BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 01.12.02

Film: Iain Watson investigates suggestions that the Liberal Democrats might overtake the Conservatives as the main opposition party and reveals it to be a tough task.

HUMPHRYS: Tony Blair seems invincible. He has his problems, of course, but they pale into insignificance compared with the Conservatives. They're making no progress in the opinion polls indeed. The question being asked increasingly these days is not whether they will form the next government, but whether they can prevent the Liberal Democrats displacing them as the main party of opposition. Iain Watson has been to the Conservative heartland of Surrey to find out. IAIN WATSON: It's not just the planet that looks blue from a distance. Many constituencies in southern England have traditionally had a Tory hue. But recently a political beast of a different colour has been stalking the country - with the aim of dramatically changing the landscape. This is the traditional territory of the lesser spotted Conservative voter. Now I'm currently walking through the Twickenham constituency in South West London, but just downstream of here you can see the constituency of Richmond and upstream Kingston and Surbiton. Now these three seats all have one thing in common - in 1997 they fell to a new species of political animal - the Liberal Democrat. And buoyed by their success in this area, they're now keen to invade neighbouring Tory terrain. The Lib Dems are no longer confined to their usual habitat on the Celtic fringe. In 2001 they advanced into the home counties, winning Guildford. Now they are campaigning in the neighbouring seat of South West Surrey. Not all the residents are friendly, but that doesn't dent their almost hallucinogenic levels of optimism. Nationally, they're talking about becoming the official opposition. Locally they think they can do even better. SIMON CORDON: We can become the official opposition and we can become the government of this country. That's certainly the objective we have. They said in the 80s and 90s, we would always be stuck on twenty seats and we now have over fifty and in the last election they said we would go back to just twenty, but we were the only party who gained ground. WATSON: But at the 2001 election Labour won 413 seats - including the speaker - and the Tories, even with a poor showing of 166 seats, were way ahead of the Liberal Democrats, whose tally was just 52. Even so, some polling experts don't rule out a radical shift next time round. PROFESSOR PAUL WHITELEY: People's attachments to the political parties are much weaker than they used to be. The brand loyalty if you like was very much stronger a generation ago than it is now, which means that people who are potential Conservatives can be detached and equally people who are Labour supporters can be detached by the Lib Dems. ACTUALITY WATSON: A typical characteristic of both the Liberal Democrat and the football manager alike is an obsession with tactics and positioning. To win seats from the Tories the Lib Dems need to squeeze the Labour vote where Labour is in third place. Some strategists say privately that the party should be stressing their commitment to the public services, to appeal to left wing voters, while simultaneously adopting more business-friendly policies to attract one nation Conservatives. But we unearthed a document by the Association of Liberal Democrat councillors which takes a less high minded approach. It says: "effective opposition accentuates the negative". And on the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest - it suggests that to be successful, grass roots campaigners should evolve - into political chameleons. The document states in simple terms: "you can secure support from voters who normally vote Tory by being effectively anti-Labour" And similarly "in a Tory area secure labour votes by being anti-Tory". And there's advice on finding the ingredients for the perfect campaign cocktail:"be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly". Are you wicked, do you act shamelessly, do you stir endlessly? CORDON: I'm never afraid to take a risk and shoot from the hip if you like. As for wicked, certainly not. Shameless, certainly not, determined to be a powerful advocate of local need yes, always and ever. You know the ALDC, our Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, they are a superb organisation who have helped people like me and many others to know how to campaign. THERESA MAY MP: One could almost say that Liberal Democrats hold fast to their principles as long as it takes get from one doorstep to another, and we do see them adopting different causes in different areas. WATSON: But whether the Lib Dems are campaigning on the moral high ground, or down in the gutter, it would still take electoral swings of historical proportions for them to get more seats than the Tories WHITELEY: It would mean literally a two punch knock out blow, one delivered from the Lib Dems with a ten per cent swing from the Conservatives to the Lib Dems and the second punch would have to come from Labour, again a ten per cent swing from the Conservatives to Labour. Now if you recall that between 1992 and 1997 Labour achieved a ten per cent swing, it's clearly possible but it's a tall order. WATSON: The Liberal Democrats have beavering away here in South West Surrey and they've got high hopes of winning the seat. But the less than charitable might suggest that this is the only Downing Street they are ever likely to see. Talk to Liberal Democrats privately and they'll tell you there's really little chance of overhauling the Tories at the time of the next election - so why all this talk of official opposition. What's their game? Well, apparently it's all a matter of inflicting maximum psychological damage. The Liberal Democrats will forage for potential territorial gains very carefully in the run up to the next election. Although the Tories may end up with more seats, the Lib Dems want to create the impression that the momentum is with them. In other words, they are like spring to the Tory autumn, a few thousand votes extra in just four seats could devastate the Shadow Cabinet. The Shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin, former Party Chairman David Davis, one of their key campaigners Tim Collins and the current Party Chairman, Theresa May, are all vulnerable. SHERLOCK: That would, of course, be..deliver a psychological devastating blow to the Conservative Party losing some of their key rising stars, so I think those seats will be very crucial to the Conservative Liberal Democrat balance and, of course, the psychology of those results is important to what happens in the new Parliament after the 2004 or 2005 election, so those will certainly be seats to watch, and I can bet the Liberal Democrats would put in enormous effort in to trying to win them. WATSON: A past victim of Liberal Democrat targeting says her party should ape the techniques of their opponents, or their progress at the next election could be severely limited. LADY MAITLAND: The Conservative Party should be learning much more about high profile targeting of seats which are vulnerable. They didn't do it at the last election and I think it was a great mistake. There's no evidence that they're actually getting round to doing it next time round. Unless they really focus their support on the seats that we might lose and the seats that we must win, then frankly they're lost. WATSON: South West Surrey Conservatives are braving the elements to meet in a council of war. This is the night that the fightback against the cocky Liberal Democrat insurgents should begin. That is, once the ceremony of the door-opening has been mastered. Virginia Bottomley is standing down at the next election, and the Conservative Party is about to interview four hopefuls - all of them white males - who think THEY can see off the Liberal Democrats. Here in deepest Haslemere, behind very firmly closed doors, one of the most sombre and secretive rituals in the Tory tribe is taking place - the selection of the Parliamentary candidate. Now, it's not surprising that they don't really want the likes of us to look in on such an important occasion, but what is astonishing is that Party chiefs at Central Office have told us we can't even have an interview with the successful candidate once they've been chosen. Now in a key marginal seat where they have to see off the Liberal Democrats, they are bound to leave themselves open to accusations that they're running scared. Your opponents say you're running scared. MAY: Certainly not, and what they will's very interesting, if you look at what happened in South West Surrey at the last election, the Liberal Democrats targeted South West Surrey at the last election. They said they were going to win that seat, they failed to win that seat and they will not win that seat. WATSON: Officials at Conservative Central Office are now burrowing away on schemes to fend off the Liberal Democrats. The Party Chairman, Theresa May, has sent a letter to constituencies telling them to go on the offensive ahead of next year's local elections, but a former Tory MP says the anti Liberal Democrat unit here is more of a sleeping lion cub than a ferocious beast. MAITLAND: The unit at Central Office is woefully inadequate, they have two people, one of them is a very young man, someone who is more experienced, and that's it. I haven't seen any leading speeches by senior politicians highlighting the Liberal Democrats. I think that's a big mistake. I think they take the view that if you ignore them, the problem will go away. I think it's the reverse, I think you've got to hit them very very hard indeed. MAY: What we've put together is a very good group of people who are working to ensure that we can support those of our candidates, be it at local government or Westminster level, who are fighting the Liberal Democrats as the opposition party in their particular area. WATSON: So not woefully inadequate then? MAY: Certainly not. WATSON: Are you going to beef it up? MAY: I'm not going to tell you anything about what our strategy for our Liberal Democrat unit is. WATSON: Well, whatever it is, it had better be good. There's not just the next election at stake; but the long term survival of the species. Sixth formers have come to Westminster to hear senior politicians address a mass meeting of first time voters. A polling analysis being studied in Conservative Central Office and seen by On the Record suggests the Tories have problems. While Iain Duncan Smith received a warm welcome here, his party is now running neck and neck with the Liberal Democrats amongst 18 to 34 year old voters. After this meeting, we spoke to a group of students from Godalming College in South West Surrey. This isn't a scientific study, but every one of them told us that a good performance from the Tory leader hadn't persuaded them to back his party. BOBBIE GANNON: They're just not up to the Lib Dems are very much more accommodating for the youth of today, like myself. NATASHA HARRINGTON: I did feel that Iain Duncan Smith and the Tory Party were more in tune with young people than I thought they would be, but I wouldn't be convinced to vote for, for the Tories over the Lib Dems. ALEX GREGSON: They need to change their attitudes towards Europe, and particularly this homosexual...their attitudes towards homosexuals and their rights to live their lives in this country. I just think that needs a lot of reform. WATSON: But before the Conservatives retreat into their cave, there are those who say there's only limited grounds for optimism amongst Charles Kennedy's party. WHITELEY: Everyone's support is shallow, but it's certainly true that Lib Dem support is more shallow. A lot of people who say that they don't support any party voted Lib Dem at the last election, and so to a significant extent the Lib Dems are still a protest party. Now, the thing about being a protest party of course is that you can easily lose support as well as quickly gain it. WATSON: Every so often political parties - just like planets - can suffer from what's known as extinction level events. Who remembers the continuing SDP? The Lib Dems hope that the next stage of political evolution could render the Tories if not extinct, at least irrelevant. But if a week is a long time in politics, then the Liberal Democrats' ambition to become the official opposition could still be light years away.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.