Focusing on ex-Tories, not a 'progressive alliance', is the right strategy
‘Tories repelled by Johnson can help the Lib Dems knock down the blue wall’, read yesterday’s Observer as Sir Ed Davey rose to speak at the Liberal Democrats’ virtual party conference. Over the last few months, the party has been in a buoyant mood, excited by the fact that they may have found a potent electoral strategy: namely, targeting disillusioned 2019 Tory voters in the south.
We should be careful about reading too much into one result, but the Chesham and Amersham by-election win in June gave Davey more than a symbolic victory. It could also be a blueprint for the party’s long-term recovery: scoring victories in constituencies in the south of England, reinforcing their status as the ‘anti-Conservative’ alternative and picking off disgruntled voters who backed the Tories in 2019. Our new working paper – ‘Breaching the Blue Wall’ – examines how likely that strategy is to succeed.
The clear lesson here is that there are a set of seats where – if the constituency boundaries remain the same – the Lib Dems can reasonably say they are best placed to beat the Conservative government. However, this cannot be achieved by the much-feted ’progressive alliance’ of Labour, Lib Dem and Green voters.
In the last election, if every single Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat voter had cast their ballot tactically for the best-placed ‘progressive’ candidate, then the Conservatives would still have won. What did the heavy lifting in Chesham and Amersham was a significant reduction in the Conservative vote share (down by 20%) and enough of a direct transfer of votes from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Democrats (who rose by 30%). It may sound obvious, but it is worth repeating: every vote previously cast for Boris Johnson counts twice for his opponents if they can peel them off the Conservatives instead of sharing the same voters among themselves.
In the graph below are the 17 places, above the horizontal x axis, where there was both a surplus of ‘progressive’ voters in December 2019 and where the Lib Dems sit in second place. It is, in other words, fertile ground for anti-Conservative tactical voting. Below the x axis are seats that would be opened up by a further swing away from the Conservatives. There are also another 16 constituencies where the combined ‘progressive’ vote is within a 5% swing of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are in second place. Among those are Witney and Henley, formerly the constituencies of former Prime Minister David Cameron and the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Going into the last election in Henley, for example, the Liberal Democrats were sitting in third place behind Labour on 15%. They are now in a clear second place on 30%. This means that the Conservatives have an opponent both better placed to win Conservative voters, and better placed to squeeze any remaining Labour and Green voters.
This is helped by the proximity of many of these places: it is a tale of relative strength in parts of London, Surrey, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire and Cambridgeshire. It gives what the political geographer Danny Dorling first described as an ‘epidemiology’ to the Lib Dem vote: where they gain seats and representation, that then spreads to nearby places. Interestingly, it is also a similar pattern to that which the party’s Liberal antecedents and its most successful leader Paddy Ashdown used to their advantage in the non-conformist south-west of England.
The seats where the Lib Dems sits second are disproportionately places with a large and growing number of graduates. This gives the shape of a graduate ‘core’ vote for the party: voters likely to be receptive to a message that is less economically radical but instead centred on social liberal attitudes and a competence critique of the government.
Could the Lib Dems once again become kingmakers in a political arrangement? The party will of course need to increase its visibility over the next two years, but if they are disciplined on their message and strategy, the political geography of England means Ed Davey’s prospects are perhaps brighter that any Lib Dem leader in quite some time.
Dr Alan Wager is a Research Associate at The UK in a Changing Europe, based in the policy Institute at King’s College London