Pedants are quick to point out that for Labour to be decimated at the next election, they would need to lose only one in ten seats, while current polling shows them doing far worse than this. So in the interests of accuracy, I record that on 8 June I expect to see Labour crushed, marmalised and eviscerated. With the Conservatives having established close to a two power standard in most of the polling, we can expect to see swathes of red seats turn blue.
Labour and the Conservatives are not the only participants, and each of the other parties is absorbed with their own ambitions, routines, worries and inherited craziness. It is time to consider the prospects of the Lib Dems in this election.
I noted a couple of weeks ago that the markets seemed irrationally exuberant about the Lib Dems’ prospects and advised backing the unders markets on their seat counts when they were in the high 20s. As at the time of writing, following local elections in which the Lib Dems seriously underperformed most prior expectations, William Hill price the midpoint at 18.5. What a falling off was there.
What’s gone wrong? Even the most enthusiastic Lib Dem would have to concede that the very limited airtime that they get could have been better used than discussing Tim Farron’s religious beliefs about gay sex and whether David Ward’s views should debar him from standing as a Parliamentary candidate. But more profoundly, it seems that opposing Brexit is going to be insufficient to give them much of a leg-up. Lord Ashcroft summarised part of the findings of one of his focus groups as suggesting that the Lib Dems potentially appealed to unhappy voters who satisfied two conditions:
“First, they were still very much exercised about the referendum result. Second, they thought something could still be done to frustrate or reverse it:”
But as Lord Ashcroft noted, these do not seem to be sufficient. The public thinks them irrelevant, doesn’t trust them and wants to know more about what they stand for. The strategy is failing.
So how well realistically can we expect the Lib Dems to do? My preferred approach is to look less at swing required (though in the tightest races obviously that’s important) and more at vote share at the last election. In 2015, the Lib Dems got over half the vote in only one seat (Westmorland & Lonsdale), over 40% in only two more (Orkney & Shetland and Sheffield Hallam) and over 30% in just 31 seats. I don’t intend to investigate more than a handful of seats beyond that level – the Lib Dems hold only one of them (Richmond Park).
We need to investigate Lib Dem seats of interest in batches. They can be divided into the following groups: Conservative-facing in Leave areas; Conservative-facing in Remain areas; Labour-facing in Remain areas; Labour-facing in Leave areas; and Scottish seats.
The Lib Dems have a huge problem in Conservative-facing seats in Leave areas: the Conservative vote is going through the roof in such seats. The challenge is less whether they can gain such seats but to make sure that they don’t lose any. Carshalton & Wallington and Norfolk North both look like awkward defences and they could easily lose both. The Conservatives are unaccountably odds against in St Ives and this is a mandatory bet. The Lib Dems are far more likely to go backwards in such seats than go forwards. The Conservatives are just doing far too well in these seats for the Lib Dems to make much progress.
They have better chances in some Conservative-facing Remain seats. There are some very steamed-up middle class voters in these seats. But there aren’t many such seats and in any case the Conservatives are gaining support even in Remain seats. After Twickenham, Richmond Park and Kingston & Surbiton, the list of prospects rapidly dries up. Cheadle? Bath? Cheltenham? Oxford West & Abingdon? The Lib Dems might gain a couple, but even that’s fairly optimistic. And they need to watch their flank – with John Pugh retiring in Southport (on an already-low vote share) and the tactical Tory vote in well-heeled Sheffield Hallam likely to unwind, they might suffer losses in such seats as well as gains. 16/1 with Ladbrokes in Sheffield Hallam is probably fair value.
I’d rather be on the Conservatives in Southport at 4/6 with Betfair Sportsbook and William Hill than the Lib Dems at 11/10 with William Hill, despite the blue team’s long history of apparent ineptitude in this constituency. The 11/10 on the Conservatives in Kingston & Surbiton with Ladbrokes is probably better value than any of these bets. If you want to bet on the Lib Dems in such seats, the 10/11 in Richmond Park with Bet 365 is worth looking at – I can’t see Zac Goldsmith proving more attractive to this ultra-Remainian constituency than last year, especially since he looks so unprincipled in going back to the Conservatives after leaving them over the Heathrow decision. Overall, the Lib Dems might have a net gain of a couple of such seats, but sweeping gains are for now unlikely.
Things look better for the Lib Dems in Labour-facing Remain seats, with Labour’s vote under so much pressure. Cambridge and Southwark & Old Bermondsey must be strong chances, and the 4/6 on the Lib Dems with Ladbrokes in the latter seat looks great value to me. But again, there aren’t many such seats. The 7/2 with Ladbrokes on the Lib Dems in Manchester Withington is appealing. I’m on them at 3/1 in Hornsey & Wood Green (the odds have shortened since). But then where? The Lib Dems are hoping to build up a head of steam in the Remain redoubt of Vauxhall against hardline Brexiteer Kate Hoey but it must be firmly odds against, and considerably longer than the prices currently being quoted. On a good day, the Lib Dems will be gaining a few seats from Labour. But no more than a few.
The only Labour-facing Leave seat that the Lib Dems have serious chances in is Burnley. They’re odds-on favourites there, which seems to be overstating their chances, even with the former MP Gordon Birtwhistle standing again for them. The brave might well back Labour at 2/1 with William Hill or Bet 365. I’ve been brave to small stakes.
Finally, to Scotland, where for a change the Lib Dems are better placed to sweep up tactical unionist votes in seats where they are the main challengers to the SNP. They can reasonably hope to pick up Edinburgh West and East Dunbartonshire, and the local election results in Edinburgh West suggest that the 4/7 with Betfair Sportsbook is value.
In total, the Lib Dems look set to finish with something like 10 to 15 seats. Bet 365 are offering 11-15 seats at 4/1 and while that’s a tight band, I’ve placed a sporting bet on it. If you want a bit more leeway, the 2/1 on 10-19 with Ladbrokes also seems good value to me.
Those willing to take the risks involved in spread betting should still be selling them on Sporting Index at 21. The nervous should consider that Tim Farron has named that number as his target. The chances of them exceeding the named target can’t be all that high. But before doing so, make sure you understand the risks. If I’m wrong, it could be very expensive indeed.
Oh, and take that under 18.5 with William Hill. It still looks on the high side to me.