The electoral statistics for the forthcoming Copeland Parliamentary by-election do not look that enticing for Liberal Democrats, even with the party on a mini-run of double figure opinion poll ratings.
Not only did the party only poll 3.5% in the 2015 general election, but even the party’s best ever-result back in 1983 was just 15.9%. What’s more, Chris Hanretty’s estimates of how the constituency voted in the European referendum put the Leave vote at 60%. To round it all off, the constituency is dominated economically by an industry which the Liberal Democrats (nearly all the time, Ed Davey notably aside) have been consistently hostile to, for it is home to the Sellafield nuclear complex.
But in all that is an opportunity. If, that is, the Liberal Democrats do not revert to traditional instinct.
Because the traditional campaigning instinct – which is a general instinct, not a specifically Liberal Democrat one – would be to find common ground with employees at Sellafield, such as over how the council is run, and to play down the party’s view on their place of employment.
Yet there’s also an alternative strategy, hints of which were visible in the Richmond Park by-election. It’s not to play down your differences with a large chunk of the electorate, but instead to play them up.
Because that’s how you get the public to see that you believe in something. Which, for the Liberal Democrats, should be the priority for Copeland.
If the party was a tiny handful of votes off winning in 2015, a safety-first, play down the differences and point at potholes approach would have much to commend it.
But starting instead with less than a deposit-holding share of the vote, there’s the freedom to be braver and to gamble on something more substantive for the long-term: sticking clearly to the party’s guns on Europe and the environment, acknowledging that will drive some people away from the party yet at the same time benefitting from the opportunity to make it clearer to voters that the party does have beliefs and is willing to stick to them.
The failure to be more successful at that in the past has been a consistent burden for the Liberal Democrats. Time and again the serious research finds that, however much party members might disagree with this view, the public see the party as not having clear views and not being willing to stand up for what it believes in. Even in the electoral heydays early in this century, you didn’t have to go much beyond the headline figures to find the public saying, ‘you’re nice, but what are you really for?’.
Which is why the smart strategy in Copeland is not to be afraid of putting off many voters, it’s to welcome the chance. The chance to help build the core vote for the party which we so acutely need.