Has the June 2017 General Election given the Lib Dems the Opportunity to Regain their Cornish Heartlands?By Rebecca Tidy on 15 May 2017
The Liberal Democrats have a history of strong electoral performance within the South West. This is particularly salient in Cornwall, which has been long-regarded as a Liberal Democrat heartland. Therefore, many Liberal Democrat supporters and staffers were shocked when the party lost all 4 of its Cornwall MPs to the Conservatives in the 2015 General Election. They are now hoping that the declaration of a snap election will present an opportunity for a Liberal Democrat revival in Cornwall.
Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, has been quietly pushing for a Liberal Democrat revival in Cornwall for some time and the party’s activists have been hard at work prior to the Cornwall Council elections on 4th May. Farron was actually on a promotional tour of the county when Theresa May declared a June 2017 General Election. Despite the high levels of enthusiasm amongst party members, suggestions of a Liberal Democrat resurgence may be a little premature. The party needs to overcome several hurdles in order to regain Parliamentary support in its former heartland.
Brexit won’t help the Liberal Democrats here…
The majority of the electorate in Cornwall voted for the UK to leave the EU. The Truro and Falmouth constituency was the only area in which the ‘remain’ campaign won. ‘Remain’ secured 53% of the vote, whereas ‘leave’ secured only 47%. This means that the party’s recent campaign technique of focusing upon the outcome of the EU referendum would run the risk of highlighting that they hold different views to 53% of the electorate. Therefore, it is unlikely that this will be at the forefront of a Liberal Democrat campaign in Cornwall. This is one of the key ways in which the Cornish constituencies differ from recent successes, such as the Richmond Park by-election.
Nonetheless, it is likely that the Liberal Democrats will be seeking to appeal to ‘remain’ voters in Truro and Falmouth. A win looks particularly unlikely even when this is taken into account, as the area has been represented by a Conservative MP since 2010. The Liberal Democrat candidate came second in 2015 with only 16.8% of the vote, which compares to the sizeable 44% of the vote achieved by their Conservative rival.
Will former UKIP voters support the Conservative Party
This was certainly the case within the recent set of local elections. This is particularly relevant as UKIP secured a sizeable proportion of the vote across Cornwall within the last General Election. The party even beat the Liberal Democrats in Redruth and Camborne. The UKIP candidate won 14.8% of the vote, compared to the Liberal Democrats’ 12.4%. The Liberal Democrats held this seat from 2005 – 2010 and their candidate only lost by 66 votes in the 2010 General Election, so this really does highlight recent UKIP support within the county.
What will happen to Cornwall’s ‘anti-metropolitan’, protest vote?
The core Liberal Democrat vote in peripheral regions, such as Cornwall, has always differed from the core-vote within the centre of the country. Core-periphery theory suggests that core areas, such as London and the South East, tend to dominate over the periphery, which in this case would be Cornwall. This dominance relates to a range of areas, including culture, the economy and politics.
Peripheral regions tend to be poorer, suffer more in times of recession, have poorer housing and less adequate public services. As a result, people living within peripheral regions often tend to resent the core and tend to favour radical, non-establishment parties. The Liberal Democrats and their Liberal predecessors have traditionally made the most of this. However, maintaining this identity has been very challenging following the recent Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
Conversations with Liberal Democrat campaign staff responsible for telephone canvassing suggest that the party lost a sizeable proportion of its support to UKIP following the coalition. Statistics from the 2015 General Election indicate an increased Conservative and UKIP vote-share within each constituency. For instance, the Liberal Democrats won the St Austell and Newquay constituency with 42.7% of the vote in 2010. The Conservatives secured 40% and UKIP had only 3.7%. This situation changed dramatically in 2015 when the Conservatives won 40.2% of the vote, the Liberal Democrats won just 24% of the vote and UKIP came third with 16.9% of the vote.
This suggests that those that voted UKIP in the 2015 General Election are likely to play a key role in determining the outcome of the snap election in St Austell and Newquay, in addition to the rest of the county.
The Liberal Democrats have not been great at targeting in recent years…
Liberal Democrat success within the snap election is also likely to be contingent upon the party’s willingness to engage in strict targeting. The party has experienced great success with targeting in the past, but this has not been replicated in recent years.
Lord Rennard led a pioneering approach to campaigning that involved providing key constituencies with high levels of resourcing. This often involved targeting constituencies with a sizeable proportion of Liberal Democrat councillors and using this local representation as a stepping stone to Parliamentary representation. As a result, it managed to concentrate on building up support within winnable seats.
The party has been poor at targeting in recent years. They vastly overstretched their limited resources in the run-up to the 2015 General Election by selecting high numbers of target seats. Similarly, the party’s ability to turn national vote-share into actual seats in 2010 was the worst for the party since 1992. Arguably, the party did not target well in the run-up to the 2017 Cornwall Council elections either. They were the only party to field a candidate in all 123 divisions. It could be argued that valuable financial and staff resources could be better spent in divisions where the party’s candidates are perceived to have a very real chance of winning.
Will the party benefit from tactical voting in Tory-facing seats?
Post coalition, the Liberal Democrats have typically experienced the most success in Tory facing seats. This was also true prior to the formation of a coalition government. Prior to the coalition, this success was often attributed to the suggestion that the party benefits from tactical voters hoping to prevent a Conservative win. All but one of the Cornish constituencies feature close contests between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.
This initially lends further support to the suggestion of a Liberal Democrat resurgence in Cornwall. However, a closer examination shows that only the St Ives seat could truly be considered marginal, as the Liberal Democrats did not lose by less than 10 percentage points in any of the others. As a result, the party’s candidates will need a sizeable swing to regain parliamentary representation. It will be interesting to see whether voters have forgiven and forgotten the party’s recent alliance with their Conservative rivals.
Local campaigning in Cornwall
It has been long acknowledged that local campaigning benefits the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, the snap election comes at a relatively good time for the party. They have been campaigning hard in the run-up to the Cornwall Council elections that happen once every four years.
Will this equate to success?
Will the Liberal Democrats win back all six parliamentary seats in Cornwall? Probably not. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they may win back one or two. These could include the St Ives and North Cornwall seats, both of which had well-liked local Liberal Democrat MPs prior to 2015. They have also experienced the highest levels of local government election success in the last week or so.
In all honesty, the party may be happy with this result. It could be the resurgence that they are hoping for. After all, they have not held all six seats within the county since 2005 and their vote-share in parliamentary elections has been steadily declining since 1997.
Rebecca Tidy is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. She tweets @Rebecca_Tidy.
Image: Haringey Liberal Democrats CC BY-NC-ND