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Sun, 26 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Lib Dems Calculate Newly Drawn Seats Could Boost Their Chances In Tory Targets

Newly elected Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Dyke with party leader Sir Ed Davey in Frome, Somerset, after July's by-election (Alamy)

7 min read

Liberal Democrat campaigners are increasingly confident that newly redrawn constituency boundaries for the next election could give them a boost at the polls in some seats where they have already seen success in local elections.

The boundary review, which was recently conducted to ensure composition of seats represents changes in the population, means that a majority of seats across the country will see some form of change in their make-up at the next general election. The new set of seat boundaries were published earlier this year, and the re-drawn seats have already begun to influence where political parties are focusing campaign resources.

PoliticsHome understands that there are a number of areas across the country where Lib Dem activists are confident that the new make-up of seats could play in their favour, generally in areas where Lib Dem council wards are merging into areas that currently have Conservative MPs or have leaned Conservative in the past, and campaigners are now specifically targeting their canvassing in patches.

The next general election must be called before the end of 2024, and the Conservatives are widely expected to lose thanks to political chaos unleashed by former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, with the grim economic outlook which has not improved much since Rishi Sunak was installed in No 10. Keir Starmer's Labour Party has consistently been around 20 points ahead in the polls since last Autumn.

While the Liberal Democrats remain significantly behind both the Tories and Labour, they anticipate a boost to the number of MPs they are able to return in 2024. Following a number of by-election wins from the Tories over the last two years, the party has already began to claw back seats in parliament after their numbers plummeted to a historic low in 2015. Sucesses in recent local elections, in which they have won control of several councils from the Conservatives, are also indicative of a fightback in the so-called 'Blue Wall' – traditionally Conservative heartland seats in parts of the south of England. 

 

The Liberal Democrats also made significant headway in a number of council areas with Conservative MPs. In May this year, they took control of Surrey Heath in cabinet minister Michael Gove's patch, and Stratford Upon Avon, where local MP Nadhim Zahawi had recently been sacked from his ministerial post over a code breach relating to his taxes. 

They also took the council in Windsor and Maidenhead, part of which is in the constituency of former prime minister, Theresa May.

One Lib Dem source said they believed that in-fighting in the Tory party has "completely distracted them from newly-formed constituencies" in which they should otherwise be charming new voters.

"We are finding Conservative MPs running away from some new 'Blue Wall' seats because they know the Liberal Democrats are on a winning streak," they said.

"In some areas, our candidates are getting on with the job and are already recognised as the MP in-waiting. The internal drama within the Conservative party has completely distracted them from newly-formed constituencies."

During last month's by-election campaign in Selby and Ainsty, one Lib Dem source told PoliticsHome that they were focussing their efforts in the parts of the constituency that will switch to the Harrogate and Knaresborough seat at the next election, one of their key targets. 

The Harrogate seat in North Yorkshire was Liberal Democrat from 1997 to 2010, and the party has come in second to the Conservatives at every general election since then. 

The seat was won by Labour, who overturned a Conservative majority of more than 20,000 in what was seen as a major victory for Keir Starmer ahead of he next election. The Lib Dems came in a distant sixth and lost their deposit, having failed to secure at least five per cent of the vote, a stark contrast to their performance in the Somerton and Frome by-election held the same day, where the party piled in resource and overturned a Tory majority of more than 19,000.

Multiple party sources have told PoliticsHome that in Yorkshire last month, they instead decided to micro-focus their attention on the small part of the constituency that is set to switch into a target area for them at the next election, playing a longer game to gain early support of this new set of voters.

The Lib Dems have also set their sights on winning Harpenden and Berkhamsted, a new seat in Hertfordshire that will comprise parts of three current constituencies, all currently represented by Conservative MPs, but contains a number of Lib Dem councils. Party leader Ed Davey selected the area to launch their local election campaign earlier this year, riding in a tractor that through blue hay bales in Berkhamstead.

Victoria Collins, who has been selected as the Lib Dems candidate for Harpenden and Berkhamsted, told PoliticsHome that there has been a “groundswell” of movement towards her party in the area, as demonstrated by local election results over the last few years as the party have made gains.

She said that she was selected before this year's local elections and the final results of the boundary review. “We were looking forward and saying ‘actually, how do we start building a campaign for the next general election?',” she explained. 

Within the new seat's boundaries, the party says that they hold 26 district council seats, compared to the Conservatives’ six, having gained 11 at this year's elections. In May, the Lib Dems won outright control of Dacorum District Council from the Conservatives and also took control of Harpenden Town Council in the patch. 

The Lib Dems are focussing a lot of their attentions in so-called ‘Blue Wall’ areas like Hertfordshire where they do not currently have many MPs. Because Collins is a newly selected candidate rather than an incumbent in an old seat, she does not have to balance the demands of an existing constituency with the campaign work within a differing set of boundaries. She believes this could play in her favour as her current job in sustainability affords her the time to campaign "day in, day out" for the Lib Dems. 

Last month the Lib Dems overturned a Conservative majority of more than 19,000 in Somerton and Frome in Somerset. Their new MP Sarah Dyke picked up 54.6 per cent of the votes in the seat with 21,187, compared to the Tories’ share of 26.2 per cent. Labour came a distant fifth with 1,009 votes. 

In the days leading up to the vote, activists campaigning in the area felt confident that they could win as constituents increasingly indicated they intended to vote for the Lib Dems.

The party had held the seat between 1997 and 2015, but the Conservatives had racked up majorities of around 20,000 in every election since then. But frustration with the current government's record appears to take taken hold in the region. "The Conservative government is putting on a show and talking a good game, but it hasn't done anything,” one former Tory voter told PoliticsHome during the campaign.

Like much of the country, Somerset and the South West more generally will see some significant changes in the make-up of Westminster constituencies ahead of the next election. 

The seat of North East Somerset, that has been held by former cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg since it was created, and currently has a majority of more than 14,000, will be divided between a new Frome and East Somerset constituency and the North East Somerset and Hanham seat. 

A Lib Dem source said that they were confident of racking up votes in the new Frome and East Somerset seat, given that it takes in parts of Bath and North East Somerset Council that have Lib Dem councillors, as well as parts of the seat they won with an 11,000 majority just last month.  

Overall, the Lib Dems hope to do better at next general election than they did in 2019 when they won 11 seats and lost one. While anti-Conservative sentiment has helped them make gains in a number of traditionally-Conservative areas during by-elections since then, it is hoped that boundary changes will add rocket boosters to their efforts to scoop up disillusioned voters. 

"The trend was clear before. Now it’s beyond doubt – the Liberal Democrats are back in the West Country," Lib Dem leader Davey said last month following the by-election in Somerset, just one of the areas where boundary changes are influencing the party's campaign tactics. 

"It’s time for a general election to end this Conservative circus and get these clowns out of No 10."

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