Targeting only former Liberal Democrat voters is a recipe for failure, explains Joan Ryan
At this year’s local elections the Liberal Democrats suffered another string of humiliating defeats, with their councillor base reduced to below 3,000 for the first time in their history. But Labour cannot afford to take too much comfort from the demise of the Liberal Democrats. While some believe there is a hidden majority of Labour supporters and disgruntled, but progressive, voters waiting to be discovered and turned into an election-winning coalition, the simple unavoidable truth is that the collapse of the Liberal Democrats alone is not enough for us to win the next general election.
In the first place, the Liberal Democrats do not hold enough seats where we have a realistic prospect of victory. Of course there are seats we should be aiming to win back in 2015, particularly those we lost somewhat unexpectedly to the Liberal Democrats in 2010, such as Burnley, Redcar and Bradford East.
Local election results in cities like London, Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds and Cambridge, all covering constituencies where the Liberal Democrats positioned themselves as a left-of-centre alternative, also bode well for a revival of our fortunes in seats we lost before 2010 like Brent Central, Hornsey and Wood Green, Manchester Withington, Bristol West and Cardiff Central.
Over the years many Liberal Democrats have been able to ride out unhelpful boundary changes and turn election upsets into safe seats by intelligently using their incumbency to build up strong personal votes. So the scale of the task should not be underestimated, particularly in seats like Cambridge and Leeds North-West, where we came third at the last general election.
But none of this alters the fact that out of the Liberal Democrats’ 57 seats there are only nine marginal seats where Labour is in second place. The danger, then, is that a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote, without an equivalent fall in the Conservative vote, would hurt rather than help Labour. That explains the difference between our performance in this year’s local elections and those held last May, particularly in the south. The Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote was broadly stable in both – last year they polled 15 per cent, compared to 16 per cent in May. But whereas last year’s collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote did not translate into significant inroads against the Tories – we failed, for instance, to make any gains at all in 2011 in key battlegrounds like Basildon, Milton Keynes and Redditch – this year, by beginning to eat into the Tory vote itself, we were able to win a series of councils across the south such as Thurrock, Harlow, Plymouth, Southampton and Great Yarmouth, as well as many seats elsewhere.
The next election, like every one before, will be won and lost in Labour-Tory marginal seats like these. Out of our top 100 target seats, 83 are held by the Tories, compared to just 12 by the Liberal Democrats. Of the 94 seats we lost at the last general election, 87 fell to the Tories, against just five to the Liberal Democrats.
But there is another argument, again resting upon the idea that we can win back swaths of seats without persuading people who voted Conservative at the last election to support us. It suggests that even if there are not enough seats that we can win directly from the Liberal Democrats, Labour can take large numbers of Tory seats by persuading disgruntled Liberal Democrat voters, most obviously in the 74 Labour-Tory marginals where the Liberal Democrat share of the vote is greater than the Tory majority, to support it.
In Enfield North, for instance, which I held for Labour between 1997 and 2010, the current Conservative majority (1,692) is less than a third of the vote the Liberal Democrats polled at the last election (5,403).
Plausible though this argument might appear, it is fundamentally misguided and would be electorally ruinous. However much we like to think that all Liberal Democrat voters are secretly frustrated Labour voters, the evidence just does not bear this out.
Notwithstanding their current difficulties, the Liberal Democrats are still consistently polling in the low teens. And if Liberal Democrat voters in crucial marginal seats could not be persuaded to vote Labour in 1997, after 18 long years of Tory government, or to support us in 2010, faced with the likely election of the first Conservative administration in over a decade, I am not sure they ever could be. We have to be honest that these people are not, and probably never will be, Labour voters.
What we should be interested in is not the number of Liberal Democrat voters per se, but the number of Liberal Democrat switchers, by which I mean voters who supported Labour in 1997 but opted for the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Looking at Enfield North again, for instance, although the Liberal Democrats polled over 5,000 votes in 2010, the number of Labour voters who switched to the Liberal Democrats in 2010 was just 1,139 – less than the Conservative majority of 1,692. So even if we could win back every Liberal Democrat switcher in Enfield North, it would not be enough to win back the seat, and the Conservatives would still have a majority of over 500.
In fact, among the 83 target seats held by the Tories, even if we could win back every single ex-Labour voter who supported the Liberal Democrats in 2010, we would still lose more seats than we would win. Of these 83 constituencies, 45 would still be held by the Tories, compared to 38 that would not. Classic bellwether seats like Harlow, Dudley North and Swindon South, where elections are won and lost, would still have Conservative MPs.
There are a small number of Labour-Tory marginal seats which, in theory, would fall to us if we could win back Liberal Democrat switchers. Seats like Hendon, Thurrock and Weaver Vale would all notionally fall to Labour if Liberal Democrat switchers could be brought back into the fold.
But even in these seats, prioritising Liberal Democrat switchers is an extremely risky political strategy because it typically relies on a very small pool of voters, and needs a high conversion rate. In Thurrock, for example, although the number of Liberal Democrat switchers is more than the Tories’ current majority of 92, between 1997 and 2010 Labour still lost four times as many voters to the Tories as we did to the Liberal Democrats. Even if we could pull it off, it would still only leave us with a string of hyper-marginals, and leaves us open to the risk that the type of appeal we would need to make to Liberal Democrat supporters would put off other swing voters.
The reason this notion of only targeting former Liberal Democrat voters is so attractive is because it speaks to our political comfort zone, and allows us to indulge in the idea that the reason we lost the last election was because we were not Labour enough. In reality, we did not lose the last election because we were not true to our principles, or indeed because the electoral system is rigged against progressive parties. We lost in 2010 because on too many of the issues the public care about – employment, immigration, housing, tax and spending – people thought we had lost touch.
In the 1980s we learned that trying to knit together a patchwork of protests and turn it into a successful electoral coalition would never work. To win, we have to reach out beyond our traditional heartlands and appeal to a broad cross-section of society, from every social class and part of the country. That is where we will really find Labour’s hidden majority.
Joan Ryan was MP for Enfield North 1997-2010 and served as the Labour party’s vice-chair for campaigns
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