Politics is warfare without bloodshed, and elections are the purest example of political warfare that exists in democratic nations.
Now why is a Mao Zedong quote about politics being warfare in any way relevant to an opinion piece about a Labour Government you may ask? Well, oftentimes elections – much like wars – have entrenched frontlines where parties station their troops (activists in this case).
To the untrained eye, this upcoming election would appear to be no different, with the Labour Party looking likely to overrun the Conservatives in the ‘red wall’ and beyond – meaning that they will pick up a sizeable amount of seats.
However, there is another less profound but still significant aspect of this election that is all too often dismissed by pundits. That aspect is the Liberal Democrats. While still considered to be a political joke by many or just plainly inconsequential by others, the Liberal Democrats will be incredibly influential in ensuring the Conservatives are booted out of office.
The Liberal Democrats have quietly been building up areas of solid support in a number of Southern seats, most of which can be categorised as being relatively affluent, home to young professionals who commute to London, and on average voted to remain in the European Union.
This trend began during the 2019 General Election, and can be best demonstrated by looking at the vote share of Esher and Walton – the current seat of Dominic Raab and a seat which has never returned a non-conservative member of parliament. In 2019, the Conservatives majority was reduced from 38.8% down to just 4.4% – thanks to the Liberal Democrats rising from 17% up to 45%.
Now some may say that this is an isolated case, or cannot be sustained – yet in the recent council elections the Liberal Democrats went from 13 to 19 seats overtaking the Conservatives due to beating them in direct races.
This LibDem resurgence is primarily taking place in seats where the Labour Party are unable to challenge, which brings me to the crux of the argument. With the LibDems having a resurgence in seats they previously held but flipped to the Conservatives and in Conservative safe seats, the Conservatives are unable to solely focus on battling Labour and instead have to dedicate resources to their Southern (electoral) flank which leaves them weaker on both sides.
Now what does this mean in practical terms? Firstly, it means the Conservatives cannot run the campaign on a single issue – for example, “stopping the boats” as while immigration may be of relative importance to the Brexit voting red wall seats it is less important in the seats where the Liberal Democrats are the main challengers. This will present a huge challenge in communication for CCHQ, which will further compound the numerous challenges the Conservatives will face.
Now why is this important from Labours perspective? Firstly, it reduces the number of seats that Labour need to challenge in if they are to win a majority. Secondly, it allows them to better concentrate their resources by being stretched less.
Some critics of this belief would say that the performance of the Liberal Democrats is a non-factor. However, this is not the case – and is most evident when looking at the 1997 Labour Landslide. While it is true that the Labour Party’s majority would have been significant if there was no Liberal Democrat gains – the addition of a strong Liberal Democrat party enabled the squeeze on John Major’s Conservatives to be that much stronger and thus reducing their majority and ability to tackle Labour head on. Also in play during 1997 was the idea of tactical voting, which is where voters will vote tactically for the candidate best placed to displace the candidate of a given party – which in the case of 1997 was the Conservatives. Tactical voting will also be in play during this election, meaning that many anti-tory voters will lend their votes to the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats to further prevent the Tories from gaining seats.
In summary, it is favourable for the Labour Party for the Liberal Democrats to be in a strong position for the reasons I have outlined. With all of this considered, the electoral prospects of the Conservatives are looking ever bleaker.