The problem with the Lib Dems’ anti-Brexit strategy

The snap General Election called for June 2017 would appear to be a significant opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. In contrast with Labour’s mixed messages on Brexit, the Lib Dems are offering a much clearer stance on Brexit, positioning themselves as the party who will stop a hard Brexit and keep the UK in the single market. Could this year’s election provide an opportunity for the Lib Dems to become the party to speak for the 48% of the UK electorate who voted Remain in last year’s referendum?

The problem, as ever, for the Lib Dems is the UK’s First Past The Post electoral system. An ardently anti-Brexit campaign will target seats that both voted heavily against Brexit, and where the Lib Dems polled a respectable share of the vote following their near annihilation in 2015’s General Election. The problem is that there are few constituencies that meet this criteria.

The following chart illustrates the problem. This chart shows the vote for Brexit on the y-axis, the share of the vote received by the Liberal Democrats in 2015 on the x-axis, and the winning party for each seat. The target area of reasonably high Lib Dem support in 2015 and a large vote for Remain is highlighted in orange.

There are lean pickings to be had in this area, all but two (Winchester, and Oxford West & Abingdon) of which were won by the Lib Dems in 2010. Of the 14 seats that they do not currently hold, five were won by the SNP in 2015, four by the Conservatives and five by Labour.

The following chart shows the same data, except it shows the name of the seat (these are mostly impossible to read, but should be ok for the Lib Dem target seats that we are interested in).

None of these contests look like straightforward pickups for the Lib Dems. Gaining any of the Scottish seats back will be an uphill battle, given the poor state of the party in polls in Scotland at the minute. A surge in Tory support could make it difficult to unseat any incumbent Conservatives, and the Labour targets such as Bermondsey and Hornsey & Wood Green are urban London constituences which are more likely to be supportive of the current Labour leadership than many other Labour areas.

Just outside the orange box is Richmond Park, which the Lib Dems won in a by-election in December 2016. However it can be seen from the chart that this is a fairly idiosyncratic constituency in terms of both its support for the Lib Dems in 2015 and its strong pro-Remain vote. The only comparable seat is the currently Labour-held Bristol West, where the Liberal Democrats received 18.8% of the vote in 2015, coming third behind the Greens, who view this as one of the best opportunities to increase their representation in the Commons from the one MP that they currently have.

The chart below shows the same data as the other charts, except that the constituencies are coloured by the winner in 2010.

Many of the seats that the Liberal Democrats lost in 2015 were in areas that subsequently voted to leave in 2016. It will prove challenging in such areas to retake these, especially given that the majority of these seats fell to the Tories, whose support in the opinion polls are at highs not seen since the early 90s.

The Liberal Democrats may well regain some of their lost support in this election by casting themselves as the anti-Brexit party, but converting this potential increase in support to seats is very difficult under First Past The Post.

That said, the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to see their support fall from their disastrous result in 2015, and even where they don’t win they may be able to build support and position themselves for gains in future electoral cycles.

The Labour Party, on the other hand, could find themselves facing a disaster of historic proportions.

Data Souces:
EU Referendum data: House of Commons Library blog
General Election 2010 & 2015 results: Electoral Commission