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

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  • aquifer

    The Lib Dems policy of a second referendum is a potential Brexit blocker which also appears to respect voters, but will the remainer electorate understand it well enough to move the LDs to seat contenders?

    A good policy for the SDLP to clone from Alliance, our local LDs, given the local relevance of referenda.

  • jporter

    The Lib Dems have their USP and fair play to them, but I suspect the average UK voter, no matter how they voted in the referendum, has moved to acceptance of the result and this election is only about Brexit in so far as who is seen as most capable of delivering it.
    No matter what the doom and gloom, the British attitude, naive though many may see it (and borne of centuries of relatively stable government), is one of muddling on and expecting things to turn out alright in the end.
    Certainly amongst anyone I know who voted remain, there are few who are still vehemently against Brexit and, in a wider analysis, those folk are likely to be either already Lib Dem voters or potentially floating Labour voters.
    This leaves Labour in the worst position of any of the parties – while the Tories are set to gain voters from UKIP, it’s a question for Labour of minimising losses – and it essentially comes down to the perceived competence of Corbyn vs May.
    May has the ‘devil you know’ advantage of already being in power, an extremely sympathetic press and that public school air of authority that the English love, while the same press (and his party) have successfully scuppered Corbyn from the start.
    Corbyn isn’t without huge issues, of course, but you can see the tactic that worked with Ed Miliband has been intensified for him.
    It’s tempting (as my vehement remainer friends do) to believe that the best option for Labour was to oppose Brexit (apart from the redundant argument that it’s their ‘duty’ as opposition), however I think currently the numbers of diehard anti-brexit Labour voters are smaller in number than those who would have abandoned Labour had they taken an anti-brexit stance and of course such a stance would have made them an even bigger target for the press.

  • How remain voters rate the importance of Brexit depends on where they are. Oxford West and Abingdon includes a lot of people who depend on the EU, in the universities, the publishing industry (the biggest local employer) and working in international science labs funded by Europe. So the likelihood of loosing your job reinforces the local high remain vote. Turkeys did not vote for Christmas there. It is quite different in other constituencies.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Lib Dems are on nine seats, getting fifteen to nineteen would be a success.

    I believe they can get some major swings … they have a good chance in Vauxhall where the Brexitphile MP Kate Hoey is completely out of touch with her constituency.

  • Stifler’s Mom

    Going into this election as anti brexit is complete suicide. The game is over, the decision has been made. We are now about to negotiate with the dictators of the EU. No one wants people involved that would prefer to sabotage out team.