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Why Labour's "decapitation strategy" could help Clegg keep his seat

Local voters resent outside interference and Lib Dem activists will be encouraged to rush to their leader's defence.

Local voters resent outside interference.
Nick Clegg leaves the Hall Park Centre after casting his vote in the AV referendum on May 5, 2011 in Sheffield. Photograph: Getty Images.

For Labour, talk of a future coalition with the Lib Dems is politically dangerous. Party strategists fear that the prospect of Ed Miliband entering government with Nick Clegg in just over a year's time could be viewed by Lib Dem defectors as "permission" to return home. With Labour's poll lead heavily reliant on this group (it enjoys the support of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem voters), the party needs to do all it can to discourage this impression. 

Ed Miliband, then, has been quick to dismiss Clegg's latest overtures. While no longer insisting that the Lib Dem leader's departure would be a precondition of any coalition agreement (in common with Ed Balls), he told Daybreak: "What I'm looking for is a majority Labour government. There are such big issues that the country faces, I think Nick Clegg should be worried about the Liberal Democrats." Today, the party is briefing that it has launched a "major bid" to defeat Clegg in his Sheffield Hallam constituency at the next election, with one NEC source declaring that it is "pouring resources" into the seat. 

Whether these "resources" amount to more than a few extra leaflets is unclear. As I said, the story has much more to do with conveying the broader message that Labour isn't going soft on Clegg. But given his dismal approval ratings and the large student population in the area, the Deputy PM might be thought an easy target. Yet for several reasons, the odds are against Labour taking the seat. For a start, Clegg currently enjoys a majority of 15,284, making him the safest Lib Dem MP in the country. In 2010, Labour finished in third place with just 16.1 per cent, 3,812 votes behind the Tories (it has never won and last finished second in 1979) and 19,096 behind Clegg. That Labour chose not to make the seat one of its 106 targets suggest that it recognises there is little prospect of advancing to first. 

In October 2010, a Lord Ashcroft poll put Labour just two points behind the Lib Dems (33-31) but recent council election results suggest the party's vote is holding up better than many expected. In a by-election in the suburb of Fulwood last year, for instance, it won 400 more votes than in 2012. 

Labour's decision to explicitly target the seat could, if anything, tilt the odds further in Clegg's favour. Lib Dem activists now have an excuse to rush to their leader's defence (albeit potentially drawing valuable resources from other seats), while local voters are likely to resent interference by outsiders with little knowledge of the constituency. For the latter reason, no prominent "decapitation strategy" has succeeded in recent times. As Lord Ashcroft wrote (see p. 304) of the Lib Dems' attempt to oust prominent Tories, including Oliver Letwin, David Davis and Theresa May in 2005, "My polling uncovered many interesting facts, including that voters in the Liberal Democrats' decapitation seats were less inclined to vote against the sitting Conservative MP when they were told of the decapitation motivation...Oliver Letwin clearly understood the message because when he was interviewed by Ann Treneman of the Times during the campaign, he asked her to use the word 'decapitation' a lot because he said it would help him to get elected"

In 2010, the Tories similarly failed to oust Labour heavyweights such as Ed Balls, Jack Straw and John Denham. The smart money is on Clegg continuing this trend.