Thursday, May 12, 2005

The second election contest

Back at the start of the election campaign I blogged about how I felt this was really a two contest election. The headline one between the Tories and Labour, and the second one between the Lib Dems and the Tories. With a week since the result I am more convinced that this second contest is indeed more important than the main one. I wrote back then:

Why is this contest important: because it will determine if the current Lib Dem numbers are sustainable, or merely the result of anti-Tory feeling occasioned by the long spell in government that existed in the 1997 and 2001 elections. This is one of the most important questions for the long and medium term political landscape, and in some respects is far more important than who wins this election.

Well, the results in showed that the Lib Dems were able to maintain their place. Maintain, but not significantly advance. We remain in a two-and-a-half party system regardless about what the Lib Dems say for themselves.

Looking into the details of the Tory-LD campaign though there were some interesting little details that bear remembering, in case they should lead to anything in future years.

The first thing to remember is that the Lib Dems explicitly went after a 'decapitation' campaign of prominent Tories, including Michael Howard. It was spectacularly unsuccessful - almost all their targets increased the size of their majorities (Dorset North and Maidenhead - the seats of Oliver Letwin and Theresa May respectively - were two of the most talked about).

The second thing is to look at the eight seats that changed hands between the Tories and Lib Dems. The Lib Dems won three seats from the Tories, Taunton (1%), Westmoreland & Lonsdale (0.5%), and Solihull (0.5%) (majorities in terms of share of vote in parentheses). In comparison the Tories won from the Lib Dems Devon West & Torridge (5.5%), Guildford (0.7%), Ludlow (4.4%), Newbury (6.3%), and Weston-super-Mare (4.2%). A quick look will see the Tories won their seats with generally far greater majorities.

This means I think that, in the traditional LD-Tory battlegrounds of the more rural parts of England - especially in the South West - the Lib Dems look as if they may be vulnerable. However, in 2005 the Tories may have come ahead on points, but there was no clear victor.

Let me be clear however, the maintenance of Liberal Democrat numbers was no small achievement, especially in historical terms. But it reinforces a point I was making on election night. The Tories had a net loss of two seats against the Tories. Their surest games came at Labour's expense, and hopefully now the Lib Dems will realise this. They made a fundamental miscalcuation in going after the Tories this year. They are to the left of New Labour, and they should have known they did not have a gnat's chance of converting the Tory core vote to their way of thinking. Neither the tories or Labour have long managed the balancing act of winning big in both city and shire. Now it appears to be the Lib Dems' turn to see if they can bridge that divide.

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