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Can the LibDems get more votes than Labour at the next election?

July 30th, 2009 Posted in UK Politics by

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.

11 Responses to “Can the LibDems get more votes than Labour at the next election?”

  1. Liberal Neil Says:

    You pose an interesting question if an unlikely one.

    Chances are that if the party gets 5% more votes overall it will push a few more winnable seats over the finish line.

    The real question though is whether a major switch of resources from target seats to ‘national communications’ would actually achieve very much.

    The amount of money the party puts into individual target seats is not actually that huge. In rough terms the party will put an average of maybe £20K or so into each of maybe 40 seats between now and polling day? That’s £800K overall which doesn’t buy very much in terms of national comms – certainly nowhere near enough to push the overall poll rating up 5%.

    In essence that’s why we went down the targeting route in the first place – for a party with a smaller budget it is actually better value.

    What we really need to do is to substantially improve our fund-raising so that we can afford to do more of both!


  2. Daily View 2×2: 31 July 2009 Says:

    [...] Can the LibDems get more votes than Labour at the next election? (Mark Littlewood) 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. Share this story with your friends: [...]


  3. Gandhi Says:

    Hahaha! Hilarious. I’ve not laughed so much since Nick Clegg last said this.

    And it’ll all be about campaigning, right? Nothing to do with the empty-headed “me too” approach the Lib Dems have been taking and are finally being punished for.


  4. Mark Littlewood Says:

    @ Neil – some good points. But I’d hypothesise that it’s probably easier to increase the LD vote in relatively weak seats rather than in relatively good ones. E.g. increasing vote % from 45% to 50% is a big ask, because you’re pretty much at your max vote, but moving from 10% to 15% is relatively easy beacuse you’re still nowhere near realising the total LD potential.

    Your point on cash is interesting. If you’re right, that we’re talkign about c. £800K, I certainly wouldn’t suggest slashing this to zero. But there’s a lot that could be done with a few hundred grand on a national level. For about 500K, we could print and deliver a national leaflet to about 10 million households. I think our PPBs/PEBs could do with a more generous budget too, rather than being (not very well) done on a shoe string.

    But there are also non-financial considerations (e.g. how much time shoudl Nick and Vince spend in the West Country – with a lot of marginal seats, compared to the major cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester – with fewer marginal seats but potentially more media reach?)

    @Gandhi. Not quite sure I follow you. I think our most powerful mmssages are where we aren’t “me too” – e.g. opposition to renewal of Trident.


  5. Gandhi Says:

    Mark: Whenever I see the Lib Dems do things like that (oppose Trident etc) I cheer, but frankly the rest of the time I’m bloody furious.

    I assume the Lib Dems are going to crushed at the GE and I put it down to the horrendous leadership of (mostly) Charles Kennedy, since that’s when there was the best opportunity to fight the other two on core (classical) liberal values.


  6. Mark Littlewood Says:

    Gandhi – I agree that the party needs to be more radical and less tediously middle-of-the-road. Disagree however that the party is on target to be “crushed”. Yes, teh poll ratings are a few % down on the last GE, and Cameron’s Tories do pose a real threat in many of our seats, but it is still only a few % down.


  7. Gandhi Says:

    …oh alright then: hurt. But in the context of its best chance ever (squandered).


  8. Alex Says:

    The 2nd result would also move the debate forward on proportional representation. LDs get more votes than Labour, but with a third the seats (especially with Labour being hated)? The sheeple will wake up about the crapness of FPTP.


  9. Liberal Vision » Blog Archive » LibDems within 3% of Labour in latest poll Says:

    [...] I’ve argued before, this is a long [...]


  10. Liberal Vision » Blog Archive » Clegg shows strategic vision - but it’s still soft Tories he needs to convince Says:

    [...] immense symbolic significance even if it didn’t lead to a huge (or any) increase in seats.  I’ve always said that’s a longshot – but with Labour in total disarray and with Clegg having found his feet as LibDem leader, [...]


  11. Liberal Vision » Blog Archive » A bit of back-slapping….. Says:

    [...] Can the LibDems get more votes than Labour at the next election? [...]


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