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By Ben Guerin
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Liberal Democrats Could Focus On Fewer Seats After Stalled By-Election Winning Streak


5 min read

The Liberal Democrats may have to “concentrate their efforts” and target fewer seats at the next election, after the party failed to win in Mid-Bedfordshire and came a distant third in Tamworth.

Last night the Labour Party achieved two historic by-election victories, winning seats from the Conservatives in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire where the Tories had previously held huge majorities.

When both by-elections were triggered, the Lib Dems targeted Mid Bedfordshire in particular. After Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary, and staunch Boris Johnson loyalist, said she would stand down, the party believed the seat was prime territory for them, having recently won seats from the Conservatives in by-elections in other affluent areas of the south. 

Shortly after the Mid Bedfordshire by-election was announced, one Liberal Democrat MP told PoliticsHome that “this is a rural seat in the middle of the blue wall, of course we are I it to win it". 

But in the end Labour won the seat with 13,872, the Conservatives came second with 12,680 votes and the Lib Dems finished third with 9,420 votes, although the result did see the Lib Dems increase their vote share by more than 10 per cent. 

A Lib Dem source told PoliticsHome the result is likely to encourage the party to refocus their efforts on targeting seats where it came second place in the General Election 2019. They were confident this strategy could increase their vote share and build an anti-Tory coalition. 

“I think that we've proven in the Mid Bedfordshire by-election, in previous by-elections and local elections, that we're the best party to take votes off the Conservatives,” they added.

"If you look at our own internal data, it shows we have been far more successful at switching soft Conservative voters to the Liberal Democrats votes and Labour.

"We don't want to take any votes for granted. We want to work with every vote. And I think that we've proven that we can build those coalitions in our target seats and get the Tories out.”

In 2019, the Lib Dems came second in 91 seats, of which 81 were won by the Conservatives. 

Prior to Thursday's by-election vote, Lib Dems understood the scale of the challenge in Mid Bedfordshire. A Lib Dem MP told PoliticsHome they believed the party overturning the Conservative's 24,664 majority in Mid Bedfordshire would require a “huge” effort.

Yet as Dorries stayed in her seat over the summer recess, they were confident that they could “listen to locals” and persuade them to vote for the party.

Sean Kemp, a former Liberal Democrat special adviser in No 10, told PoliticsHome the party’s strategy will not be based on seats such as Mid Bedfordshire.

He said most of the party’s target seats at the next general election expected next year will be in constituencies where they came a clear second place in 2019.

“It can be harder to encourage people to vote tactically at a national election,” he told PoliticsHome.

“Might this make it a little but harder to get people to vote tactically because they think Labour could also take this seat? Maybe. But I don’t think it impacts what the Lib Dems strategy or approach is” 

Prior to the by-election in Mid Bedfordshire, he said the party faced a “potential nightmare scenario” where the Conservative Party held on, and Labour could blame the Lib Dems for splitting the left-of-centre vote.

“What’s good about by-election wins is that it gives a sense of momentum,” he said.

“It gets [Liberal Democrat leader] Ed Davey on the television. Voters can see the Lib Dems are winning. So it's frustrating not to get an opportunity to do that. But if that doesn’t happen I don’t think it will be panic stations”.

The former Government adviser said the Lib Dems made a conscious decision ahead of the campaign to claim they could win the seat, as in recent by-elections this had “often proved true.”

“First of all, if you’ve got a really strong message, you know the Lib Dems will not be a wasted vote. Second of all, being on the front foot and confident gets voters talking about the party. And if they lose, it doesn’t matter,” he added.

Lord Hayward, a Conservative peer and psephologist, said the Lib Dems will continue to play an important role in British politics. 

“They have made a very major effort in Mid Bedfordshire. They believe it should have been theirs to oppose the Tories," he said.  

"They're really uptight about the Labour Party decision. It will hit confidence. It doesn't destroy it, but it will impact it. The history of Lib Dems defending seats is actually pretty poor.

“Ed Davey has quite sensibly said the Lib Dems are going to have to concentrate they efforts, after having been burned in the 2019 election.” 

Hayward felt that the Liberal Democrats still have a future, and will pose as a particular threat to the Conservatives in “middle class, Remain oriented, highly educated areas”.

“It’s going to be a difficult task for the Liberal Democrats at the upper levels, to tell their candidates in potential targets they have got limited resources and therefore can only concentrate on a certain number of seats," he continued. 

“There is that very serious risk that if they overextend themselves, they could be in serious difficulty." 

Reflecting on the result, one Lib Dem source felt Labour “campaigned really, really hard in the towns to get the vote out”. Another Lib Dem source said they had never met as many undecided voters going into a by-election 24 hours before the vote.

A Labour Shadow Cabinet minister claimed the contest in Mid Bedfordshire was “existential” for the Lib Dems, as finishing behind Labour would show that the ceiling for how many seats they can realistically win at the general election had been lowered by Starmer’s rise.

Over this Parliament, the Lib Dems have overturned huge majorities in by-elections and gained MPs in Somerton and Frome, North Shropshire, Chesham and Amersham. However, despite increasing its vote share, the Lib Dems will inevitably be disappointed it could not pull off another victory.

Additional reporting from Political Editor Adam Payne

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