We want the Tories out but a Lib-Lab pact isn’t going to happen
Recent polling, the three by-elections in July, and local elections in May all underline the deep unpopularity of the present government. The economic outlook is also dismal. Defeat beckons for the Conservative Party when a general election is called.
Labour’s opinion poll lead is consistently around 20 per cent: well in excess of the three point lead (roughly) needed to overtake the Conservatives in the number of parliamentary seats, and comfortably above the 10 to 12 point lead required for an overall majority.
Poll leads are, however, fragile. A 1997-style landslide is conceivable, but a minority government may be a better bet. For that reason, attention is being paid to the strengthening position of the Liberal Democrats, as well as the deteriorating position of the SNP in Scotland.
The Lib Dems have now won four successive by-elections with very big swings in safe Conservative ‘blue wall’ seats (and another is now on the cards in Mid Bedfordshire). There has also been a sustained recovery for the party over several years in local elections, rebuilding the local government base which was severely damaged in the Coalition years.
The Lib Dems have learnt that…what is good for the country can be awful for the party
Ever since the disastrous 2015 general election, the party has struggled to get out of single figures in national opinion polls (other than a 20 per cent peak after the European elections in 2019). It now does so regularly, consistent with winning margins in a growing number of target seats. Under Ed Davey’s leadership there is a patient and disciplined approach to building capacity. Realistic ambition suggests the party could return 30 or more MPs at the next general election. With expected SNP losses, the Lib Dems could soon return to being the third biggest party in Parliament with the profile that provides.
One striking feature of recent by-elections has been the extent of tactical voting with voters working out how best to defeat the Conservatives. This behaviour will carry through to the general election, specifically in 28 out of the 30 most winnable Lib Dem target seats, all currently Conservative held. There is no need and no wish to have some pre-election ‘pact’ at leadership level with Labour.
Parties will repeat the mantra that they are seeking to maximise votes and seats. But they will concentrate scarce resources where they have the best chance of winning and voter preferences will take care of the rest. A recent Redfield & Wilton survey suggested that 68 per cent of Lib Dem-inclined voters and 55 per cent of 2019 Labour voters are currently willing to vote tactically. These figures will likely rise once election campaigning gets underway fully next year.
The main political parties refuse to discuss post-election outcomes beyond insisting that they are going to win. They do not wish to prejudice their negotiating position in the event of a hung Parliament. They insist that “nothing can be ruled out”.
In fact, the possibilities can be narrowed. No one wants to work with the Conservatives. A formal coalition of any kind is unlikely; the Lib Dems have learnt that in our tribal political culture what is good for the country can be awful for the party. A looser, less formal support arrangement is less problematic. But support will carry a high price, not least because the next government promises to become very unpopular very quickly despite Labour’s desperate attempts to lower expectations. There could very well be a second election, as in the 1960s and 1970s.
But, if Labour wins the next election comfortably as the polls currently suggest, there are worse places to be than continuing to build up strength in opposition. The Lib Dems have proved that there is continuing opportunity and need for a party with liberal values and commitment to environmentalism, pro-European internationalism, a mixed economy, and remaking Britain’s decaying democratic institutions.
Vince Cable, former Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham and former leader of the Liberal Democrats
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