Why the Liberal Democrats want your `wasted' votes

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There was a glint in Charles Kennedy's eye as he commented on this week's poll in the Independent on Sunday, which indicated that if people believed that the Liberal Democrats could win in their local constituency, 39 per cent of electors would vote for his party. While he did not exactly brief a recent gathering of hacks that he was ordering his troops to "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government", he did remark that such a poll rating "would imply a Lib Dem government with a majority in excess of 120".

It may be the prospect of fatherhood that gives Mr Kennedy the spring in his step. But there were other statistics in this poll, below the headline figures (which still give Labour a solid lead), that are energising Liberal Democrats and should create nervous tension at Labour and Tory headquarters.

For many years the party fell prey to the "wasted vote" syndrome. My own stock response on the doorstep to any punter contemplating the Lib Dems was that their vote could, if wasted on a party that had no prospect of winning power, let in Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock through the back door.

Conservative Central Office had stock advice to candidates in the 1980s to scare the SDP/Liberal Alliance voters witless at the prospect that they might deliver a loony left Labour Party to power. This scenario was meant to frighten them into voting for me. Occasionally, of course, such voters might previously have supported Labour. So if Labour were my principal challenger, it suited me for such votes to be "wasted" in the Lib Dem pile.

The Liberal Democrat appeal for "wasted votes" is different to the tactical voting of 1997. Tactical voting was designed to appeal to Lib Dem and Labour voters solely in order to defeat the Tories. But this may now have run its course. The battleground for the Lib Dems now is against both Labour and Tory for their "wasted" votes. While there was never any formal Lib-Lab pact over "tactical voting", both parties shied away from territory that appeared strongest for the other.

Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrat party's chief executive and number cruncher, appears to be devising his own version of the "wasted vote" syndrome, a vigorous strategy to target many of the 196 constituencies where either Labour or Tory has fewer votes than the Lib Dems. Included in this total are, of course, seats currently held by the Lib Dems, but these still have to be defended. Beyond this, the majority of such seats are Tory held, with Labour in third place. But here the opportunity for Lib Dems is presented by one of the crucial findings of the IoS poll. This found that 29 per cent of Labour voters would change their votes to the Lib Dems if it could be shown that such a vote switch might actually result in a Lib Dem MP being elected.

So Labour voters in Tory front-bench, high-profile targets seats - such as those held by Oliver Letwin, Theresa May, Tim Collins and David Davis - become prey to the Lib Dem appeal not to waste their vote. As an example, Mr Letwin's majority in Dorset West is 1,414 over the Lib Dems. But the Labour vote is 6,733. On the basis of the IoS finding, while the ultimate strategy must be to defeat the Tories, the Lib Dem tactic will be to target at least 29 per cent of these "wasted" Labour votes.

The same applies in reverse where the Lib Dems are second to Labour incumbents but ahead of the Tories. A typical example is Birmingham Yardley, where 3,941 Tories "wasted" their votes in third place. Were these to transfer to the Liberal Democrats, the tenuous Labour majority of 2,576 would be vulnerable. The task for Lib Dems to convert Tories in such circumstances is more difficult. The IoS poll showed only 19 per cent of Tories would switch to Lib Dems if they were convinced the latter could win. But in these constituencies Lord Rennard believes that the Labour vote is also up for grabs. If he can then convince the necessary 29 per cent of Labour voters that his candidate can actually win, his party gains the seat.

The Liberal Democrats are convinced that much of the forthcoming election in individual constituencies will be fought "below the radar" of the national campaign. Mr Kennedy believes that three-party politics will render the results under the first-past-the-post system akin to "a game of roulette in which anything can happen; but our ball will not fall on zero". He mutters quietly about the political realignment in Liverpool and Newcastle, where the local government results yielded spectacular gains for the Lib Dems last June and have provided a springboard for enthusiastic parliamentary candidates.

At the equivalent stage in the electoral cycle prior to the 2001 election, his party was on 13 per cent. The campaign publicity enabled the Lib Dems to put on a further 6 per cent by polling day. They are banking on a similar effect this time. While the eventual outcome may reflect accurately the current polls, in terms of the share of the vote for each party, the number of seats each will get is impossible to calculate. Who got those "wasted votes" may well be the main talking point of the pundits 13 weeks from today.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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