liberatorcoverI got the latest edition of Liberator in the post this morning, and was delighted to see that my article in it is mentioned on the cover. It’s based on the research I did for my Masters dissertation on the links between equidistance, tactical voting and Liberal Democrats winning seats and hopefully will prompt some thinking and discussion within the party. If you’re not a Liberator subscriber (still only £25 a year!) you’ll be able to read it when the edition is available online in the New Year, or you can read the blog post I wrote on the same subject a couple of months ago. You can also read Nick Harvey’s article from this issue on how the party lost seats because we believed our own propaganda too much)

If you have read my article, I’d appreciate any comments or thoughts people have, and I’m open to suggestions on topics to write about for future issues of the magazine if you liked this one.

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Lib-Dem-logoWith depressing predictability, many people’s response to the concerns a lot of Liberal Democrat members have raised about the return of Chris Rennard to the Federal Executive has been ‘aren’t there more important things to worry about?’ It’s also interesting to note that ‘shut up and deliver leaflets‘ has now evolved into ‘go and do some phone canvassing’. This is of course mixed in with ‘don’t you know there’s a by-election on’ and ‘talking about this just gives us bad publicity’ to try and shut down any debate by blaming everyone else for the bad things.

It’s an interesting attempt at political judo: trying to make it look like it’s those people complaining about the Lords putting Chris Rennard on the FE are the ones in the wrong, rather than those who’ve actually made the decision. It feels to me very much like people who misunderstand free speech – yes, you have the right to say what you like, or elect whoever you choose, but that doesn’t free you from the consequences of your actions. Imagine if Tim Farron used his slot at Prime Minister’s Questions to ask Cameron if he could tell him who put the ram in the ram a lam a ding dong. He’s perfectly entitled to ask that, and as leader he can choose the subject of his questions, but he’d have to face the consequences of that choice.

This is the situation the Lords group – or, at least, the 40-odd of them who voted for Rennard – are in. They’ve made their decision according to the rules they have and in accordance with the power they have to appoint a member to the FE. Having seen the decision they’ve made, a large chunk of people in the rest of the party have pointed out that it’s a really bad decision and the response hasn’t been to try and explain why they think it’s a good decision, but to complain that people are daring to criticise it. Hiding behind ‘there are more important things you should be doing’ and ‘you’re making the party look bad, go and deliver leaflets as penance’ is quite a depressing way to try and avoid a debate and shift the blame for the effects of a decision onto those who didn’t make it.

Too many people forget that liberalism is about the freedom to make decisions and act, but that freedom comes with responsibility for the consequences of your actions. No one acts in a vacuum or makes decisions that are void of consequences and to assume that you can do whatever you want without facing criticism when you get it wrong is to demand to be removed from all consequences and be unaccountable in the way you exercise your power. Unaccountable power is something liberalism opposes, and it’s those who are trying to get everyone to move on and just accept it that are being illiberal here.

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House_of_Lords_chamber_-_toward_throneThere are some words you don’t want to see coming up on your Twitter feed because you know they’re invariably associated with bad news. When you’re a member of and follow a number of Liberal Democrats, “Rennard” is one of those words, as it normally means that everyone’s least-favourite former chief executive has done something silly again.

This time, it wasn’t just him being silly. Assisted by the votes of thirty-nine other members of the Liberal Democrat group in the House of Lords, he’s been elected as their representative on the party’s Federal Executive. I’m not sure what was going through the minds of these peers when they decided that someone cited as the principal reason why several prominent women have left the party was the best person to represent them on the FE, or why they think that raking up old arguments is the best way for the party to spend its time when its trying to rebuild. Some credit must be given for the twenty peers who voted for Tim Razzall to take the place instead, with questions being asked of the fifty or more who didn’t bother to vote.

What’s clear now, as it has been ever seen the allegations about him were first raised, is that there is a clear divide in the party over Rennard and that there are a number of people in senior positions in the party (particularly amongst the Lords group) who want to put him back into a prominent position because they believe the legend that he’s a political campaigner without equal, who can somehow magically restore the party’s electoral fortunes if he’s given the chance to. At best, this is somewhat overstating the ability one person could have on the party’s fortunes, but I’d argue that the supposed miracle-working powers of Rennardism ignore that he was principally a tactician and it was the party’s strategic positioning during the Ashdown and Kennedy years that created the real opportunity. (See here for my more detailed argument on that)

What we have here is a section of the party establishment deciding that standing up for their old mate is more important than giving the party the opportunity to rebuild and make a fresh start. Like Jennie, I want to see Tim Farron and Sal Brinton telling the Lib Dem Lords to think again, and I want to hear from the other members of the Federal Executive what they intend to do about it. Are they happy to see it being used to make the whole party look bad?

I’m sure it’s not their intention but the Lib Dem Lords are doing a very good job of showing just what the problems are with giving power to an unelected and unaccountable group. One of the outcomes of the party’s governance review has to be to remove any power over the democratic structures of the party from unaccountable groups like them.


Lib-Dem-logoAs part of the Agenda 2020 policy process, the party is holding an essay contest asking for 1000 words on ‘what does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today?’ This is my entry to it, written in a rush as the deadline came near, and you can see other people’s efforts on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Liberal Democrats want to give more freedom to everyone to enable them to live their own lives. However, we also know that freedom for individuals is not enough, and that it must be combined with breaking down the unaccountable powers of the state, in the economy and in society to enable individuals to fully use their freedom. We live in a world where there is more power to affect the lives of individuals than there ever has been, and by focusing on freeing people from historic controls we are cutting the strings and chains that tie them down, but ignoring the new ropes and cables that bind them even tighter.

To be a Liberal Democrat is to recognise that power has to exist, but that where it does exist it must be accountable. We are not opposed to the existence of power and recognise that it is needed to build, maintain and develop the society we live in, but we recognise that power needs to be controlled. Freedom is not simply removing a power over someone, freedom is giving people the ability to participate in power.

Liberals understand that power comes in many different forms and that the power of the state is just one of them. Indeed, it may be the weakest power of all because the concept of state power being accountable to those it affects is widely accepted, even if not regularly seen in practice. As liberals, we can spend far too much time getting upset about the minutiae of the use and misuse of state power while ignoring unaccountable power in society and the economy.

As Liberal Democrats we often eagerly point to how we believe that ‘no one should be enslaved by conformity’, but without focusing on how we make that happen in reality. We need to recognise that just saying oppression and enforced conformity is bad is not enough. Identifying it should be just the first step and we need to be prepared to discuss how we as Liberal Democrats are actually going to take on the unaccountable power and privilege that causes so much harm in our society, including within our own party. To be a Liberal Democrat today should be to understand that just telling someone they are free isn’t enough, it’s about standing with them to challenge the power and privilege that oppresses them.

Liberalism is internationalist at its heart, recognising that everyone deserves the same rights and respect no matter where they live, what language they use or who their parents were. People working together across national borders have achieved some of the greatest liberal successes of the last century, from eradicating diseases to ending apartheid, but we need to ensure liberal and internationalist values remain for the centuries to come. There is a great power in people acting together through global institutions and we need to ensure that power is accountable and effective to achieve future liberal goals across the planet, and even beyond it.

To be a Liberal Democrat today should also be to understand the danger of unaccountable economic power. We need to deal with the new concentrations of unaccountable power within the economy that have massive effects on people’s lives that they can do nothing about. Free trade was a means to an end, ensuring that the poorest in society would be able to afford to eat, but we have turned it into an end in itself, regardless of the effect it has on people. We talk of trade between nations and empowering individuals, ignoring the vast unaccountable powers of corporations and how they take away freedom and choice from individuals, concentrating economic power amongst an unaccountable elite.

Liberalism is about people and we need to create a world where the economy works for the benefit of the people, not one where people work for the benefit of the economy. We need to fight for education systems that develop people as individuals, not merely as future workers; for social security that concentrates on supporting people, not subsidising employers; and for an economy that liberates people to spend more time doing what they want, where everyone’s abilities and contributions to society are welcomed.

Beyond the state, society and the economy, there is a further power that we must address: our environment. This is a different order of power, where climate change is capable of destroying everything our society is based on, rendering liberalism and every other ideology meaningless. And yet, it is vital that we understand a liberal response to this crisis is necessary because only through liberalism and recognising the value of every life on this planet can we build a global response. Liberalism is international by instinct, seeing potential in every person, and that international instinct is also environmental, recognising that we need to protect our planet to ensure that it’s not just us who get the chance to live the lives we want, but all the generations still to come. Human survival is important, and we increase our chances of that survival by giving people reasons to believe in a better tomorrow.

To be a Liberal Democrat today is to recognise that liberals have made a start in tackling these unaccountable powers in the state, in society and in the economy but it is only a start and there is so much more work to be done. The fight for liberalism is not a new one: it has taken many forms and many different names over the years, but at its heart it has always sought to break up power, to make it accountable, and to give all the chance to live the life they wish. To be a Liberal Democrat is to want to take power from the unaccountable and let people use it for themselves because that’s the only way we can create a world for everyone.

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The House of Lords needs to go, but it still has a job to do while it’s here

eyelordsThat image is from the latest Private Eye, but it’s echoing something that’s been all over the right wing of the internet in the last few days, as a harrumph of commentators and keyboard warriors have declared themselves to be shocked beyond all measure that members of the House of Lords have voted against the Government. Suddenly, people who not so long ago were defending the hereditary principle in Lords appointments are now solemnly proclaiming that members of the Lords daring to have opinions is the gravest of constitutional crises. Peak silliness comes in this article by William Hague in which he presents himself as some great scholar of the British constitution while completely forgetting that he was Tory leader at the time Lord Strathclyde declared convention dead and claimed the right for the Lords to vote down statutory instruments.

(On an aside, it’s interesting how rarely countries that actually have written constitutions tend to have constitutional crises, compared to how often they’re threatened in Britain…)

The other common theme in this week’s torrent of bloviation – and features in both Private Eye and Hague’s column – is the implication that there’s something especially illegitimate about Liberal Democrat lords daring to have opinions counter to the government’s. (For all the resistance some people have to electing the Lords, the zeal they occasionally show for the representatives in there to reflect the results of an election is odd) What gets neglected in this – and in the Eye’s quote especially – is any mention of what happened in 2012. There’s a reason Farron’s quote comes from then: it’s because that’s when the Liberal Democrats in government were trying to reform the House of Lords to make it elected. However, thanks to the mutual ambivalence of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the House of Lords Reform Bill died in the Commons. If Cameron and the Conservatives had shown the same desire for Lords reform then as they do now, we probably wouldn’t be facing the situation we’re in now.

To be frank, I think there are too many Liberal Democrat Lords in Parliament. There are also too many Tory, Labour, UKIP, Green, Plaid Cymru, UUP, DUP and crossbench Lords as well because in my view, any number of unelected Lords sitting in Parliament greater than zero is wrong. That’s why I don’t want to reform the Lords, I want to abolish it and replace it with a much better upper house/Senate. As far as I’m aware, that view – or variations on it to similar ends – is held by most members of the Liberal Democrats.

So yes, Liberal Democrats want to see the House of Lords reformed or replaced, and will happily work with others to make that happen if they want it. However, we’ve been waiting a hundred years or more to see that elected upper house come about and while abstentionism may work as a tactic for some, most conventional political parties seek to work within the systems as they are currently constituted, with most people understanding that working within a system doesn’t mean that you can’t also seek to change that system. All governments need to be challenged and scrutinised, and while the House of Lords might not be the best way of achieving that, it’s what exists within the system at present.

At the moment, the Conservative complaints are sounding very much like ‘we were promised an elective dictatorship, how dare you try and stop us!’ and the Strathclyde review (with irony not yet being dead, the man who declared the convention on statutory instruments dead is the natural choice to lead it) appears to be designed to try and strip away some more of what few brakes on executive authority there are in the current system. I want to see a system where we have two elected chambers in Parliament that are both capable of holding the Government to account in different ways, but until such time as we get to that point, there’s no nobility in refusing to act because the current system isn’t perfect.

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winninghereI 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.

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In today’s ‘glad I didn’t submit my dissertation yesterday’ news, Nicholas Whyte has drawn my attention to an interesting article from the upcoming Parliamentary Affairs supplement on the General Election. “From Coalition to Catastrophe: The Electoral Meltdown of the Liberal Democrats” is by David Cutts and Andrew Russell, academics who’ve written lots on the party over the years (Russell’s the co-author of Neither Left or Right: The Liberal Democrats and the electorate, which has been very useful for my dissertation) and available to read for free. I look forward to watching people read it and then playing the ‘my anecdote trumps your academic data’ game…

In dissertation news, I am 99.9% complete, and just have to convert a couple of spreadsheet data tables into text format to add them into the document. Once done, and probably when the deadline’s passed, I’m going to post it in section son the blog as I think a lot of will find it of interest, and it’ll hopefully spark a debate. So look out for that either before the weekend or in a couple of weeks, depending on if I manage it before or after I go on holiday.

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