An article written by Chris Huhne for this week's Liberal Democrat News has attracted considerable comment this afternoon on politicalbetting.com. The article can be read here on Lib Dem Voice.
To summarise the thrust of the article, Chris Huhne argues that those who believe the Liberal Democrats will be wiped out at the next election will be proved wrong. Chris argues that incumbency and local factors will save many local Lib Dem MPs and that losses will be balanced by gains from Labour who, Chris believes , will be the major target of Conservative gains.
It's an interesting piece but is it over-optimistic ? It can't be denied that with the Conservatives now regularly polling between 43-46%, the Tories are on course to achieve a significant overall majority at the next General Election. Indeed, taking a view that the Conservative vote has risen 10% since 2005 and the Liberal Democrat has fallen 5%, that indicates a 7.5% from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives. A uniform swing of that nature leaves the Liberal Democrats with between 30-33 seats, depending on the Labour performance. Reduce the swing to 6% and the Lib Dems emerge with 45 seats, still a loss but only back to 1997 levels.
There is other evidence from local contests to consider: in the 2007 and 2008 local elections, the Liberal Democrat vote held up best in seats with sitting MPs (though not always) and in seats where we were challenging either Labour or the Conservatives. In other areas, the performance was much worse and in Crewe & Nantwich, the Conservatives easily swept up the anti-Labour vote leaving the Lib Dems well adrift.
So, we have varying evidence and we also know swings aren't uniform regionally or even locally. In 2005, for example, the Conservative recovery was much more pronounced in the south and around London than further north.
The Liberal Democrat strategy for the next General Election would seem obvious - vigorous defence of existing seats and effective campaigns in a very few (probably Labour) seats which are potential gains. That will mean hundreds of sests where the party's vote will collapse primarily to the Conservatives but, as Chris and I both know, elections are about bums on benches not just building up vote mountains.
As 1997 showed, an increase in seats is possible on a decline in votes. I suspect 2010 will see a small decline in seats on a more significant decline in votes. There will be some spectacular falls in the Lib Dem vote in some seats but others will be held or gained in defiance of any national swing. There will be losses but on the scale prophesised by the anti-Lib Dem rantings of some on politicalbetting.com. That said, the "spread" of 44-47 seats looks a little high and a small "sell" could be profitable.
My view is that the Liberal Democrats will emerge from the next election with 35-40 MPs. I would prefer more of course and a strong Parliamentary base will be crucial to take advantage of the opportunities that will occur when the Cameron Government runs into trouble.