A combination of finishing up my university degree and not wanting to make any predictions too early means that this is my first, and most likely last, blog post of the 2017 general election. As we head into the last few days of campaigning, I want to take a look into the question that will be plaguing the minds of many Lib Dem members and supporters; where exactly will the party be by Friday morning?
Before I start I feel it’s important to point out that I have very little insider knowledge, and that the views and opinions that follow are formed from a mixture of reading widely around the subject, spending an awful lot of time within the Lib Dem bubble, either on social media or on the campaign trail, and pure gut instinct (my gut got Brexit wrong but Trump right, if you want to judge how accurate my gut can be).
One of the most commonly held views amongst many commentators is that the Lib Dems will lose seats on June 8th. This view appears mostly to be based on national opinion polling figures, which would suggest that in particular the collapse of the UKIP vote, which appears to transfer mainly to the Conservatives, alongside little to no movement in favour of the Lib Dems, would be enough to see the Tories over the line in the remaining Lib Dem / Conservative marginals that were not already captured in 2015. The problem with this theory is that it is based almost entirely on the idea of a uniform national swing, something that in reality is unlikely to happen, and also takes little into account of the fact that the Lib Dems’ campaign has been so ruthlessly targeted, and that whilst national polling figures are poor, canvass data in target seats is more of an unknown. Whether it is a sheer determination to ignore reality or not I am not sure, but in many party circles the idea that the Lib Dems will lose seats on Thursday is treated as less credible, with a favourite line of many party activists being that if the SNP can win 50+ seats on a national vote share of ~4%, it’s still perfectly possible for the Lib Dems to go forward at this election as long as the right target seats have been picked.
It’s been interesting to note that even this late into the campaign, Tim Farron continues to spend the majority of his time in seats that the Lib Dems are looking to gain at this election, rather than defend, which does not play into the narrative that the Lib Dems are on the back foot and fighting for their very survival. For all the talk of a Labour surge, Jeremy Corbyn continues to spend the majority of his time in seats that Labour currently hold, and so both in the case of the Lib Dems and Labour it seems likely that the opinion polls are not telling the entire story. This is further backed up by where Lib Dem activists continue to be sent. I live in the south of England, and on Saturday evening received a phone call from HQ asking me to go and help in Portsmouth South, a target seat currently held by the Conservatives. If the Lib Dems were in as dire trouble as some make out, it does not seem inconceivable to me that I would have been asked to go to Carshalton & Wallington or Richmond Park, both currently held Lib Dem seats that are within a reasonable travel time of where I live.
Many, including myself, have been critical of the Lib Dems’ national campaign, I still maintain that the best way for the party to have increased its vote share at this election would have been to offer up a more centrist, economically liberal message that could well have become too irresistible for many Tory remainers to ignore. However, if you start to view the national campaign not as an attempt to build mass appeal across the country, but as a mere extension of the local campaigns being run in target seats, it begins to make far more sense. The vast majority of Lib Dem target seats at this election are Tory facing, meaning that many Labour and Green tactical votes will be required to see the Lib Dems over the line. By positioning the party as almost “Labour-lite” nationally, this only goes to reinforce the message to Labour and Green supporters in target seats that the Lib Dems are a safe vote this time around. Whilst this is not a strategy I would endorse long-term, as any future coalition with the Conservatives would likely cause a repeat of the 2015 result, I am willing to accept that for this snap election it may not be a bad tactic to employ.
It would be false however to therefore assume that the Lib Dems will sweep up all their Conservative facing target seats and return to parliament with 20+ new seats to their name. However well the campaigns in target seats may be going, they’re clearly not going well enough that activists are being told to move on to new targets, indeed the target seat list appears to be very much the same as it was when the election was called. To believe that the results in these target seats will be anything other than close is foolhardy, and this is why the last few days of the campaign are crucial, and much of the Lib Dems success or failure lies on just how much the Labour vote can be squeezed. If the Labour vote can be squeezed significantly, then reasonable gains are still on the cards, however if Labour voters are determined to stand by their man in Jeremy Corbyn, rather than risk a vote for the “untrustworthy” Lib Dems, then success will be much harder to come by.
Naturally, it will go better in some places than others, and if I was to estimate a total seat count by the end of play on Friday morning I’d probably go with the Lib Dems on anything between 10-15 seats, with a particularly poor night seeing the party on something more like 5-7, and an exceptionally good night looking like 18-20 seats, if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on 12. I do not see decimation on the cards, as the particularly poor campaign that the Conservatives have also run should be enough to see the Lib Dems keep hold of more than most of their Tory facing seats, whilst the fear of Jeremy Corbyn amongst Conservative supporters should see the Lib Dems over the line in their Labour facing seats. It’s not perhaps the return to the heady days of the mid to late 2000s that many will have dreamed of at the start of the campaign, but just two years on from the disaster of 2015, 10-15 seats should still be seen as reasonable progress.