2022 Election Results: New Liberal Opportunities?

May 8, 2022 § 2 Comments

Somerset’s Lib Dem Win – Graphic from New Statesman/Britain Elects

So, the 2022 election results were very pleasing from a Lib Dem perspective. We took control of a number of new and old councils – Somerset, Westmorland, Hull, Woking, and Gosport – and knocked the Tories out of control in several more, including Tunbridge Wells and West Oxfordshire. We also heavily consolidated a number of existing council wins, including in South Cambridgeshire, St Albans, and Richmond Park, where we moved from already controlling the council to a state where the Tories were almost entirely routed.

A good night, however, is not a good time to avoid asking questions. Just as we need to understand why losses happen, it would be a foolish leader who failed to try and understand which factors were important in a win, whether we could have done better, and what this might mean for strategy going forwards. I’ve no doubt that such discussions will be happening internally, but here’s my take on the results.

The first question to ask is what predicted Lib Dem success. One of the key answers to this is “where were we already winning?” – this was a set of results that consolidated and advanced gains where we had strong local parties able to take advantage, and conversely one that saw relatively few breakthroughs and even the occasional loss where we didn’t. This is in line with how the party has been working since 2019, with a very heavy focus on ground campaigns and a tendency to retain quite a narrow targeting focus. We did somewhat better this year, not least because the government is more unpopular. In councils demographically similar to and indeed neighbouring ones where we did well, however, breakthroughs were not evident: Reigate & Banstead, Tandridge, Hart, Maidstone, and Fareham for example are all part of the ‘blue wall’ south of London and saw minimal progress, while nearby places which already had a good deal of strength were doing much better.

And so we come to our second consideration, which is how success tallied with strategy. In one important respect, the high internal focus on ground campaigns, success did indeed tally with strategy, in that the strategy was “get” – though, as noted, this doesn’t seem to have reached weaker local parties well. One critique we should be considering in the coming months is whether these results might have been further improved if some of the strongest local parties had been better encouraged to spend more time in neighbouring areas, perhaps lessening the iron grips we’ve ended up with in St Albans or Richmond Park but producing stronger performances in places like Welwyn Hatfield or Elmbridge. There’s a significant medium term net positive to “seeding” smaller but functional non-target local parties near to target areas: them being able to put up a fight prevents our opponents focusing their resources as effectively on our targets, whilst also building up groups of activists some of whom can refocus their efforts onto the target seats come general elections. Some areas with very weak opposition groups can also be proportionally softer targets where we can make surprising breakthroughs, due to the ‘Glasgow Effect’ (so named for Labour’s loss of the city to the SNP) where an incumbent party’s campaign infrastructure tends to weaken after too many years in power. The results we’ve got, in any case, suggest that we’ve done well on supporting ground campaigning but have been overtargeting our areas of existing strength and that’s something we could improve on.

In another respect, the strategy clearly has a problem. The party’s nominal strategic goal for a while has been to focus on the “blue wall”, a band of affluent, liberal-leaning seats around London and the Home Counties where, it is imagined, long-standing Conservative voters who dislike high taxes but aren’t exceedingly socially conservative and maybe voted Remain in 2016 will flock to the Liberal Democrats because they dislike the fact that the Prime Minister is an obvious law-breaker with no respect for the dignity of his office. Various variants on this suburb & leafy posh shire strategy have floated around the Lib Dems for some years, with a few breakthroughs and held seats but little wide-scale breakthrough to show. So it remains, as noted above: the Lib Dems have nail-scraped a lot of second places, and there is no question that this is where many of the party’s targets now lie, but the progress is far from even and tends to correlate better with liberal elbow grease than voter demography.

It is important to note that from the perspective of internal strategic discussions, the Blue Wall is a very southeastern phenomenon plus a few leafy suburbs in the north (Cheadle, for example). The reason it is important to recognise this is that when it comes to policy and messaging, it is these voters, not other groups of Conservative voters, who get brought up as the necessary focus: in policy working groups, for example, the pressure tends to be e.g. “can we avoid raising taxes on people in Woking and St Albans earning in the eighth and ninth deciles” rather than “what do we need to do to appeal to voters in the numerous council wards in Somerset that are in the bottom fifth nationally for social deprivation”. Both of these sets of areas are Conservative/Liberal swing areas – only the former is occupying the minds of senior party figures with any reliability.

These results show that that’s a problem, because our opportunities actually may not be where we thought they were. As noted, large swathes of the classic Blue Wall remain unmoved by Sir Ed Davey’s appeals to good governance and modest taxation: and yet, here come the Liberal Democrats to break through in Labour-facing Hull, and across the rolling hills of Somerset and Westmorland. These are not the wealthy suburbs the party’s messaging strategy keeps imagining, and indeed these are probably successes despite, rather than resulting from, that messaging. The Lib Dems in Hull include a number of the party’s most vocal supporters of Universal Basic Income, officially party policy but at present rarely mentioned by the leadership for fear of the tax implications. The Somerset win shows that the party once again has serious potential in the South West, much of which is badly off, badly connected, very rural, and increasingly sick of a lack of support from the centre.

If the party’s future lies as much in Kingston-upon-Hull and Yeovil as it does in Esher & Walton and Tunbridge Wells, this poses a quandary that must be answered. Is the party’s messaging to the affluent centre going to cut the mustard in a general election where we need to be considering the former areas in our targeting? Personally, I suspect not. Re-centring a more vigorous localism, being less afraid of tax if it’s needed to solve cost of living crises, and taking a somewhat punchier stance towards the institutions of a central government that is letting people down, rather than posing as the upholders of their dignity, may all be needed. The Misfit Coalition of voters, defined by their shared inherent issues with and demands against centralisation and authoritarianism, that were so important to Lib Dem success before 2010 might not be as buried in the past as some party strategists had hitherto believed.

The 2022 election results are a real, and major, success for the Lib Dems. But they also tell us some things about how we’re doing that might be difficult for the party to take on board: if we can do so and we can better link up messaging with our new target possibilities, there are serious electoral opportunities to increase our parliamentary and local representation. But for that, we have to realise what those opportunities mean and that, come a general election, we’ll need to ensure we support our local activists with a strategic and messaging perspective that speaks to the people on the doorsteps they’re visiting.

§ 2 Responses to 2022 Election Results: New Liberal Opportunities?

  • Nigel Hunter says:

    To me UBI is as important to areas like Hull as it is to Somerset where jobs, work, HOUSES (get more social houses for people to start life with) are needed

    • jubalbarca says:

      I’d certainly like to see a lot more discussion of UBI from the core messaging centres of the party – and yes, working out how we can get a good pro-housing message well worked into things would also help in some of these areas. It’s a pity the leadership are so quiet on both those things at present.

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