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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.