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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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.

So, Phil left a comment here which he’s since expanded into a full post. I suppose I should respond before the expansion rate of his responses really picks up and it turns into a book, but be warned that this may ramble.

Phil is quite scathing of my suggestion that Labour and the Liberal Democrats could work together in the future, saying it “would evince heroic levels of chutzpah (and not in a good way)” on the part of the Lib Dems. In that, he’s probably right, but I’m an optimist about this sort of thing right now, and to join a party that’s not one of the big two in a FPTP system is taking a position where you know you’re going to need huge reserves of chutzpah if you’re going to accomplish anything. However, I’m not suggesting that the two new leaders should be getting together this year and agreeing a joint strategy for the next few years, just that given the situation both parties find themselves in, working alone isn’t going to help anyone.

And yes, for every “making five years of Tory government possible and laying the groundwork for another five” we could respond with questions about just how much responsibility Labour has for the ongoing chaos in the Middle East and enabling the re-election of George Bush in 2004. We all know the past is an important part of politics – one force that keeps political parties together is a shared understanding of their past, I’d argue – but I think there comes a point where you have to put that behind you. It may be that mutual distrust means nothing can be agreed, even informally, before 2020 – one of the things that made 90s co-operation easier was David Owen finally disappearing from the stage – but it feels to me that the actual facts of voter behaviour make it the best opportunity for both parties.

One thing I’ve been looking at in my dissertation research is the question of equidistance and the idea of a centre party in a two-and-a-half party system being able to switch between supporting either of the other two parties. The example normally given is Germany’s FDP, and that’s because it’s a phenomenon that doesn’t occur much in party systems, with the only other example I’ve found at the moment being Belgium from the end of WW2 to the break up of the parties along language lines. However, while in both of those the liberal party was a part of governments of both left and right, there was an additional factor present there – grand coalition governments where left and right worked together and excluded the liberals were possible. The political system of both countries in that period wasn’t a straight line of left-centre-right but a triangle with socialism, Christian democracy and liberalism at the three points and links between all three being possible.

Even for all the talk of Labservatives, that’s not the system we have here – and it’s not the situation they have in those two countries either. Belgium’s party system is now quite chaotic with multiple new types of parties split across linguistic divides, and Germany’s become much more multi-party with more distinct left and right blocs. Given the electoral kicking the Liberal Democrats have just received while running on an almost explicitly equidistance campaign, it might be safe to say that it’s not a workable strategy anywhere any more, if it ever was.

The point here is that if the Liberal Democrats have a future (and Dan Falchikov makes some good points on that) within the current electoral system, we have to pick a side. We may have to wear hairshirts for a few years to show our atonement for previous errors, but what’s more important is having an actual message and identity of our own, not a split-the-difference middle of the road one.

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farronforleaderNigel Quinton was the Liberal Democrat candidate in South West Hertfordshire in 2015, and you can find out more about him on his own site. If you want to write a guest post about why you’re supporting Tim for leader, please get in touch!

It is difficult isn’t it? Reduced to eight MPs after the worst election result since I don’t know when, and now I have to choose between the two MP’s I admire most (no offence Nick, Alistair, Tom, Greg, Mark and John). Tim and Norman are both exceptionally gifted campaigners, and both exceptional role models, and both very definitely true liberals.
But that says it all doesn’t it? The fact that I can list all of our MP’s in one short parenthetic note. The party faces extinction if we do not work incredibly hard to survive and re-grow. Many have already written us off. Thankfully, 20,000 new members this year tells a more positive story, but we should not let that fool us. It will be a hard road back.
And actually it is not just about the 2015 result. It was the same in 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011. The scale of our decline through the years in coalition is truly disastrous. I sometimes think that it wasn’t until 2014 and the loss of all but one MEP that it dawned on some in Westminster how great was the scale of our retreat, but as an aspiring PPC who looked at applying for a number of seats around the country in 2012/13, it was shocking how much our bedrock of activists had hollowed out.
So I have to say that my choice for leader is going to be governed by who I believe can turn this around. Who can motivate, who can enthuse, who can communicate our message, who can truly lead? Who can see beyond the Westminster bubble, understand what needs to be done in constituencies where we no longer have any councillors, let alone an MP. So in truth, it is not that difficult a decision after all, because when you think about those priorities, Tim is the standout choice.
He also ticks my boxes on the policy priorities, although both men have strength in this respect and I hope that Norman will be a huge part of the team going forward, not least for the passion and energy he has displayed in fighting for parity of esteem for Mental Health services. Norman has argued in hustings that the party needs to win the intellectual arguments, and he is probably right, but ultimately Tim is the more realistic when he talks of the need to speak to the ‘gut’ rather than the ‘head’ if we are to regain voters’ trust and support. Just getting heard at all will be the first challenge, and we will have to campaign on issues that really mark us out and identify our values. The two that Tim has identified with which I most agree are Housing and Climate Change, both areas we could have had a far more distinctive voice in the past five years in government, and both issues on which we could and should be leading the fight.
Despite my high regard for Norman his campaign has disappointed me. The negative attacks on Tim’s Christian background are truly awful, not to mention illiberal, and as for the ‘only true liberal’ line – please don’t get me started! My father founded the Humanist and Secularist group in the party and he signed Tim’s nomination papers so if he thinks Tim’s Christianity poses no threat to our liberalism that is good enough for me. I also count myself a Humanist, but I value the views of people of all faiths and none, and the idea that someone of faith cannot lead the party is completely illiberal and nonsensical.
In contrast Tim’s campaign has shown tremendous energy, positivity, and effectiveness – just what we need to give us the best chance not just to survive but to thrive. Please join me in supporting Tim Farron as leader.

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Tim-Farron-007Ian Birrell is one of the Guardian’s occasional Token Tory commentators, and someone not averse to churning out a bit of clickbait when required. So it should be no surprise that just as ballot papers are going out in the Liberal Democrat leadership, he pops up with a hit piece on Tim Farron.

Some of it is banally predictable, with rehashed attacks seemingly borrowed from dodgy phone polls about Tim’s stance on LGBT rights and abortion. Rather than go into detail on those issues, I’ll just point out that you can find out Tim’s positions on those in his own words on LGBT here and on abortion here. But hey, when does anyone let a few actual facts get in the way of a bit of clickbaiting?

The main thrust of Birrell’s post, though, is the rather bizarre claim that Tim “seems to lack a driving spirit of liberalism”, which would make you wonder if he actually knows who Tim Farron is until you see what his definition of liberalism is. Birrell’s version of liberalism appears to be a version of social liberalism that’s somehow represented by ‘the great Labour reforms of the 60s’ and ‘small-state economic liberalism that found an echo in Margaret Thatcher’s Tories’. It’s a liberalism that’s little more than the modern centre-right consensus: slash the state, but don’t be too beastly to minorities and ignore anything that’s happened in the last twenty=five years. It’s a liberalism with all the sharp edges filed of so its safe for conservatives to play with and pretend they’re actually liberal, but with no danger of making them actually want to challenge anything. Birrell’s effectively calling for liberalism to be little more than a reincarnation of the National Liberals. There’s a bitter irony in him invoking Jo Grimond for his vision of liberalism, when it was Grimond who led the party away from alliances with the Tories on the right.

Coincidentally, Tim gave a speech at the IPPR today in which he set out more of his vision of liberalism which is centred around “liberty, democracy, fairness, internationalism, environmentalism and quality of life.” It’s a lot more detailed and nuanced than the ‘be generally nice, but don’t challenge anything’ idea that Birrell seems to think liberalism is.

Of course, Birrell’s not alone in portraying liberalism like this. As James Graham pointed out the other week:

For years the senior party line informed us the history of Lib Dem philosophical thought was this: a century of unbroken tradition in the vein of Mill and Gladstone; something something welfare state (shrug); 20 years of social democrat muddle and confusion following the party merger in 1987; a return to our liberal roots with Nick Clegg’s election in 2007.

As James says, this pushing of a very restrictive view of liberalism under a variety of different names (‘true liberalism’, ‘classical liberalism’, ‘four-cornered liberalism’, ‘authentic liberalism’ and others) is an attempt to ignore much twentieth century thinking about liberalism and pretend that there’s some Platonic ideal form of liberalism that was discovered in the 19th century which we all should be judged against.

Purely coincidentally of course, this version of liberalism is the one that challenges the status quo and the powerful in society the least. It has very little to say about power, and when it does it pretends that the only potentially dangerous power in society is that of the state, which must be shrunk and controlled while corporations and other institutions are assumed to be perfectly fine and needing nothing like the same level of control and oversight. While other forms of liberalism are concerned with controlling power, especially unaccountable power, the one thing I always find missing from ‘economic liberalism’ are any notions of power outside of the state, especially ideas of challenging it or making it accountable. Birrell’s vision of liberalism is one that keeps things safe and cosy for those in power, and I’m very glad that’s not a liberalism Tim Farron represents.

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liblablieIt will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been at a Liberal Democrat Glee Club or said the words ‘Liberal Democrats’ to anyone in the Labour Party over the past few years that the general reaction to Jamie Reed’s proposal that Labour and the Liberal Democrats merge has been a resounding ‘no’ from both sides. It’s the sort of idea that people should dismiss as a non-starter, but because it was apparently seriously considered by both Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair in the 90s, it’s acquired a veneer of respectability and possibility that it doesn’t really deserve. It’s a bad idea that only looks vaguely plausible because of the distorting lens of the British electoral system – because two parties separately don’t get the representation in Parliament that’s commensurate with their separate shares of the vote, the assumption becomes that they must become one, and somehow combine their vote shares into something greater. That people vote for those parties based on their separate identities, and would not necessarily vote for a combined mush of the two, is assumed away.

There’s a reason that splits of political parties are much, much more common than mergers of them: it’s a lot more common and easier for people – especially politicians – to believe that they’re right and need their own organisation to prove it than it is for people from different groups to decide that they’d both be better off if they come together permanently. The merger that created the Liberal Democrats was the last major one in British politics, and that not only nearly killed the new party but also created two disgruntled splinter parties. That was with the benefit of two parties that had worked under an electoral part for two elections and where Roy Jenkins had initially considered joining the Liberal Party rather than establishing the SDP. Other mergers involving major parties (the Tories swallowing the Liberal Unionists and then the National Liberals) only happened after many years of the two parties involved having worked closely together.

However, it’s perfectly possible for parties to work together and co-ordinate electorally without merging. Indeed, it’s the sort of thing that happens regularly in other countries. It’s a lot easier to do that in a proportional voting system, of course, where parties within a grouping are free to compete with each other, knowing that moving votes from one party to another within that bloc won’t affect the overall electoral prospects of that bloc. For instance, assume a country with four parties (A,B,C, and D) that exist broadly as two blocs – A and B would usually work together in government, as would C and D, but a combination other than those two would be very unlikely. Now, imagine that A gets 30% of the vote, B 25%, C 40% and D 5%. In a proportional system, A and B can compete freely with each other and most likely would over the 5% of voters that would determine which of them is the largest party. However, their combined 55% of seats would put them into power. In the same way, C and D’s prime focus would be on trying to shift voters from the AB bloc to theirs. In a system like ours, though, we instead have a situation where A and B competing only benefits C, unless large chunks of B voters can be persuaded to switch to A (or vice versa).

In the latter situation, it might seem that the logical solution is to get A and B to merge, as they’ll get 55% of the vote – but only if all their existing voters will back the newly merged party. However, unless the two parties wer already nearly identical in their policy positions, that’s very unlikely to happen, as the newly merged party will have to try and find common ground between the two parties’ positions that will likely alienate former voters.

Before I detour completely into dissertation-land and regale you with more Downs and Mair theory on party positioning, I’ll try and get to a point – and for once on this issue, I find myself in general agreement with Paddy Ashdown.From the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, there was electoral co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and it proved to be one of the most electorally successful periods ever for both parties. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the majority of Liberal Democrat seats have been won from the Tories, or had the Tories in second place, and a lot of those were won thanks to co-operation with Labour – sure, it wasn’t official co-operation but there’s no doubt that there were plenty of seats in 1997 where one of the two parties put in very little effort which made it easier for the other to persuade voters to switch and back them as the best anti-Tory choice. (Incidentally, the bulk of the seats with Lib Dems in second place are now Tory-held)

I’m not saying that any agreement could be accomplished easily or quickly, but ruling it out entirely only plays into the Tories hands – the evidence suggests that they’re the ones who benefit the most when Labour and Liberals are too busy turning their noses up at each other to understand we share a common enemy. Yes, we’ll all have to sit through shouts of ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘Health and Social Care Act’ (whilst we shout ‘illegal war’ and ‘ID cards’ back, of course) but shouldn’t we at least see if something’s possible without ruling it out without even discussing it?

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unconferenceIf I didn’t have enough already, Tim Farron gave me another reason for supporting him for party leader today, with his proposal that the Liberal Democrats should introduce a regular ‘festival of ideas’:

The festival will take place over a day and will be open, inclusive and egalitarian. It will consistent of a series of, say, twenty simultaneous sessions, each lasting no more than an hour, maybe in excess of hundred different sessions throughout the day.

And here’s the trick: the topics and format of the sessions will be set not centrally by the party or its leaders but by the participants themselves.

The Liberal Democrat Festival of Ideas will be open to all to attend. And once registered, any paid up member of the party will be free to propose a session in fifty words of less. It might take the form of a lecture, a panel debate or a facilitated discussion.

It will then be up to the participants which sessions they wish to attend, drawn by the topic, the speakers or the organiser. Some sessions will no doubt attract hundreds, others perhaps not more than half a dozen, but that’s not the point: everyone will have the opportunity to contribute on an equal basis, from the party leader to the newest member.

In effect, Tim’s proposing a Liberal Democrat Unconference, and unconferences are something I’ve been interested in since attending one in 2013. This proposal gets to the heart of something I’ve been thinking about and writing about for a while – we shouldn’t be content to just look at tweaking the way the party works based on structures created to smooth over post-merger squabbles, we should be pretty much starting again from scratch and building structures that suit a political movement in 2015. It’s why I think the whole ‘one member, one vote’ debate remains a huge distraction as it still limits involvement to those with the time, money and ability to actually get to Conference, and still keeps a very formalised policy-making process in place.

A ‘festival of ideas’, conducted in the way Tim proposes, would be something different, and a much more interesting way of getting members involved in talking about ideas and policies, as well as showing that we’re serious about being a party run by our members and open to contributions from everyone. The current political party conference model is looking very stale across all parties, and we shouldn’t be afraid to try some radical alternatives to it. Indeed, I’d go further than Tim’s proposal and suggest that the party ought to be a holding a series of regular festivals of ideas all around the country, and also providing support and training for regional and local parties to hold their own. Running a local unconference open to all with the aim of coming up with ideas to improve your area, town, county or whatever would be a great way of reinvigorating our commitment to community politics and finding new ways to involve people in improving their communities.

A festival of ideas shouldn’t be just a one-off event – and I suspect Tim doesn’t expect it to be – but something we can make a fundamental part of the way the party works: fully involving people at all leels in developing their ideas for the future. It’s not just about saying people have the power to determine policy – it’s enabling them to use that power.

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