Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)
Some Lib Dems are tempted to tack rightwards to win back votes from the Tories. But it’s an extremely risky strategy
The Lib Dems are not in such a dire polling position as Labour. But the party is facing a big dilemma of electoral strategy – which, in turn, poses ideological issues that are surfacing in Bournemouth this year.
The problem stems from the step change in Lib Dem parliamentary representation came in 1997, when the party gained a swathe of rural and suburban seats from the Conservatives. In 2001 and 2005 the Tory vote was also at a low ebb, but if – as seems likely – it revives significantly in 2010, a lot of Lib Dem seats are at risk. History suggests that Conservative revivals are generally bad for the Liberals – in 1924, 1951, 1970 and to a lesser extent 1979 the party fell back as the Conservatives swept up a lot of the anti-Labour vote. What strategy would be most effective in holding onto the ex-Tory marginals, and can this be combined with gaining ground from Labour?
The new right-of-centre Lib Dem pressure group Liberal Vision thinks it has an answer: to embrace an agenda of tax cuts and social libertarianism that will appeal to right of centre voters. The group, as was surely intended, caused a splash with its list of Lib Dem MPs threatened by the Conservative revival – some MPs on the high risk list such as Adrian Sanders of Torbay were apoplectic with fury about it. But its identification of the seats at risk was broadly accurate. If the Conservative vote generally is going up, places such as Romsey, Carshalton and Hereford look extremely tricky. But is a move to the right actually going to protect their vulnerable incumbents from a Tory tide?
The argument is pretty unconvincing. While polling demonstrates that there is an appetite for a small state among a lot of voters, whether the Lib Dems can appeal to this feeling is questionable, because (even though its current policies are very cautious) the Conservatives have such a strong brand image as a party of tax cuts. The Lib Dem right also seems to forget that although many of the seats it holds are affluent and suburban and vulnerable to the Tories, they depend on the votes of people with left of centre values in those areas – their wins often come courtesy of tactical voting or outright conversion of Labour-inclined people. Too much rightwing posturing will alienate these voters.
But what about winning seats from Labour? The Lib Dems have talked, rather unbelievably, about shifting resources to the top 50 Lib Dem targets from Labour. To achieve anything like that assumes a complete meltdown of the Labour vote. It is not completely impossible that Labour will follow the economic markets downhill in a collapse of epic proportions. But this is at the outer end of the range of possibilities, and more worthy of a bit of contingency planning than a large commitment of scarce resources.
Rightwing liberalism will not help win seats from Labour. Their leftwing profile in 2005 helped the Lib Dems build strong votes among a particular category of seat: academic, professional suburbs and college towns. The easiest seats to gain from Labour (other than Rochdale, which already has a Lib Dem incumbent but becomes theoretically Labour under new boundaries) tend to be in the same sort of places that swung strongly in 2005. Oxford East, Edinburgh South, Hampstead & Kilburn, Islington South & Finsbury, Aberdeen South, Edinburgh North & Leith, Durham City and Norwich South are the logical successors to the seats that went Lib Dem in 2005 like Cambridge and Bristol West. While many of these seats were Conservative at one time, their electors are often liberal, environmentally minded people who were permanently turned off the Tories by Thatcherism and may desert the Lib Dems for the Greens or even Labour if the party sounds too rightwing.
Further down the target list there are a few seats that could plausibly pack a surprise, such as Swansea West, Burnley and Sheffield Central and probably a couple of seats that look safe from the 2005 numbers. But picking off a serious number of these is unlikely without a massive Labour meltdown (and even the current polls indicate only around a 3% national swing from Labour to Lib Dem). In seats where the Conservatives are still in contention (except maybe Watford, with its local scandal) it will be difficult for the Lib Dems to persuade floating voters not to join a national Tory tide. After all, seats such as Hastings & Rye followed the national trend in 1997 and elected Labour MPs despite the party running third in 1992, and it is reasonable to expect Conservatives in seats like Hampstead & Kilburn and Ealing Central & Acton to fancy their chances of winning. In some Scottish seats, the rise of the SNP (who polled poorly in 2005 but can expect much better at the next Westminster election) will interfere with Lib Dem chances, making places such as Edinburgh North & Leith and Glasgow North more difficult than they look on paper. Overall, again barring that meltdown, potential Lib Dem gains from Labour look more like 10-15 than 50.
Electorally, therefore, the Liberal Vision approach looks dubious. There is probably little mileage in going any further right than Clegg has already steered the party. The tax cuts approved at conference yesterday can be plausibly presented as being about fairness to low and middle income families, and therefore compatible with the liberal consciences of people who voted for them on the basis of their opposition to the Iraq war and tuition fees. A slide to the right would risk this core Lib Dem vote for uncertain reward. The Liberal Democrats should perhaps ask themselves why Cameron has found talking like a social liberal to be a route to electoral success, and fight him on their turf rather than charging into Tory territory.