Why the Lib Dems need a centre-left election strategy

In most marginal seats, the party will be fighting the Tories, not Labour.

Tension in the coalition has led many commentators to ask whether it can hold on until the next election. Analysis tends to focus on policy rows and political rifts between the coalition partners, but not on the raw electoral dynamics which are likely to be play a greater role in determining the fate of the coalition. Put simply, the Tories need to wipe out a large number of Lib Dem MPs if they are to stand a chance of governing on their own after 2015, which is bound to put real pressure on the coalition the closer we get to the election.

The critical question for both Labour and the Tories is this: how do they win a majority in 2015? As it stands Labour are 69 seats short of a majority and the Tories are 21. The polls look good for Labour at the moment, less good for the Tories and terrible for the Lib Dems. But a lot can change between now and the election. With all the uncertainty over the economy, it is difficult to know precisely how things will look in three years time.

What we can be more certain about is which seats the parties will concentrate their efforts on trying to win in 2015. Look at Labour’s top 100 target seats for 2015: 83 are held by Tory MPs, 12 by Lib Dem MPs and five belong to other parties like the SNP. The implication of this is that Labour is going to be locked into a close battle with the Tories.

But look at the Tories' road to a majority in 2015. Of their top 20 target seats, 14 are Labour, while six (30%) belong to Lib Dem MPs. Of their top 50 target seats, 37 are Labour and 13 are Lib Dem (26%). To get a majority with the smallest swing, Labour would need to win something like 56 Tory seats, nine Lib Dem seats, and four seats from other parties. Only 13% of the seats they need belong to Lib Dem MPs. The Tories by contrast, need 15 Labour seats and six Lib Dem seats, meaning the Lib Dems account for 26% of the seats they need to form a government.

Another way of looking at this is to consider the proportion of Lib Dem seats that are marginal to Labour and those to the Tories. Unsurprisingly, the same picture emerges: of the 20 most marginal Lib Dems seats 14 are Lib Dem-Tory marginals, compared to just six that are marginal with Labour (of their 10 most marginal seats the ratio is 7 to 3)

So come the general election, the Lib Dems and Tories will not be partners against Labour, but direct opponents of one another. What does this mean for the coalition, and for Lib Dem strategy? The question for the Lib Dems is this: since the Tories will be disproportionately focused on their seats, do they stand a better chance of defending them with a centre-right, pro-government,anti-Labour pitch, or a centre-left, anti-Tory one? More significantly, will they do better by remaining in the coalition until 2015, or by leaving earlier and developing a clear and distinct pitch to voters in these critical seats?

There are obvious risks attached to leaving the coalition ahead of 2015 but against these it should be acknowledge that in order to hold Lib Dem-Tory marginals, it is Labour tactical votes that the Lib Dems will have to appeal to. As such it is difficult to resist the view that the longer the Lib Dems remain in a coalition that is increasingly drifting to the right, the harder it will be to reach out to these voters.

David Klemperer is an editorial assistant and Guy Lodge is co-editor of IPPR’s quarterly journal Juncture.

Of the 20 most marginal Lib Dems seats 14 are Lib Dem-Tory marginals. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Klemperer is an editorial assistant and Guy Lodge is co-editor of IPPR’s quarterly journal Juncture.

Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage