by Michael Meadowcroft
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.
The national statistics for the six elections, 1992 to 2015, are revealing:
|YEAR||LD VOTES (million)||LD %||MPS ELECTED|
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.
There are seven questions that need to be addressed in the light of recent elections, and particularly that of May 2015:
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.