qesb-logo-3-logogardenBack during April and May, I did a little bit of work helping Drs Edzia Carvalho and Kristi Winters on their Qualitative Election Study of Britain project, which was looking at people’s perceptions and attitudes towards the election campaign.

They’re now publishing some of the data they gathered from their work, in the form of transcripts of various of the focus groups that were conducted. They make interesting reading, as even though they’re individual testimony, they give an interesting account of how people outside the political bubble see and understand politics and should help to give anyone a bit of perspective on what ordinary members of the public were thinking during the election campaign. I’ve only had time to peruse them briefly so far, but there’s plenty in there of interest.

Click here to go to the main QESB site.


I’ve mentioned before that election junkies looking for their next fix should be looking to Canada, who’ll be electing a new government on October 19th. It’s a country where elections often deliver unexpected outcomes, with really big poll movements often happening during the campaign and this year’s campaign seems likely to keep up that trend. There are three parties that the polls can barely separate, each also rising and falling in different parts of the company so first past the post voting looks like it could deliver some very confusing and unpredictable results when the votes are cast. Remember that this is the country where a majority ruling party lost all but two of its seats at a national election, where the Opposition lost over half its seats last time, and at the same time a party that had never won more than a handful of seats in Quebec swept the province to the extent that a candidate who never even visited her constituency during the election was elected.

There’s still over a month until the voting takes place but the campaign’s in full swing already and this piece from Maclean’s gives an idea of the mood around Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s campaign. It all feels very pessimistic – though I recall us debating whether David Cameron really wanted to win in April and if he was just going through the motions – but one section from it caught my attention and got me thinking:

As early as 2009, Conservatives close to Harper were describing his political aims in terms that lasted beyond Harper’s own career as leader of the Conservative party. Earlier Conservative leaders—John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney—had left their parties so worn out that their opponents rolled over them, leaving them without influence for many years. If the Liberals have been Canada’s natural governing party, in this analysis, it’s because Conservatives have failed to build something that could last and compete long after the first flush of a new leader’s novelty.

If you look at the Canadian politics since the war, it does appear to be long periods of Liberal dominance punctuated by occasional Conservative success, making it the mirror of Britain where we’ve had long periods of Conservative dominance, punctuated by the occasional Labour government. The diagnosis of the cause is also similar: both Labour and the Canadian Conservatives have been unable to renew themselves in government in the same way Britain’s Conservatives and the Liberals have been able to. The two successful parties were able to hand over the Premiership from one election-winning leader to another, while the two unsuccessful ones were able to get into power with the right leader at the right time but couldn’t stretch that success into another generation.

I’m reminded of one of the criticisms levelled at Tony Blair during this Labour leadership election: that he didn’t pay attention to what would happen to the Labour Party after he left, leaving it short of credible future leadership candidates to carry on his ethos. Meanwhile, David Cameron appears to have made the focus of his second term in office ensuring that George Osborne succeeds him as seamlessly as possible, and if he should stumble, there are plenty of others willing to continue the Cameron project.

Is the secret to success for parties having that focus on the real long term? Not just planning how to win the next election, but already thinking about who’s going to win the ones after that? It seems that a good leader can make a party successful and electable in the short term, but something else in the party’s institutions and operations is needed if it’s going to win after they’ve moved on or the electorate has tired of them.


Second place stats to break the silence

I’m still alive, and still working through my Masters dissertation so my time for thinking about things to blog about is limited, which is somewhat handy as just about the only political topic to write about at the moment is just how silly Labour’s leadership election can get and I’ve already covered that.

However, things are coming close to the finish (though I may also be writing a PhD research proposal, because I don’t have enough on my plate right now) so more regular posting may resume here sometime soon. Until then, some statistics from my dissertation that a few of you might find of interest:

Parties in second place in Liberal Democrat seats post-election:
1992: Conservatives 16, Labour 4
1997: Conservatives 39, Labour 6, SNP 1
2001: Conservatives 44, Labour 8
2005: Conservative 43, Labour 18, Plaid Cymru 1
2010: Conservative 38, Labour 17, Plaid Cymru 1, SNP 1
2015: Conservative 4, Labour 2, Plaid Cymru 1, SNP 1

Parties holding seats in which Liberal Democrats were second:
1997 (Pre-election, notional results for new boundaries): Conservative 157, Labour 11, Plaid Cymru 1
1997 (post-election): Conservative 73, Labour 32
2001: Conservative 57, Labour 53, Plaid Cymru 1
2005: Conservative 83, Labour 106
2010: Conservative 167, Labour 76
2015: Conservative 46, Labour 9, SNP 8

(I’m pretty sure that’s all accurate, but please flag up any errors you spot!)

And if you’re interested in election data, you might find this collection of datasets interesting.

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police_electionsIf it was up to me, we wouldn’t be having Police and Crime Commissioner elections next year. They’re a pointless position, and in most cases appear to have become nothing more than a highly paid spokesperson for the police than providing scrutiny and challenge to them. I don’t get to make those decisions, and as the Government’s now made up of the only party that appear to think they’re still a good idea, we can expect to have another two sets of PCC elections before we get the chance to replace them with a system that might actually do a useful job in holding the police to account.

As they’re here for a while, the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive’s decision that the party should contest the elections with a bit more enthusiasm than we did in 2012 is a welcome one. While there is an appeal in the purity of abstentionism, I don’t believe that sitting on the sidelines and carping about the positions will achieve many liberal goals, whereas by actually taking part, we can achieve things. (It’s also worth noting that while no one would call the results last time good, the party did keep its deposit in all of the 24 contests it stood in, even though we failed to get into the top two in any of the contests)

What’s important, in my opinion, is that the FE shouldn’t just say ‘go ahead, stand’ and then wash its hands of the campaigns themselves. These elections are a great opportunity for us to get get out a message that should reach out to the core vote identified by Howarth and Pack. What we can pretty safely assume is that most of the other campaigns in these elections – Labour, Tory, UKIP and independent – are going to be competitions to see who can shout ‘tough on crime’ the loudest while looking stern in photo ops. There’s no point in us joining in a battle for ground that’s already very heavily contested by others, when we should be looking to reach the voters who are looking for a different kind of message. It’s an opportunity to run a national campaign stressing liberal values, stressing the difference between us and the other parties.

There’s an opportunity for us to set out the case for liberal issues like drug law reform (the Durham PCC’s statements on this may be the first interesting thing a PCC has done in the three years they’ve been around) and civil liberties. These elections will be taking place across all of England and Wales (except for London), and we should treat it as a national election campaign. A lot of areas won’t have any local elections next year, and running it as a national campaign can give lots of people all over the country to chance to take part it. Remember that for a large chunk of the party membership – those who’ve joined since May, and will hopefully keep joining until these elections – what’s drawn them to the party is national issues and liberal values. Running with a distinctive liberal message for these elections will be an investment in the long-term viability of the party and we might still surprise ourselves and others by winning one or two.

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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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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Meanwhile, in Canada…

Having just done the roundup of the most popular posts for the last three months, it occurs to me that many of you reading this are election junkies just like me and are no doubt getting pretty jittery awaiting your next fix.

Well, in the spirit of helping someone avoid going full cold election turkey, allow me to point you several thousand miles west, where Canada will be holding a general election in October which is currently promising to be a classic for fans of close polling performance turning into bizarre electoral results thanks to the electoral system.

Like the UK, Canada still uses first past the post for election. Also like Britain, Canada has a multi-party system with strong regional variations and parties. Unlike Britain, Canadian polling is showing that the three main parties – the currently governing Conservatives, the opposition New Democrats and the formerly dominant Liberals – are effectively tied in the polls:
Projection Front
The NDP have currently moved into the lead after their surprising win in the Alberta provincial election in May, but the other two parties have also had leads in the polls recently, and the official election campaign hasn’t started yet.

What makes Canada even more interesting is that its politics have a level of fluidity and volatility that most other countries fail to come even close to. It’s not uncommon to see parties almost completely wiped out in elections – the most famous being the Progressive Conservatives going from governing to winning just two seats in 1993 – and other parties making massive surges that surprise even them. The NDP, which barely had a foothold in Quebec and didn’t compete in provincial elections, won almost every seat there in 2011. The NDP’s win in Alberta this year saw it go from having 4 seats to 54 in an 87-member Parliament it had never previously held more than 16 seats in.

Even outside of elections, part boundaries are much more fluid from a British perspective with elected members frequently crossing the floor or resigning to stand in other elections and a seemingly constant stream of by-elections taking place – just look at the sheer amount of switching and stepping down going on here. However, my favourite recent example is again in Alberta where, a few months before this year’s provincial election, nine members (including the leader) of the relatively new right-wing Wildrose Party announced that they were joining the Progressive Conservatives, leaving Wildrose with just five members in the provincial Parliament. You’d expect that to be the end of the party, but this is Canada, so naturally they managed to increase their number of members from the last election and are now Alberta’s official opposition, while the Progressive Conservatives dropped to third place.

Indeed, looking at Canadian election results I do have a suspicion that the primary motivation of the electorate at all levels is to give political scientists something that will confound every model of party systems and electoral behaviour they can come up with. It should keep you interested through till October, and will be much more interesting than watching the America’s Craziest Man competition that appears to have replaced the Republican contest to be the next US President.