» Liberal Democrats ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Tim-Farron-007Good news everyone! Party HQ have dropped the ‘shut up and deliver leaflets’ instruction to anyone wanting to do something other than election campaigning and allowed a special dispensation. Yes, you’re now allowed to drop your laser-like focus on the election campaign and discuss a whole other topic. Unfortunately, the topic HQ appear to have chosen as the only other one suitable for discussion is ‘why Tim Farron should never be party leader’.

Or, to put it another way, Farron-hunting season is officially open, and now Vince Cable’s decided to bring a blunderbuss to it. The first salvo of attacks obviously didn’t have the desired effect of making us mere members spontaneously denounce the Farronite tendency and resolve to redouble our efforts to promote maximum loyalty to the leadership, so Vince has now scattered buckshot across the sky in an effort to bring down the dangerously popular Farron.

Ignoring his own advice that using negative tactics against someone who’s popular tends to be counter-productive and that there’s no need to talk about leadership elections because we already have a leader, he told Buzzfeed that Farron wouldn’t be ‘credible’ as leader because he’s “never been in government and has never had to make difficult decisions” which means that every Lib Dem leader before 2010 wasn’t credible, and neither were most of the members of the Cabinet Vince joined in 2010 (including himself). If ‘being in Government’ is a barrier to becoming a credible party leader, it also makes the leadership a bit of a self-perpetuating oligarchy, able to veto any new entrants by not bringing them into the Government, then claiming they don’t have the experience necessary because they’ve not been in Government.

It’s nice that they’re already rehearsing their lines for the leadership election that they’re sure isn’t going to happen, but maybe they could refrain from speaking them in public for a few weeks? Perhaps they should listen to the wisdom of a former Party President:

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The Lib Dems nearly always do better than their poll ratings said before a general election.

As David Boyle wrote in a recent post, anticipating that this will also be the case in 2015. (It’s not like David’s the first person to say that, and he likely won’t be the last, but he happened to say it on the day I felt like writing about the subject.)

It’s become a truism, often spoken by worried Liberal Democrat activists as a morale-booster to lift the hopes and the spirits as they see another set of polls recording the party in single figures and duelling for fourth place with the Greens. The election campaign will be starting soon, they eagerly say, and our poll rating always improves during the election campaign.

Unlike most political truisms, this one actually happens to be broadly true. If you look at the records of polling from 1970 onwards that are kept on UK Polling Report, there’s an uptick in Liberal/Alliance/Liberal Democrat voting intention in the last part of every graph, so it is true that Liberal Democrats have generally done better than the pre-election campaign polls suggest they would. And yes, I’m being careful to use the past tense there.

Two things worth remembering here:

  • Past trends do not indicate future performance
  • Trends in politics and other fields always continue applying right up until they don’t
  • At this point, I don’t know if the campaign will see a rise in Liberal Democrat support as happened in other general election campaigns, but given that there’s one major difference between this and those other campaigns, I think it’s misguided to just assume it will happen regardless.

    (I did have a look to see if I could find any academic studies on this, but couldn’t find any – please point me in the direction of any you know of)

    They key difference, of course, is that the Liberal Democrats have been in government for the last five years, something that wasn’t true at the time of any of the previous surges. Leaving aside issues of ‘party of protest’ votes, what this means is that the Liberal Democrats have been much more prominent in the media over the last five years than they have during previous Parliaments. Liberal Democrat members of the Cabinet and ministers are regularly in the news, and the party as a whole is getting much more coverage outside of election time than it ever has before. In short, voters are much more likely now to have much more information about the Liberal Democrats than they ever had before.

    One of these days I’m going to do a longer post explaining Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model of public opinion, but for now it’s important just to note that one of the important determinants of how people vote is the amount of information they have about a party. In previous elections, most voters came into the election campaign knowing relatively little about the Liberal Democrats because the party’s dearth of mainstream media coverage didn’t give them the opportunity to receive much information about the party. So, when election time came around and the media started featuring Liberal Democrats more at a time when people’s awareness of political issues was heightened, it understandably affected their voting behaviour. Coupled with an ability to run a strong campaign (one of the few campaigns where this effect didn’t seem to happen was 1987, when the Alliance campaign was a mess), this meant that when voters made their decision, they had a number of positive thoughts about the Liberal Democrats.

    The situation this year is completely different as time in government means the Liberal Democrats are no longer an unknown and fresh party to voters. While the party will obviously get good amounts of coverage in the election campaign, this will not be received by voters in the same way it was before as they now already have a bank of opinions about the party to weigh any new considerations against. People seeing Nick Clegg aren’t seeing the effectively new person voters saw in 2010, they’re seeing the man who’s been Deputy Prime Minister and regularly on the news for the last five years with all the connotations that brings. In previous elections, voters were open to receiving campaign messages from the Liberal Democrats because they didn’t have many pre-existing views about the party, but now they do, and we don’t know how those will affect voters’ decisions.

    The idea that voters in 2015 are going to react the same way to exposure to Liberal Democrats that voters in previous elections did completely misses out that the party is in a fundamentally different position going in to this election than it was in any of the previous ones where the ‘Liberal surge’ occurred. Expecting things to happen just as they did before when fundamental conditions have changed is nothing more than wishful thinking.

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    I wasn’t at Liberal Democrat Conference last weekend, because I had a much more relaxing and stress-relieving weekend away booked instead, but it seems that the Conference was used to make a major declaration: we’re now in Farron season. Yes, those who’ve been waiting for months, even years, to begin having a go at the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale have been given official sanction to do so by Paddy Ashdown.

    (And yes, in a week where the media’s been filled with the elder statesman of Top Gear being suspended for punching someone, it seems it’s still all right for former Marine commandos to threaten volunteers with violence if we say it’s only joking)

    Farron season allows for threats on all fronts, so as well as being criticised for being too popular and too honest, he also finds ‘senior party insiders’ are briefing against him in the Times. Here he’s come up against the magician’s choice of politics, where whatever choice he’d made would be criticised on spurious grounds. Having weekly briefings as part of his Foreign Affairs brief apparently makes him ‘like Sarah Palin’, whereas if he didn’t have them he’d be attacked for being either uninformed or too arrogant to want them. In the same way, during the campaign he’ll either be criticised for ignoring his constituency and spending too much time helping others, or spending too much time worrying about his own majority while others are struggling.

    It is interesting to see that despite the leadership’s claims that all is well and the party is heading towards inevitable Cleggite triumph at the election, whatever the polls say, there does seem to be a concerted attempt to amplify the Stop Farron messaging. It suggests to me that some people aren’t quite as confident about Clegg remaining leader after the election as he seems to be, and have realised that they need to be getting ready for the next fight. I suspect there are quite a few people currently in the leadership coterie who would be likely to not be so close to power if Tim Farron was in the role, but would remain there if someone else got the job, and they’re the sort of ‘senior party insiders’ who don’t get told to shut up and deliver leaflets instead of briefing the Times.

    All in all, it seems to me that Tim Farron’s the one getting on with his job with the same candour he usually does it with, while others are skulking in the shadows, laying the ground for the fight after the election. It’s just another level of intrigue to add to an election campaign that’s turning into a giant policy-free soap.

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    One of my abiding memories of the Liberal Democrat special conference that approved the coalition deal was the journey back from it. My phone had only a small amount of charge left and I was desperately trying to eke it out as I sat on the train while also trying to keep as up to date as I could with the final of the ICC World Twenty20 championship.

    The battery lasted just long enough to get to the end of the game, as England cruised past Australia’s total to win. After years of failing to make a breakthrough and actually win a world championship in any form of the sport, England had finally achieved it. A new era beckoned, one where the long stored up potential would finally be unleashed.

    And now here we are five years later, with all that promise of 2010 long gone, and today the final Liberal Democrat conference of the Parliament starts on the same day that England limp out of the Cricket World Cup after one of their most ignoble performances, capping off several years of progressively worse disappointments.

    Never mind, the management have promised to go and look at that data, and I’m sure they’ll find what they need to justify themselves there.

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    Ministry-of-sound-logoWhat happens if you subtract politics from itself? That might sound like a particularly difficult question from a Taoist political theory exam, but it’s something James Palumbo would like us to discover from the inside. (Yes, that’s Baron Palumbo of Southwark, appointed such for his important contribution to contributions)

    Drawing on his experience of starting a business from scratch with only a large family trust fund and eight years experience working in the City behind him, he’s decided that we don’t need to be ruled by politicians any more (people with unelected seats for life in Parliament excepted, obviously). Apparently, based on his personal experience, Government only operates at ’30 per cent efficiency’ because politicians don’t know what they’re doing, and ‘experts’ would run everything better.

    (Before you ask, don’t be silly, he doesn’t provide any evidence or quantification for his ’30 per cent efficiency’ idea, or any experts to back this up. You might think that this weakens his argument, but I couldn’t possibly comment.)

    Yes, we don’t need democracy any more, because Palumbo’s invented ‘Democracy 2.0′ which would apparently ‘share many of the guiding principles to which our society holds dear’, though I’m not quite sure what they are as principles like choice, voting and the ability to remove a government don’t appear to be in there. Instead, ‘experts’ would run the country, and all of them would supposedly have some sort of qualification that would be mandatory before entering government. (Using qualifications as a barrier to stop people participating in the political process is something that would never be abused, of course)

    Once in place, these experts would all then decide what was best for the country and make sure the country got it good and hard without having to rely on such outdated Democracy 1.0 ideas like elections, parliaments or accountability. Being experts, they would all naturally agree on what the country needed – which would be entirely in agreement with what James Palumbo wants – and be able to deliver it. Presumably, they all would be able to raise Palumbo’s perceived 30% efficiency level too using their magical powers of expertness.

    From this viewpoint, Democracy 2.0 appears to have a lot in common with Technocracy 1.0 (and bears lots in resemblance with other people’s ‘upgrades’ of democracy) and suffers all the flaws common to technocratic dreams. Ironically, the biggest flaw of most wannabe technocrats is one they accuse democrats of: believing that there is only one way of doing things. It seems that in all his years, Palumbo hasn’t noticed that experts often disagree and there are many different ways to reach your goal, even assuming we can all agree on what the end goal is. You’d think someone in business might have noticed that there are are many different ways of doing things, or perhaps Palumbo thinks all clubs and record labels are run exactly like the Ministry of Sound. After all, I’m sure business experts agree there’s only one way to run a business, don’t they?

    I’ve discussed this before, but Palumbo isn’t alone in his believe that democracy could be ‘improved’ by somehow removing all the democratic aspects from it. (For more on this concept, read Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy) Indeed, I suspect that if we get an inconclusive election result in May, we’ll likely hear calls for it increasing in volume and frequency, and it’s already an undertone in some of the calls for a grand coalition.

    I have a rule that whenever someone says ‘let’s take the politics out of this’, what they’re really saying is nothing more than ‘let’s all agree with me’. Proposing to take politics out of politics is nothing more than James Palumbo believing he’s right about everything, and any potential impediments to the people being exposed to the full benefits of his rightness must be swept away. It’s an incredibly illiberal and undemocratic position for a supposedly Liberal Democrat peer to take, but I’m sure anyone calling for the party to take action over it will find themselves denounced as being illiberal and undemocratic. Maybe we’ll need to call in an expert to decide it.

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    It occurred to me today that the Liberals and Liberal Democrats have a long track record of having at least one bit of good news at general elections by making a gain from another party. Not necessarily gains overall, but at least one seat being picked up from another party.

    A quick bit of research showed me that the last time it didnt happen was 1970, when the Liberal Party lost 6 seats, but gained none to replace them. Every general election since then saw at least one gain compared to the previous election.

    So, I wondered when the similar points were for the other parties:

    For the Conservatives it’s 1997, unsurprisingly.
    Labour’s last time was 2005, as they did gain some seats in 2010.
    2010 is the last time for all the main Northern Irish parties except Alliance. None of the DUP,  UUP, SDLP or Sinn Fein gained a seat, though both the DUP and UUP lost one.
    Perhaps surprisingly, given what’s happened to them since, the SNP didn’t gain in 2010 either.
    2010 also saw no gains for Respect and UKIP (who’ve never won a seat at a general election, of course) though both do now have MPs.
    For other parties now in Parliament, 2005 was the last election without gains for Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

    However, the best run of gains after Liberals/Liberal Democrats belongs to Independents, where we have to go back to 1992 to find the last time we didn’t have an independent gaining a seat. There’s been one independent gain (Martin Bell, Richard Taylor, Peter Law and Sylvia Hermon) at every election since then, but I’m not sure where they might make one this time.

    In that light, the Liberal run of ten elections with gains at each does seem pretty impressive. Suggestions for the seat or seats that might make it 11 will be happily received…

    "A letterbox without a leaflet in it is a wasted opportunity"

    “A letterbox without a leaflet in it is a wasted opportunity”

    One thing I’ve said repeatedly in recent years is that no one gets involved in politics because they really, really enjoy delivering leaflets. I thought that was a really obvious thing to say, but now I’ve had a comment that makes me question that. Apparently, I shouldn’t waste time writing posts on my blog about things that interest me and instead ‘just get out and deliver some leaflets’. (There’s also an appeal to ‘Mark’ to limit the topics that get written about, which makes me wonder if some people think Mark Pack is now the literal God of Liberal Democrat blogging, casting down thunderbolts at those who displease him)

    This isn’t a new thing - Liberator magazine has spent years complaining at how the ideas of community politics have been turned into a leaflet delivery cult – and with an election coming one would inevitable expect to see the calls to stop thinking and start delivering increase in number. It’s not even a specifically Liberal Democrat thing – sure, that’s where my experience is, but it’s easy to spot the calls to campaign more and discuss less in other parties, even if they don’t have quite the same fetishistic devotion to shoving pieces of paper through letterboxes.

    There are several problems with the ‘shut up and deliver leaflets’ message, not least the fact that it’s bloody rude, but for me they all come down to a misunderstanding of why some people get involved in politics. They rely on the belief that politics is essentially a game, and that it’s about ensuring that your team does the best it can, in the hopes that it can defeat the other teams. In this view, any of us mere bloggers are just average players in the game, not required to think about strategy or tactics, just required to get out there and follow orders. Deliver those leaflets, knock on those doors and do as the party’s high command tell you. Ours not to reason why, ours just to deliver then go back to HQ and ask for more, like a good Stakhanovite.

    In that vision, a blog is just another campaign tool. While it’s probably not as good as delivering leaflets – for nothing is as good as delivering leaflets – it probably has some use as a cheerleading tool, telling everyone just how wonderful everything is, and how much more wonderful it would be if they’d just go out and deliver leaflets. That this and other blogs steadfastly refuse to take that approach means that we’re obviously in the wrong.

    Unless you look at politics from a different perspective, and see ideas as important or just enjoy talking about general political issues, institutions, and history. What got me into politics was talking about things and considering ways that the world could be different, where the campaigning was a means to an end, not an end in itself. Sure, people like that might be a minority in modern politics (which tells a sad enough tale in itself) but telling us to ‘just go and deliver leaflets’ rather than have an interesting discussion or discover new ideas is not going to motivate. If anything, it’s going to demotivate us, because it tears down another bit of the facade and insists that everything is just about the game, where winning is the only thing of importance, not what you do with the prize after you’ve won.

    So no, I won’t stop writing about things I find interesting in favour of delivering leaflets and if anything, I think one thing we need less of in politics generally is campaigning. The general election campaign has been running for several weeks now – whether we wanted it or not – and I’m pretty sure that time might have been better spent by dropping down the level of campaigning and actually trying to get more people to think and talk about issues instead of parroting soundbites and talking points at each other. But then, I would say that, and while I’ve been writing this post I could have been getting my fingers trapped in countless letterboxes.

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