The Liberal Democrats electoral strategy for some years now has been focused almost exclusively on winning seats that would be naturally Conservative in leaning, and relying on a lot of good groundwork by the Lib Dem teams in those constituencies to build up a head of steam, sometimes against the national trend, to gain seats and hold them in sometimes trying circumstances. This strategy, however, is in need of a review given the polls and the way that Cameron's Tories have conducted themselves in recent months.
I'm no fan of David Cameron. I've heard too many stories from people who know him, and this includes Tories, who do not speak highly of him as a person, but what is clear is that he has turned around the fortunes of the Conservative "brand", removed the tarnish from it and has stopped people feeling embarrassed to be openly Tory. This is no little achievement and deserves praise and recognition. Three previous Tory leaders failed in this task, but with some assistance from Gordon Brown, Cameron has put a stop to Tory jokes and turned them very much on the Labour Party.
The most recent test of the Conservative's new found strength were the by elections in Crewe and in Henley, which despite massive Lib Dem operations and a rather gaffe prone Tory in Henley, saw little Lib Dem headway and good results for the Tories. It is clear, therefore, that the long held Lib Dem view that "Where we work - we win", is not always going to be the case. It seems highly unlikely that Lib Dem gains from Tories like we saw in 2001 in North Norfolk or in 2005 in Westmoreland and Taunton, will be seen again at the next election. Whilst I do not predict a swathe of Lib Dem losses in held seat (Lib Dems do, after all, have a good record of holding gained seats against the voting tide), it seems clear that the Lib Dems should be working on the basis of holding their ground against the Tories and should abandon any hopes of new gains. That does not mean local Lib Dem parties in potential future targets should stop working hard. A good example is the seat where I live (Broadland) which sould see the Lib Dems in a clear second to the Tories and a decent chance of taking the seat in 2014. But barring a minor miracle, seats like Broadland will not be won by the Lib Dems this time.
The new strategy for the Lib Dems must be about winning seats of Labour. This has, in the past, seemed like a very low priority, and the party has to wake up to the fact that it is possible to win from Labour from a long way back (just look at Manchester Withington in 2005 as an example). I remember speaking to a Lib Dem member of staff who worked in Cowley Street in 2003 and made reference to the Blaydon result in 2001, which saw the Lib Dem candidate destroy the Labour majority and make the seat something of a potential marginal. When I asked what chance we had of winning it in 2005 his answer was "None, we have better targets". this spoke volumes about the attitude of the Lib Dems to targeting Labour seats. There might have been "better targets", and indeed there may have been organisational problems in the constituency, but my opinion, right or wrong, was that if Blaydon had been a Tory seat more effort might have gone in to sorting the organisational problems.
There might have been some "lag" between the Lib Dems altering strategy to focus on Labour rather than Tory seats because of the prevailing feeling that the Tories under Cameron would implode, that they would simply collapse back to 32% in the polls and that it would be business as usual. However, it is clear now that Cameron's Tories are teflon coated. Despite sex scandals, fraud and expenses wrongly claimed by MPs and MEPs, nothing seems to deflect from the Tories charge up the opinion polls. Even the Tory spokesmen make sense. The likes of Michael Gove, the Tories education spokesman, is an example of this. Gone is the strict adherence to the Chris Woodhead agenda of bashing teachers, replaced instead with a conciliatory tone that actually makes the Tories sound, rightly or wrongly, like they are on the teachers side. This is continued across the range of Tory Shadow Cabinet members and means that any chance of an implosion in Tory support is very unlikely.
No doubt there will be Lib Dems who will jump in and tell me that the party have been targeting Labour seat for some time, and this is true, but in my opinion not along a broad enough front. Not enough Labour seats have had a sustained effort from the Lib Dems and sadly some seats that are winnable for the Lib Dems won't be won because the effort has not been put in over a period of years.
The Lib Dems need to make sure, should the Conservatives win the next election (which is highly likely), that the party does not slip back in to disproportionately putting resources in to winning Tory seats at the expense of developing a broad range of potential gains from Labour.
Time to wake up and smell the coffee for the Lib Dems.