Only the Liberal Democrats can prevent their own electoral wipeout in the west country

South West

By Luke Pollard

The recent polling by Marketing Means in the South West makes for very interesting reading. It is the clearest indication yet that the Liberal Democrat vote is collapsing across the region and the party is heading for electoral wipeout not just in the local elections but in Parliamentary contests too. This isn’t a reflection of just the swing vote shying away from Nick Clegg – it is a sign that the core Lib Dem vote is falling out of love with the party.

Let’s not forget the South West is home turf for the Lib Dems – one of their safest areas returning a significant proportion of the whole Lib Dem parliamentary party. Based on this latest polling if there was a general election tomorrow the Lib Dems would keep only three seats in the region. Read that sentence again…’keep only three seats in the region’…keep three seats in the entire South West.

The polling found that voting intentions in the South West (with changes from the vote shares in 2010) currently stands at CON 39%(-4), LAB 29%(+14), LDEM 18%(-17), UKIP 6%(+1), GRN 6%(+5).

It is very tempting to cheer the imminent demise of the Liberal Democrats. It is a defeat they have brought on themselves, not only by voting for every Tory ‘reform’ to our public services and cuts to public expenditure in the coalition, but for a catalogue of political sins going back years. Every Labour activist has a reason to cheer their downfall from one perspective or another.

I’m no cheerleader for the Liberal Democrats and in calling for them to get their act together it is not through some new found emotion for all things yellow. Highlighting that they are looking at wipeout is purely party political – it makes it harder for Labour to win the next general election. Let me explain why…

Whilst Labour stands to gain some seats from the Liberal Democrats, and a few more from aggregating anti-Tory votes, the real winners from the collapse of Clegg’s party is without a shadow of a doubt the Conservatives. An outright Tory majority could well be made possible by the victories in the west country alone. This is why we ought to be cautious about cheering on their imminent electoral castration.

Labour is rightly focusing our energies on the Tories and their cuts. That’s where our focus should be. It is not for Labour to help the Liberal Democrats out of their quandary; it is for Lib Dems themselves to remedy their own ills. The time for those who oppose the coalition to grow a backbone and stand up to their party leadership is fast approaching. This is their fight. I am not advocating giving any quarter to the Lib Dems – we should fight them in every constituency, but we should also have an eye of the consequences of the current political situation – the Tories win.

Posting this blog on LabourList may be the wrong place, perhaps I should have asked for a guest post on Liberal Democrat Voice instead? I know from speaking to Lib Dem activists in the South West that the coalition is hated by many Lib Dem activists. The careerists in their party know better than to rebel now or voice their public discontent but there is a groundswell of frustration and annoyance at the local level that is building. The leadership’s regional followers will, of course, deny this, but I’ve canvassed Lib Dem members who are coming over to Labour. Dropping Nick Clegg’s image from their leaflets is another recognition that their actions at a national level is akin to electoral blight.

An electoral wipeout in the South West is on the cards and the Lib Dems need to realize that only they can stop it. Labour needs to acknowledge that a Lib Dem wipeout will not do the progressive cause any favours either.

Clegg can rebrand the party all he likes – whatever it is called and looks like – the stains of the tuition fee u-turn, housing benefit cuts, teachers and police being made redundant, the VAT bombshell and more besides will be writ across any new shiny logo. Rebranding only works when it reflects a fundamental difference from what came before and that is not where the Lib Dems are now. They might be looking for a new logo but they’ll have the same focus – supporting the Tories in government.

This is not a thesis for liberal appeasement nor should it be a rally call to ‘arm the rebels’ within the Lib Dems. It is a statement of the unavoidable that if the Lib Dems do not help themselves to and try and extricate themselves from the coalition – or at very least amend its current direction, they will be wiped out in the west country and to an equal measure they can kiss the rest of England good bye too. I’m not going to be letting up on Lib Dem squeeze tactics when campaigning and nor should you – it is for the Lib Dems to decide what to do.

Labour needs to keep the pressure on and focus on winning seats, be it from the Tories or the Liberals on May 5th. That pressure will assist those Lib Dems who need a nudge, worry those in power and offer Labour the best chance of driving both the Tories and the Lib Dems out of power at the next general election.

If the Lib Dems don’t repair their poll ratings in the south west, the Tories will most likely win their seats, and Labour risks being put in the cold more broadly. It is time that the Lib Dems, in the west country, and further afield, saw the writing on the wall and did something about it – a Tory landslide across the west country will not help anyone who believes in progressive politics. Let’s see if they are prepared to do anything about it…

Luke Pollard was Labour’s candidate in South West Devon at the last General Election. He lives in Plymouth and volunteers for Plymouth Labour.

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