The Monday Guest Slot – Andrew Saywell

The Monday Guest Slot – Andrew Saywell

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    Is Tory progress inevitably bad news for the Lib Dems?

The primary focus of any general election prediction or analysis is on the fortunes of the two main parties. However an often overlooked aspect of a general election result is that of the electoral relationship between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

Since the 1950s it can be argued that the performance of these two parties have been intertwined to such an extent that their electoral performance is greatly dependent upon how the other party has performed.

    If we look back at past historical results, then we can argue that the Liberal Democrats have performed well, or at least been perceived to have done well, whenever the Conservatives have suffered a poor set of results.

For example the Liberals were judged to have performed relatively well during the two 1974 elections, and in terms of seats the Lib Dems made spectacular progress against the Tories in 1997. On the other hand however, when the Conservatives have staged a national recovery, it has often seen the Liberals/Lib Dems put on the back foot instead, with the party turning in poor performances in both the 1970 and 1979 elections.

Even in 2005, it is possible to argue that the Conservatives modest national recovery in that election resulted in the Lib Dems suffering a net loss of seats against the Tories.

This electoral cycle is perhaps demonstrated most vividly in the South West of England. The region, which has essentially always been a Lib-Con battleground, has, in the past, swung widely between the two parties; the 1997 results were dreadful for the Conservatives, whilst in 1979 the results were equally appalling for the then Liberal Party, with only the immense popularity of David Penhaligon saving the Liberals from a complete wipe out in the South West.

Although in 2005 the Tories did succeed in making net gains from the Lib Dems, the election result was still a relatively poor performance for the Conservatives, who succeeded in increasing their share of the vote by just 0.6%.

If in 2009/10 David Cameron leads the Tories to a genuine recovery – i.e. a greatly increased share of the vote – where will this leave Ming Campbell’s Liberal Democrats? Although a 1979 type result is unlikely, a substantial national swing to the Conservatives could be devastating for the party both in the South West and across the country generally, for if the previous electoral patterns are to be repeated, then the Lib Dems would suffer a string of losses, whilst seeing their target seats slip away.

On the other hand, if Cameron falls flat and fails in his attempt to broaden the Tories appeal, then the Lib Dems could be reasonably optimistic about their chances in Conservative marginals.

Throughout most of the Post-War era the fluctuations between Conservative and Liberal/Liberal Democrat support have gone mostly unnoticed. However with the Lib Dems now holding 63 seats in Parliament, it is essential that the Conservatives make gains from the Liberal Democrats, or else rely on the rather unlikely outcome of gaining over 140 seats from Labour alone.

On a purely simplistic level, I have argued that a good Tory year equals a poor Liberal Democrat one, whilst on the other hand a bad Tory result, generally equals a good Lib Dem year. If Cameron does lead the Tories out of the wilderness, then according to history, the Lib Dems have a great deal to be apprehensive about.

Andrew Saywell

Andrew posts here as “Voice from the South West” – and is a Tory activist from Devon. He is currently studying at Lancaster University.

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