Liberal Democrats bank on ground war to hold on to seats

Success depends more on what MPs do in their constituencies than on national trends, says party’s former election strategist

Liberal Democrats, apparently ambling towards an electoral cliff at the next election, are hoping that an intensive localised ground war based on individual MPs’ track records and incumbency will avert the loss of the 30 or so MPs currently predicted by polls.

The party is hoping its 57 MPs will in effect fight 57 varieties of byelections to prevent the Liberal Democrats slipping back to the kind of 20-strong force it was in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

Speculation about how the Liberal Democrats will fare in two years’ time is not academic. The private assessment of Liberal Democrat MPs on whether they will personally survive a 2015 election will be critical to Nick Clegg’s own survival as party leader.

Lord Rennard, the party’s former election strategist, insists the party should not be ground down by low national polls.

“The fate of our MPs and candidates will depend much more on what they do in their constituencies than what polls suggest is happening in other seats,” he says. “There will be a national air war and messages, but a lot will depend on a ground war and ensuring that we focus our resources in the right place. In 2010 we spread ourselves too widely.”

He argues: “Most forecasts based crudely on national polls assuming ‘uniform swing’ will as usual be quite wrong – providing that we get things right in the constituency messaging and campaign.”

Senior party sources acknowledge its sitting MPs probably face a harder task when their nearest challenger on the basis of 2010 election result is Labour rather than Conservative.

They still believe that in Liberal Democrat held seats faced by a Tory challenge, Labour voters are now well used to voting tactically to keep out Conservatives, and – whatever disillusionment they may have with Clegg’s coalition choice, spending cuts and tuition fees – they will recognise the futility of voting Labour simply to punish Clegg.

The Conservatives are in second place in 38 Lib Dem seats, of which 20 would fall to David Cameron on a swing of 5%. Grant Shapps, the Conservative party chairman, has promised he will show no mercy to the Liberal Democrats, and a quarter to a half of the 40 seats targeted by his party for gains will be seats held by their coalition partners. How Cameron pitches his appeal to damage Clegg is one of the Conservatives’ most intriguing political tasks.

Labour is challenging the sitting Liberal Democrat MPs in 19 seats, nine of which could be won on swings of less than 5%.

Overall, as an index of Lib Dem vulnerability, 14 of their MPs would be thrown out by a swing away from Clegg’s party of just 3%.

The optimists in the party point to solid academic evidence confirming incumbency matters, as well as to the fragmentary evidence showing that the party in 2012 local elections did better in areas where it had a sitting MP and the Liberal Democrats are seen as credible.

However, these elections did not cover Scotland or most of the south west of England, where 26 of its crop of MPs reside.

In one of Clegg’s most astute appointments, Lord Ashdown, the energetic and popular former party leader, has been given the task of preparing the election campaign. Battle-hardened organisers are already reporting five emails and texts a day from Ashdown, a man to whom few in the party say no.

One of his preliminary tests will be to do well in the May county elections, especially in the south west, where many Liberal Democrat MPs face battles to see off a Tory challenge. There have been relatively few electoral tests in the south west since 2010, so it will be an early gauge of “the range of badness” facing the Liberal Democrats in 2015.

In counties such as Cornwall, Devon and Somerset – the so-called yellow triangle – the Liberal Democrats did poorly in the equivalent elections in 2009, losing nine council seats in Somerset, 19 in Devon and taking only 28% of the vote in Cornwall. There is a raft of vulnerable looking seats in the area: Somerset and Frome, Mid-Dorset, St Austell, Torbay, Wells, St Ives and Cornwall North.

More broadly, the party could do with a morale boost after a continual tale of electoral woe. It lost 400 seats in 2012 following a loss of more than 800 in 2011, and for the first time since the creation of the Liberal Democrats, the party now has fewer than 3,000 councillors, a sharp decline since 1996 when it boasted more than 5,000.

Similarly in Scotland, the party needs some good news. The 2011 elections left the party with two constituency MSPs (for Orkney and Shetland) and three regional list MSPs. The party lost nine constituency MSPs as well as three regional list MSPs, with reversals in formerly safe seats in Edinburgh, Fife and the Highlands. The party’s constituency vote fell to just 7.9% (down 8.2 percentage points). Nevertheless, figures such as Danny Alexander, Malcolm Bruce, Ming Campbell, Alistair Carmichael, Michael Moore and Charles Kennedy look safe from the coming electoral retribution.

But the bulk of the 2013 elections are in Conservative English heartlands, with the Tories defending 1,530 seats, the Liberal Democrats 484 and Labour only 180. Lib Dem MPs will be anxiously scouring the results for signs of a revival.

The wider irony is that Cameron may need to see the Liberal Democrats recover, either with or without Clegg, if he is to capture Labour-held seats.

There are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory. If Lib Dems continue to defect to Labour disproportionately, as they clearly have so far, Cameron is the loser.

But it is a fine calculation for Cameron, putting aside the wider politics, whether he should favour Clegg’s defenestration.

A revived Liberal Democrats led, for instance, by Vince Cable might make it more difficult for Cameron to win Lib Dem held seats, but easier to win Con-Labour marginals, as disaffected Liberal Democrats desert Labour and return to the Lib Dem fold. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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