In defence of factions

First, thanks to everyone who shared my previous post on splits that don’t exist within the Liberal Democrats (but still apparently live on in the conventional wisdom of political reporters).

However, just because the image of a party irredeemably riven by a split between classical liberals and social democrats is incorrect, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t factions within the party, it’s just that characterising them in terms of the merger – and assuming they’ve persisted unchanged since 1988 – is the wrong way of going about looking at them.

This post isn’t about me listing factions, but rather a defence of the existence of factions which are often maligned as nefarious influences within parties, but in my view are part and parcel of trying to be a party that attempts to have an appeal to anyone outside of a small coterie. The actual task of identifying and classifying the factions within the Liberal Democrats I leave to someone with a thicker skin than mine.

Perhaps because of the party’s origins in a merger, there is a tendency to decry factionalism in the Liberal Democrats. This can be an honourable and idealistic – ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ – position to take, but it can also become quite stifling, imposing a passive conformism on people who try to dissent. Factions are seen as representing divisions within the party, divided parties are bad, and therefore factions and factionalism are bad and must be stamped out.

I take a different view, and see the party as being under-factionalised (a position put forward by Richard Grayson a few years ago) and in need of actually expressing its internal differences more openly. Factions are often part of a political irregular verb – I encourage healthy debate, you spend too much time talking to people who agree with you, they’ve factionalised the party – and get depicted as negative forces, but they exist in just about every political party (and the ones they don’t exist in are too small for us to be concerned with). The Tories range from the Tory Reform Group and Bright Blue through to Cornerstone and Better Off Out, while Labour have Tribune, the Campaign Group, Progress, Compass and plenty of other groups within them. If a party is going to be successful in attracting members and voters, it has to cover a wide ideological space and can’t expect all of its members to hold the exact same position on every issue. Parties expect members to support the general principles and aims of the party, but politics and ideology are not exact sciences, and people will naturally interpret those in different ways.

It’s entirely natural for people who feel a certain way about issues to come together and work to spread their ideas. After all, that’s one reason they joined a political party in the first place. Factions are just the way this process gets carried out, allowing people to organise and promote themselves, instead of letting things happen in hidden undercurrents and coded language. Political parties have their own internal politics, and calling for an end to factions is the making the same argument as ‘let’s take the politics out of this’: what they’re really asking for is for everyone to stop arguing and agree with them.

Like most things, if you let factionalism go too far it can become unhealthy, and there are examples where the parties themselves have become effectively empty shells that factions fight to control, or where the factions separate into new parties. Those are rare occurences, and shouldn’t prevent the development of healthy and organised internal debate within a party. As Liberal Democrats we generally Mill’s notion that ideas need to be tested, challenged and discussed to improve and strengthen them. Factions allow for different strands and interpretations of liberalism to discuss and put forward their ideas in an organised and open way, rather than having to almost surreptitiously do so. Proper and lasting consensus can’t be imposed by a diktat from above seeking to depoliticise debate, but from an open process where people express and accept difference.

That’s why even if the media perception of what our factions are is wrong, we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that they do exist. Pretending they’re not there leads to a lot more trouble than accepting them does, as acceptance allows us to establish proper norms of how to interact and debate with each other, rather than concealed sniping from under cover.

Lib-Dem-logoDavid Howarth and Mark Pack have produced a pamphlet on how the Liberal Democrats need to adopt a core vote strategy, and what that strategy could be. There’s a lot of good thinking in there, and Matthew Green’s response to it is also worth reading, so I only have a couple of points to add.

First up, I think any change in strategy like this needs to ensure it brings in the local parties from the start. One big problem the party has had over the past few years is that far too much campaign strategy has been decided from the centre, with local parties expected to simply fall in line. This reached its bewildering peak in the election campaign, with local campaigners having no idea what the party’s main slogan would be the next day as HQ cycled through ideas at an increasingly rapid pace.

For the party centrally to suddenly declare ‘right, we’re switching to a core votes strategy’ and expect everyone to fall in line would be a disaster. I don’t think HQ would be silly enough to try that, but as Matthew Green points out, if it was simple to switch the party’s strategy in such a fundamental way, we’d have done it already. There needs to be some proper thinking about the tactics needed to implement this, or any other, strategy – and how it links local and national campaigning – and it shouldn’t be rushed out and dictated from above.

I think the idea for a Deputy Leader/campaign chair fits in with that process of getting people to buy in locally to the idea of a change. I think the idea of opening up the position of Deputy Leader to a much wider field than MPs (and giving it a campaigning focus) is a good idea, but the process of bringing in the new role should draw in a lot of people from the start so people know the change is coming and there’s plenty of time for people to consider if they want to stand for deputy leader, and what they’d do for the role. Adopting and electing the new position should be party of the process of change, drawing people into it and thinking about what it will mean for them and their activity in the party. We need to be careful it’s not another change that people who pay attention to constitutional amendments at Conference know all about, while it passes right by everyone else.

Finally, I’d also suggest that if campaigning will be explicitly the role of the Deputy Leader, then we need to understand how that changes the role of the Party President. There’s always been a certain about of nebulousness about the role of the president, with successive holders defining it differently, and there needs to be some thought given to how to structure the role so it doesn’t overlap and clash with the Leader and Deputy Leader. My suggestion would be that we look at making it much more of an organisational role with perhaps a lower public profile than it has had so far. However, for someone to be able to have a real impact on the party organisation, I think the term needs to be longer than the current two years – indeed, I’d suggest looking at making it a post with a five-year term, elected close to the start of a new Parliament and running across that entire cycle.

Anyway, that’s just my 2p’s worth, and I’m sure lots of people will have lots of ideas after reading the pamphlet, not least our new leader when he takes office on Friday.

, ,

sdpliberalQuick question: Which of the two Liberal Democrat leadership candidates was a member of the SDP? The correct answer is, of course, Norman Lamb who was a member of both the Liberal Party and the SDP (membership of both parties was allowed) while Tim Farron was only ever a member of the Liberal Party pre-merger.

I bring this up because in their endorsement of Norman Lamb for leader, the Economist makes the claim that Tim Farron is a ‘traditional social democrat’ while Norman Lamb is a ‘classical liberal’. (They also shockingly use ‘shoe-in’ rather than ‘shoo-in‘, making me wonder how far their subbing standards have fallen)

The idea that the Liberal Democrats are divided between two factions with pure unadulterated classical liberals locked in a life-or-death struggle with soggy social democrats is one common across many pundits and politicos. It’s based on the solid fact that the party was formed out of a merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, so naturally one would expect the factions in the party to reflect those divisions. It’s a fine supposition, weakened only by the fact that it’s utter bollocks. On a simple matter numbers I suspect that even before the post-election surge, most of the party’s members (including me) joined after the merger, and a large chunk of them now were likely not even born when it happened.

The narrative also ignores the actual history of and ideology of the two parties pre-merger. The Liberal Party was not stuck in the rut of holding the same policies it had held in Victorian times, and was certainly not a ‘classical liberal’ party. Under Grimond, the party had turned away from electoral pacts with the Conservatives in favour of seeking ‘realignment of the left’; under Thorpe the party had adopted the principles of community politics and the radical ideas of the ‘Red Guard’ of the Young Liberals began moving into the mainstream of the party; and Steel negotiated the Lib-Lab pact, then looked to work with Jenkins to realign the left. The dominant ideas in the Liberals from the late 50s to the end of the party were in the tradition of the New Liberalism of the early twentieth century, not the ‘classical’ liberalism of the nineteenth.

Meanwhile, the SDP was not especially committed to the principles of social democracy as it’s commonly understood – indeed, most actual social democrats remained in the Labour Party and helped draw it back towards the centre. The SDP’s aims were more around creating a party of the centre and realigning British politics (remember that this was after the 70s, when the old institutions of Britsh politics and the two-party system had begun to show their first cracks). Under both Jenkins and Owen, the party was much more about centrism and balancing extremes of left and right than it was about promoting even the mildest form of socialism. If anything, the party’s most symbolic issue under Owen was one of Britain retaining Trident rather than anything to do with economics or society. By the end of its life – and especially in its post-merger rebirth, SDP-ism had become little more than proclaiming the greatness of David Owen and complaining about how all the radical ideas of the Liberals needed to be reined in. The lack of any overriding identity for the SDP other than centrism can be seen in how its members scattered to the political winds – some to the Lib Dems, some to New Labour, others following Owen towards the Tories (and often going further than him in actually joining them).

If there’s any lingering tension within the Liberal Democrats that can be traced back to the two different parties it’s not a fight between right and left but rather one between centrists and radicals (though that was present to some extent in both predecessor parties, and exists in other parties too). Centrism is there in Roy Jenkins and his ‘great crusade to change everything just a little bit’, Owen’s defense of the elite consensus on nuclear weapons, Spitting Image’s early Ashdown ‘neither one thing nor the other but somewhere in between’ and this year’s ‘look left, look right, then cross’ rhetoric. It’s the sort of thing the in-house magazines of the establishment like The Economist love because it’s not about rocking the boat, just presenting a slightly liberal-tinged version of what the great and the good all agree on that doesn’t challenge any existing power. Radicals, on the other hand, are looking to change the system and cause a fundamental shift in the distribution of power, following in the footsteps of many Liberals before. That, I think, is a more fruitful way of looking at any differences within the party, rather than looking for divisions based on irrelevant squabbles from thirty years ago.

, , , ,

(Following on from the guest posts by Simon Banks, Nigel Quinton and Grace Goodlad on why they’re supporting Tim for leader, I’ve been asked to host this letter from nearly 50 Liberal Youth members about why they’re supporting him for leader. As I’m still a student and thus one of the older Liberal Youth members, I was happy to agree. If you want to write a guest post about why you’re supporting Tim, please get in touch!)

The Liberal Democrats have always been a party for young people, with our progressive views on protecting human rights, fighting climate change and promoting social justice.

These things matter, but to make a difference, the Liberal Democrats have to become winners again.

To do this we need someone who can connect with, and earn the trust of, young people. We need a strong voice, standing up to the backwards, regressive attitudes of our opponents.

For these reasons, we are backing Tim Farron for leader.

Tim started his political life in student politics. He understands how to connect with young audiences and will engage with them literally on their own turf. In his constituency his “football surgeries” are legendary, giving young people the chance to have a kick about and discuss issues young people face. He has won awards for his use of social media because he is unafraid to answer critics and inspire many young activists online.

We believe that Tim’s infectious enthusiasm and passionate campaigning make him a great champion for young people, and the right person to lead the Lib Dem fight back.

Signed,farronforleader
Ryan Mercer – Policy Officer;
Ab Brightman – International Officer;
Nomi Farhi – Membership Development Officer;
Cllr Emily Louise Tester – Co-Events Officer;
Sam Bennett – Chair of Liberal Youth Wales (IR Cymru);
Bobby Dean – Vice President of International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY);
Alice Thomas – Liberal Democrat Women Youth Rep;
Joshua Dixon – Social Liberal Forum Youth Rep and Federal Executive member;
Chloe Hutchinson – Liberal Youth Wales Non-Portfolio Officer;
Rhys Taylor – Liberal Youth Wales Policy Officer;
Sarah Noble – Liberal Youth Policy Committee;
James King – Former Liberal Youth Co-Treasurer;
Robin McGhee – Former Liberal Youth Co-Treasurer;
Ryan Cairns – President Leeds University Liberal Youth;
Mike Green – Chair of York University Liberal Democrats;
Yan Malinowski – President UEA Liberal Democrats;
Jack Davies – President New Forest Liberal Youth;
Dipa Vaya – Chair Hertfordshire Liberal Youth;
Ems Simpson – Chair Mid Dorset and North Poole Liberal Youth;
Tom SS Thornhill – Chair University of Birmingham Liberal Democrats;
Jamie Capp – Vice-Chair of English Liberal Youth, Chair LSE Lib Dems;
Joe Young – Chair of University of Central Lancashire Lib Dems;
Nick Sutton – President, Exeter University Liberal Democrats;
Jakub Makowski – Chair, East of England Liberal Youth;
Lizzy Adams, Tara Murray, Chris Whiting, Tom Johnston, Jean Vila, Jack Robinson, Cadan ap Tomos, Will Whaw Wilshere, Joanne Ferguson, Natasha Chapman, Henry Compson, Reece Edmends, Callum Delhoy, Dylan H Morris, Paige Quirke, Thomas Adams, Lucy Adams, Gurleen Kaur, Craig O’Donnell, Ben Falkner, Tom Williams, Tristan Marris, Toby Roper, Ruth Edmonds, Huw James, Lizzy Roberts, Christine Longworth, Azza Jfk Ghaidoun, Eva-Lily Fielding, George Carpenter, Maelo Manning, Ryan Carpenter, James Baillie, Rich Clare, Jamie Lawson, Sebastian Bench.

, ,

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.

, ,

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.

, , , , ,

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?

, , , ,