By Daniel Hewitt, Political Correspondent
From their inception in 1988, the Liberal Democrats spent than two and a half decades slowly building a small but significant army of MPs, scattered in pockets across the country. 15 in the South West, 11 in Scotland, 7 in London, 6 in the North West - it's politicians earned are reputation for pitching up, digging in and grinding down Tory and Labour majorities election after election, eventually taking the seat. Seats like Burnley, which Labour had held since World War One, and Cheadle which had been Conservative for 60 years.
But almost all of that work was wiped away on one night in May 2015. Voters across the land decided five years in coalition with the David Cameron's Conservatives was punishable by the near-death of the party. 57 MPs became 8. Burnley and Cheadle, Hazel Grove and Manchester Withington, where the Lib Dems had spent years and years grafting to overturn huge deficits, reverted to type.
In the North West, just 2 MPs hung on. John Pugh in Southport, and Tim Farron in Westmorland and Lonsdale. The region went from representing 1 in 10 Liberal Democrats in Parliament, to representing a quarter. There are now as many Lib Dems in the North West as there are in the South West, Scotland and Wales combined, and the party is confident it will increase that number on June 8th.
Since the EU referendum last June, the Lib Dems have recorded a string of impressive council by-election victories across the country, as well as a remarkable win in a Parliamentary by-election in Richmond over the Tories and increased vote share in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent – areas that voted to Leave the EU.
Membership has soared above 100,000 for the first time – the prospect of Brexit has revitalised a party that two years ago was on its knees. With Labour caught in no-man’s land – struggling to appeal to Remain voters in its metropolitan seats and Leave voters in its northern heartlands – and UKIP losing its battle for relevance, the Lib Dems have found their target: unashamedly pitching to Remain voters as the one-stop-shop for all your anti-Brexit needs.
But will that success story translate into more seats in Parliament? In the North West, the Lib Dems believe their message will be best received in the following seats:
MANCHESTER WITHINGTON - Labour majority 14,873
The Liberals lost this seat in 1929, and it took 76 years to win it back. John Leech was the man that did it in 2005, and then,against the odds, he held onto it in 2010, beating Lucy Powell who went on to win Manchester Central two years later. John Leech voted against forming a coalition with the Conservative Party government, he voted against trebling tuition fees but it mattered not one jot with Withinghton's electorate who kicked him out in favour of Labour's Jeff Smith in 2015.
Mr Leech though has hung around - in 2016 he beat Labour to win the council ward of Didsbury West to become the official opposition on Manchester City Council (he is the only non-Labour councillor - 95 to 1). This election will be a re-run of 2015, and just as Mr Leech suffered for his leaders' policies back then, the Lib Dems hope Jeff Smith will suffer the same fate at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn.
It is no surprise that with a large student population and the affluent, middle-class suburbs of a Didsbury and Chorlton this constituency voted to remain in the EU. Of course both Labour and the Lib Dems campaigned for just that, but since the referendum the latter have been much better at selling themselves as the natural home for Remainers. This though is one of the few northern Labour seats where Jeremy Corbyn could be an asset – that aforementioned student community represents perhaps one of the last bastions of enthusiasm for the Labour leader. Furthermore the Lib Dem defeat here last time was heavy - their vote share dropped 20%, handing Labour a majority of 14873. Mr Leech is a trier; he needs it be to climb a mountain that big.
HAZEL GROVE – Conservative Majority 6,552
May 7th 2015 was always going to be a tough night for the Lib Dems, in Hazel Grove it was made even tougher a few months earlier when it's MP here of 18 years announced he was to stand down. Andrew Stunnell won this seat in 1997 from the Tories, and by 2010 had built a healthy majority of almost six and a half thousand. But in 2015 Mr Stunnell became Lord Stunnell, and Hazel Grove became Tory again, William Wragg defeating local Lib Dem councillor Lisa Smart. She will contest the seat again.
The majority here is smaller than Withington, but so is the number of Remainers. The official EU Referendum result was recorded by local authority area rather than parliamentary constituency, so we know for instance that Stockport voted to Remain, just, but we have no official record for Hazel Grove. Chris Hanretty, Politics Professor at the University of East Anglia, has attempted to estimate how parliamentary seats voted, and he suggests Hazel Grove voted to Leave by 54%, making the Lib Dems' Brexit message a little less straightforward. The Tories though could be damaged by allegations surrounding the use of their 2015 Election Battle Bus – Hazel Grove was one of the seats being investigated by Greater Manchester Police. What will be interesting here is how the sizeable Labour vote (17.5%) holds up, and where it goes if it collapses.
CHEADLE – Conservative Majority 6,453
Unlike Hazel Grove, Cheadle did vote to Remain in the European Union. The Conservative MP here Mary Robinson, who beat Mark Hunter in 2015 to win this seat back from the Lib Dems, campaigned for a Remain vote, but will come up against a Lib Dem campaign focused on Theresa May and her ‘hard Brexit’. The Lib Dems won this once-safe Tory seat at the 2001 General Election by just 33 votes, the narrowest in the House of Commons. Mr Hunter was the MP here between 2010 and 2015, and he will go up against Mrs Robinson again this time. This is a seat the Liberal Democrats really think they can win back.
MANCHESTER GORTON – Labour majority 24,079
The Lib Dems came 5th here in 2015, losing their deposit. They now believe they can give Labour a real run for their money in a seat that has been red since God was a boy. This was due to be a by-election held on May 4th, following the death of Parliament’s longest serving MP Gerald Kauffman, which means campaigning has already been going on for several weeks.
Lib Dems have been briefing that they’re in a stronger position in Gorton right now than they were at this stage in the Witney by-election in October last year, when the party achieved a swing of 19.3 percent from the Tories in David Cameron’s old seat. Again, there is no official data showing how Gorton voted in the Referendum, but Chris Hanretty suggests it was 60% remain. The Lib Dems could also be helped by George Galloway, the former Labour-firebrand and friend of Jeremy Corbyn, who says every vote for him in Gorton is a vote for the Labour leader. The Greens came second here in 2015, the Lib Dems will hope they can win some of that vote back, but in the part of the city that gave the world the stunning Gorton Monastery (if you haven’t seen it, do) it could take a minor miracle to turn red into yellow. Labour remain confident it will still be theirs on June 9th.
BURNLEY – Labour majority 3,244
The Lib Dems’ victory here in 2010 was quite remarkable. Labour had held Burnley for almost a century, but local councillor Gordon Birtwistle achieved a 12% swing at the fourth time of asking. His time in Parliament though was short-lived, losing to Labour’s Julie Cooper in 2015. He is bidding to win it back again, but unlike other former Lib Dem seats, Burnley voted overwhelmingly (66.6%) to leave the European Union. Their pitch here will have to be different, and is likely to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived failings than Theresa May’s interpretation of Brexit. Despite the small majority here, I suspect this is much lower down the list of targets than others in this region.