only the second and third parts of this voting coalition remain today.

‘Bollocks to Brexit’ is not playing well in the rural and small-town seats where Lib Dem majorities used to be highest. They haven’t a hope in hell of regaining Paddy Ashdown’s old seat of Yeovil, Torbay, or most of the other seats in the South-West. It’s an irony that most of these traditionally Lib Dem seats voted leave in the referendum. Even a seat which looks close on paper like Lewes may be out of reach, as remain-voting Lewes town is outvoted by its larger Brexit-supporting neighbours of Newhaven and Seaford and the rural Sussex villages. Instead, from looking at the European election results, it seems that most of the rise in Lib Dem vote is concentrated in five specific types of seat, and even then not by enough to make huge gains likely.

Type 1) The classic Guardian-reading urban ‘muesli belt’ constituencies such as Dulwich and West Norwood, Hornsey and Wood Green, Manchester Withington and Bristol West. Most of these seats are currently held by Labour and are likely to remain so. Whilst cancelling Brexit goes down well with the left-leaning middle-class here, these voters are often outnumbered by an ethnically diverse working-class very loyal to Labour. So Brixton and West Norwood should outvote Dulwich, Catford and Downham should outvote Blackheath (in Lewisham East), and Wood Green should outvote Muswell Hill and Crouch End.

Type 2) University seats such as Oxford East, Cambridge and York Central. While the Lib Dems did very well here in the European elections, the student vote is notoriously volatile, demonstrated by the huge swing from Lib Dem to Labour in 2015 and again in 2017. Getting students to turn out is always a challenge, and the date of the general election may result in students voting in their home constituencies rather than at university. The non-university populations, in working-class suburbs like Cowley and Barton in Oxford East, also outnumber those who study and work at the universities.

Type 3) Remain-voting towns where the Lib Dems have always done well such as Cheltenham, Bath, St Albans and Watford. The problem here is that the traditionally Lib Dem parts of these seats are also the most leave-voting. Throughout the 80s and 90s, many formerly working-class Labour-voting areas such as Twerton in Bath and Hester’s Way in Cheltenham began to vote Lib Dem in local elections and then nationally. The Lib Dems may still do well locally because of popular councillors, but cancelling Brexit does not go down well here. The more naturally Lib Dem part of these seats are now the wealthier, traditionally Tory-voting areas – running the risk the party targets the wrong areas, their former working-class strongholds, even though they are the places where ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ will go down worst.

Type 4) The ‘stockbroker belt’ seats like Esher and Walton, Beaconsfield and Tunbridge Wells. Again, these areas saw good Lib Dem European election results, but they are not enthusiastically remain enough to appear realistic prospects. The remain vote here was very different to many places in London. It was more a David Cameron-style ‘don’t rock the boat’ kind of remain than a ‘I love the EU and I feel European’ kind of remain. This will be especially true if a general election is held after we’ve left the EU, as risking the further uncertainty of another referendum or cancelling Brexit altogether is unlikely to go down well.

Type 5) Right-leaning yet strongly remain suburban seats such as Richmond, Twickenham and Sheffield Hallam. These are areas where the Lib Dems have been doing best, both in local and European elections. The problem is that many of these seats are held by the Lib Dems already, so provide limited scope for general election gains.

While the Conservatives shouldn’t totally dismiss the Liberal Democrat threat, they shouldn’t be overly concerned about it either. The recent rise in the Lib Dem vote comes more at the expense of Labour, and in seats which tend to be Labour rather than Conservative held. What’s more, there is little sign the party is losing much support in the leave-voting, former Lib Dem heartlands in the South West which strongly swung Conservative in both 2015 and 2017.

Of the twelve seats they won in 2017, the Lib Dems are likely to lose the Brexit-supporting Eastbourne, North Norfolk, and Carshalton and Wallington, and may be at risk in Westmorland and Lonsdale. They are unlikely to repeat their by-election success in Brecon and Radnorshire, and keeping the seats of defectors apart from South Cambridgeshire looks unlikely. Their only two nailed-on gains are the highly marginal Richmond Park and Jared O’Mara-held Sheffield Hallam. To borrow an infamous line from a former Lib Dem leader, if more than 20 Lib Dems are elected at the next election, I will eat my hat!

131 comments for: Oliver Nottidge: Will ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ work in a General Election?

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