Lib Dems and Labour should only target seats they can win, says Ed Davey

The Liberal Democrats will target only one of two forthcoming byelections in Conservative-held seats, the party’s leader Ed Davey has revealed, as he said both his party and Labour should focus their campaigns “where they think they can win”.

Michael Savage 

Davey said that he would not make any formal “deals or arrangements” with Labour over how the parties approach the contests, despite pleas for greater cooperation between them. However, he suggested his party would not be putting significant resources into the London seat of Old Bexley and Sidcup, where Labour is the main challenger.

He said that his party would instead be concentrating on North Shropshire, the safe Tory seat vacated by the resignation of Owen Paterson following his official rebuke over lobbying. While rejecting calls for a pact, Davey said Labour and the Lib Dems had the same goal of removing the Conservative government.

“What I see is a party led by Keir Starmer, who shares our view – that we’ve got to remove Boris Johnson from 10 Downing Street,” he said. “They will campaign in areas where they think they can win and we’ll campaign in areas that we think we can win. We have to manage our resources carefully. It’s no secret that we haven’t put all our effort into some byelections. We certainly want to make our case in North Shropshire.”

North Shropshire is an ultra-safe Tory seat with a majority of more than 22,000. The Lib Dems came a distant third at the last election, but the party believes local election results this year show it is now the main challenger. Insiders said there had been no discussions with Labour, but predicted both sides would “organically” recognise that they stood the best chance in different seats.

Labour sources said the party would contest both seats. But the party has a bigger membership base in London, which can be deployed to help its campaign in Old Bexley and Sidcup, where the Tories are defending a majority of almost 19,000 in less than two weeks’ time. Anything other than a Tory win in both seats would be a huge shock, but the Lib Dems believe they can put up a decent challenge in North Shropshire after overturning a 16,000 Tory majority in the Chesham and Amersham byelection in June.

Despite the fact that the North Shropshire byelection was triggered by the sleaze row, Davey said that “health, health, health” was actually the main local concern his party would be focusing on. “I’ve already been there twice and I’m going there a third time this weekend. And we will be ensuring that some of our best campaigners are there. You know parties put resources where they think that there’s a chance, however difficult. This is definitely tougher than Amersham and Chesham. But in the circumstances, with the Conservatives in serious trouble, with Johnson under pressure in a way he’s never been in his premiership, and the fact that we’ve got some momentum locally with a fantastic candidate, I think, why not?

“Ambulance waiting times are the first thing that comes up on the doorstep. Health is top of the issues, and it’s ambulance waiting times, it’s A&E problems, hospital problems and access to GPs. They’re really coming up on almost every doorstep.”

Concerns over the lack of coordination among progressive parties were raised by a council byelection in West Devon last week. The contest took place in the constituency of former attorney general Geoffrey Cox, who was criticised for voting as an MP while he was in the British Virgin Islands advising its government over allegations of corruption. The Conservative council candidate won by a single vote from Labour, after a big increase in the Green vote. The seat had been held by the Lib Dems.

Some figures within Labour and the Lib Dems have called for more explicit cooperation and electoral reform. Officials in both parties pointed out, however, that such an agreement could never be enforced at local level. “Pacts of non-aggression don’t have great reputations,” said one senior Labour MP.