“ A new high watermark for the Liberal Democrats”
Achievements and Expectations
The 2005 General Election campaign was the fourth contested by the Liberal Democrats (having been formed following the decisions of the Liberal Party and the SDP to merge after the 1987 General Election which they fought as the Alliance). For the Liberal Democrats, it was the most successful of the four election campaigns in every sense. Liberal Democrat vote share (UK) increased over the four elections from 17.8% (1992) to 22.1% (2005).
Over the same four election period, the Labour Party’s share of the vote increased by 0.8% (from 34.4% to 35.2%). The 1992 General Election result was considered to be a disaster for Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. But New Labour’s performance in 2005 was an improvement of less than 1% in vote share compared to Neil Kinnock’s last campaign. This year, Labour are proclaiming a miraculous third term victory – but their drop in support since their 1997 victory indicates that they have been the least successful Labour Government in history, in terms of retaining support.
The 1992 – 2005 period saw the Conservative Party’s vote share fall by 9.6% (from 41.9% to 32.3%). The last three General Election results have been the worst three outcomes for the Conservative Party since the Great Reform Act of 1832. Michael Howard’s improvement on the vote share obtained by William Hague in 2001 was just 0.5%.
In this election Liberal Democrats recorded a record number of seats won (62). This was the highest total for the party or its predecessors for over 80 years (1923) and since the Labour Party began contesting most constituencies. Liberal Democrats made 11 net gains (12 gains from Labour, 3 gains from the Conservatives and 1 gain from PC, with 5 losses to the Conservatives). The party came second in 187 seats (104 of them to Labour) with the result that the party is now in first or second place in 40% of the seats in Great Britain.
The aim of the 2005 Liberal Democrat campaign was, of course, to maximise seats and votes. Unlike the three previous General Elections, expectations were generally high about the Party’s prospects. In 1992, the Liberal Democrats had to overcome media speculation about survival. In 1997, doubts were expressed about our capacity to make significant gains when it was obvious that Labour were going to replace the Conservatives. Prior to the 2001 campaign, there was a widespread belief that most of the 28 gains from 2001 would revert to the Conservatives.
Overcoming these perceptions had been identified as one of the most significant barriers to our relative success in those campaigns. Polling evidence also consistently proved that there was a clear correlation between beliefs that the Liberal Democrats would do well with Liberal Democrats winning more support. A key aim for us in 2005 was, therefore, to raise expectations. Perhaps with hindsight we did this rather too effectively.
The background of declining support for Labour and simultaneous Conservative disarray seemed very favourable for the Liberal Democrats. A clear public decline in trust for Tony Blair followed his claims about “weapons of mass destruction” as his basis for backing George Bush’s war in Iraq. The Conservatives, who backed the Iraq war, seemed to be in general confusion, failed to recover lost support and were forced to change their Leader eighteen months before the likely election.
Poll support for the Liberal Democrats was consistently higher through the Parliament than had been the case in previous Parliaments, and almost all recent elections had seen an increase in Liberal Democrat support during the course of the campaign. The party had also done spectacularly well in parliamentary by-elections in the second half of the Parliament. In Brent East, Leicester South, Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool, Liberal Democrats came from third place in each case to win two of them (Brent East and Leicester South) and narrowly fail to win the other two (Birmingham was missed by less than 500 votes and Hartlepool by less than 2,000)
Most expectations about Liberal Democrat prospects in 2005 were therefore quite high. With hindsight, the weakness of our principal opponents probably did not quite represent the “open goal” that was widely perceived for us. The polarisation of the electorate into different camps that were either very hostile to Tony Blair’s Labour or Michael Howard’s’ Conservatives actually made it harder for Liberal Democrats to make as much progress in national polls during the course of the campaign as had occurred in 1997 and 2001.
Liberal Democrat candidates frequently reported former Labour voters in different types of seat wanting in principle to switch to us – but feeling that they had to vote Labour to keep Michael Howard out. Similarly, they found former Conservative voters indicating willingness to support us but who ultimately felt that a Conservative vote was a more anti-Blair vote. The level of animosity towards Tony Blair’s Government amongst traditional Conservative supporters had grown enormously since 2001. This seemed especially so where they already had a Conservative MP and accounted, in part, for why we were less successful in gaining seats from the Conservatives in 2005 (3 gains) than in 2001 (6 gains).
It was also harder for Liberal Democrats to win Conservative seats in 2005 as we had already gained 39 seats directly from them in the three General Elections since 1992. Six of the twelve gains from Labour in 2005 were in seats which were held by the Conservatives in 1992. The 3 Liberal Democrat gains from the Conservatives in 2005 meant that a total of 48 of the seats defended by John Major in 1992 have subsequently been won by Liberal Democrats in General Elections (14.2% of them) with only 7 reverting back to the Conservatives subsequently.
Liberal Democrat hopes in the earlier part of the Parliament of overtaking the Conservatives in vote share were not, of course, realised. The Liberal Democrat opinion poll peaks in the Parliament (each of them followed the by-elections at Brent East, Leicester /Birmingham and Hartlepool) brought the Liberal Democrats up to 30% or so and put all three main party ratings within a few percentage points of teach other.
Liberal Democrat prospects of over-taking the Conservatives seemed to be a more realistic prospect after Brent East and before the downfall of IDS. They were revived for a shortwhile after the Liberal Democrats nearly achieved a double by-election triumph in the Midlands by-elections of July 2004 and pushed the Conservatives into fourth place in the Hartlepool by-election of September 2004. , By the time of the General Election, Liberal Democrats at least took considerable satisfaction from more than halving the gap between ourselves and the Conservatives from 24.1% in 1992 to just 10.2% in 2005.
Against Labour, Liberal Democrat progress in 2005 was far greater than most people expected. Twelve gains represented the largest number of seats that we, or our predecessor parties, had ever taken from Labour at a General Election. We considered it particularly helpful to make gains in cities such as Bristol, Cardiff, Cambridge, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – and on the outskirts of Glasgow – all of which act as regional media centres. Two more MPs in London also showed our growing base in the capital (one MP to eight in three elections).
Our appeal to those leaving Labour from 2001 was clearly much stronger than that of the Conservatives. In net terms, seven out of every eight people who switched away from Labour between 2001 and 2005 switched to the Liberal Democrats. This does not bode well for the Conservatives in future – half of whose gains this time were simply based on a Labour to Liberal Democrat vote switch. We felt that the biggest limitation on our capacity to make gains from Labour was simply the size of the majorities that we needed to overturn. Many of these majorities are, of course, much smaller for next time.
An additional factor limiting our success during the campaign, and one that played more heavily than we expected, was fear of Michael Howard’s Conservatives getting in. To anybody who knew anything about the election (including the Conservatives themselves) it was clear that the Conservatives could not make 160 gains, double their number of seats and form a Government. But some poll ratings suggested to those unaware of the lack of correlation between votes and seats that this was a possibility. Indeed, talking up this non-existent possibility appeared to be the Prime-Minister’s primary justification for voting to re-elect him in the last three days of the campaign.
There was some attempt by some commentators and some sections of the media to expose Tony Blair’s bogus warnings. But the absurd claims that a Lib Dem vote could make Michael Howard Prime-Minister were repeated frequently enough to persuade Labour voters we spoke to in Con/Lib Dem marginals to vote Labour to “keep Michael Howard out!” For those of us more used to the old Conservative refrain of “you can’t vote Liberal or it will let Labour in”, this tactic illustrated how politics in many ways politics has turned full circle.
Liberal Democrat progress against Labour can perhaps best be seen by the closing of the gap between the parties from 26.4% at Labour’s peak in 1997 to just 13.1% in 2005. The result left the Liberal Democrats requiring a 5% swing to overtake the Conservatives, or a 6.5% swing to overtake Labour at the next General Election.
Scotland deserves a special mention in any section about achievements and expectations in the 2005 General Election. The creation of the Scottish Parliament, elected by Proportional Representation, and the formation of a Labour/Scottish Liberal Democrat coalition has resulted in many changes in Scotland. South of the border the Liberal Democrat campaign proposed scrapping student tuition fees and charges for long term personal care for the elderly. North of the border, we were able to boast about these as achievements. It was with some irony that we also noted the Labour First Minister claiming that the day when tuition fees were scrapped in Scotland (something which Tony Blair’s Westminster Labour had fought hard to introduce) was his proudest day!
Real achievements in the Scottish Parliament helped the Liberal Democrats move from fourth place in the popular vote in 1997 to second place ahead of the SNP in 2005, having already overtaken the Conservatives in 2001. Scottish Liberal Democrats won 11 of the 59 re-drawn Scottish constituencies, polling 22.6% of the vote (up 10% compared to 1997).
The creation of the Scottish Parliament has served to deliver more of what Scotland wants – and to diminish the role of the separatist SNP. Liberal Democrats clearly benefited most from this as Labour in Scotland were, significantly damaged by perceptions of Blair’s (London) Labour and the Iraq war in particular. Liberal Democrats will see policy successes, based on having a Parliament with no overall majority for one party as a good precedent for the future.
Wales also saw a significant improvement in the Liberal Democrat position with Plaid Cymru falling back and losing a seat to the Liberal Democrats for the first time. The number of Liberal Democrat MPs increased from two to four giving the Liberal Democrats the second largest number of MPs in Wales.
The Real Alternative
The Liberal Democrats were determined to be seen to fight the most positive and principled campaign, centred on our Leader Charles Kennedy, and reflecting his style. Freedom, Fairness and Trust were themes used to illustrate Liberal Democrat principles through the Parliament. These developed from the 2001 Manifesto which had been entitled “Freedom, Justice, Honesty.” There was, however, a need to look afresh at a number of issues so they could be developed or re-considered.
We felt that we had been right in the 2001 General Election to argue for a 1p increase in the basic rate of taxation to fund some of our public service spending plans. Gordon Brown’s increase in National Insurance rates by 1% after the General Election meant that for most people our 1p in the pound income tax increase was implemented (the exception rather unfairly being unearned income) and we did not want to add further to the tax burden.
Another look was taken at the effects of the 50p rate on individual earnings in excess of £100,000 per annum combined with Local Income Tax (LIT). This led the party to conclude that it would not in future allow the combination of these taxes to produce a marginal tax rate in excess of 50%. LIT would, therefore, be capped for incomes above £100,000 per annum.
These changes suggest that attempts to portray the party as moving towards higher tax rates in this period were not founded on the facts. Fairness was, however, a key Liberal Democrat concern and the council tax in particular was identified as being frequently very unfair. Most people agreed that a tax on property values was especially unfair to those with small and limited incomes – often pensioners.
Local Income Tax was successfully and widely trailed as the Liberal Democrat alternative to the poll tax in the early 1990s. We believe that it is self-evidently fairer than the council tax and it is right in principle. We also saw it as something that would become an increasingly popular alternative as council tax bills rose sharply and revaluation forced bills to rise in areas where property prices had risen by more than the national average.
Eight million pensioners would have been better off with Local Income Tax as a replacement for council tax and six million of them would not have had to pay it at all. Some of the proceeds of the 50p income tax rate would have been used to keep LIT rates down and the tax would be much cheaper to collect than council tax. Nevertheless, some people would pay more if their household incomes approached double the national average.
Liberal Democrats assumed that “fairness” was one of the party’s themes. But some of the “losers” from LIT were less attracted to the theme. About 25% of the population were probably not very mindful that they could become “winners” in future. For example, one partner may have reduced income for some years and in the long run they may have fewer financial problems when they retire, council tax doesn’t exist and they probably don’t have to pay LIT.
Another central propositions from the Liberal Democrats was the scrapping of student tuition and top-up fees. We found that these were a serious concern – not just for students but for the parents and grandparents of potential students. The alternative source of funding (from the 50p rate) seemed fair as 82% of these people are graduates and most of the rest will have benefited from graduates working for them.
At every stage of the Parliament, and during the election campaign, Liberal Democrats were very concerned to make sure that all our proposals were fully costed and could be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. We felt that this was a very important part of demonstrating that we could be trusted.
An Alternative Budget was produced every year in advance of the Chancellor’s budget setting out openly our spending and taxation proposals. The General Election Manifesto “The Real Alternative” stood up extremely well to all costings scrutiny by independent sources such as the Institute of Fiscal Studies.
It was clear that the Government was losing trust over issues such as “stealth taxes”, spin and above all over Iraq, claims about Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Hutton and Butler enquiries etc. In March 2003 it was very unclear what the political consequences would be of the Iraq war. At that point Liberal Democrat MPs voted unanimously against the principle of beginning the war.
Over the Summer of 2003, Liberal Democrat market research indicated a very sharp reversal in trust ratings for Tony Blair. Charles Kennedy was very much at the forefront of the Liberal Democrat campaigning that Autumn in the very ethnically diverse Brent East constituency.
Liberal Democrats leapfrogged the Conservatives, who had strongly backed Bush/Blair on Iraq, in order to inflict Labour’s first by-election defeat on them since Greenwich in 1987. The pattern was repeated in Leicester South in July on a day when the Liberal Democrats also came within 460 votes of winning Birmingham Hodge Hill.
Iraq and lack of trust in the Blair/Bush Alliance on Iraq (and in particular the alleged reasons for supporting the invasion) proved to be very damaging to Labour who also suffered a 19% swing against them in September when Peter Mandelson quit his Hartlepool constituency.
The Iraq/trust issue was clearly a driving force in the significant Labour to Liberal Democrat switch that occurred in the latter half of the Parliament. It was, therefore, an issue that the Liberal Democrats planned to return to at the tail end of the General Election campaign (once any possible suggestion of not primarily addressing domestic concerns had been dispelled).
The leaking of the long hidden Attorney-General’s advice actually co-incided with the pre-election plan to return to the issue at this point. It was also a remarkable co-incidence that former Labour stalwart Brian Sedgemore had picked this moment to say that he could stomach New Labour no longer and was urging people “from the left and centre to unite behind the Liberal Democrats”.
The final Liberal Democrat PEB attempted to mock claims about the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction and keep in the public mind the Conservatives’ strong backing for the Blair/Bush approach. With hindsight, however, it seems that Labour had lost what support they were going to lose over Iraq/Trust and poll numbers did not move further against them in spite of the media barrage on the issue – which we hoped would play more to our advantage.
All of the major Liberal Democrat propositions for the campaign were set out in full page adverts in The Times, The Independent and the Daily Mail shortly before the campaign proper began. It was an attempt to demonstrate at least a little more substance than the rival pledge cards and for ten major concerns people had, we were putting forward practical and costed proposals to address them.
We regarded our campaign, backed by billboard advertising and further newspapers adverts, as highly effective in establishing a number of the key Liberal Democrat propositions in the public mind. We were mindful of previous campaigns when people understood that we were, for example, in favour of Proportional Representation and the European Union – but were unaware of other major policy points that were more immediately attractive.
In 2005, we know from our own research and some of the published polling that there was much greater understanding (especially in our key seats) of our plans for student fees, long term care for the elderly, scrapping the council tax and protecting the environment – as well as our stance on Iraq. Our positions were popular (as they had been in many previous elections), but this time more people knew that they were ours.
The relentless negativity of the two other major parties was in itself a major negative for them. The principled and positive approach, which we took, was probably our greatest asset. This was probably best exemplified by the “Ten Good Reasons to vote Liberal Democrat” adverts.
The British Election Study points to the success of our campaign. (http://www.essex.ac.uk/bes/2005/Rolling%20campaign.htm).
This showed growing appreciation of the Liberal Democrat campaign performance and that of Charles Kennedy in particular. Net ratings for the Leaders at the end of the campaign were: Charles Kennedy +20.6, Tony Blair –1.8, Michael Howard –19.4. Approval of party campaigns by polling day were Lib Dems +17, Labour +3.6 and Conservatives – 18.2. Liberal Democrats are certainly proud of the campaign that we fought and of our achievements, particularly in positioning ourselves for further advance next time.
 After the Lib Dem by-election success in Brent East on September 18th 2003, an ICM poll placed all three main parties on 31% of the vote and after the Lib Dem win in Leicester South and near miss in Birmingham Hodge Hill on July 16 2004, Populus put Labour on 30% with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives tied on 28%.