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The Liberal Democrat party is stepping up campaigning in more than a dozen seats predominantly in the south of England following recent by-election wins, as it starts to broaden its ambitions ahead of the general election expected next year.
Dave McCobb, the director of field campaigns, presented a paper to members on Tuesday night that identified areas where support for the Lib Dems was growing, giving the party a good chance of pushing out the Conservatives at the next election.
Most of these constituencies are in the party’s former heartland in the south-west of England, including Taunton Dean and West Dorset, as well in Surrey in the south-east and the seat of Stratford-on-Avon in the West Midlands.
“Many of these are seats that two years ago would not have featured anywhere in a map of where we could beat the Conservatives,” said a person briefed on the meeting with McCobb. “Some of them we wouldn’t even have thought about a few months ago.”
The party, which received £1.3mn in donations in the first quarter of the year, is targeting donors to build a regional ‘war chest’ for the south-west, which officials hope will be the launch pad for a significantly better national performance than in recent years.
The Lib Dems have suffered three consecutive disappointments at general elections since 2015, when they had just eight MPs elected and were completely wiped out in the south-west. They secured 11 seats nationally in 2019, including holding the one south-west seat they had regained two years earlier.
The Lib Dems, which hope to overtake the Scottish National party to regain their position as the third-largest party in the House of Commons, had more than a dozen MPs in the south-west of England at the 2005 election — their most successful in modern history when they won 62 seats in total.
“We’re looking to see how far we can take back our former heartland,” Daisy Cooper, deputy leader of the Lib Dems, told the Financial Times.
She added that it would be “foolhardy to rule out the opportunity of looking at other seats in the area” after securing a big victory in the Somerton and Frome by-election earlier this month and an even larger, shock win in Tiverton and Honiton in Devon last year.
Party leader Sir Ed Davey has privately urged activists to avoid heightened expectations following the two by-election wins and focus its limited resources on seats where it really stands a chance of unseating the Conservatives.
The spectre still looms large of former leader Jo Swinson’s claim that the Lib Dems could win hundreds of seats in the 2019 election, before losing her own on the night.
The party’s reputation was badly damaged in the rural Brexit-voting constituencies in the south-west in recent elections because of its pro-EU stance but it has started to make inroads more recently, presenting itself as the cornerstone of an anti-Tory coalition.
In the Somerton and Frome by-election, the party secured a majority of just over 19,000 with a huge swing of 40,000 votes. There are 15 Conservative MPs in the south-west defending a smaller majority, including Cheltenham, St Ives and Wells.
The Lib Dems are relying on a tacit agreement with Labour that neither party will fight too hard in seats that the other is likely to win. Among the Lib Dems’ top 30 target seats, only one — Sheffield Hallam in northern England — has Labour as the main opposition.
“Whenever the Lib Dems have underperformed it’s because they’ve spread themselves too thin,” said Andrew Russell, professor of politics at Liverpool university, noting that the party needed volunteers as well as money to target seats effectively. He added that a sensible strategy for the party was to select discrete areas and “precision-bomb” them.