On average the past decade has featured one general election every three years. That has exposed the way political parties operate. After winning a surprise majority at the 2015 election, the Conservative Party dismantled its election-fighting infrastructure. It stood down activists and neglected its digital operation. Thrust into Theresa May’s snap election in 2017, it floundered.
The Liberal Democrats want to avoid the same mistake. Instead of scaling back after the 2019 general election, they doubled down. Money was used to hire extra campaign staff. The digital, fundraising and campaign teams worked more closely together. The number of campaign managers rose from five to 30. “We have the largest network of field campaign staff in the first half of this parliament going as far back as I can remember,” one senior source involved in the party’s election strategy told me.
“There will be much better support from the campaign infrastructure and the grassroots of the party at the next election than there was in 2019. I guess 2005 was the last time you would say we really got all of those things right as a party.”
It is trying to rebuild momentum after its opposition to Brexit delivered a sugar hit to its finances and membership. Donations soared from £4m in 2018 to £20m in 2019, when the party adopted the “bollocks to Brexit” slogan. In the European Parliament elections that year, the Lib Dems came second only to the Brexit Party. But the success was short-lived. They performed poorly in the 2019 general election, losing one seat (leaving it with 11). Donations returned to around £4m a year. “Our membership took quite a hit after we failed to stop Brexit,” one senior source told me. “But then that has plateaued out, it’s important to get the membership zipping back up again but the Brexit boom – not surprisingly because we’d been campaigning to stop Brexit and we failed – did then peter out.”
Since that election, the party’s electoral strategy has shifted from opposing Brexit to opposing the Tories. It is now targeting the “Blue Wall” – the ill-defined sweep of seats in the Tory heartlands – and the commuter belt in places such as Hazel Grove and Cheadle in the north-west and Guildford in the south-east. As the party leader Ed Davey put it to me in December, “in our top target seats, they are all against the incumbent Tory MPs bar one, which is Sheffield Hallam [held by Labour], and two others which are SNP. So our target seats and the areas where we think we can make progress are the Blue Wall seats.”
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In Cambridgeshire, after the fall of Cambridge – a former Lib Dem stronghold – to Labour, the party is looking to the county’s rural south. “These voters are absolutely fed up with the Tories and in those areas, Labour just doesn’t exist,” another Lib Dem source said. “So if you want the Tories out, the Lib Dems are the only way to do it. And because of our sustained campaign, voters now know that.”
Lib Dem strategists are targeting two key demographics. First, “lifelong Tories”. These are voters who have always voted Conservative but who are now so disillusioned with the government they are switching to the Lib Dems. The by-election in the former Tory safe seat of Chesham and Amersham in June 2021, where the Lib Dems secured a 30 per cent swing, was the perfect example.
Second, the “Surrey shufflers”. As one source put it: “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.”
The strategy is proving successful. Since the 2019 general election, the party has won by-elections in Chesham and Amersham, North Shropshire and Tiverton and Honiton. The New Statesman’s election model has the Lib Dems winning Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton seat and John Redwood’s Wokingham seat. But the party’s prospects should not be overstated. Based on current polls, they would win 24 seats at a general election – far below the 56 they won in 2010 (although the figure increases once tactical voting is considered). Even with a more substantial ground operation, the Lib Dems’ electoral fortunes are inevitably bound up with the performance of the other parties. Ultimately, as the party leadership recognises, their chances may depend less on Lib Dem success than on continual Tory failure.
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This article was first published in January 2023