John Curtice: For Westminster to ignore Lib Dems is folly

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The Westminster village has already decided it knows the result of the next general election. The Tories are going nowhere, so therefore Labour must be comfortably set for a third victory in a row. Yet such reasoning is folly.

The Westminster village has already decided it knows the result of the next general election. The Tories are going nowhere, so therefore Labour must be comfortably set for a third victory in a row. Yet such reasoning is folly.

It simply ignores the Liberal Democrats. Yet, at 22.5 per cent, the party's current average poll rating is healthier than at any time since Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994. Given that their vote usually goes up under the spotlight of a general election campaign, the Liberal Democrats appear well placed to pass the record 26 per cent won by the Liberal/SDP Alliance in 1983.

To this prospect the Westminster village has a simple answer. Most of the seats the Liberal Democrats are best placed to capture are Conservative held seats. There are 15 seats that the Liberal Democrats could capture on a 5 per cent swing from the Tories, but only five to be won on an equivalent swing from Labour. If anyone has to worry about the Liberal Democrats it is Mr Howard, not Mr Blair.

This is to ignore two possibilities. First, while the Liberal Democrats may not run a close second in many Labour seats, by winning the support of disaffected Labour supporters in constituencies where the Conservatives are a reasonably close second, a Liberal Democrat surge could help the Tories win seats. After all, the party's poll rise to date has already helped markedly to reduce Labour's national poll lead over the Tories even though the Conservatives themselves have simply stood still.

Second, just looking at the arithmetic of the last election may be a mistake. In winning Brent East and Leicester South, the Liberal Democrats have already demonstrated an unprecedented ability to make progress in safe Labour territory, even though this month's Hartlepool by-election looks a tougher test.

The party has become an effective challenger to Labour in local government elections where once it was largely only the Conservatives who had to fear the "yellow peril". That the same may be beginning to happen in parliamentary elections should not be ignored.

Not that any of this suggests the Liberal Democrats are heading for a major breakthrough. They have themselves sometimes become overexcited at the Conservatives' woes and suggested they could displace the Tories as Britain's main opposition party. This ambition ignores the high hurdle set by the electoral system, which means they have to be as much as six points ahead of the Conservatives in votes before they displace them from second place in seats.

But a very different prospect does appear to lie within the realm of the possible. For if the Liberal Democrats take more votes from Labour, and in so doing help the Tories to win seats as well as themselves, then the next election could produce an outcome that the Westminster village studiously ignores - a hung parliament in which no one party has a majority.

We are often reminded that on the current electoral arithmetic the Tories would need an 11-point lead over Labour before they secure the keys to Downing Street. What is less commonly pointed out is that it would only take a three to four point Tory lead to deny Tony Blair an overall majority. And with Labour's average poll lead currently standing at just 2.5 percentage points, we are not so far away from that prospect that it can be disregarded.

So the Liberal Democrats have at least as much interest in trying to win Labour votes as Conservative ones. Such a strategy may not bring the most immediate reward in terms of seats won but it is the more effective route to power and influence. For in a hung parliament the Liberal Democrats could hope to use their leverage to pressure Labour into resurrecting its flirtation with electoral reform - whose introduction would transform the Liberal Democrats' electoral prospects beyond recognition.

How well placed is the party to help bring about such an outcome? It certainly has a favourable backdrop - the government is unpopular while the opposition still lacks credibility - but opportunity only becomes reality if it is seized and exploited.

The pre-manifesto launched last week seems to have the right mixture. Developments over the past seven years have worried middle-class voters who find they now have to pay for their children to go to university, are unsure of how much they will inherit from their parents, and who are no longer confident that they themselves will have enough to live on in retirement. By promising to abolish tuition fees, provide free personal care and pay higher pensions the Liberal Democrats tap into those concerns. What remains to be seen is whether the public is persuaded that the party could deliver.

John Curtice is professor of Politics at Strathclyde University

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