Monday, July 08, 2024

GUEST POST The Lib Dems achieved a wide and remarkably deep success

Alex Folkes looks at the performance of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens in last week's general election.

The main attack line being levelled at Labour following their success on Thursday is that their majority is broad but shallow. Corbynites point to the larger number of votes the party achieved under the former leader, whilst Tories highlight the lower share of the vote that the new government won.

Both of these are to ignore the key fact that Labour won just about the largest majority it could. And it did so through rigorous targeting. In the last few days of the campaign there were complaints from non-target seats that they were being denied access to the party canvassing software unless they moved wholesale to a designated target seat. 

Such centralised planning might have been excessive - and there were a few seats which were won despite being locked out in this way - but an election campaign is not a democracy. 

To be at its most effective, it needs to be brutal at times. The aim of the Labour campaign was to ensure the biggest number of seats, even if many of them were won by small margins. Inevitably there would be surplus votes piled up in safe seats, but the party tried its best to send activists from these to more marginal areas.

So Labour may have stored up some problems for the 2029 election, but they will (rightly) be happy with the outcome.

What is interesting is the contrast with the Liberal Democrats. Like Labour, the Lib Dems won just about as many seats as they could reasonably think possible. With the exception of Godalming and Ash - where Jeremy Hunt spent both all of his time and a considerable amount of his own money - there was no seat that the party failed to win where they were tipped by at least four of the MRP polls and many others which were much more of a shock.

But, in contrast to Labour’s broad but shallow outcome, the Lib Dems have a wide but remarkably deep success. Their 72 MPs have an average majority of 8267. Of course, this figure masks some seats which were won by just a small amount. But there are only five Lib Dem MPs sitting on majorities of less than 2000. The days of there being ‘no such thing as a safe Lib Dem seat’ are behind us.

That this success was due, in part, to the huge amount of tactical voting that took place is undeniable. But the cushion given to Lib Dem MPs by such votes and a hugely effective central campaign means that, even if many voters return to their ‘natural’ party of choice in the future and turnout improves, most should be able to survive so long as they work their patch well. 

The party won’t have the problems inherent in being a junior partner in government, as they did in 2015, and under Ed Davey they seem better at articulating a policy message that resonates with the public. The test will be whether they are able to use their new Parliamentary strength to further that.

The Greens will feel they had a similar outcome. Their four MPs were elected from the four target seats and all have a majority of 5000 or more (the average being 9,046). In addition, the party came second in a further 42 seats and, whilst many of those second places are quite distant, there is a considerable amount to build on for 2029. 

Crucially for the Greens, in none of their almost 50 held or second place seats are they battling the Lib Dems. If the next election turns out to see a lot more ‘protest’ votes against a still unpopular Tory Party and a Labour government which is perceived as under-achieving, then both parties should be set fair.

Alex Folkes is an international election observer and former campaign manager for the Liberal Democrats and single-issue campaigns.


Anonymous said...

A very interesting article, and my thanks to Alex for writing it, but there's one point on which I must disagree. Sadly, I think we are still in the stage of not really having any safe Lib Dem seats. With the volatility of the electorate these days, not even a majority of 10,000 votes should be regarded as reliably safe. Fortunately, incumbency and hard work ought to ameliorate the danger, but if the Tories can lose seats with a 20,000 majority then so can we, if the conditions are right (i.e. wrong!)

Fortunately, this volatility might work in our favour - if other parties can win from third place or worse, then so can we - and we will have to do so, with so few second places to build on.

Neil Hickman said...

Anonymous is absolutely right.
In 2010, David Laws had a majority of 13,000+ in Yeovil and Nick Clegg a majority of 15,000+ in Sheffield Hallam. And even after Labour inflicted Jared O'Mara on the electorate, Hallam (just) remains red.