Following the result of last June’s referendum on leaving the European Union, the Liberal Democrats have pursued a strategy of branding themselves as the ‘party of Remain’. While accepting the result of the referendum, the party has made clear that we still think that Britain should stay in the European Union, that there should be a second referendum on the terms of leaving, and that the government should pursue a ‘soft Brexit’ and seek to remain in the Single Market. Apart from being rooted in longstanding pro-European principle, this is also regarded by many inside and outside the party as a shrewd move, rallying ‘the 48%’ and finding a core message for a party which, since entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, has struggled to establish its identity. Lib Dems can point to victory in last year’s Richmond Park by-election, and possible a surge in council by-election wins, as evidence of the success of this strategy so far.
However, if the Lib Dems seek to gain parliamentary seats they are dogged by their traditional enemy: the First Past The Post voting system. Unless the Lib Dems can concentrate their vote enough to gain a plurality in more Westminster constituency, it makes precious little difference if they have increased their vote across the board. Therefore, it is worth asking how the pursuit of a pro-European strategy might work in practice. For this reason, I am focusing in this post on the Lib Dems’ chances at a parliamentary level in Greater London. London was the only region in England not to vote Leave, with some constituencies estimated to have voted almost 80% Remain. In theory, then, there are potentially rich pickings in the capital for an overtly pro-EU party.
However, as the scatter graph below shows, in most constituencies in London the Lib Dems are starting from an extremely low base.
I was tempted to title this chart, which shows each London constituency’s 2015 Lib Dem vote mapped against its estimated Remain vote, ‘The Size Of Our Task’. (Note: I have used Chris Hanretty’s revised estimates of the referendum result by constituency, but since most boroughs didn’t break their vote down to constituency level, they are exactly that – estimates based on demographics.) The most striking thing about this is that in 2015, in the 73 London seats, the Lib Dems only got more than 10% of the vote in nine of them. To give an example, in the constituency estimated to have the second-highest Remain vote in the city, Hackney North and Stoke Newington, we lost our deposit. In seats like these, the number of Europhile voters may be very high, but the swing which would be required to win would be huge. True, 2015 was an historic low point for the Liberal Democrats, and you can point to better results in previous years, but even so many of these seats are not historically areas of Lib Dem strength. Many of them are Labour strongholds, such as Tottenham where 76% are estimated to have voted Remain. Others are Tory safe seats such as Cities of London and Westminster (72% Remain), or Labour-Tory marginals where the Lib Dems might find themselves squeezed out (Battersea, Westminster North).
Let’s have a look at some more viable potential targets. Here are the four seats where the Lib Dems got over 30% of the vote in 2015 and which voted Remain in the referendum (highlighted in red).
These are, left-to-right: Kingston and Surbiton, Twickenham, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, and Hornsey and Wood Green. All four were held by the Lib Dems before 2015 but were lost, the first two to the Tories and the second two to Labour. Therefore, they were already likely targets for 2020, but all threaten to be challenging. In each of these seats, the Lib Dems have lost active local MPs who had substantial personal votes. Hornsey and Wood Green and Bermondsey and Old Southwark are also being reshaped slightly in the boundary changes, which on paper at least make them appear less favourable than their 2015 incarnations. There is also the sticking point in Hornsey and Wood Green, which is estimated to have voted 75% Remain, that MP Catherine West has been vocally anti-Brexit and voted against triggering Article 50.
The seats highlighted above might be called ‘New Remainia’ – areas where the Lib Dems did reasonably well in 2015 with quite high Remain votes. From top to bottom, they are: Richmond Park, Wimbledon, and Islington South and Finsbury. Richmond Park is the seat where the Lib Dem pro-Remain strategy succeeded in electing Sarah Olney, and is an area of historic strength for the party – this will obviously be strongly defended at the next General Election. The Lib Dems came within 484 votes of snatching Islington South and Finsbury from Labour in 2005, and the constituency remains virtually unmolested in the boundary changes which carve up its neighbouring seats. However, since 2005 the Tories have enjoyed a renaissance at the expense of the Lib Dems, and by 2014 there are no Lib Dem councillors in a borough in which, as recently as 2006, they had a majority. Wimbledon would be an interesting seat to watch under the current boundaries, with the Lib Dems obtaining a respectable 13% of the vote in 2015 and with a history of unspectacular but consistently decent Liberal and Liberal Democrat vote shares. Sadly, it looks to be eviscerated in the boundary review, being split between Putney (73% Remain, 6% LD) and Mitcham and Morden (55% Remain, 3% LD).
Now let’s look at some real long shots, Labour safe seats which voted by extremely high margins to Remain in the EU.
This cluster is, right-to-left: Streatham, Islington North, Dulwich and West Norwood, and Vauxhall. Islington North is the seat of Jeremy Corbyn, who has held this constituency with large majorities since 1983, and it would be an apocalyptic night for Labour if Labour came anywhere near to being threatened here. The remaining three constituencies make up the Borough of Lambeth, which voted 79% Remain (although again this area of London is heavily affected by boundary changes). The Lib Dems enjoyed some success on Lambeth Council in the Nineties and Noughties, winning 28/63 seats in 2002 and forming a joint administration with the Conservatives, and came within 3,300 votes of beating Chuka Umunna in Streatham in 2010. However, this is a very different Remain-voting area to Richmond Park: less afluent and more ethnically diverse, neither of which have traditionally proved easy ground for the Liberal Democrats. However, there are two potential wildcards. The first is that Chuka Umunna is perched uneasily on the edge of the Labour Party, clearly unhappy with the Corbynite drift of the party. It is in my view very unlikely that Umunna would jump ship to the Lib Dems, but if he were (for example, if he were to be deselected or fail to win one of the new seats in the boundary changes) this would at least offer an opening. The second is Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall and one of the few Labour MPs to campaign for Brexit. Hoey is in many other ways out of step with both her constituency and any of the factions of the Labour Party (she is in favour of fox hunting, for example, and she has said some very strange things about Assad and Putin recently), and would prove an easy target for a pro-European campaign if she were to stand in the successor seat of Clapham North and Stockwell. The size of her projected majority would nevertheless still be formidable.
Finally, there are the ‘odd ones out’ – seats where the Lib Dems performed well in 2015 but which voted Leave. These are Sutton and Cheam (estimated 49% Remain, 34% LD) and Carshalton and Wallington (44% Remain, 35% LD). Carshalton is currently held by Tom Brake, whereas Sutton and Cheam was Paul Burstow’s seat until 2015 (again, both seats, which neighbour each other in South West London, are subject to minor boundary changes). This is not, however, to say that a pro-European strategy will handicap the Lib Dems – under First Past The Post, mobilising a large minority of the electorate is often enough to win, especially if you can build on this minority to create a coalition with other groups of voters, such as those swayed by personality, local issues, or other national policies. It is worth saying that in both seats Remain performed at least nine points better than the sitting Lib Dem MP had the year before.
A brief survey of the electoral map of the capital shows that the outlook for the Lib Dems in 2020, even after capitalising on the strong pro-European sentiment held by many Londoners, is difficult. The main reason for this is the low base from which the party is starting in most constituencies: Lib Dems have long found it hard to make ground against Labour in London at the national level, and as in much of urban Britain the Coalition proved very damaging to Lib Dem fortunes, in many places destroying our base in local government. Another complicating factor is that the London Labour Party, always a strong campaigning force, has enjoyed a huge influx of members as a result of Corbyn’s leadership (although how active many of these are is a different matter). I am not a Londoner, and I have not included commentary about the strength of local parties, candidates, encouraging signs on the doorstep etc, bluntly because I know virtually nothing other than occasional gossip, having done no more than a couple of days in total of campaigning in London. I would certainly be interested to hear any comments from London Lib Dems. However, it is the 2018 local elections that will provide evidence either way, the first since the Brexit vote and the only real test of Lib Dem strength in London before the General Election. I anticipate that, based on these results, the core of our targeting strategy will be to defend our two held seats in south west London, and plausibly to make an attempt to regain one of our lost seats in South West London (probably either Twickenham or Kingston), and possibly to make an attempt to retake Old Southwark and Bermondsey. It would be a shame to allow ourselves to be overstretched in the vain pursuit of overturning large majorities on the Europe issue.
However, the question of long term strategy offers an intriguing choice. At the core of it is the question: is the Brexit issue a one-off that will fade after we leave the European Union and ‘politics as normal’ reasserts itself; or is it just the first harbinger of a new ‘cultural politics’ based on identity and values of ‘open versus closed’? If it’s the latter, then there is greater scope for a liberal party to gain ground over the longer term in many of the seats which I have profiled above, and the case is greater to develop more favourable-looking areas which have not traditionally been areas of Lib Dem strength. Moreover, this is true outside the capital in many cities and towns with high Remain votes that are potentially open to the Lib Dems in the long term, particularly if Labour remain in their current funk. Nothing is assured, of course, and in districts with low Remain votes this might limit the party’s growth (though it is worth noting that the party has enjoyed success in local by-elections in the past year in areas which voted decisively to Leave last June). While I wish to urge some caution, I am also a great believer in the power of serendipity in politics. If we are seeing a realignment in politics, and if we are willing to work hard for it, we may find success in hitherto unexpected places.
NB: Just as I was about to publish this article, a poll was published giving the Lib Dems 20% in London. This would be a dramatic improvement over the 2015 General and 2016 Mayoral/Assembly elections – but, as I argue above, a lot depends on where this new vote is located, and where it is coming from.