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19 February 2024

Inside the Lib Dems’ plan to “squeeze Labour”

The party has privately agreed it must persuade Labour voters in Tory-held seats to switch to the Lib Dems.

By Freddie Hayward

The Liberal Democrats choose their enemies carefully. As John Major’s Conservative government wheezed and staggered towards its resounding defeat at the 1997 general election, the party aligned itself with New Labour and against the ailing incumbents. Then, as Labour’s support plummeted in the late 2000s, the Lib Dems moved closer to David Cameron’s Conservatives. As described in the recent book The Liberal Democrats: From Hope to Despair to Where? by David Cutts, Andrew Russell and Joshua Townsley, economic liberals on the party’s right – such as Nick Clegg and Ed Davey – ascended to senior positions, paving the way for the coalition government in 2010. 

In this parliament, the Lib Dems have pivoted once more. Their plan for the general election is to exploit the pervasive discontent with the Conservatives by winning Tory seats in the southern “Blue Wall”. 

The key to doing that, according to Lib Dem strategists, is to win over enough Labour voters in marginal constituencies. That was the message campaigners took away from a conference at the party’s Pimlico headquarters this month. Over two days, the campaigns team received training and instruction from the party’s chief executive Mike Dixon and the well-respected director of field campaigns, Dave McCobb. Slides from a presentation delivered at the gathering, entitled “2024: the year of the Labour squeeze”, suggest that the party’s model for this general election is 1997.

The slides highlight that back then, the party gained 28 seats – giving it a total of 46 – even though it lost 750,000 votes. That was largely because the Lib Dems won the most seats from tactical voting of any party. “There was no surge. There was no Nick Clegg[-style] mania moment ever for the party. No, we stayed pretty constant and pretty, pretty low,” one attendee at the gathering said. The little enthusiasm for the party then, the thinking goes, shows that seats can be gained this year without a surge in headline support.

The party is trying to replicate the strategy adopted by Paddy Ashdown – the party’s leader in 1997 and Davey’s “political hero” – in two ways. First, by growing the party’s ground operation. Davey made doing so central to his leadership campaign in 2020 and went on to boost the number of campaign managers from five to 30. The south-east team, in particular, has apparently been expanded to target graduates and young families who move out of London and couldn’t ever imagine voting for the Tories. As one source put it to me last year: “These are people that move to London, get a girlfriend or a boyfriend then they shift out to Kennington or Balham. Then they want to buy a house together and have kids and they shuffle out to Surrey and Hertfordshire. We call them the ‘Surrey shufflers’. These are young families. They’re from London and they can’t vote Tory – that’s not what they do. But there’s no Labour Party to vote for in Surrey and Hertfordshire. So they have to vote Liberal Democrat.”

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The second part of Ashdown’s plan was to encourage as much tactical voting as possible – a strategy the Lib Dems aim to repeat today through an information campaign, telling voters that in certain seats the Lib Dems are the only realistic alternative to the Conservatives. “We find that we are switching lifelong Conservative voters. But if the Labour vote is, say, 10 to 15 per cent in these [target] seats, then it makes our life a trillion times harder,” a source said.

In places such as the former Tory cabinet minister Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton seat, the party got 45 per cent of the vote in 2019 but failed to win. In Cheadle, the numbers were similar: 41.8 per cent for the Lib Dems, 46 per cent for the Conservatives and 12.3 per cent for Labour. The plan, therefore, is to convince Labour voters in Conservative-held seats to switch to the Lib Dems. As the slides from the campaign meeting read: “We are going to run the biggest Labour squeeze campaign in the history of our party.” Party sources claim that there is no specific number of target seats because the date of the general election is uncertain. But the Lib Dems will be looking at the 80-plus constituencies where the party is second to the Conservatives.

What about policy? Ashdown’s main proposal in 1997 was to increase education funding by adding 1p to income tax. This time, strategists have decided to focus on the NHS, with tailored messaging around sewage for those areas badly hit by the leaks. The aim is for all messaging to be adapted to individual constituencies. As another source told me, the party plans to fight the general election as if it was a series of by-elections. This strategy is recognition that the Lib Dems are not going to win many seats through their leader’s charisma or through a particularly inspiring plan to change the country. Instead, they hope to return to that coveted position as the third-largest party in the House of Commons through the brute mechanics of the electoral system.

[See also: The Tories are still facing electoral apocalypse]

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