What happened to Lib Dem campaigning?
8 MPs, 8% of the vote. That is a result which is painfully easy to remember. It’s also a seats to votes ratio of just 1:1 which is, by the party’s previous standards, appalling.
In my history of the Liberal Democrat approach to political campaigning I looked at the history of this ratio. With 650 (or so – the number varies) seats in Parliament but only a maximum 100% of votes, a 1:1 ratio is pretty poor if you wish to be represented in Westminster. Yet from 1970 to 1992 the ratio varied in the narrow and low range of 0.7:1 to 1.1:1.
The 1997 Lib Dem breakthrough saw the party’s number of MPs leap up from 19 to 46 even though the party’s national vote share fell. This triumph of targeting under Chris Rennard saw the seats:votes ratio hit 2.7:1, going up again to 2.8 in 2001 and 2.9 in 2005. The party was both growing in support and getting increasingly good at turning votes into seats.
But in 2010 it slipped back to 2.5 and now this year has collapsed to 1.0, as if the party has lost all its acquired ability over the last 20 years to show a campaigning edge in key seats.
Some of this is other parties playing catch-up, especially the Conservatives who massively outspent the Liberal Democrats in many seats this time thanks to the de facto collapse of local expense limits
But that’s not the whole story, as for two general elections in a row now the party’s intelligence on what was happening in key seats looks to have been very faulty. The 2010 problems were epitomised by Oxford, where the party was still putting huge efforts in to winning Oxford East on polling day, yet slumped to heavy defeat there while losing the neighbouring Oxford West and Abingdon seat by a handful of votes.
This time the shock defeats of David Laws and Steve Webb in particular show that once again the party was losing in places without knowing it – and, as in 2010, matching up some of the decisions made on where to send resources on polling day compared to the results is a painful experience.
Well-intentioned mistakes, certainly, and Labour too had big problems with results not matching up to their on-the-ground evidence. Moreover, the figures published by the Lib Dems about doors knocked on, volunteers recruited, money raised and so on were all genuine and impressive.
Yet something went badly wrong with the party’s ability to campaign in Westminster elections. Changing leader and being in opposition isn’t going to fix that on its own.
(In passing, to mention constituency polling – there’s clearly a big question mark over the party’s own polling, but it’s worth mentioning that Lord Ashcroft’s seat polls were also often very badly off the final results, as Stephen Lloyd’s defeat shows horribly sharply. I’l write more about the lessons from this on another occasion.)