Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Paper Tiggers


Following yesterday's post about the state of the parties, I notice that Steve Richards has an article in today's Independent about why Labour and the Tories fear the LibDems (registration/subscription required, sorry).

Interesting though the article is, Richards makes one basic error. He writes:
At the next election, [the LibDems] will be in second place in a greater number of marginal seats than at the last election, breathing down Labour's neck as well as the Conservatives'. Here is the key figure from the last election: the Liberal Democrats are now in second place in 189 constituencies. They are chasing Labour in 104 of those seats.
Frankly, I don't know who's been doing Richards's sums. He seems to be conflating marginals with non-marginals. The figures, as I reported in yesterday's post, show that the real fight is still Tory-Labour in the marginals.

In seats where Labour's majority is 5% or less, the LibDems are in second place (or a strong third place, in the case of three-way marginals) in seven out of 44 seats. If we extend the definition of a marginal to a 10% majority, which is generous but not entirely unreasonable, the LibDems are in second place (or in a three-way fight) in a total of 15 out of 89 seats. If we throw in seats held by the Tories, the LibDems are in second place (or in a three-way fight) in 17 out of 45 seats. Let's be kind and throw in Moray (a four-way marginal, held by the SNP). That means that the LibDems are in a winnable position in a total of 33 out of 135 seats (remember, they're not always in second place in these constituencies). To reach Richards's magic figure of 189, we're going to have to extend the definition of a 'marginal' to a majority of over 15% and include seats like Wokingham and Aberdeen North - no one's seriously suggesting that they're going to fall (in Aberdeen North, for example, Labour polled 42.5%, the LibDems 23.9% and the SNP 22.3% - it would take a spectacular collapse in both the Labour and SNP votes for the LibDems to take the seat).

The LibDems, of course, are famous for being able to overturn huge majorities. After all, isn't this exactly what they did in Withington and Hornsey? Didn't they win from third place in Falmouth & Camborne? Yes, of course. But they'd have to repeat this trick in every one of Richards's constituencies to pose a serious threat to the main parties. And, next time, they won't have Iraq to help them (they might still have tuition fees, but this'll only be an issue in the university seats - they can probably count on holding Cambridge and Bristol West, boundary changes permitting). What's more, they'd have to hold on to all their existing seats, almost a quarter of which are held with a 5% majority or lower.

All this geekiness is merely evidence to show that Richards's claim that Labour and the Tories should be scared of the LibDems just doesn't add up. There is no "threat posed by the Liberal Democrats" which "must be addressed urgently", to quote Richards - certainly not for the next Election.


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