I had a good time yesterday at the Social Liberal Forum conference, despite the sauna-like nature of some sessions (who knew that 200 people stuck in a room with only a couple of fans would get so hot?) but there was a comment made in one session that I wanted to address.

One of the participants in the session on political pluralism was former Tory MEP Tom Spencer, who talked about how he didn’t think the Liberal Democrats should be part of a ‘progressive majority’ but should be a continental style liberal centrist party that alternated between supporting governments of left and right, ensuring there was liberalism in both. I talked about this in a post during the week but I want to reiterate the point I made then: there aren’t parties like that any more, and even when there were they were in party systems completely unlike Britain’s.

There are three countries where there was a two-and-a-half or three-party system of right, centre and left parties and where the centre party formed coalitions with both the right and left parties: West Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands (though the Dutch example isn’t quite as clear cut). However, all these are distinguished by something else: as well as the liberal party forming governments with parties of left and right, the parties of left and right would form governments with each other. Essentially, what these countries had was a triangular political system, with shared interests around all three sides of the triangle. In Germany, there was an FDP-CDU link on bourgeois issues and some economic liberalism, an FDP-SPD link on social liberal issues but also a CDU-SPD link on the corporatist aspects of the German system. (An important fact to note is that the FDP, like the Dutch VVD liberal party, is regarded as being further to the right economically than the CDU)

This was the system in Germany from the 50s to the 80s, and most notably from 1961 to 1983 when they were the only three parties in the Bundestag. There are two key things to note here: there was a grand CDU-SPD coalition in the 60s before there was an SPD-FDP one, and the last SPD-FDP coalition ended in 1983. Indeed, the SPD has spent almost as much time in government with the CDU as it has with the FDP.

It’s a similar picture in the other two countries. Belgium had three principal parties from the end of the Second World War to the start of the dissolution of the parties from national institutions to Fleming or Walloon-specific ones in 1968. Coalitions between any two of the three were possible during that period, so it wasn’t just a case of the liberal party switching between the two sides.

Finally, the situation in the Netherlands is slightly more complicated because of the presence of two liberal parties – the more right-wing VVD and the more left D66. It was also in a later period than the other two, as the parties of the right didn’t come together into a single party (the CDA) until 1978. However, from 1978 until 2002, there were governments on all three sides of the triangle, involving any two of CDA, VVD and the social democrat PvDA. As in the other two countries, this was a situation that lasted for about 20 years, and ended when new parties entered the system and made it more complex.

You can see an attempt to push a similar message for Britain in the 40s on the cover here (PDF file) but the relative weakness of the Liberals, and the system giving majority governments to Tories and Labour meant it developed differently. However, the 50s and 60s in Britain were known as the era of the Butskelite consensus, with Tories and Labour seen as being relatively close ideologically until the 70s. However, after that the situation changed with the parties moving further apart and the Tories taking the economic liberal ideas that remained with the centre parties in Germany and the Netherlands.

This idea of a liberal party switching between two sides comes from a very limited sample. In other countries, there’s either no liberal party, or multiple ones of right and left that tend to support other parties within their bloc, but don’t switch back and forth. Alternatively, they’re parties like the Centre Party in Finland which have roots as an agrarian party as well as a liberal one, and are one of the principal parties in a multi-party system.

In short, it is possible for a liberal party to alternate between supporting governments of left and right, but it only happens in systems with three or four parties where the liberal party has created a distinct ideology for itself beyond mere centrism, and where the parties of left and right are close together and can form governments with each other, excluding the liberal party. When those conditions don’t apply – especially when there are more parties in the system – it’s rare to find a liberal party remaining in the centre. Instead, they tend to pick a side and work within it, not alternating from one to the other.

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Managerialism vs Innovation – “Does management’s pursuit of efficiency crowd out innovation?” asks Chris Dillow, wondering if creating small productivity gains through managerialist efficiency is driving out bigger gains that can be made through innovation.
On politics and the ‘common’ – Alex Marsh on the changing style of political rhetoric and what it shows about our political culture.
A world without work – How might we adapt to an automated future?
I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery. – People really don’t understand the past, part 94.
London 2025 – How the city is becoming just another meaningless point for the globetrotting hyper rich, content to live from the spoils of corruption elsewhere.

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Short answer? Away. Far, far, away.

Short answer? Away. Far, far, away.

Seth Thevoz and Lewis Baston have a very interesting new post on the Social Liberal Forum website, looking in detail at the 57 seats the Liberal Democrats defended at this year’s general election. It’s worth reading the whole thing because, as Jonathan Calder points out, it helps to explode the myth that so many seats were lost because the Tories persuaded huge numbers of Lib Dem voters to switch. In a similar vein, it’s worth looking at this diagram of voter movements from Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus, which tells a similar story: the biggest movement of 2010 Lib Dem voters in 2015 was to Labour. That diagram also helps to explain why the ‘Lib Dem vote went down, UKIP vote went up by a similar amount; therefore Lib Dem voters switched the UKIP’ idea is also mostly wrong.

(Update: Since I first posted this, the second part of Thevoz and Baston’s analysis, looking at links between general election and local government election performance, has been posted)

However, there are two main points I want to bring up from reading Thevoz and Baston:

The first is a general one about their data, where I’m heartened to see that their analysis of the result is based on changes in the actual numbers of votes received, rather than shifts in the percentage shares. I’ve argued before that turnout is a crucial factor often ignored in British elections, and coupled with that is the effect of shifts to and from not voting, as well between parties. Using percentages often carries with it the assumption that the people voting in this election are the same as the people who voted in the previous one, which I think leads to some lazy analysis.

I think it also – though it’s not something highlighted in this case – helps to show why local government elections and Parliamentary by-elections aren’t always a good indicator of how general elections will go, because you can’t assume the smaller sample at the former are indicative of how the larger sample at the latter will vote. I think that was especially the case this time and looking at high-profile by-elections helps to show it. Mike Thornton got 13,342 votes in the Eastleigh by-election and won, then got a small increase to 14,317 votes in the general election and lost because the Conservatives added 13,000 votes between the two The overall increase in turnout between the two? About 14,000 votes. Similarly for UKIP, Mark Reckless got 16,867 votes in the by-election and 16,009 votes in the general, that small shift downwards eclipsed by the 10,000 extra votes Kelly Tolhurst got for the Conservatives in the general election. Similarly, Douglas Carswell’s position in Clacton looked a lot less secure when 7,500 extra Tory voters turned out at the general election.

One final point on turnout: the graphs show, perhaps even more impressively than the swingometers, the scale of the SNP’s achievement in Scotland and how it was heavily driven by persuading non-voters to come out and vote for them. Again, only reporting percentages hides some of the true picture, particularly the unionist tactical voting that’s likely behind the increase in the Lib Dem vote in some of those seats.

The second main point is that there isn’t a consistent story to tell about what happened to the Lib Dem voters. There’s a degree of tactical unwind as Green and Labour votes go up, there’s a loss of the anti-system vote to UKIP and Green as well as a shift to the Tories which could either be a coalition detoxification effect or because of Project Fear driving voters who didn’t want to see Miliband in Number 10 towards the Tories. I expect there’s also a strong element of former Lib Dems staying at home, somewhat hidden by a number of former non-voters coming out to vote for UKIP. There does also seem to be in some seats an amount of ‘soft Tory’ tactical voting for Liberal Democrats to keep Labour out in some seats, though it’s hard to tell the extent of it as some of the drops in the Tory vote (especially in ‘safe’ Lib Dem seats) may be Tory voters taking the opportunity to protest vote for UKIP. However, it doesn’t appear to be on anything like the scale of the Lib-Lab tactical voting we’ve seen over the past two decades.

This is an important factor both in explaining the 2015 result and in looking at the strategic options for the Liberal Democrats going forward. One interesting book on electoral theory I’ve been reading recently is Gary Cox’s Making Votes Count which looks at how voters strategically co-ordinate their votes for maximum effectiveness. One example of this is his application of Duverger’s law, and the way it structures the vote within constituencies so that they tend to become two-party contests in single member plurality (‘first past the post’) elections. (Duverger is often taken to apply solely at the national level, but Cox points out that his work is just as, if not more, relevant at the constituency level)

I should probably write a longer post specifically on Cox in the future, but the important point he makes is that winning individual elections is a co-ordination problem for both parties and voters: the latter trying to determine who are the potential victors, the former trying to work out how to position themselves as a potential victor. However, the key point here is that even if a party can show that it is one of the potential victors, it can only attract tactical votes from those who won’t win if those voters can perceive a relevant difference between the two potentially victorious parties. Thus, it’s hard to get a hardcore UKIP voter to tactically vote Tory to keep Labour out because both parties are part of the ‘LibLabCon‘ they despise, and it was hard this year to persuade Labour and Green voters to vote Lib Dem to stop the Tories when they saw no difference between the two parties. Because the non-Tory vote was heavily fractured and generally not co-ordinated, that allowed the Tories to win a number of seats with relatively small shares of the vote – as Thevoz and Baston point out, many Tory gains from Lib Dems were with smaller numbers of votes than had won the seat in 2010 because of this effect.

There’s a good news and bad news conclusion to this. The good news is as Thevoz and Baston say: the Tory majorities in a lot of the seats they gained from the Lib Dems aren’t overwhelmingly massive and impossible to overwhelm in the future, but the bad news is that the only way those seats can be won back is by convincing non-Tory voters that not only are the Lib Dems capable of challenging the Tories in those seats, but that there’s reason for those voters to believe there’s a sufficient enough difference between us and the Tories to make it worth their while shifting. That part isn’t as simple as it sounds, because it’s not just about the messages Lib Dems put out, but how much they co-ordinate or clash with the messages coming from the other parties and the media generally. It’s one thing to persuade the sort of person who turns out at a local council by-election that it’s OK to vote Liberal Democrat again, but how do you get that message over to rest of the electorate?

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Having just done the roundup of the most popular posts for the last three months, it occurs to me that many of you reading this are election junkies just like me and are no doubt getting pretty jittery awaiting your next fix.

Well, in the spirit of helping someone avoid going full cold election turkey, allow me to point you several thousand miles west, where Canada will be holding a general election in October which is currently promising to be a classic for fans of close polling performance turning into bizarre electoral results thanks to the electoral system.

Like the UK, Canada still uses first past the post for election. Also like Britain, Canada has a multi-party system with strong regional variations and parties. Unlike Britain, Canadian polling is showing that the three main parties – the currently governing Conservatives, the opposition New Democrats and the formerly dominant Liberals – are effectively tied in the polls:
Projection Front
The NDP have currently moved into the lead after their surprising win in the Alberta provincial election in May, but the other two parties have also had leads in the polls recently, and the official election campaign hasn’t started yet.

What makes Canada even more interesting is that its politics have a level of fluidity and volatility that most other countries fail to come even close to. It’s not uncommon to see parties almost completely wiped out in elections – the most famous being the Progressive Conservatives going from governing to winning just two seats in 1993 – and other parties making massive surges that surprise even them. The NDP, which barely had a foothold in Quebec and didn’t compete in provincial elections, won almost every seat there in 2011. The NDP’s win in Alberta this year saw it go from having 4 seats to 54 in an 87-member Parliament it had never previously held more than 16 seats in.

Even outside of elections, part boundaries are much more fluid from a British perspective with elected members frequently crossing the floor or resigning to stand in other elections and a seemingly constant stream of by-elections taking place – just look at the sheer amount of switching and stepping down going on here. However, my favourite recent example is again in Alberta where, a few months before this year’s provincial election, nine members (including the leader) of the relatively new right-wing Wildrose Party announced that they were joining the Progressive Conservatives, leaving Wildrose with just five members in the provincial Parliament. You’d expect that to be the end of the party, but this is Canada, so naturally they managed to increase their number of members from the last election and are now Alberta’s official opposition, while the Progressive Conservatives dropped to third place.

Indeed, looking at Canadian election results I do have a suspicion that the primary motivation of the electorate at all levels is to give political scientists something that will confound every model of party systems and electoral behaviour they can come up with. It should keep you interested through till October, and will be much more interesting than watching the America’s Craziest Man competition that appears to have replaced the Republican contest to be the next US President.

Being the most popular posts on this blog for the last three months. Be warned, some of these links seemed incredibly relevant at the time, but the post-election landscape now makes them quaint relics of an earlier more innocent time.

8) On Milifandom and politics fandom in general – “Most political parties are just organised fandoms for a political ideology or slice of political history, it';s just that they’ve been around so long people treat them as something different and respectable.”
7) Hampstead and Kilburn: Election not postponed – For a few hours at the start of the campaign, it looked like one interesting seat might have its election delayed. Then someone checked the actual law.
6) Who is (or was) Balustrade Lanyard? – The man. The balustrade. The flag. The lanyard. The legend.
5) Thoughts on the Lib Dems: Past, present and (hopefully) future – A couple of days after the election, I finally got my thoughts on the future of the party in order enough to set them down.
4) NUS invents a Liberal Democrat MP – We never did find out who Ian Cunningham MP might have been.
3) 2015 General Election Day 34: Who can answer the Balustrade Lanyard question? – The only one of my daily general election posts to make it into this list, demonstrating just what happens when you put two words everyone’s Googling into the headline capture the zeitgeist.
2) Colchester 2015 General Election result – They googled, they saw, and the result stayed the same.
1) 2015 Colchester local election results – They Googled even more, they saw, and the results still stayed the same.

Thanks to all the many visitors over the past few months, and please keep coming. I only need to keep posting regularly for a couple more weeks and I’ll have been back blogging for a whole year!

So, Phil left a comment here which he’s since expanded into a full post. I suppose I should respond before the expansion rate of his responses really picks up and it turns into a book, but be warned that this may ramble.

Phil is quite scathing of my suggestion that Labour and the Liberal Democrats could work together in the future, saying it “would evince heroic levels of chutzpah (and not in a good way)” on the part of the Lib Dems. In that, he’s probably right, but I’m an optimist about this sort of thing right now, and to join a party that’s not one of the big two in a FPTP system is taking a position where you know you’re going to need huge reserves of chutzpah if you’re going to accomplish anything. However, I’m not suggesting that the two new leaders should be getting together this year and agreeing a joint strategy for the next few years, just that given the situation both parties find themselves in, working alone isn’t going to help anyone.

And yes, for every “making five years of Tory government possible and laying the groundwork for another five” we could respond with questions about just how much responsibility Labour has for the ongoing chaos in the Middle East and enabling the re-election of George Bush in 2004. We all know the past is an important part of politics – one force that keeps political parties together is a shared understanding of their past, I’d argue – but I think there comes a point where you have to put that behind you. It may be that mutual distrust means nothing can be agreed, even informally, before 2020 – one of the things that made 90s co-operation easier was David Owen finally disappearing from the stage – but it feels to me that the actual facts of voter behaviour make it the best opportunity for both parties.

One thing I’ve been looking at in my dissertation research is the question of equidistance and the idea of a centre party in a two-and-a-half party system being able to switch between supporting either of the other two parties. The example normally given is Germany’s FDP, and that’s because it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t occur much in party systems, with the only other example I’ve found at the moment being Belgium from the end of WW2 to the break up of the parties along language lines. However, while in both of those the liberal party was a part of governments of both left and right, there was an additional factor present there – grand coalition governments where left and right worked together and excluded the liberals were possible. The political system of both countries in that period wasn’t a straight line of left-centre-right but a triangle with socialism, Christian democracy and liberalism at the three points and links between all three being possible.

Even for all the talk of Labservatives, that’s not the system we have here – and it’s not the situation they have in those two countries either. Belgium’s party system is now quite chaotic with multiple new types of parties split across linguistic divides, and Germany’s become much more multi-party with more distinct left and right blocs. Given the electoral kicking the Liberal Democrats have just received while running on an almost explicitly equidistance campaign, it might be safe to say that it’s not a workable strategy anywhere any more, if it ever was.

The point here is that if the Liberal Democrats have a future (and Dan Falchikov makes some good points on that) within the current electoral system, we have to pick a side. We may have to wear hairshirts for a few years to show our atonement for previous errors, but what’s more important is having an actual message and identity of our own, not a split-the-difference middle of the road one.

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farronforleaderNigel Quinton was the Liberal Democrat candidate in South West Hertfordshire in 2015, and you can find out more about him on his own site. If you want to write a guest post about why you’re supporting Tim for leader, please get in touch!

It is difficult isn’t it? Reduced to eight MPs after the worst election result since I don’t know when, and now I have to choose between the two MP’s I admire most (no offence Nick, Alistair, Tom, Greg, Mark and John). Tim and Norman are both exceptionally gifted campaigners, and both exceptional role models, and both very definitely true liberals.
But that says it all doesn’t it? The fact that I can list all of our MP’s in one short parenthetic note. The party faces extinction if we do not work incredibly hard to survive and re-grow. Many have already written us off. Thankfully, 20,000 new members this year tells a more positive story, but we should not let that fool us. It will be a hard road back.
And actually it is not just about the 2015 result. It was the same in 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011. The scale of our decline through the years in coalition is truly disastrous. I sometimes think that it wasn’t until 2014 and the loss of all but one MEP that it dawned on some in Westminster how great was the scale of our retreat, but as an aspiring PPC who looked at applying for a number of seats around the country in 2012/13, it was shocking how much our bedrock of activists had hollowed out.
So I have to say that my choice for leader is going to be governed by who I believe can turn this around. Who can motivate, who can enthuse, who can communicate our message, who can truly lead? Who can see beyond the Westminster bubble, understand what needs to be done in constituencies where we no longer have any councillors, let alone an MP. So in truth, it is not that difficult a decision after all, because when you think about those priorities, Tim is the standout choice.
He also ticks my boxes on the policy priorities, although both men have strength in this respect and I hope that Norman will be a huge part of the team going forward, not least for the passion and energy he has displayed in fighting for parity of esteem for Mental Health services. Norman has argued in hustings that the party needs to win the intellectual arguments, and he is probably right, but ultimately Tim is the more realistic when he talks of the need to speak to the ‘gut’ rather than the ‘head’ if we are to regain voters’ trust and support. Just getting heard at all will be the first challenge, and we will have to campaign on issues that really mark us out and identify our values. The two that Tim has identified with which I most agree are Housing and Climate Change, both areas we could have had a far more distinctive voice in the past five years in government, and both issues on which we could and should be leading the fight.
Despite my high regard for Norman his campaign has disappointed me. The negative attacks on Tim’s Christian background are truly awful, not to mention illiberal, and as for the ‘only true liberal’ line – please don’t get me started! My father founded the Humanist and Secularist group in the party and he signed Tim’s nomination papers so if he thinks Tim’s Christianity poses no threat to our liberalism that is good enough for me. I also count myself a Humanist, but I value the views of people of all faiths and none, and the idea that someone of faith cannot lead the party is completely illiberal and nonsensical.
In contrast Tim’s campaign has shown tremendous energy, positivity, and effectiveness – just what we need to give us the best chance not just to survive but to thrive. Please join me in supporting Tim Farron as leader.

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