farronforleader(In addition to my ‘Bloggers for Tim’ list, I’m also opening up the blog to guest posts from people supporting him for leader. The latest one is from Grace Goodlad, and if you want to follow in her footsteps, please get in touch!)

Grace was born in the seventies, yet has managed to reach her early forties having never knowingly worn brown polyester.
A Law graduate from the University of Kent she soon realised that her preferred specialism of criminal law was far too dull and moved on to study something even more glamorous and thrilling, and became a Chartered Accountant.
When the excitement became too much for her, she changed direction again and now works in a press and campaigns role.
Grace has been an active Libdem for many years and as well as being a Lib Dem Councillor from 2002-2006 she has also held a wide range of roles in her local party including Chairing, acting as Treasurer and Secretary and organising local political activity.
Grace has been happily married to another LibDem since 2005, and she and her husband have two wonderful Liberal Democats!

On May 8th I woke up to the worst General Election result for my party since I was wooed into joining by “the penny in the pound for education” a good many more years ago than I care to admit to. As someone who has been lucky enough to hold public office as a Liberal Democrat Councillor, to work for the party, to chair more than one local party (and hold assorted out roles in local parties), it felt like twenty-odd years of blood, sweat, money and tears had been for nothing.

I had gone to bed exhausted and depressed from the early results (after running a committee room all day), already well aware that things were bad. I had however hoped that we would struggle up to double figures with people like Adrian Sanders, Bob Russell and Charles Kennedy hopefully beating the bounce due to their phenomenal records as constituency champions. That was not to be. We were exiled to the most Northern Islands in Scotland with Alistair left as our sole Scottish representative – and across the mainland a further meagre 7 small patches of Lib Dem Gold scattered across England and Wales.

My first thoughts were that the party was over, in more ways than one. We had made an extraordinary gamble back in May 2010 due to a mathematical problem, but we had lost the bet and we were now a historical footnote and no longer a political force to be reckoned with. We weren’t even the third party any more with the SNP having a Westminster Parliamentary Party seven times the size of our own, a horrific scenario that I had never considered feasible. All was lost and we were just a minor party on our last legs.

I don’t believe that any more. I don’t believe that as that weekend a few friends called me after Nick Clegg resigned and asked me if I still felt that Tim Farron was as good as I said he was. I realised that I did.

To reel back, I attended Dorothy Thornhill’s campaign launch in Watford back in March. Dorothy was inspiring and charming as ever – a superb champion for Watford and someone who really cares about people – and her compassion and kindness shone through as she shared with us what motivated her as a politician. As she shared her values and why they mattered I was close to tears (and I am a cynical and grumpy old woman). What blew me away that night though, was Tim.

Tim spoke about his first winning campaign in Westmoreland and Lonsdale – and how far he had to push himself, and his team, to get those few extra votes. He spoke with passion and conviction about the local team in South Lakeland delivering quality new homes for people who need them, and how that is a huge success for the whole LibDem movement in his patch – not just him but the Local Councillors who made those decisions, the party members and volunteers who raised money and delivered leaflets to local people to win elections, and the people of Westmoreland and Lonsdale themselves who voted LibDem.

He was passionate about local communities, and not about “engagement” – but membership and ownership. Engaging with local communities is not enough – we need to be firmly embedded in them, listening to them with local people recognising that Lib Dems are part of the community not just talking “to” or “at” them. He utterly embodied the very best in community politics I have ever seen. He made it crystal clear that he was hungry to win, but not for winning’s sake alone, he wanted to make the world a better place for people in his community. The extension of that was he wanted to see Dorothy win as he knew she would fight just as hard for the people of Watford as he did for W&L.

So reel back to May. After several conversations with friends I was firmly of the view that we still had a potential Leader in our Parliamentary ranks who could lead us back from the wasteland we find ourselves in. I sent Tim a message saying as much, and, as you would expect from him, I got a response in a matter of minutes – thanking me for my support but saying he really wanted to think this over and had not yet made a decision. So I waited, and waited. And I waited. It was a very long wait, and the daily updates of new members joining in the party gave me so much hope that we might still have a future ahead of us.

On the 14th of May Tim finally announced his intention to stand, and in due course I was lucky enough to get involved on the periphery of his Campaign. For all that I had convinced friends and family that Tim was the future of the party, I of course still had questions – would he have the right skills to lead, not just to rouse a Lib Dem rally? I needed to see him put to the test, and over the last 7 weeks or so I think he has been.

I have seen him at two hustings, and on both occasions his speech was inspiring and passionate – leaving me keen to get out there and knock on doors again. He has answered even the most challenging questions honestly and with charm and good grace. I have of course followed the campaign announcements of both camps, and have been delighted to see Tim talking about Liberal issues and grabbing hold of topics that we must not leave to the other parties to own. He has written about housing, poverty, the blood ban, the arms trade, fracking, small businesses, equality and diversity in the party, the spousal veto, asylum, and electoral reform; to name but a few of the issues he has addressed. Very early in the campaign he set out his credo, and since then has expanded and built on that relentlessly.

What some may not know is he has also still been holding his regular surgeries in his constituency as he crisscrosses the country on the campaign trail, and has even opened a new housing development in his constituency.

For me, what makes Tim the real deal is that he lives out the words every single day, every time we have crossed paths in the campaign he has not just been dealing with that but also considering what he needs to do to make absolutely sure that people he represents are getting a fair hearing and a fair deal. He leads by example and is absolutely tireless in speaking out for those who need a voice and making sure we all have fairer opportunities in life. Even in the middle of his bid to lead our Party his belief in, and commitment to, his local community has been unwavering, we need a leader that has the belief, energy and drive to lead from the front and inspire us all to go that one step further to win. Tim Farron is a man that can inspire and motivate us all.

So, there you go. I know it sounds gushing, but coming from the dark place we have found ourselves in we need to be distinctive and energetic. We need to be relentless. We shall need to fight for every media opportunity, every question in the House of Commons, every inch of column space. We must have boundless enthusiasm for, and belief in, the Liberal Democrat message and the people we aspire to represent. I believe that Tim Farron can give us these things. Please join me in giving him your first preference vote.

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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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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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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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Tim-Farron-007Ian Birrell is one of the Guardian’s occasional Token Tory commentators, and someone not averse to churning out a bit of clickbait when required. So it should be no surprise that just as ballot papers are going out in the Liberal Democrat leadership, he pops up with a hit piece on Tim Farron.

Some of it is banally predictable, with rehashed attacks seemingly borrowed from dodgy phone polls about Tim’s stance on LGBT rights and abortion. Rather than go into detail on those issues, I’ll just point out that you can find out Tim’s positions on those in his own words on LGBT here and on abortion here. But hey, when does anyone let a few actual facts get in the way of a bit of clickbaiting?

The main thrust of Birrell’s post, though, is the rather bizarre claim that Tim “seems to lack a driving spirit of liberalism”, which would make you wonder if he actually knows who Tim Farron is until you see what his definition of liberalism is. Birrell’s version of liberalism appears to be a version of social liberalism that’s somehow represented by ‘the great Labour reforms of the 60s’ and ‘small-state economic liberalism that found an echo in Margaret Thatcher’s Tories’. It’s a liberalism that’s little more than the modern centre-right consensus: slash the state, but don’t be too beastly to minorities and ignore anything that’s happened in the last twenty=five years. It’s a liberalism with all the sharp edges filed of so its safe for conservatives to play with and pretend they’re actually liberal, but with no danger of making them actually want to challenge anything. Birrell’s effectively calling for liberalism to be little more than a reincarnation of the National Liberals. There’s a bitter irony in him invoking Jo Grimond for his vision of liberalism, when it was Grimond who led the party away from alliances with the Tories on the right.

Coincidentally, Tim gave a speech at the IPPR today in which he set out more of his vision of liberalism which is centred around “liberty, democracy, fairness, internationalism, environmentalism and quality of life.” It’s a lot more detailed and nuanced than the ‘be generally nice, but don’t challenge anything’ idea that Birrell seems to think liberalism is.

Of course, Birrell’s not alone in portraying liberalism like this. As James Graham pointed out the other week:

For years the senior party line informed us the history of Lib Dem philosophical thought was this: a century of unbroken tradition in the vein of Mill and Gladstone; something something welfare state (shrug); 20 years of social democrat muddle and confusion following the party merger in 1987; a return to our liberal roots with Nick Clegg’s election in 2007.

As James says, this pushing of a very restrictive view of liberalism under a variety of different names (‘true liberalism’, ‘classical liberalism’, ‘four-cornered liberalism’, ‘authentic liberalism’ and others) is an attempt to ignore much twentieth century thinking about liberalism and pretend that there’s some Platonic ideal form of liberalism that was discovered in the 19th century which we all should be judged against.

Purely coincidentally of course, this version of liberalism is the one that challenges the status quo and the powerful in society the least. It has very little to say about power, and when it does it pretends that the only potentially dangerous power in society is that of the state, which must be shrunk and controlled while corporations and other institutions are assumed to be perfectly fine and needing nothing like the same level of control and oversight. While other forms of liberalism are concerned with controlling power, especially unaccountable power, the one thing I always find missing from ‘economic liberalism’ are any notions of power outside of the state, especially ideas of challenging it or making it accountable. Birrell’s vision of liberalism is one that keeps things safe and cosy for those in power, and I’m very glad that’s not a liberalism Tim Farron represents.

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liblablieIt will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been at a Liberal Democrat Glee Club or said the words ‘Liberal Democrats’ to anyone in the Labour Party over the past few years that the general reaction to Jamie Reed’s proposal that Labour and the Liberal Democrats merge has been a resounding ‘no’ from both sides. It’s the sort of idea that people should dismiss as a non-starter, but because it was apparently seriously considered by both Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair in the 90s, it’s acquired a veneer of respectability and possibility that it doesn’t really deserve. It’s a bad idea that only looks vaguely plausible because of the distorting lens of the British electoral system – because two parties separately don’t get the representation in Parliament that’s commensurate with their separate shares of the vote, the assumption becomes that they must become one, and somehow combine their vote shares into something greater. That people vote for those parties based on their separate identities, and would not necessarily vote for a combined mush of the two, is assumed away.

There’s a reason that splits of political parties are much, much more common than mergers of them: it’s a lot more common and easier for people – especially politicians – to believe that they’re right and need their own organisation to prove it than it is for people from different groups to decide that they’d both be better off if they come together permanently. The merger that created the Liberal Democrats was the last major one in British politics, and that not only nearly killed the new party but also created two disgruntled splinter parties. That was with the benefit of two parties that had worked under an electoral part for two elections and where Roy Jenkins had initially considered joining the Liberal Party rather than establishing the SDP. Other mergers involving major parties (the Tories swallowing the Liberal Unionists and then the National Liberals) only happened after many years of the two parties involved having worked closely together.

However, it’s perfectly possible for parties to work together and co-ordinate electorally without merging. Indeed, it’s the sort of thing that happens regularly in other countries. It’s a lot easier to do that in a proportional voting system, of course, where parties within a grouping are free to compete with each other, knowing that moving votes from one party to another within that bloc won’t affect the overall electoral prospects of that bloc. For instance, assume a country with four parties (A,B,C, and D) that exist broadly as two blocs – A and B would usually work together in government, as would C and D, but a combination other than those two would be very unlikely. Now, imagine that A gets 30% of the vote, B 25%, C 40% and D 5%. In a proportional system, A and B can compete freely with each other and most likely would over the 5% of voters that would determine which of them is the largest party. However, their combined 55% of seats would put them into power. In the same way, C and D’s prime focus would be on trying to shift voters from the AB bloc to theirs. In a system like ours, though, we instead have a situation where A and B competing only benefits C, unless large chunks of B voters can be persuaded to switch to A (or vice versa).

In the latter situation, it might seem that the logical solution is to get A and B to merge, as they’ll get 55% of the vote – but only if all their existing voters will back the newly merged party. However, unless the two parties wer already nearly identical in their policy positions, that’s very unlikely to happen, as the newly merged party will have to try and find common ground between the two parties’ positions that will likely alienate former voters.

Before I detour completely into dissertation-land and regale you with more Downs and Mair theory on party positioning, I’ll try and get to a point – and for once on this issue, I find myself in general agreement with Paddy Ashdown.From the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, there was electoral co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and it proved to be one of the most electorally successful periods ever for both parties. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the majority of Liberal Democrat seats have been won from the Tories, or had the Tories in second place, and a lot of those were won thanks to co-operation with Labour – sure, it wasn’t official co-operation but there’s no doubt that there were plenty of seats in 1997 where one of the two parties put in very little effort which made it easier for the other to persuade voters to switch and back them as the best anti-Tory choice. (Incidentally, the bulk of the seats with Lib Dems in second place are now Tory-held)

I’m not saying that any agreement could be accomplished easily or quickly, but ruling it out entirely only plays into the Tories hands – the evidence suggests that they’re the ones who benefit the most when Labour and Liberals are too busy turning their noses up at each other to understand we share a common enemy. Yes, we’ll all have to sit through shouts of ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (whilst we shout ‘illegal war’ and ‘ID cards’ back, of course) but shouldn’t we at least see if something’s possible without ruling it out without even discussing it?

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