I handed in my Masters dissertation a couple of weeks ago, and rather than reproduce the whole thing here, I thought a summarised version of the key arguments would be of more interest than the whole thing. (That some of it would be an absolute bugger to format for WordPress is entirely by-the-by) Should you be interested in reading the whole 10,000 word original (“The role and strategy of the Liberal Democrats in the British party system: Strategic coordination and the structure of competition”) let me know.
The main aim of the dissertation was to look at Liberal Democrat positioning and strategy since the party was formed in the light of different theories. In the first part, I looked at spatial (Downsian) models of party positioning (which I discussed in more detail here), specifically in terms of papers by Adams & Merrill, and Nagel & Wlezien. They find some interesting patterns in British politics, most notably that when the two major parties diverge from the centre, the vote share of the centre party tends to grow (and when they converge, the centre party gets squeezed).
However, what’s interesting about this relationship is that it only applies to vote shares, not seats, and as even a cursory look at Liberal Democrat and Alliance electoral history will show you, there’s not a strong relationship between number of seats won and number of votes in the party’s results. Indeed, some of the best results in terms of votes (1983, 1987, 2010) have seen disappointing returns of seats. Why was the party suddenly so successful from 1997 at turning votes into seats, when it hadn’t been before?
To explain that, I looked at theories of strategic coordination by voters (also known as tactical voting), particularly in the light of the theories proposed by Gary Cox in his book Making Votes Count. Cox looks at voters as two different types: expressive voters, who are voting to make a point; and instrumental voters, who are seeking to achieve a certain goal. It’s very hard to get expressive voters to shift from their preferred party to another, but instrumental voters might if they think another party will have a chance of achieving that goal.
This is something that’s a key part of Liberal Democrat campaigning, of course: persuading people to shift from supporting their first choice party to the Liberal Democrats because the bar chart shows that only the Liberal Democrats can defeat Party X here. However, the assumption in that message is both that the voter wants to see Party X defeated (they’re an instrumental voter seeking that end), and that they see sufficient difference between the Liberal Democrats and Party X to prefer the Liberal Democrats over them. It’s that second point which to me is the key to explaining why the party managed to do so well in 1997 and after. It wasn’t just that the party got better at targeting seats, but that the way the party had positioned itself made it more attractive to tactical anti-Tory voters.
Consider that when someone is casting a vote, especially a tactical one, they’re not just thinking about their constituency but the national situation. So, when asking a Labour voter to tactically switch to the Liberal Democrats to defeat a Tory in their constituency, they’re not just considering whether they prefer the Liberal Democrat candidate to the Conservative one, but the effect that will have on the national picture. A voter may want to beat the Conservatives, but in order to tactically switch, they have to see a difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives not just locally but in terms of the end result. If the party’s being officially equidistant and not saying who it’d support, it weakens the argument for tactical switching as it doesn’t help prevent the end the voter wants to avoid.
To see this in action, look at what Paddy Ashdown did from 1992. Starting with the Chard speech soon after the election, he positioned the party as explicitly anti-Tory and the party’s general behaviour up to and including 1997 general election tended to reinforce that. (One key signal in this, I think, was both parties standing down in favour of Martin Bell in Tatton) You can see the change in British Election Study data – at the 1992 election, 44% of voters thought the Liberal Democrats were closer to the Tories, 38% to Labour, but by 1997 that had shifted to 56% saying closer to Labour, and just 10% to the Tories.
That’s important, because at the 1997 election, the party had a huge number of seats it could win from the Conservatives if enough Labour voters would switch. So, even though the party saw its share of the vote drop as Labour moved to the centre, the increased level of strategic coordination by voters meant that the Liberal Democrats won a lot more seats than ever before. Voters who were seeking to remove the Conservatives felt able to vote for whichever was the best anti-Tory option in their constituency because Ashdown’s actions had made it clear what we would do afterwards. Similar things happened in 2001, when even more voters thought the party was closer to Labour than in 1997, as the results of 1997 had made the best anti-Tory option in a constituency clear.
2005’s a bit more complex to explain but one interesting fact from then is that voters still saw the Liberal Democrats as closer to Labour than the Conservatives at the same level they did in 1997. That, I believe, is what led to the gains from Labour that year – people who would normally vote Labour switching as a protest, but generally these voters were demographically close to existing Liberal Democrat voters (this article by John Curtice explains it in depth, if you can access it). In other countries, this is the sort of voter shift that would be called intra-block movement, where voters still want the same block of parties in power but shift their support between the parties within that block – Denmark and Sweden have good examples of this sort of system.
By 2010, the party had returned to equidistance and this affected voters decisions, hence why the share of the vote went up, but the number of seats went down. The overall share of the vote went up because there was more space in the centre, but because Labour voters couldn’t be sure that the party wouldn’t support a Tory government, there was an unwinding of the tactical votes that had previously won seats for the party. (While the party’s national share was going up, it was going down in many held seats) This was only accentuated after 2010, when the ‘we voted for you to keep the Tories out, but then you joined the coalition’ argument undid the tactical vote. It’s interesting to look at the different patterns of where the Liberal Democrat vote went in seats lost in 2015 – in seats gained by the Tories it tended to scatter, while in seats won by Labour there was a much more pronounced direct swing from Liberal Democrat to Labour.
I could go on at a lot more length (I haven’t even mentioned Mair’s structure of competition yet, which was an important part of the dissertation) but the key point to remember is that in the British system, votes and seats aren’t the same thing. As the Alliance showed, and the result in 2010 echoed, it’s easy to pile up 20-30% of the vote in a lot of seats, but that sort of share of the vote isn’t going to win you many of them. Unless the party can get above a tipping point level of about 30% of the vote to win seats by itself, victories are going to require tactical voting and tactical voting requires giving people the motivation to switch their vote. Equidistance doesn’t help in providing that motivation, and any wins rely on motivating purely local factors. The national factor – and the significant level of gains – came when the party had picked a side, and gave voters much more motivation to tactically switch because they could be sure of what effects it would have outside of the constituency battle.
In short, equidistance when the two big parties are moving away from the centre might be a good way of increasing the party’s vote in 2020, but it’s not going to bring a lot of seats with it.