Beating the Odds
The Liberal Democrat spinners were more than a little nervous in the lead-up to the party’s conference in Glasgow. Not about headline-grabbing policy defeats at the hands of the party grassroots – carefully constructed compromises had been hammered out in advance – or about any last-minute tilt at unseating Nick Clegg; even those unhappiest with his leadership have come to accept he’ll lead the party into the May 2015 general election.
No, what did trouble them was the change in the usual conference order. Traditionally, the Lib Dems are first up among the three main parties. That normally means fine-ish weather, and, more importantly, that political journalists are less tired and cynically acerbic than usual.
But this year, the party was last up, displaced by the Scottish Independence referendum. Would the press pack, which had already been on the road for a month, missing their families and subsisting on an away-from-home diet of canapés and late nights, take it out on Clegg & co? The party’s media team decided to send them small gifts, such as bunches of bananas, to cheer them up each morning.
In the end, they needn’t have worried. Going last worked well for the party. Labour’s ominously flat conference will be remembered for Ed Miliband’s glaring forgetfulness in his conference speech: his failure to mention the deficit or immigration was an astonishing gift to his opponents. By contrast, the Conservative conference was remarkably chipper. David Cameron, his position too weakened by UKIP’s insurgence to be able to withstand his party’s push to the right, gave his delegates the red meat they’ve been demanding: the promise of yet more hardline policies on social security, immigration and Europe.
It was all teed-up perfectly for Clegg to remind the party faithful (believe me, those of us who’ve stuck by the party this far really are the faithful) of the key Lib Dem message: “The Liberal Democrats will borrow less than Labour, but we’ll cut less than the Tories. We’ll finish the job, but we’ll finish it in a way that is fair.”
It’s an adroitly triangulated pitch that has been carefully tested by the party’s own private polling and found to be popular, not only with current Lib Dem voters but also with those who say they’re open to the idea of voting Lib Dem – “the persuadables”, as the party’s campaigns director Ryan Coetzee terms them.
Collectively, this group – it includes current Labour and Tory voters as well as the undecided – is the Lib Dem ‘market’ (another Coetzee label that can leave the party’s more organic activists wincing), and it responds especially well to party lines, of which you can expect to hear much more (“Labour wasted their opportunity and ruined the economy”, “You can’t count on the Tories to care about others”), including the need for the next government to be balanced and sensible. It likes the idea of the Lib Dems being in power to leaven the worst effects of single-party rule.
There’s a problem, though. Those identified as supporters or potential converts represent only a little more than one-fifth of the electorate, so the upper limit of the potential Lib Dem vote next May is less than the share of the vote the party won in 2010.
Fortunately, the party has a not-so-secret weapon. Incumbency: the ability of Lib Dem MPs to dig in locally – “like cockroaches”, as Tim Farron once remarked – enabling them to buck the national trend.
The latest batch of Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polling, focussing on Lib Dem must-win seats and released in the runup to the conference, showed just how important it is for the party. When members of the public in the Lib Dem/ Tory battlegrounds were asked how they would vote in a general election, just 20% named the Lib Dems. Yet, asked how they would vote in their own constituency, 32% opted for the Lib Dem candidate, a sizeable uplift of 12%. Such is the value of incumbency. Although the party realises the loss of a swathe of Labour-facing seats won on an anti-Iraq, anti-fees, anti-Brown backlash is inevitable, two-thirds of its MPs will face Conservative challengers, and they’re all still in play.
That’s what accounted for the dominant mood in Glasgow: a grim, doughty determination to beat the odds. Talk privately to senior Lib Dems, and most believe the party should hold at least 30, perhaps even 40 seats if they buckle down in the next six months. Their campaigning activity is closely monitored by party HQ: those found lacking get the hair-dryer treatment from Paddy Ashdown, who Clegg, very smartly, put in charge of the party’s 2015 campaign. Ashdown led the Lib Dems when the party doubled its tally of MPs in 1997 – he’s also a trained killer.
And his full skills-set may be needed in the next six months if the Lib Dems are to survive the next election. ■
Stephen Tall is editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and research associate for liberal think tank CentreForum