Alastair Meeks takes a hard look
The Lib Dems’ emblem is the liberty bird. In 2015, it was put on the critically endangered list, found only in eight locations where volunteers toiled night and day to protect it from poachers. Pundits, including me, gloomily pondered whether extinction was on the cards.
It’s a compelling case study how climate change is not necessarily bad for everyone. In the wake of Brexit, the Lib Dems have found a new purpose as the party of ultra-Remain. It has gained vote share in every Parliamentary by-election held since the referendum that it has contested. Following the announcement of a snap general election, former MPs who had previously retired from politics, like Vince Cable and Stephen Lloyd, have deretired in an attempt to win back their seats. Hopes are high of substantial gains.
The bookies have by and large bought this story. The current midpoints of their seat counts range between 26.5 and 29.5 (with prices at 5/6 on offer over or under the set midpoints). Given that the Lib Dems currently only hold 9 seats, this implies a major bounceback. Is this right?
Bluntly, I don’t think it is. You can look at this lots of different ways and none of them stack up.
Let’s look at this first by swing. Here are the Lib Dems’ top 100 targets organised by swing. They pick up 18 seats if they get a 6% swing to themselves in these seats. But at present the Lib Dems are suffering an adverse national swing to the Conservatives of 2% or so if the polls are to be believed, and 11 of those 18 seats are Conservative-held. There are going to need to be some major special factors to buck the national swing to that extent (I’ll come back to Brexit, don’t worry) – or other gains from other parties. But there simply aren’t that many targets within reach on a uniform swing from other parties. The Lib Dems would need a 7.5% swing to them from the SNP to pick up six seats and an 8% swing to them from Labour to pick up six seats. In the absence of any national swing in Scotland from the SNP to the Lib Dems, they’re going to need some serious unionist tactical voting.
What special factors might there be? Two are usually mentioned in relation to the Lib Dems. First, their indefatigable local campaigning, effectively treating each constituency as a by-election. And secondly, Brexit.
Let’s deal with Brexit first. The line of argument goes that 48% of the public voted for Remain. No one else is going into bat for the Remainers, so the Lib Dem ratings can soar from the 8% that they tallied in 2015. There’s only one problem with this line of argument: not that many people seem to be ready to vote just on Brexit. In ICM’s poll conducted immediately in the wake of the election announcement, just 17% said that it was a second referendum by proxy, with 67% treating it as a normal general election. Of course, a substantial number of that 17% will be wishing to underscore the need to Leave, and they will not assist the Lib Dems one little bit.
Roughly 95 constituencies voted Remain by more than 60%. But very few are the Conservative/Lib Dem marginals and semi-marginals that the Lib Dems would need to build up a head of steam in if they are to start making substantial gains.
As for the Lib Dems’ indefatigable local campaigning, clearly that has got better in the last year – both local and Parliamentary by-elections show that. But the main two parties have got wise to the Lib Dems’ approach and are using it themselves. At the 2015 election, the Conservatives took a very localist approach in their campaigning and reaped the rewards. Their new MPs will have been building up incumbency ever since. They will not be pushovers.
Is it possible that the Lib Dems might catch the zeitgeist and we might see Farronmania at some point? Possible, but unlikely. 25 seats looks very stretching indeed – the Lib Dems should be very happy if they get to 20 seats. So I recommend that you do as I do, and take the “under” side of the bet on the Lib Dem seats wherever you can find it. To me it looks like a very good bet indeed.