Conor Pope says that the Liberal Democrat ‘fightback’ is a distraction from the real problem – the Tories
The Liberal Democrats are likely to do much better in the upcoming local elections than current opinion polls suggest. Most polls currently have the party on around 11 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats having broken into double figures at the turn of the year.
That may not sound like much, but the council seats up for election this year are particularly favourable to the Liberal Democrats, as the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush explains. Both the Rallings and Thrasher and the Hayward projections for this set of elections has the party gaining over 100 councillors on 4 May.
Moreover, the polls may not be quite have caught up with the scale of the ‘Lib Dem fightback’. Some claim that there can be, at times, around six months’ lag on an uptick in support for smaller parties.
Byelections, both parliamentary and council, since last year’s European referendum certainly indicate that where conditions are favourable for Liberal Democrats, they can perform very well indeed. Some within Tim Farron’s party are even quietly indulging their wildest dreams of a shock win in Manchester Gorton.
There is good reason to think that a resurgence of the Liberal Democrats will do much more to harm Labour than other parties. At the most basic level, Labour is simply less popular than other parties at the moment: it is shedding voters like they are the ones that have been holding it back from winning elections.
Labour has also become a temporary home for many Liberal Democrats who became disillusioned during the coalition years. More than twice as many 2010 Liberal Democrat voters went to Labour in 2015 than went to the Conservatives. In fact, Labour won more votes off the Liberal Democrats than all the other parties put together.
This was an intentional electoral strategy pursued by Ed Miliband, who perceived there to be a hidden ‘progressive majority’ in the country that he believed he could use to propel Labour back into power. The logic ran that there was no need to entice Tory voters when so many were abandoning Nick Clegg’s party.
Then, of course, there is the Liberal Democrats’ hardline continuity ‘Remain’ stance, which has allowed the party to fashion itself as the new natural home for those who vehemently believe Britain should to stay in the European Union.
However, while losing any voters should be a source of alarm for Labour, panic should not set in over a Liberal Democrat revival. We face a number of genuine existential threats; Tim Farron is not one of them.
What is really happening here is a reversion to the norm. The 2015 election landed the Liberal Democrats with a artificially low vote as a kickback against their time in government. Since the Social Democrat-Liberal alliance in 1983, they had never received lower than 16.8 per cent in a general election; two years ago, they failed to reach eight per cent.
But coming out of government has given the Liberal Democrats chance to regain some of the 15 points they lost between 2010 and 2015. It has allowed them to return to what they do best: opportunistic opposition without the fear of having to follow through with a coherent platform in power. It is this, more than anything, that has led to their position on Europe.
Most of their traditional voters recognise that they are not voting for a future government. For several decades now, the Liberal Democrats have positioned themselves as British voters’ go-to receptacle for protest votes.
Their message has been this: if you are angry with what is going on – whatever it is – vote for us. The ability to pose as either leftwing or rightwing, depending on the situation and local trends, has done them wonders at times, enraging other parties’ activists around the country in the process.
This is partly why they lost so much support by going into coalition. The Liberal Democrats are not a natural party of government; they are a natural party of not-the-government. Their revival is to be expected now.
Yes, this may hurt Labour – but it will hurt the Conservatives too. Murmurs in Tory high command suggest one of the reasons Theresa May has not jumped for a snap election is the number of Conservative members of parliament who have only gained a seat because of the Liberal Democrat collapse. Without a full parliamentary term with which to build up some name recognition in their constituencies, many of these Tories now fear they would lose.
Of course, it is sad to think that fear of the Liberal Democrats, not Labour, is what is deterring the Tories from going to the polls. And it is on this that Labour must stay focussed.
The Liberal Democrats are certainly in a position to win seats back off Labour, but fundamentally that is a distraction. Our goal must be to put the fear back in the Tories. We cannot win without winning over Tory voters. Ultimately, worrying about leaking support to the Liberal Democrats is not the attitude of a party moving forward, but one of a party looking only over its left shoulder at damage limitation.
In 2005, Labour won the general election with a healthy working majority, and the Liberal Democrats won 22 per cent of the vote – double what they are currently polling. That means that there is at least 11 percentage points worth of wiggle room in the electoral system. A strong Liberal Democrat party does not necessarily mean a weak Labour party. But a strong Conservative party almost always does.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope
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