23 May 2001
There are not many advantages to being the third-placed party in the national polls, but one is that you rarely have to worry about lapsing into complacency.
Labour and Tory candidates sleep easy in the knowledge that they can call on vast swathes of supporters who will vote for them because they always have voted for them, or because their parents did, or because everyone in the neighbourhood does.
This is not generally an option in the Liberal Democrats, where the concept of a ‘safe seat’ does not hold wide currency. There are certainly seats that vote consistently Lib Dem, and where it would be a great shock to see us defeated. There is, however, no version of the old joke about how “a donkey would win around here if you put a red/blue rosette on it” that involves Liberal Democrat gold. If we stop working hard – and telling everyone about it – then our votes melt away like snow in summer.
That’s why the average Lib Dem MP, councillor or candidate goes through life with a perpetual look of worry on their face and a copy of the electoral register under their arm. It’s also why we enjoyed general election night in 1997 so very much: it was a joy to behold the stunned expressions of the Conservatives as they watched the disappearance of so many supposed ‘seats for life’.
In Sutton and Cheam Lady Olga Maitland had been grandly declaring that her seat was safe and she was therefore going to tour the country helping other Tory candidates. Paul Burstow beat her by 2,097. A band of Kingston and Surbiton Tories decided their campaign was won and trekked north to help Norman Lamont in Harrogate. Lamont lost by 6,236 and in Kingston Ed Davey scored a 68-vote victory that caught even him by surprise.
But to give the Tories their due, they adapt quickly when they find their turf has been invaded. Earlier this year I was involved in a scrappy by-election battle for a Conservative-held council seat, a genuine three-way marginal each party thought they could win. Initially, the Tories didn’t know what had hit them and complained in a leaflet we were “spoiling the election”. Presumably they had expected some sort of a genteel stroll where everyone would say “after you – no, I insist, after you” on polling day. But they rallied, and held the seat with an increased majority.
Labour, on the other hand, tend not to be so flexible. After I conducted a survey of residents’ views on a proposed development ([intlink id=”an-innovative-new-method-talking-to-people” type=”page”]described in a previous column[/intlink]) one of the ward councillors cornered our group leader at the Civic Centre and asked if I’d “lost the plot”. He also wrote a mocking letter to the local press condemning me for asking people’s opinions, which I’ve gleefully quoted in a subsequent leaflet. He didn’t seem to be particularly disagreeing with what I was saying – his problem seemed to be that I was saying anything at all in a Labour ward where I had no business venturing.
Some years back a friend of mine stood for the Green Party in a Norfolk County Council election. The victorious Labour candidate loomed over him during the count and barked: “You’re taking away OUR votes.”
His votes? Not likely – they belong to the people who cast them, and no-one else. And increasingly, people are making it clear that they will only give them to candidates who remember that and don’t take them for granted.