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Ten Lib Dem seats to watch

November 7th, 2019

The Lib Dems do not lack for stated public ambition. Jo Swinson is positioning herself as a potential Prime Minister after the election, which shows some optimism considering that the Lib Dems started the last Parliament with just 12 MPs and ended it with just 20, many of whom look by no means certainties to return to Parliament next time.  

Still, fair lady never won with faint heart. Here are ten seats which will give a fair indication of just how the Lib Dems might do.

North Norfolk

One of the Lib Dems’ most effective ways of getting their candidates elected as MPs, and then maintaining a firm grip, was to position themselves as local MPs for local people. Sir Norman Lamb will, I hope, not mind if I say that he epitomised that approach. He first took the seat in 2001 by a gnat’s whisker, then patiently built his majority in successive elections (brushing aside Iain Dale in 2005). 

He survived the Lib Dems’ meltdown in 2015 and despite being a Remainer in a very Leavey seat, rebuilt his vote share in 2017. This time, however, he stands down. Will he be able to bequeath it to his chosen successor? It’s a long way from a sure thing.  If the Lib Dems are unable to hand on the baton, they look set to disappoint on election night.

No markets as yet.

Totnes

The Lib Dems have never won Totnes at an election. That is not for want of trying. They consistently flattered to deceive in the 2000s. When the incumbent was forced to retire after the expenses scandal in 2009, the Conservatives took desperate measures for the desperate circumstances and recruited the replacement by open primary. The winner was Sarah Wollaston, who consistently showed a sturdy independence that party hierarchies always loathe.

Following the EU referendum, she gained a special place in the Leavers’ Chamber of Horrors first for her ratting on her original decision to support Leave and then for consistently being a thorn in the side of those seeking to ram Brexit through. She left the Conservative party earlier this year to join Change UK and she eventually fetched up in the Lib Dems.

This is set to be a battle royal. The Lib Dems always had a solid base here: can they both retain that and add to it the undoubted personal vote that Sarah Wollaston had developed? Or can the Conservatives reclaim a seat that they no doubt think of as rightfully theirs? Expect this one to be tight.

No markets as yet.

Sheffield Hallam

Sheffield Hallam had been held by the Lib Dems from 1997 to 2017, when a complete unknown, Jared O’Mara, took the seat from Nick Clegg. Mr O’Mara is now much better known and for all the wrong reasons. He is not expected to be standing again and certainly not for Labour. The Lib Dems will be itching to get the seat back (they need a 1.9% swing to do so), but the Conservatives are not completely out of the game in what is an affluent area – their candidate is standing in the seat for the third successive election.  

No markets as yet.

Cheltenham

The Lib Dems are polling far ahead what they polled in 2017 and they have the scent of Conservative blood in their nostrils. On average they are polling something like 15% and the Conservatives are polling something like 38%, which represents a swing of something like 5.8% from Conservative to Lib Dem. That sort of swing would be more than enough to take seats like Cheltenham, which requires a swing of just 2.3%.

But that presupposes that current polling is borne out in the final result and that the national swing is reflected locally. The Labour vote was already squeezed to single figures in 2017, so this may be a slightly tougher nut than it looks. However, if the Lib Dems aren’t taking this one, they aren’t taking many seats at all – this is target number 6 for them (on a uniform national swing basis).  

They may be helped by the incumbent Alex Chalk’s attempt to curry favour with Remainers in this Remain-voting constituency. This may be a majority Remain-voting constituency, but most of the Conservative voters will be Leavers. This may do for his chances of keeping the seat: disgruntled Leavers may either sit on their hands or vote for the Brexit party.  

Lib Dems 1/4 (Ladbrokes, Sky Bet), Conservatives 10/3 (Paddy Power)

North Cornwall 

To show how steep the slope is for the Lib Dems, North Cornwall is target number 15 on uniform national swing, but even a 5.8% swing won’t get it for them – they need a 7% swing to pull this one off. North Cornwall voted 60:40 for Leave, so the Lib Dems will be muting their anti-Brexit campaign here. This looks odds against on current polling and given the constituency’s history. Other bettors obviously disagree. Me, I’m backing the Conservatives here.

Cons 5/6 (Sky Bet), Lib Dems evens (Ladbrokes)

Ross Skye & Lochaber

Why do so many seats where the Lib Dems are in contention have history?  This used to be Charlie Kennedy’s seat, and Ian Blackford took it for the SNP amid accusations of a dirty tricks campaign. The Lib Dems will throw themselves into this seat with zeal. At a time when the SNP are outpolling their 2017 scores, this looks like a stretch, the more so because the Conservatives came second last time. The Lib Dems would need a swing of nearly 10% from third to pull this off. Yet this is still their 17th best target by swing, showing just how slim the pickings are for the Lib Dems.

SNP 1/10, Lib Dems 4/1, Cons 25/1 (all prices with Paddy Power)

Guildford

Guildford is emblematic of the respectable commuter towns that are dotted around London that the Lib Dems will be hoping to make inroads into.  The incumbent Conservative MP, Anne Milton, is standing again but this time as an independent. It is an open question whether she will take more votes from the Conservatives or from the Lib Dems. Just the 15.4% swing needed here for the Lib Dems. It’s still only their 31st target by swing. At 5/6, this has to be a bet on the Conservatives, surely?

Cons 5/6 (Paddy Power), Lib Dems 5/4 (Ladbrokes), Anne Milton 10/1 (Ladbrokes)

South Cambridgeshire 

South Cambridgeshire voted firmly for Remain. It was previously held by Heidi Allen, who like Sarah Wollaston followed a circuitous route from the Conservative party to the Lib Dems during the course of the year. However, she has decided not to contest this seat again. The Lib Dems would need a 16.6% swing from third to take the seat. Nevertheless, a constituency poll conducted by Survation suggests that the Lib Dems are on course to take the seat.  This would be a spectacular result if they indeed achieved it. And yet it’s just the Lib Dems’ 37th target seat on uniform national swing.

No prices as yet.  

Vauxhall

The Lib Dems have good reason to hope that they can get revenge on Labour in inner London seats. Their strongly pro-Remain message seems to have been particularly well-received there. They tried this approach in Vauxhall in 2017 against Kate Hoey, where they achieved a 5% swing in their favour.  They need a further swing of 18.4% if they are going to take the seat.

The good news for the Lib Dems is that in the most recent YouGov London polling, they are looking at a swing in inner London of 20.1% from Labour to the Lib Dems. If the Lib Dems are going to achieve the kinds of epic swings that they need to take seats, inner London currently looks like their best bet.

Lab 2/5 (Ladbrokes), Lib Dems 15/8 (Paddy Power), Cons 33/1 (Paddy Power)

Somerset North East

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seat has made its way onto the Lib Dems’ heat map. They undertook constituency polling which showed that they were in now in second place and that if the public saw it as a two horse race between themselves and the Conservatives they could get within 6% of the Leader of the House.  Controversially, they put out a bar chart based on the hypothetical but where a magnifying glass was needed to read the small print.

This would be a heroic victory for the Lib Dems. This is target number 138 on a swing basis, with a 26.5% swing needed from third. Personally, I’d file it under Not Going To Happen.  

Cons 1/8 (Paddy Power, Sky Bet), Lib Dems 6/1 (Ladbrokes), Labour 16/1 (Ladbrokes)

Summary

In general, while the Lib Dems have undoubtedly risen a lot in the polls, the electoral landscape is daunting for them. The odds for their success by and large seem to have got ahead of the objective evidence. By and large, you should be betting against them at current prices.

To make major gains, they would need precision targeting. There is no evidence that they have the detailed knowledge for that kind of targeting.  But they probably do know some of the under-the-radar seats where they may outperform, and unless you do too, you might get caught out by a gain that they have made in special circumstances. So perhaps the simplest constituency bet of all for the Lib Dems is to sell on the spreads. The Lib Dems don’t yet look close to justifying the seat counts offered at those prices.  

Alastair Meeks