7 Oct 2014

How are the Lib Dems defending their seats?

This morning I left the conference venue to take a look at one of the seats the Lib Dems are defending in Scotland. Argyll and Bute is also one of the most beautiful Scottish seats and there’s some pretty stiff competition.

The Lib Dems have held this seat since 1987. It’s now a four-way marginal. The MP, Alan Reid, could drift through a Commons corridor without being recognised. In Helensburgh,  beside the Clyde, you find even the disaffected and disengaged have heard his name.

Alan Reid pumps a leaflet through every door in the constituency once a month. It’s festooned with his image, his work schedule and Lib Dem policies achieved in government. It costs £5,000 a pop to post out something to every constituent but with the Lib Dem efforts now relentlessly focused on the seats they hold the parties’ limited resources don’t have to stretch as far as usual.

Personal touch

The Lib Dems have privately polled every seat they hold. The sample sizes aren’t massive but the party believes it is reliable work. They tell the voters who the local Lib Dem MP is rather than just polling the party name. That helps the Lib Dem tally but it doesn’t necessarily bring home the prize.

In Alan Reid’s seat, the poll showed him losing to a resurgent SNP who had leapfrogged from fourth place. But the polls then test how voters respond when they are told about different Lib Dem policy achievements in office.

Proclaim the rises in the tax threshold or free school meals or some other pet favourite Lib Dem policy and, the polls suggest, you can lure enough voters into your pen.

That’s the approach Paddy Ashdown shared with activists at a session on Sunday lunchtime. That’s the reduced national ambition but mighty effort going on behind the scene in Lib Dem seats up and down the country.

Outside forces

You can still be at the mercy of great outside forces. In Alan Reid’s case, if the devolution plans promised to Scotland don’t emerge to the satisfaction of Scottish voters, non-SNP candidates including Lib Dems like Alan Reid might be struggling on an extra front as voters punch them for what they might see as a broken pledge.

How many seats this effort will save is the question everyone ponders. Privately you hear senior Lib Dems talk of “up to 40,” “around 30,” “30-something if we’re lucky” and worse. ​

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