Party bosses will doubtlessly have been delighted by a recent article in the i, detailing the plan to win the Blue Wall at next month’s local elections. Forsaking a ‘clear ideological message for voters to rally around’, we will instead champion a barcharts and beaches strategy – convincing voters we are the best placed to beat the Conservatives alongside ideologically-light, hyper-local criticisms on sewage in waterways and NHS waiting times.
If the i article had one underlying message, it was that any attempt to build up a core vote has disappeared. We are now Blue Wall mercenaries, offering a chance for centre-right voters to express displeasure at Conservative ill-management and the hotchpotch of left-of-centre voters a palatable option. Outside of these seats, our offer is almost non-existent.
As a student, I can vote in one of two constituencies. Home is a three-way marginal between a Conservative incumbent, Labour and Plaid Cymru. University is the Green’s top target seat. To vote Liberal Democrat is to forfeit any influence on who will be my next MP. Indeed, this is the case for the 25,567,494 people in Great Britain who voted in the 530 seats where the Liberal Democrats came third or worse at the last election – 80% of all voters. Yet, it would be a mistake to believe these are electoral wastelands where liberalism goes to die. Nearly two million people in these seats voted for us in 2019. We retained our deposit in 70% of them. People like me voted for the Liberal Democrats not because of a barchart, but because we wished to cast a positive vote for a future we believed in.
Yes, it would be counter-productive to have more than a token general election campaign in a place like Bristol. But by abandoning even a message that resonates with liberal-minded people in it, we fail to motivate potential members who could travel to a nearby target seat such as Cheltenham.
The impact is more than political. As well as volunteers, you lose a membership channel and resulting subscriptions. You lose the big money donors who care little about parochial problems in leafy district councils. You lose Short money, calculated partially on the number of raw votes received. And you lose a lot of deposits: a uniform swing would see local parties £58,000 worse off than in 2019. Account for Police and Crime Commissioner and Metro Mayor elections and that number rises further. In the 2021 PCC elections, the English Party financially supported a county who otherwise could not field a candidate. In times of financial restriction, it would be catastrophic for funding target seats if this number grew.
With a membership mostly based in a small number of Blue Wall constituencies, you end up with a candidate pool for internal and external elections that reflects the makeup of these seats – whiter, posher and older than the national average: a problem our party does not need exacerbating. Moreover, declining memberships leads to larger local parties, often with a core based only in a small part of the area they nominally represent. Take, for example, one local party in the West Midlands which boasts a vibrant council base in one of its districts, yet fielded just a single candidate in the other two combined.
If polls stay stagnant and Keir Starmer is heading to Number 10, what are our medium term prospects for the election after next? Recent history has taught us that Liberal Democrat incumbents aren’t as sticky as once believed; just two constituencies have returned our MPs consistently since 2010. Even a moderate Conservative recovery could see many of our new gains lost. Thus, we need to make inroads in Labour seats. Yet, we received more than 25% of the vote in just four of them in 2019. Local successes provide room to grow, but the translation of council support into Westminster votes has to come sooner rather than later.
We must, therefore, rethink the current plan. A new core-vote plus strategy should be adopted and adapted for the current moment, ensuring we have a message that is distinctive and national while not losing the necessary discipline of our general election targeting. To recover from the 2015 result, the blueprint briefed to the i cannot be the long-term way forward.