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What is the point of the Liberal Democrat campaign?

I’ll admit it. I simply don’t “get” the Liberal Democrat campaign.

I’ll admit it. I simply don’t “get” the Liberal Democrat campaign.

I understand their ground strategy; to rigorously and ruthlessly target their resources on the seats they think they can hold, mostly within those areas where they remain in control at a local and national level.

It may be at this point that they’ve simply decided that nothing they say at a national level will get a fair hearing but, for appearances’ sake if nothing else, they have to maintain the impression of a full-fledged campaign. Because as an attempt to win voters it simply doesn’t make sense.

Nick Clegg tells the Guardian:

“The looming question in the next phase of this campaign is whether there is to be a coalition of grievance, or of conscience. The last thing the British economy needs is the instability and factionalism that those coalitions of grievance of right and left represents.”

For anyone who found that impenetrable, a “coalition of grievance” equals any coalition backed up by Ukip or the SNP. A coalition of conscience is one supported by the Liberal Democrats. Now Ukip take more votes from the Liberal Democrats than you might think – around 20 to 30 per cent of Ukip voters backed that party in 2010 – and while the SNP won’t take that many votes from Clegg’s party they are on course to win ten seats from the Liberals in Scotland. But the votes that they have lost to Ukip are the votes of people who don’t want to support a governing party at all; that Ukip are shut out by the electoral system is a feature, not a bug as far as these voters are concerned. They cannot compete with Nigel Farage’s outfit on that.

The votes they have lost to the SNP, meanwhile, are voters who are either disgusted with their alliance with the Tories or who want to leave the United Kingdom. The Liberals cannot compete with the Nationalists on Tory-bashing and they don’t want to leave the United Kingdom.

And the central message – vote Liberal Democrat to avoid a coalition with the SNP or Ukip – is, if anything, a better argument for voting for one of the big two than it is to vote Liberal. If you prefer a Labour government free of SNP influence, your best bet is to vote Labour, almost regardless of where you live. If you prefer a Conservative administration shorn of Ukip, again, there’s little reason to vote Liberal Democrat.

It comes back to that question from Jeremy Browne that the Liberals still can’t seem to answer:

“Every political party and every politician has to be able to answer the question, ‘If you didn’t exist why would it be necessary to invent you?’ I’m not sure it would be necessary to invent an ill-defined moderating centrist party that believed that its primary purpose was to dilute the policies of other political parties.”

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

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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