Thursday, 31 October 2013

Target Seats - A Strategy of "Lookalikes"

This post will not be about policy, my usual focus, but on something that has come to my attention as I have roamed around the local area and interacted with the local branches in the zone.

At the South Central conference last weekend, we were introduced to the three candidates for the target seats in the region. The seats were Winchester, Oxford West & Abingdon and Newbury. This got me thinking. Winchester and Oxwab were relative no-brainers but Newbury? Where is Romsey (one of our 2010 losses) on this list?

It seems like a lot of the target seats are being predicated on the potential gains dictated by a swing needed from the 2010 results, BUT with an overlay of extraneous factors. I suspect in the case of Newbury its the fact that we used to hold this rather atypical seat (at least by LibDem standards) after a rollicking by-election victory that ranked with Orpington and Torrington in party annals. As we all know those seats reverted after one or two terms, as did Newbury.

Targeting seats still remains an art with a component of science and a component of art, it would seem.  If we cast back out minds to the darkest days of the 1950s the party was reduced to a rump of six seats that could be very well summed up as West Country, Wales and far north Scotland. Despite the surge in seat numbers since then, there is still such a thing (but on a grander scale) as a LibDem-look seat, though it has broadened and become more nuanced. Those that don't have the "look" (an obvious candidate being Brent Central) become head-scratchers as to how one holds onto them when the incumbency factor is gone.

Once upon a time, the targetting process was guided by areas where we had strength on the ground and some affinity. I prefer to call the affinity a "lookalike" aspect.

Looking about in my neck of the woods the thought strikes me:

if we have won Winchester then why not the lookalikes, Salisbury and Chichester?

if we have won Eastleigh then why not Havant?

if we have won Eastbourne then why not Bognor Regis & Littlehampton?

if we have won Portsmouth South then why not Gosport?

if we have won Romsey & Southampton North then why not Fareham?

Some would retort that the gap is too large to take some of these, but when one roams around the area one sees similar demographics between the seats we hold and ones that we do not hold (by a big margin). 

Clearly we have some empathy with the inhabitants of cathedral and/or university towns... maybe it is because they tend to have neither industrial nor office-based populations (in contrast to places like Basingstoke or Peterborough). Wells (though smaller) is somewhat like Chichester and Salisbury, while Bath (though bigger) is like Winchester.. Farther back we might recall our hold on Isle of Ely.. and why not Shrewsbury & Atcham (its current Tory MP seems more LibDem than anything else anyway)? Or making the extra push at Hereford?

While back in South Central...Romsey has its cutesy villages of thatched houses it has a very humdrum main town in Romsey (and an even more nondescript subset in North Baddesley) that appear to be cut adrift from Eastleigh, but made of the same cloth. It also has a university population in the northern fringe of Southampton. 

Havant is mysteriously safe Tory when it has one of the worst council estates (Leigh Park) south of the Midlands. The "classy" parts of the seat are the attractive Emsworth and the far more prosaic Hayling Island. Why the bulk of the seat (and Hayling) should not be LibDem territory eludes me. As recently as ten years ago the council was minority-controlled by the LibDems. 

Likewise at Gosport where a slightly better demographic stills remains pretty similar to Eastleigh. What Eastleigh is to Southampton, Gosport is to Portsmouth. And Gosport too had a much stronger LibDem council group ten years ago. 

As for Bognor Regis & Littlehampton, a recent trip there on a bleak and grey day made me think of breaking out the rusty razor-blades and ending it all straight away. 

These towns are typified by "do nothing" Tory-dominated councils who preside over fading gentility, with fringes of 1950s and 1960s social housing of an unreconstructed and soul-destroying mediocrity. These are the towns we should be "LIBerating" form the dead-hand of Tory complacency and inaction. 

Just looking at Swingometers in targeting seats as "most likely" to fall (or fall back) our way is a very backward looking strategy. We need something more akin to the hub strategy where we accumulate blocks of seats that are contiguous, with similar characteristics. We have done this in the West Country most notably. Now we need to do the same in the Solent area, the Fenlands and the Borders bulking up into hubs of seats from which our worker ants will go forth to forage in neighbouring territories making them ours. 


  1. Not sure how wonky you can get, but fancy putting a regression model based on held seat variables and demographics and running this against non-held seats?

  2. That might be an interesting exercise.... what would the sample be? current (or recent) held or farther back? I flunked regression models.. you know how to do one.....? all wonks are not made alike...