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Home / Simon Wren-Lewis / The Liberal Democrats in the next General Election may win a few seats at the expense of a Johnson overall majority

The Liberal Democrats in the next General Election may win a few seats at the expense of a Johnson overall majority

Summary:
Brexit could be decided in the forthcoming General Election. If Johnson wins an overall majority (or a majority with the DUP) then Brexit will happen: maybe something like May’s deal but more probably No Deal. As I suggested in my last post, holding a People’s Vote before the General Election has no impact on that reality. If in contrast Labour wins (most probably with a Labour/SNP understanding) then Brexit dies at least until the following election. That is because Corbyn is sure to lose a Public Vote on his own deal (if it gets that far), because the Tories will not take part and Remainers will back Remain. There is a messy third outcome, where neither the Tories or Labour have a workable majority. Even if that parliament contains a majority of MPs who support a referendum, holding one

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Brexit could be decided in the forthcoming General Election. If Johnson wins an overall majority (or a majority with the DUP) then Brexit will happen: maybe something like May’s deal but more probably No Deal. As I suggested in my last post, holding a People’s Vote before the General Election has no impact on that reality. If in contrast Labour wins (most probably with a Labour/SNP understanding) then Brexit dies at least until the following election. That is because Corbyn is sure to lose a Public Vote on his own deal (if it gets that far), because the Tories will not take part and Remainers will back Remain.

There is a messy third outcome, where neither the Tories or Labour have a workable majority. Even if that parliament contains a majority of MPs who support a referendum, holding one which the Tories would boycott may simply provide ammunition for the Tories in a further General Election that might soon follow. In the absence of a political programme that distracts people from Brexit, Brexit will stay as a central issue, referendum or no refrendum. 

Here we get to a difficult truth that many Liberal Democrats deny. A Public Vote will only settle the Brexit issue if the Tories take part, which they are very unlikely to do, or if it is followed by a period of years when Leavers get bored with the issue. Only a Labour government, minority or majority, can do that. An unstable minority government cannot do that when Brexit is the Tories strong card. 

Here we get to an irony that is again lost on too many LibDem supporters. The LibDems are where they are in the polls in part because Corbyn’s Brexit obstinacy gifted them a whole bunch of Remain votes. Yet if those voters who voted LibDem in the European elections, and now say they support the LibDems, actually vote LibDem in the General Election in Lab/Con marginals, then this hands the election to the Tories. The LibDems may gain a few more seats, but they will have helped Johnson get Brexit over the line.

Everyone knows this is Cummings’ strategy. Polling suggests that even though many Brexit supporters in Lab/Con marginals may be reluctant to support the Conservatives, they could be persuaded to stay at home or vote LibDem. As James Crouch of Opinium wrote:
“I have outlined how the Liberal Democrats face an incredible struggle to have the impact in seats that they think a large shift in votes their way should suggest. But is a large shift of votes their way likely? Yes, at the moment I’d say so, but in particular places yielding few seats.More important questions are from where do these votes come? And who will benefit from this shift? Unfortunately, the one party unlikely to benefit is the Lib Dems themselves. Expect the impact to be felt far more noticeably in Conservative-Labour marginal seats, where a very large number of constituencies with tiny majorities could switch hands purely because one party’s voter base crumbled quicker than the other.”

There is a danger Liberal Democrats will lose sight of this important point in their overambition, such as the 200 seats that Chuka Umunna has suggested. You have to be a pretty devoted LibDem to celebrate, say, doubling your seat total at the expense of a government led by Johnson that enacts a No Deal Brexit. For the LibDems to really celebrate after the election, they need the overall result to favour Labour and not the Tories.

Everyone knows that most of the LibDem target seats are those with a current Tory MP. If the LibDems are to do well it will be because they win a lot of this type of seat. Furthermore if the LibDems are to do really well rather than just well, that difference is entirely made up of current Tory seats, as Dr Alan Wager and Guy Russo show. This means that the LibDems need to target Tory voters, not Labour voters.

This chimes with what should be their long term strategy. The Liberal Democrats can only avoid coming a poor third or forth in successive General Elections in two ways. The first is by persuading one of the two major parties to adopt electoral reform. They had that chance with the Tories in 2010 and blew it. They will never get the party of Brexit and Johnson to adopt voting reform. It will not be easy with Labour either, but with a minority Labour government and the right leader they have a non-zero chance.

The second is by replacing one of the two major parties. The SDPtried to replace Labour the last time both parties forsook the centre ground of politics and failed, essentially because Labour moved towards the centre. If you look at where the two major parties are right now, you need to ask which is promoting the more extreme policies (Brexit versus European social democracy) and which is less flexible. It seems to me that a combination of the Farage threat in the wings, Conservative party members radicalised by the press, and an extreme neoliberal ideology, the Tories are not going to be changing tack anytime soon.

So with the possible exception of a few constituencies, the LibDem target seats are Tory seats, and this fits into their longer term strategy. For seat gains to mean anything they need to avoid a Tory victory. They want to encourage both Tories and Labour voters in Tory/LinDem marginals to vote LibDem, but they should discourage Labour voters to vote LibDem in Lab/Con marginals.

I understand why they cannot do that publicly by endorsing tactical voting, because it might lose them Tory votes in the marginals they need to win. But I do wonder sometimes if the LibDem leadership understand what their strategy needs to be. The constantuse of multi-party meetings designed to stop No Deal to negatively brief about Labour is not just annoying, I suspect it hinders rather than helps the LibDems achieve what is in their best interests.

The Liberal Democrats are the natural home of Conservative Remainers, and most are unlikely to even contemplate voting Labour. So pursuing a strategy of suggesting Labour will be responsible for No Deal does not gain them many votes in their target seats. What it might do is persuade some Labour voters in Lab/Con marginals not to vote Labour, which does not help the LibDems. Some supporters might be getting excited about being ahead of Labour in the odd poll, but if they do beat Labour in the popular vote it will mean one thing for sure: a Tory government with an overall majority that will enact a hard or No Deal Brexit.




Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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