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Targeting - its effect on Liberal Democrat performance in the 2015 General Election

by Michael Meadowcroft

Introduction

My concern that the Autumn 2015 issue of the Journal of Liberal History would be too close to the end of the coalition and to the general election just a handful of months earlier to enable a rigorous analysis of governmental decisions and of the Liberal Democrats' strategy made me predisposed to be critical of the editorial decision. I was largely wrong and the articles under the rubric "Coalition and the Liberal Democrats" provide valuable material for the record and further research. Remarkably, however, all these accounts of the past five years wilfully ignore the consequences on the Liberal Democrats performance of its targeting strategy. It is a remarkable omission when, arguably, it had a pervasive and malign effect on the party's vote generally and was a major cause of the massive reduction in votes almost everywhere and of the derisory vote in many constituencies.

Put at its simplest, twenty years of targeting, under which, year by year, the party's financial and campaigning resources were concentrated on fewer and fewer constituencies (and local government wards) has left the party with just eight MPs and 8% of the popular vote. Whilst vividly true in its own terms, this statement ignores a host of other factors that impinged significantly on the strategy and its effects.

The figures show clearly that the introduction of targeting prior to the 1997 general election coincided with an increase in the number of MPs elected from twenty in 1992 to forty-six in 1997, and the one was assumed to be self-evidently a consequence of the other so that the efficacy of the strategy was thereafter unchallenged and could be applied unilaterally from the centre with increasingly draconian selection and support measures. As far as I can ascertain there was no review of the principle of the strategy and of its effects over the twenty years from its introduction up to last May's election. The disastrous results suggest that, even on its own terms, the strategy at best had failed to deliver and at worst it had so hollowed out the party in the 550 plus seats that were not targets that its base vote was minimal and that the party, no longer having a presence in some 85% of the country, could not withstand the adverse icy wind that blew fatally as a consequence of a coalition with the Conservatives.

The consequences of continued targeting

Targeting applied to individual wards for local elections has added to the problems of maintaining a viable party. We do not just have a constituency targeted but also individual wards within other constituencies. What is more, when a previously Liberal Democrat held ward loses its councillors, unless it can demonstrate its massive commitment to winning it back, preferably with one of the previous ward councillors, it gets struck off the target list so that the party contracts more and more and areas that had previously had a significant number of activists are written off and lose any party presence. The City of Leeds is a good example of the problem. There is, of course, the Leeds North West constituency, brilliantly held by Greg Mulholland in May. However, in 2004, in addition to the four wards in this constituency, there were eight other target wards, six of which were won. By 2014 there were only four such wards, just two of which were won. Thus in the run up to last May's general election 75% of the city was written off by the party and only in Leeds North East and Leeds East, where some colleagues disobeyed central party instructions, were there even one constituency-wide election address, (they just held on to their deposit in Leeds North East.) It is no wonder that we poll derisory votes in most of the city. Perhaps the most serious consequence of such targeting is that it does not hold out the possibility of revival. If party instructions are followed, no-one gets any support whatever in working sacrificially in a non-target ward with the determination to win it - as was a key method of success before the strategy.

Statistics

The national statistics for the six elections, 1992 to 2015, are revealing:

YEAR   LD VOTES (million)LD %    MPS ELECTED
1992 6.0 17.8 20
1997 5.2 16.8 46
2001 4.8 18.3 52
2005 6.0 22.0 62
2010 6.8 23.0 57
2015 2.4 7.9 8

It would appear that applying targeting after the 1992 general election achieved what it set out to do, ie it traded a reduction in the party's national vote for a large increase in the number of MPs elected. However, the results in the following three elections hardly justify the risk of ending campaigning in a majority of constituencies in order to release party activists in them to go and work in the designated seats. Clearly there was still a residual perception of a widespread party presence in that the total poll remained roughly the same in 2001 and actually increased in 2005 and 2010. This had disappeared by 2015 after thirteen years of a widespread lack of local campaigning activity and faced with the adverse political circumstances of that election, but even before 2015 the trade-off of "presence" for seats only produced eleven additional MPs over four elections - welcome to be sure but achieved at great cost. My conclusion is that there was an argument for targeting for a single election but not thereafter.

The issues

There are seven questions that need to be addressed in the light of recent elections, and particularly that of May 2015:

  1. Does the party wish to be a national party with at least a minimum active presence in every constituency? If so this is incompatible with targeting as practised up to the 2015 general election. Unless there is a widespread national presence there is no point of contact for potential members, for the media, for campaigning to change illiberal local policies, or for applying national policies and campaigns locally. At the very least, the Liberal Democrats cannot be a political party making the argument for Liberalism and seeking to recruit and sustain those who have a personal allegiance to that philosophy unless there is a party locally to join and to participate in, and this applies ensuring that there are activities for surges of new members such as after the Leaders' debates in 2010 and post-election in 2015.
  2. What is the value to seats that are designated as target constituencies in activity across the board? In Leeds over the fifteen years it took to win the West Leeds seat it was certainly helpful that there was activity across the city that was commented on in workplaces and in working men's club etc as well as producing a great deal of coverage in the local newspapers. Also, there is at least a minimal value in tying up activists of the other parties to inhibit them from working against the party in its key seats.
  3. Does targeting produce significant extra workers in key seats? Some additional workers certainly transfer their activity to help in key seats but it is only the dedicated party members that do so as most local activists only see a need to be involved in their local patch. Also, it is a diminishing return as the lack of local activity causes activists to become inactive.
  4. Is there a value in having as large a national vote as possible? I certainly believe that there is. I would not dispute that winning seats and having a significant parliamentary presence is crucial but the extended influence of the party's MPs, their moral authority and the political legitimacy of Liberalism is underpinned by a massive national vote. It is also important to the advocacy of electoral reform.
  5. Is there a viable alternative to targeting? Historically the example of West Leeds over the long years the Liberal Party took to win it in 1983. (Incidentally, West Leeds is currently one of the many seats in which currently there is no activity whatever.) We encouraged activity in all the Leeds seats and did not seek to "poach" key individuals from other seats but we had special "work weekends" and similar activities for which we asked for outside help - and got it, often from many miles away. The same tactic could be used now to designate "special seats" to which extra effort could be encouraged and directed.
  6. Is there a long-term effect of the strategy in the target seats? It is curious that there had still to be target seats - many of them the same constituencies as in 1997 - after twenty years. A concomitant danger of targeting is that it encourages a constituency to rely on outside activity rather than seeking to be self-supporting.
  7. Over a period of time, the establishing of a base Liberal Democrat vote of electors who identify with Liberal values, even if inchoately, and who are predisposed to vote Liberal Democrat even when the party is unpopular, is incompatible with targeting which prevents activity to seek out and to sustain these individuals.

Conclusion

The party's targeting strategy had a positive impact on the 1997 election but not significantly thereafter. Moreover, by curtailing activity in a large majority of constituencies, it has had a malign effect on the party's general presence in the country and has diminished the party's base vote. As such it was a contributing factor to the party's poor performance at the May 2015 general election.

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