The Labour Party’s continuing atrocious polling numbers and Nick Clegg’s increasingly impressive performance as LibDem leader raises the enticing possibility of us pushing Labour into third place in vote share at the next General Election.
Now, a few notes of caution are needed. Most polls still put Labour about 5% or 6% ahead of the Liberal Democrats. An awful lot could change – in Labour’s favour – between now and polling day. But, surely, the shot is on the board.
If the governing party staggers into the General Election with Brown still at the helm, their campaign could be a Michael Foot -style PR disaster. There’s also good reason to believe that Labour always ends up performing at the low end of its polling numbers. All things being equal, I’d expect Nick Clegg to have a strong showing in the campaign itself. He is a capable TV performer (by far the most important communications medium in modern politics) and the Brtish public will like him more as they get to know him more. There’s something of a myth that the third party always gains votes as an election campaign progresses – but there is some evidence that this is true when the third party has a leader fighting his first General Election. This is because, in the course of the campaign, the new Liberal leader moves from “vaguely heard of him” to “household name” in the national pysche. An optimist might conclude that if we enter the campaign just 5% behind Labour in the polls, this is a gap that could be bridged before polling stations open.
I still think it’s a bit of a longshot, but the prize is an enormous one. The SDP-Liberal Alliance nearly secured more popular support than Labour in 1983 and – despite only securing a couple of dozen seats – may have “broken the mould” if it had come second in vote share. Since then, under Chris Rennard’s strategic leadership, the Liberal Democrats have targetted aggressively, yielding a mammothly greater haul of seats than the Alliance, despite lower overall percentage support. But this incrementalism may be reaching its limits. Liberal Democrats should ask themselves which of these two (very rough and ready) hypothetical General Election outcomes they would prefer:
Conservatives 40% (360 seats) Labour 28% (205 seats) LibDems 20% (70 seats)
Conservatives 42% (380 seats) Labour 24% (195 seats) LibDems 25% (60 seats)
I’d prefer the second result, as I think it does much more to transform the political landscape. That is to say, at some ill-defined point, I care more about vote share than seats and would rather see us polling very impressively (but losing) in “moving forward” and “devlopment” seats than making a handful of tactical gains.
The implications for LibDem strategy could be huge – perhaps suggesting a shift of resources to nationwide communications rather than funnelling as much money as previously into marginals. It would be controversial too – and probably particularly unpalatable to incumbent MPs. But if we could beat Labour in vote share, that would be a quantum leap forward, even if it left us with fewer Parliamentarians than we might otherwise secure.