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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.