From Cleggmania to Armacleggon
A Liberal Democrat collapse might not bring Labour all that it hopes, suggests Robert Philpot
In the early 1950s, surveying the wreckage of the once-great party he led, Liberal leader Clement Davies admitted that people would ‘come to the conclusion that there is no party today, but a number of individuals who … come together only to express completely divergent views’. Only by showing ‘supine weakness’ was it possible to hold together the party, which had seen its parliamentary representation sink from 12 to six seats between the 1945 and 1951 general elections.
Fast forward 50 years to the general election of 2010 and it appeared that the voters, gripped by ‘Cleggmania’, were on the brink of relegating Labour to third place and returning record numbers of Liberal Democrat MPs to the Commons. Although by polling day the Clegg bubble had burst, there was to be a consolation prize: Liberals sitting around the cabinet table for the first time since 1945.
Following two consecutive hammerings in the local elections, that consolation prize now looks more like a poisoned chalice. The number of Liberal Democrat councillors has fallen below 3,000 for the first time in the party’s nearly 25-year history. Indeed, a similar-sized loss next year would take the third party perilously close to the number of councillors held by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the early 1980s. The party’s local government base, which helped to sustain the Liberals throughout their wilderness years and acted as springboard for their revival in the 1970s, is now fast dissipating.
Quite naturally, many in Labour’s ranks regard such a prospect with barely disguised glee. John Prescott has even coined a phrase for it: ‘Armacleggon’. Indeed, even before Nick Clegg and David Cameron had formally sealed the coalition deal two years ago, the Fabian Society was suggesting that it would be ‘an electoral gift’ for Labour: the perfidy of the Liberal Democrats would allow Labour to unite the centre-left vote with little need to attract the support of those ‘swing voters’ who backed Labour under Tony Blair but deserted it for the Tories in 2010.
Two years on and we are witnessing confident claims that these predictions have been realised. Analysing Labour’s current poll lead, the Fabian Society’s general secretary Andrew Harrop wrote last month that ‘Ed’s converts’ – voters backing the party now who did not support it in 2010 – are ‘distinctly left-leaning’. Three-quarters are former Liberal Democrats, while only six per cent have been won over from the ranks of those who voted Tory at the last general election.
Moreover, on a range of issues from the role of government to support for higher taxation, these voters are, argues Harrop, ‘more leftwing than the typical supporter of either the Liberal Democrat or Labour parties in 2010’. Forty per cent, for instance, say they back higher taxation to pay for public services, as opposed to only 35 per cent of those who voted Labour in 2010, and just 22 per cent of all adults. Unsurprisingly, given their views and that the party they backed in 2010 has ended up in coalition with a right-of-centre Conservative party, ‘Ed’s converts’ show every sign of sticking with Labour for the long haul: as many say they are ‘very likely’ to support it at the next election as do those who actually voted for Gordon Brown in 2010.
Harrop’s conclusions are far-reaching. ‘With the “uniting” of the left behind Labour it therefore becomes possible to imagine a Labour majority without a “new Labour” appeal to lots of those famous swing voters who choose between Labour and the Conservatives at each election,’ he suggests. ‘All Ed Miliband would need to do to win would be to keep the very modest number of former Tory supporters who have already switched to Labour.’
But can Labour really rely on former Liberal Democrat voters and a smattering of Tory switchers to see Miliband safely into No 10?
It is certainly true, as former Labour vice-chair for campaigns Joan Ryan suggests on the following pages, that a collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote will help Labour to regain seats such as Burnley, Redcar and Bradford East which were lost in 2010, as well as left-leaning constituencies like Manchester Withington, Cardiff Central and Bristol West which were delivered to Charles Kennedy in 2005 by a combination of tuition fees and the fallout from Iraq.
Nonetheless, a glance at the seats Labour would need to win to secure a majority at the next election suggests there are three interrelated reasons for caution.
First, John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, warns Labour in the latest edition of the IPPR journal, Juncture, of ‘the asymmetric consequences of any collapse in Liberal Democrat support’. He cites research undertaken by Anthony Wells of YouGov into the likely results of the 2010 general election had it been fought on the Boundary Commission’s provisional proposals. Wells found that with a 7.5 per cent lead in the popular vote (just 0.4 per cent more than his actual lead), Cameron would have secured an overall parliamentary majority. This is far less than the 11.2 per cent lead the Conservatives needed under the current boundaries, but still more than the 4.3 per cent lead Labour would need under the proposals (or the 2.3 per cent it would need under the current boundaries).
However, argues Curtice, such calculations ‘presume the Liberal Democrats are still as popular as they were in 2010’. If we assume instead that, as the opinion polls have consistently shown since its U-turn on tuition fees, the third party’s vote will halve at the next election, then the Tory lead over Labour Cameron needs to secure an overall majority drops to only 3.3 per cent (down by 4.2 percentage points), whereas Labour’s target would fall by only half of that amount – 2.1 percentage points – to 2.2 per cent. Curtice concludes that ‘although Liberal Democrat support is less strongly concentrated in predominantly Conservative territory than it once was, the Conservatives would still be the main beneficiaries of any collapse in Liberal Democrat support – thereby making it much easier for them in particular to win an overall majority.’
Second, as Ryan warns in her article for Progress this month, it is the number of Liberal Democrat ‘switchers’ in each constituency – those people who voted Labour in 1997 but backed the third party in 2010 – rather than the overall Liberal Democrat vote itself that Labour should be focusing on. But on this measure, even if every ‘switcher’ could be persuaded to return to the party’s ranks, it would only enable it to make partial inroads into its top 100 target seats. Indeed, the Tories would still be able to retain 45 of the 83 seats on that list which they currently hold.
Ryan’s analysis bears out the key lesson of this year’s local elections: that for Labour to start winning the kind of battleground seats that it will need to secure a parliamentary majority, constituencies such as Redditch, Harlow and the new Dudley West seat, it needs to be winning votes directly from the Tories.
Third, it is important to recognise that the Liberal Democrat vote will almost certainly not decline uniformly and that, in some parts of the country, it will be the Tories rather than Labour who are the beneficiaries. As Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit has detailed, Liberal Democrat seats currently fall into six broad categories: ‘academic/professional suburbs and towns’; ‘working-class urban’; ‘traditional “celtic” rural Liberal’; ‘suburban’; ‘free-standing mixed towns’; and ‘English rural’. In all of the 26 seats which make up the final three categories the Tories are the main challengers to the Liberal Democrats. In the first two, a total of 17 constituencies, Labour is in second place in the vast majority. The 14 seats which comprise the ‘traditional “celtic” rural Liberal’ category are more of a mixed bag. Here the Liberal Democrats will have to fend off challenges from the Tories in the south-west and in parts of Scotland, while Labour, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru will nip at the party’s heels elsewhere.
If, as pollsters such as Peter Kellner predict, the Liberal Democrats’ parliamentary representation is dramatically slashed at the next general election, the party will likely be driven back into the ‘celtic’ fringes and rural seats to which it retreated in the 1950s. And if it is, those who return to the Commons after such an electoral massacre will be ideologically quite disparate. It might not, therefore, just be in terms of size that a parliamentary party populated by ‘Orange Book’ survivors like David Laws and Norman Lamb and leftwingers such as Menzies Campbell and Tim Farron comes to resemble that which Clement Davies once led. Labour may relish such a prospect. But it should recall how the 1951 election saw not only the Liberals consigned to the outer fringes of British politics, but also the start of its own 13-year-long exile in the political wilderness.
Targeting only former Liberal Democrat voters is a recipe for failure, explains Joan Ryan
Conservatives, David Cameron, David Laws, Ed Miliband, Fabian Society, John Prescott, Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell, Nick Clegg, Orange Book, Peter Kellner, Plaid Cymru, YouGov