Who’ll win battles between Labour and the Lib Dems?
While most of the focus has been on the Tories and Labour we should not forget the other major battle-ground at the next General Election – those seats where Labour and the Lib Dems are slugging it out. And for me nowhere is more interesting than Manchester Withington – where in May 2005 John Leech for the Lib Dems turned round a Labour majority of 11,500 votes increasing the party’s share from 22% to 42.4% in the process.
Such was the scale of the Lib Dem victory here that it even took the bookies by surprise and I cannot recall there even being a betting market.
A feature in May 2005 was the level of tactical voting by Tories. On a day when the party was increasing its vote nationally the Tory Withington vote dropped by nearly a third to 10.5% – a move that played a big part in Labour’s defeat.
Manchester Withington is a classic university seat where a significant part of the electorate either works or studies at one of the city’s massive universities. It also has large Muslim populations all adding up to attractive targets for the Lib Dems in the post-Iraq War and post university top-up fees situation.
But will those conditions exist next time? Will a Brown rather than a Blair-led Labour be less alien to large sections of the electorate ?
Certainly a consistent feature in the polls over the past year is that a sizeable number of those who supported Charles Kennedy’s party in 2005 say they would vote for a Brown-led Labour. And Iraq, surely, will be much less of a problem for Gordon than it has been for Blair? After all the Chancellor was not the driving force behind Britain’s decision to support George Bush.
In those ex-Labour seats that the Lib Dems now hold, though, even the overall changed political environment might not be enough. The squeeze on the Withington Tories in 2005 shows the potential for tactical voting and you cannot imagine the local Conservative party putting in much effort. After all it is in David Cameron’s strong interest that seats beyond the reach of his party should not go to Labour.
The tactical voting proposition is harder to make where the Lib Dem is not the incumbent and the party might find it quite challenging in seats like Oxford East where it is head to head with Labour but was just behind in 2005.
On a personal note I have very close links with Withington. It is where I was born and brought up and where at the tender age of 16 I was elected to my first political office as Vice-Chairman of Withington Young Socialists. In those days, of course, Withington was solidly Tory and remained so until the 1987 General Election.