First of all, there is a big difference between playing for vote share and playing for seats.
Playing for seats, which is what the party has concentrated on over the past decade and a bit, means concentrating on marginal areas and attempting to attract voters depending on whatever is tactically advantageous to us there: Labour voters in Tory/LD constituencies, Tory voters in Lab/LD constituencies, etc.
Playing for vote share means attempting to woo specific cleavages nationwide. But, it means attracting votes in areas that do us no good whatsoever in terms of gaining seats. The electoral system works against us here (and to a large, though lesser, extent, the Tories). If all three parties got 32% according to Baxter, Labour would be on 307 MPs, Tory 210 and Lib Dems 97. You could improve that through tactical voting but not by much.
The reality is that we do a bit of both – air war and ground war. But the Lib Dems have traditionally concentrated on ground war. My argument, in essence, is that we need to be concerned more with the air war.
Why? Because I think there will be all to play for in the next general election. Fundamentally, most likely scenarios see Labour losing overall control but the Tories failing to win outright. For a third party, that is an explosive situation; the lesson from both 1929 and 1974 is that a new general election will be called sooner rather than later and at that point the third party is squeezed to nothing. Our entire strategy should be based around minimising the possibility of that second general election without going backward and giving another party a majority, and ensuring we are in as strong a position as possible if it happens.
Voter share is therefore vital for the Lib Dems. It increases our argument for electoral reform (it is perfectly conceivable that Labour could be third in terms of popular vote and yet have the plurality); it increases our mandate in the eyes of the public; it vastly increases the number of places in which we are in second place (all those lovely bar charts…). So if a general election were called, we’d be in a strong position to fight it, which in turn minimises the chance of it getting called.
Concentrate too much on the ground war now and we might get more seats, but most votes would be soft and we would have difficulty arguing against the squeeze given that we had spent the previous campaign making the same case. If it came down to a choice between 20 more MPs and 5% more voter share, I’d go for the latter.
To an extent they are complementary; I’m certainly not saying we should pack up our target seats and leave it to the Cowley Street press office. But the campaign message will be very different. In essence, with a ground war focused campaign we can’t afford to have a national message that particularly annoys anyone because we have no target demographic. With an air war focussed campaign our aim is to appeal to a number of key cleavages, even to the extent that it will alienate other groups.
Is the economy the most important issue for a lot of voters? It wasn’t in 2001 or 2005. The general expectation is that in 2008/9 the economy will be in a mess. But then, that’s what they said in 2001 about 2005 (and in 1997 about 2001). I’m not saying Gordon Brown has been perfect, but I do think it is dangerous to base your strategy around the assumption that we will be neck deep in recession by the time the next election comes around.
Again, I’m not arguing against having a good economic policy – I’ve probably written about the economy on this blog more than anything else. I’ve outlined my position: a tax shift from income to resource use and an agenda for tackling intergenerational equity. But for a third party which hasn’t been in power for decades it is a “shield” issue, not a “sword” issue. Shouting about the economy while both Labour and the Tories do the same is going to do very little in terms of making us look distinctive, and distinctiveness is as important as credibility for a third party.
Finally, one of the key factors for having a credible economic policy is having been in government in living history. We could have the best economic policies ever and still not be able to convince anyone to take a chance with us especially if the economy took a severe downturn. You can’t just argue yourself credibility.