What will Thursday bring for the Liberal Democrats?

Four key things to watch out for as the results come in...

As you start to read this piece, you might well be expecting (and be readying yourself to be bored) by the usual pre-polling day political spin, so instead I am going to pick out four key points to watch out for as the results come in on Thursday and Friday to judge how the parties are doing.

First: how do the Liberal Democrats do in Scotland? Historically, when Labour has gone down in the polls and the Conservatives up, the Liberals and then the Alliance have suffered. Recent elections - including both the last two general elections - have seen this pattern broken. With Labour's popularity clearly on the ropes in Scotland, will the Liberal Democrats prosper or not? The outlook from the last batch of opinion polls is looking promising for gains, and Scotland was of course the scene of the famous Dunfermline by-election victory in 2006.

Second: how do the Liberal Democrats do in the key Westminster marginals? A divergence between overall results and those in key Parliamentary contests was seen last year in London. In several key seats for the next general election the party made substantial progress (such as in Brent, Camden, Haringey and Lewisham). Whilst there were less good results elsewhere, the overall result was that the Lib Dems are far better poised to elect more MPs next time in London than we were before the London elections. We may well see a similar pattern this year, with the Liberal Democrats doing significantly better in many of the key marginal Parliamentary seats than elsewhere.

Third: how credible will any Conservatives claims to be back on the road to power turn out to be? After the May 1978 elections (i.e. the last round of elections before they won the general election) the Conservatives had 49.6% of councillors. After May 1996 (i.e. the last round of elections before they won the general election) Labour had 48.1% of councillors. The Conservatives had 38.6% after last May's elections, so to get up to 48.1% would require net gains of over 2,000 councillors (even allowing for by-election gains in the interim).
Anything short of 2,000 gains would still leave them well short of the position they and Labour were both in last time they won from opposition.

Fourth: how does the Liberal Democrat share of the vote compare with Labour? On the estimated equivalent national share of the vote, the Liberal Democrats and Labour were neck and neck in 2004 and 2006. Will the party emerge in a clear second place this time?

As for the result I'll be looking out for most closely ... it'll be the one where I was involved in a last minute legal scramble to sort out problems with the nomination paperwork. Let's hope that hassle was worth it!

Mark Pack is the Head of Innovations for the Lib Dems. He previously worked in their Campaigns & Elections Department for seven years.
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation