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.

Yesterday saw an expected yet still disappointing response from the Government to the various post-election electoral reform petitions. Expected, because we all know that there’s no way this Government is going to concede electoral reform, yet disappointing because it reveals that the minister for constitutional reform may have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

In response to petitions demanding a properly proportional electoral system, his response was that ‘we had a referendum on it in 2011’. The 2011 referendum was lost, and lost badly, but it was definitely not a referendum on adopting a proportional system. The question was, if you forget:

At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

You’ll notice, of course, that there’s no mention there of any proportional electoral system, merely a question about whether one majoritarian system should be used in place of another. Also note that it doesn’t ask for any affirmation of the current system above all others: the question was not ‘do you agree that “first past the post” is great and should never ever be changed?’

There were other referendums during the last Parliament, of course, with several cities being told that they had to have votes on whether they wanted an elected Mayor to run their Council. Bristol and Salford voted yes but a whole host of England’s largest cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and others – voted No.

Despite this, the Government is pushing forward with plans to give these cities – and ‘city regions’ – their own mayors whether they want them or not. Manchester’s ‘interim Mayor’ has already been agreed and selected by ten people without any consultation with the electorate, and other areas are going to find that George Osborne will be imposing one upon them if they want to have any new powers, with ‘devolution’ being used as an excuse for even more centralisation. In this case, despite the people voting against it more recently than 2011, the Government’s going to go ahead and do what it wants.

‘But Nick!’ you cry, desperate to defend George Osborne. ‘These are different to the Mayors they rejected. These are Metro Mayors and regional Mayors, covering wider areas than those that voted in the referendums, so it’s a completely different thing!’ And you may well be right, but if you’re going to make that argument, you can’t also claim that any electoral reform is off the agenda because of the AV referendum as that was merely vote on a tweak to the current majoritarian system, not a change to a proportional one. I’m happy to concede that the referendum rejected AV, but had nothing to say about other electoral systems and if a future Parliament chooses to change the system it can do so – as long as it’s not to AV.

Unfortunately, we have a government where the minister for constitutional reform doesn’t seem to understand even the basics of what’s happened before, so we can expect lots more confusion over the Parliament. If that wasn’t a five year period in which some important constitutional questions are going to be discussed heavily, it’d almost be funny.

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I’ve spent most of today gathering together some data about Liberal Democrat Parliamentary seats for my dissertation, and figured that some of you might find it interesting.

The data set is Liberal Democrat seats won at a general election or by-election since 1992, so it excludes pre-1992 seats won at by-elections (which in practice means no Ribble Valley) and seats held by defectors, unless they were won at a subsequent election. I’ve tried to keep some continuity between seats when the geography remains roughly similar – I’ve treated the various Inverness and Nairn seats as one, for instance – but in some cases that’s not been possible.

There are 81 seats that have been won by the party since 1992. 60 of them were originally won from Conservatives (including 6 at by-elections and one defection), 20 from Labour (including 5 at by-elections and one via defection from Labour to the SDP) and one from Plaid Cymru.

There are currently eight held seats: the longest continually-held seat is Orkney and Shetland (since 1950), the others have all been won since 1997. Carshalton and Wallington, Sheffield Hallam and Southport were all won then, North Norfolk in 2001, and Ceredigion, Leeds North West and Westmorland & Lonsdale in 2005. Ceredigion is a bit of a special case as it was previously held by Liberals from 1979 to 1992 and for most of the period up until 1966.

Of the other 73 seats: as of 2015, 41 are now held by the Conservatives with Liberal Democrats in second place in 35 of those seats, third in 2, fourth in 3 and fifth in the Isle of Wight. Labour hold 16 with Liberal Democrats second in 9, third in 2, fourth in 4 and fifth in Leicester South. The SNP hold 11 with Liberal Democrats in second place in 8 seats, third place in 2 seats and fourth place in Dunfermline and West Fife.

The other five seats have been split up too much to have a single recognisable successor seat: Liverpool Mossley Hill (now all in Labour-held constituencies), Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (now in SNP or Conservative constituencies), Truro, Teignbridge, and Falmouth & Camborne (the latter three now all in Conservative constituencies)

I’m not drawing too many conclusions from this yet – part of the reason for doing this is just to have the information I need in one place so I can use it more easily – but there are some interesting patterns in the data. Seats gained from Conservatives tend to follow the pattern of the party having been in 2nd place for a long period – in all the gains from Conservatives since 1997, the party was in 2nd place at the 1992 election. Gains from Labour are much more complex – in 1992, Liberal Democrats were second in four seats that were subsequent gains from Labour, but only one of those (Chesterfield) was won by Labour at that election. Liberal Democrats were second to the Conservatives in three (Bristol West, Leeds North West, and Falmouth & Camborne) that Labour would win in 1997, but the Liberal Democrats would go on to win in 2005. In all four of the 2010 gains from Labour (Bradford East, Burnley, Norwich South, and Redcar), Liberal Democrats were third in 1992, 1997 and 2001, before moving up to second in 2005.

It’s all interesting grist for my theoretic mill about the effects of the structure of competition within the party system, but hopefully some of you will find the information of use for its own sake.

Officials count ballot papers in WitneyHaving a small masochistic streak in me, I watched some of Andrew Marr’s show this morning, so got to see Yvette Cooper saying that maybe adopting the Tory manifesto for their next set of policies wasn’t the best approach for the Labour Party. It’s the sort of thing that should be obvious, but in the rather bizarre world of the mainstream political commentariat it’s almost heresy. After all, Labour was comprehensively defeated in the election while the Tories stormed to a resounding victory, which proves that the country has swung decisively to the right in its attitudes and everyone should just agree with them.

It’s an interesting argument, except for the fact that it rests on a foundation of utter bollocks. Labour’s share of the vote went up by more than the Tories did, David Cameron got fewer votes than Neil Kinnock did in 1992 and all the evidence suggests that the public mood is actually moving leftwards and will continue to do so during the Parliament. Five years ago, Labour let the consensus mediamacro opinion that they were somehow solely responsible for the global financial crisis form while they were busy with their leadership contest, but this time they actually appear to be using their contest to support the formation of a new consensus that the 2015 election was some epochal rejection of the Labour Party, not just a defeat.

As Andrew Rawnsley points out in the Observer today, the only reason we have this narrative is because of our thoroughly broken electoral system that allows a party with 37% of the vote to pretend it has a huge mandate, while one with 31% has been thumpingly rejected. Instead of talking about how one party is mildly more popular than the other, we instead have to act out a bizarre farce where the ‘winners’ of the election are treated as though they have the majority of the population enthusiastically backing them, not just the largest plurality.

The problem for Labour is that their commitment to the current electoral system – in the hope that it will deliver them a similar majority from a plurality if the pendulum swings back to them – means they have to act like the Tories are an actual majority, not just the representatives of 37% of the voters. That’s why they end up pushed into a narrative of having to show their agreement with the Tory manifesto because it’s assumed that they have to take votes from them to win next time, ignoring the large chunk of voters that didn’t vote for either of them, and the even larger chunk of the electorate that didn’t vote at all. Cooper’s right to point out that the way forward for Labour isn’t swallowing the Tory manifesto, but to make that argument stick she’ll have to point out that one big reason the Tories are in a majority is because of the effect of the electoral system. While she’s stuck in pretending that a Parliamentary majority means something more than just a quirk of electoral mathematics, she can’t respond by pointing out that there are other paths Labour can take.

(Incidentally, it’s why I think Mark Thompson’s belief that Liz Kendall could call for electoral reform is wrong. Her pitch for the leadership is bound up tightly in pretending that the Tories are a real majority, so Labour must be more like them, and the arguments she’d need to make for electoral reform would severely weaken her pitch.)

Labour has been in this position before, and there were tentative moves towards adopting electoral reform before 1997, that ended up being quietly shelved once they realised that they could get the electoral system to make them look absurdly dominant. However, now they face a situation where the electoral system is looking very skewed against them, and they’ve got an uphill battle to get a plurality of Commons seats, let alone a majority. By admitting the reality of the electoral situation, Labour can give themselves a strong argument to both challenge the Tories and build co-operation between the opposition parties, all of whom except Labour are committed to some version of electoral reform. Sure, it won’t be popular with every part of the Labour Party, but I’m not detecting a huge wave of enthusiasm within the party for becoming the Tory Reserves either. If any of the leadership candidates want to push Labour away from capitulation to the Tory agenda, they have to challenge the narrative that’s presenting them as hegemonic, and challenging the electoral system is an important part of that. Do any of their candidates have the desire to make that challenge, or will they just be crossing their fingers and hoping for the best in 2020?

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