Wednesday, September 27, 2023

How the Lib Dems are choosing their targets for the next election

Embed from Getty Images

Peter Walker in the Guardian has more details of the Liberal Democrats' plans to 'use the by-election playbook across the Blue Wall' - see my Liberator article on For a Fair Deal.

He writes:

The Lib Dems’ approach is, at its heart, to worry much less about winning votes and focus entirely on winning seats. If you are a Lib Dem candidate and your constituency is not on the target list? Basically, you’re on your own.

Walker presents this as a reaction to the disappointment of the 2019 election, though that had its roots in Jo Swinson's team believing some wildly optimistic opinion polling that suggested some unlikely seats were within the Lib Dems' grasp. It wasn't caused by a lack of central control.

This time we shall be ruthlessly targeting of a limited number of seats. These are not new tactics, but it has always been a strain to stick to them in the heat of a general election, when deep down every candidate thinks they are in with a chance.

Anyway, this is Walker's account of how the party is preparing for the next election - McCobb is the Hull councillor Dave McCobb, our election co-ordinator:

Every three months, the 50 Lib Dem activists members who have recorded the most voter interactions over that period join a call with McCobb, Lib Dem president, Mark Pack, and others to update them on how the messages are landing.

While the Lib Dems are targeting a handful of Labour-held seats, the preponderance of contests with Tory candidates means policies and priorities are heavily based on tempting over former Conservative voters who have grown weary of the party’s dramas.

This means a relentless national focus on issues such as sewage, the NHS and the cost of living, with more traditional Lib Dem fare such as electoral reform still in the draft manifesto but relegated to a lower 'tier' and barely discussed.

All of this is then directed at identifying seats where enough disillusioned Tories and tactically-voting Labour supporters can be tempted to the Lib Dem side. ...

The list is not fixed. It is determined by a mix of polling and a metric based largely on legwork. The overall aim is, as one official put it, to give voters the impression of “winning momentum”.

If we are targeting a handful of Labour seats, I suspect it's a very small handful, but I like the idea that you can canvass your way into the party's higher counsels.

Walker ends by asking how well the party can expect to do come the election. I suspect he gets it about right:

There is, however, one thing no one will talk about, even privately: how many seats it could secure. The broad view seems to be that fewer than 30 would be regarded as a huge disappointment; more than 40 a triumph.

Thirty would double the party’s current tally. More than 40 would be approaching the glory days of 2005 and 2010. Will it happen? No one really knows. But if it does not, it will not be for want of effort.


Anonymous said...

I'm all for a strong ground campaign (I've been doing this stuff since the 1980s) but it is harder to make progress if you don't have a strong national brand and a leader who is recognisable and popular.

The breakthrough in 1997 came mainly through the unpopularity of the Tories and the fact we had a leader who appealed to moderate Tories (ex-military man who was strong and decisive).

Ed is a nice bloke (and the only credible leader of the parliamentary party), but he is no Paddy Ashdown. I think it will be an uphill struggle unless the party brand is improved at national media level through much more effective messaging.

Laurence Cox said...


We were rather spoilt as a party by having first Paddy Ashdown and then Charles Kennedy as our leader. People like that don't come along very often. Ed's USP is his personal knowledge of what it is like to be a carer and if we make our pitch at this election primarily about the NHS and the care system, that will resonate very strongly with voters. As for the number of seats we win, that is less important than becoming the third party in Parliament again; which means winning more seats than the SNP. So a bad result for the SNP could see that bar set as low as the mid-30s while a strong SNP performance means even 50 seats might not be enough. So tactical voting by our supporters in those seats in Scotland where we have no chance of winning could be as important as tactical voting by Labour supporters in the Blue Wall seats.

Anonymous said...

I have a bit of knowledge about one seat, recently added to the Target List. This happened because the local party had done a lot of good, honest work, and got good results in the Local Elections.

The demands now being made on them by Party HQ are considerable. Various sums of money and other resources are dangled in front of them, but only if they deliver X leaflets a week and canvass Y individuals a month, and raise Z pounds per month in donations. Performance against those targets is “audited” in a variety of ways - a bit of slippage is allowed in exceptional circumstances, but the campaigning effort has to be maintained, or HQ will walk away. If they want a senior MP or other worthy to appear in the constituency, the locals have to guarantee local press and radio coverage, particularly at the compulsory visits to the local school/business/healthcare centre etc.

Frankly, the workload is so punishing that I’m not sure I could cope with being in a target seat! But they seem to be coping, and lo and behold, there was the candidate on the stage with Sir Ed at the Conference.

From where I am watching, I really do think they might actually do it.

Alex Macfie said...

There is one Labour seat we can realistically win at the next GE — Sheffield Hallam. We also have one realistic SNP-facing target seat, namely East Dunbartonshire. Both used to be held by former Lib Dem leaders.

Phil Beesley said...

Eight years ago, the BBC and other media organisations set a fresh rule for themselves about political reporting: Lib Dems don't matter. Representatives of populist parties, which had already been over reported in news stories, actors and comedians replaced Lib Dems as the alternative voice in discussion broadcasts.

It was an ahistorical decision. Historically the UK has two big parties, nationalists, regionalists, fascists -- and liberals. Liberalism is a sticky tradition represented in Labour and Conservative parties as well as the Lib Dems. There are many liberals and social democrats in green and nationalist parties, of course. Liberalism was crushed by authoritarianism multiple times across Europe, but it always comes back.

The General Election result for Lib Dems will not be measured in how many MPs are elected. It's about how the party is treated by the media and how liberals in other parties associate with it.

Anonymous said...

Not many people have the qualities of a Paddy Ashdown, but in the past the party has produced figures who quickly become known to the public, whether for good or ill (Grimond, Thorpe, Jenkins, Steel, Owen...) The problem is Ed is very little known and the rest of the parliamentary party are utterly anonymous figures - I doubt most members could name more than three or four.

There needs to be a concerted effort to attract higher quality people to stand in key seats. The obsession with localism means the choice of candidates is often limited to local councillors and time served activists. None of the by election candidates has impressed me and some have been notably inarticulate in the national media. Only a couple of days ago we had a former leadership candidate praising China for its action on climate change... you really have to weep when you hear uninformed nonsense like that,

Phil Beesley said...

Anonymous Target List informant:
"If they want a senior MP or other worthy to appear in the constituency, the locals have to guarantee local press and radio coverage, particularly at the compulsory visits to the local school/business/healthcare centre etc."

This is a bit worrying. How do you "guarantee" that local press will cover a story? Some editors wouldn't report Lady Godiva if she wasn't backing the Tory.

Assuming that the local media have a reporter who is not covering a "police incident", whatever that means, eminent visitors don't make a fascinating story. The point of a visit is to enhance a local campaign with already interested voters, press coverage being a bonus.

Anonymous said...

Yes, @Phil Beesley, I take your point! I was told something about constituency visits, but I can’t remember the exact details. The visits had to last a day, and there had to be divided into three parts - a meeting with local activists (preferably sending them off canvassing rather than a tea party) a meeting with a local business and a meeting with a public sector institution. At least one of these had to provide the possibility of a good photo and a good speech/soundbite. Local party to take the photos if necessary (not so difficult nowadays, with mobile phones.). The local press and radio had to be told and then reminded about the visit, with the offer of an interview dangled in front of them - and the reporter had all day to do it. Failing that, both the National and local party have to put out a press release about the visit - including some photos.

All I can say is that it appears to be working. The visits have generated coverage, and on the rare occasions nowadays when the candidate doesn’t have his mugshot in the paper, they use photos of the councillors instead (who seem to be doing a good job.). The discipline being imposed by HQ seems pretty brutal, but it seems to be working. The canvassing is getting done, the leaflets are rolling out and the money is rolling in. The locals don’t want to lose their Target Seat status - which can be taken away at a moment’s notice if they don’t appear to be pulling their weight.

Nicky said...

Perhaps one other SNP seat is possibly in play which was also previously represented by a former Lib Dem leader. Other than that I would agree.

MartinRDB said...

I hope we are not on course to repeat the disaster of 2017, in which intense and largely fruitless targeting reduced the number of seats where we were the second placed challenger to 38. This made it practically impossible for the Party to gain seats at the next election. In 2019, we were second place in 91 seats. This at least provides a chance of recovery.

The danger is that we revert to the mistakes of 2017. Our poll ratings are not high enough, if they do not improve significantly our efforts in target seats will be against the electoral tide so very much more difficult. Moreover we risk losing many of those second places, making it hard again for the following election.

Anonymous said...

@MartinRDB raises some interesting points which are worthy of consideration by the Powers That Be. As an adjunct to that, perhaps the Party ought to be trying to ensure that in every by election we strive to at least retain our deposit as the barest minimum? It seems to me that in far too many contests recently, the non-target by-elections are regarded as an irrelevance - but our performance in them helps to secure a minimum base of support - even if that’s only 5%