In today’s ‘glad I didn’t submit my dissertation yesterday’ news, Nicholas Whyte has drawn my attention to an interesting article from the upcoming Parliamentary Affairs supplement on the General Election. “From Coalition to Catastrophe: The Electoral Meltdown of the Liberal Democrats” is by David Cutts and Andrew Russell, academics who’ve written lots on the party over the years (Russell’s the co-author of Neither Left or Right: The Liberal Democrats and the electorate, which has been very useful for my dissertation) and available to read for free. I look forward to watching people read it and then playing the ‘my anecdote trumps your academic data’ game…
In dissertation news, I am 99.9% complete, and just have to convert a couple of spreadsheet data tables into text format to add them into the document. Once done, and probably when the deadline’s passed, I’m going to post it in section son the blog as I think a lot of will find it of interest, and it’ll hopefully spark a debate. So look out for that either before the weekend or in a couple of weeks, depending on if I manage it before or after I go on holiday.
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.
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?
Having 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.
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?
The Liberal Democrats lost votes everywhere. There aren’t any chinks of light in seats where we managed to gain votes. The smallest fall was Dunbartonshire East, where Jo Swinson went down just 2.4%, and the biggest was Brent Central with the total 35.8% down on 2010. All four of the smallest falls were in Scotland (aside from Dunbarton East, they were 2.8% in Edinburgh West, 3.3% in Gordon, and 3.7% in Argyll & Bute) which suggests both hard campaigning in those seats and that anti-SNP tactical voting was a factor. Outside of Scotland, the least worst falls were David Ward in Bradford East (down 4.2%) and Julian Huppert in Cambridge (4.3%).
Labour’s share of the vote went up, and by more than the Tories. It was a terrible night for Labour, voters deserted Ed Miliband etc is the narrative, which ignores that their share of the vote went up by 1.5%, while the Tory share was up just 0.7%. In conventional terms, there was actually a swing from Tory to Labour, but this time the Tories were able to deploy their vote much more efficiently. On a crude measure, the Tories had only two constituencies (Hampshire North and Maidenhead) where they got over 65% of the vote – Labour had 17. There’s a possibility that without Scotland, the bias in the electoral system has now switched, and it’s Labour piling up votes in safe seats, while the Tories gain more seats with a similar share of the vote.
Where have all the voters gone?. 11,560,484 voters. That’s a huge number of people and more than anyone’s got an election since Tony Blair in 1997. Unfortunately, it’s also the number Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party got in 1992. David Cameron only got 11,300,303 voters on Thursday but national turnout was still only 66.1% despite the boost it got from the massive turnout in Scotland. The SNP have shown that it’s possible to engage non-voters, get them voting and change the rules of the game, but how does that happen in the rest of the country?
Turnout matters. It’s a theory I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I still think we make a mistake by treating all voters at all elections as a homogeneous group. I think we there are two distinct groups – those that generally turn out at all elections (with a possible subset of those who vote in local by-elections and PCC elections) and those that only vote at general elections – with different behaviour. For instance, UKIP got 4.3m votes at the European elections last year and 3.9m on Thursday. Once you take out a chunk to represent Tory protest voters who were never going to vote Farage at a General Election, it seems UKIP are very good at motivating voters to turn out for them at all elections, but not too good at persuading those who only vote at general elections to vote for them. Mark Reckless got almost exactly the same number of votes in Rochester and Strood that he got in the by-election, but lost his seat because Kelly Tolhurst (his Tory opponent both times) found 10,000 more voters for the general election.
I suspect a similar factor helped persuade Lib Dems that things wouldn’t be so bad: ‘Look at the local elections! Our vote’s holding up there!’ was the regular cry, but when that group who didn’t vote in local elections were added to the electorate, things went very bad. Differential turnout is a phenomenon that’s not been studied too much, and the corresponding phenomenon of differential enthusiasm amongst supporters of different parties is something I’ve seen put forward as a plausible suggested explanation for the polling errors.
That’s the main things I’ve spotted for now, but I do want to feed these numbers into SPSS sometime in the next few weeks, just to see what interesting figures I can draw out of them – I suspect there are a lot more stories to be told.
Some of the more interesting takes on the election:
My traumatised Liberal Democrat party must rediscover its radical heart – David Boyle on the way forward for the party Random thoughts on the election – James Graham has a few of them Three more years of Cameron – but it will be a rocky road ahead – Very interesting analysis and prediction from the LSE’s Patrick Dunleavy The vision thing – “is it possible to combine both popularity and intellectual coherence?” asks Chris Dillow Back from the election – Anthony Wells looks at what the polls might have got wrong And that’s that – “The trouble with lefties, and I say this out of love, is that we give a shit about integrity. Do you think the Right care about lies? They couldn’t give a shit if their leaders kicked you in the face and set fire to the rabbit hutch; they’re born to rule and that’s their place. Know your place, peasant. Nice one centurion. They lead and we vote for them, and that’s the way it will always be. If their leaders somehow forget to deliver something they promise or – it happens – completely lie about something, they just keep on plodding on. So what? They’re born to rule.”
One of these days I’m going to start believing exit polls. I thought the 2010 one was wrong as there was no way we’d lose seats, and when tonight’s came out I joined in the chorus of people who thought there was no way it could be the correct result. If anything, it now seems to have underestimated the number of Tory seats,
I’m doing an exam about public opinion and polling a week on Monday. Might be time to shred a whole bunch of my notes and just scrawl ‘nobody knows anything’ across the paper, as that seems to be the message. Something happened that the polls completely missed, but I have no idea what that factor might be.
At the moment, there are just six Liberal Democrat MPs, a number we last had after the 1970 election, but was pretty much our default number during most of the 50s and 60s. We’ve still got local election results to come tomorrow, and given the absolute slaughter of our general election vote, we’re likely to face another long day of terrible news from around the country. And as I write this, the Colchester result has come through, and Bob Russell’s lost by over 5,500 votes. This is a potential extinction level event for the party.
But we can’t let it be that. The country’s now going to get to see just what we spent five years holding back as the Tories have their bare majority, and David Cameron has to govern while keeping the right wing fringes of his party happy. Watch in awe as the Human Rights Act goes, as welfare budgets are slashed, as housing associations are plundered and most of all, as we spend the next two years obsessing over Europe and wondering just why no one wants to renegotiate our EU membership. The Tory campaign has whipped up fear and division across the country, and now they’re going reap what they’ve sown with more than 50 SNP MPs sitting in Westminster, just waiting for the opportunity to make Scotland independent.
The country needs a strong liberal voice, and we need to make sure that we are still that voice, no matter how small the platform we have to shout it from. However, we first need to gather ourselves, to talk and think for a while and not rush into any decisions about the future, and that includes a leadership election.
To be clear, the responsibility for this catastrophe does lie heavily with Clegg and all those in the leadership who decided we needed to be a party of centrist managerialism, offering the public little more than an offer to moderate the bad things the other parties would do. But if you break something, it’s your responsibility to stay around and help with the clean up. Clegg can’t stay on as leader, but the last thing we need right now is to be plunged straight into a leadership election. He needs to stay on as effectively an interim leader to give us the space to have the reviews, the analysis and the discussions we need. This was not a conventional defeat, and we can’t respond to it in a conventional way. We cannot turn in on ourselves and fight over what little remains, we need to get ourselves together before we can work out where we’re going.
This isn’t the end, but we need to work harder than ever to get out of this hole.
…it’s make your mind up time. Polling stations open around 12 hours after I’m writing this, and close 15 hours after that. Then Britain gets to make its real decision: BBC, ITV or Channel 4 for the election night coverage. Or you could even go for Sky News, the informational equivalent of a spoiled ballot paper.
But before then, there is another decision to be made, and here’s my view of the candidates in Colchester:
One can’t really say much about Ken Scrimshaw of the Christian People’s Alliance as he’s been nowhere to be seen for the past several weeks. As far as I’m aware, he’s not been at any of the hustings, and his knuckles have not rapped at my door or his leaflet landed upon my mat. However, from what I have seen of him and his party, I’m quite confident in saying that voting for someone who regards the Bible as infallible truth is not something I’m likely to do anytime in the near future.
Likewise, as I believe that being in the European Union is a positive for this country and immigration brings massive benefits to this country, there’s no chance of me voting for UKIP’s John Pitts. However, in a spirit of generosity I will say that I agree with Nigel Farage that we need electoral reform and the poisonous air a lot of our elections are carried out in is a result of the ridiculous electoral system we currently use. Beyond that, though, we have very little in common.
Green Party candidate Mark Goacher has impressed me during this campaign. He’s a thoughtful and intelligent man and at the hustings events I’ve seen, he’s engaged with the questions and given honest answers, not merely what people have wanted to hear. Unfortunately, while the Greens do have some very good policies, they also have some incredibly bad ones, to the point where I wonder if they have an overall aim of trying to balance their policy offering between eminently sensible and complete woo. Mark deserves to be congratulated on having a good election campaign, and I think his party’s best days are ahead of it, but for now I couldn’t justify voting for him.
During this election, my impression of Ed Miliband has improved to the point that I think he’s perfectly capable of being a good Prime Minister. He’s an obviously intelligent man who’s thought through issues in some depth and shows remarkable calm and resilience in the face of the attacks he’s undergone over the past four and a half years. If I was living in a different constituency where Labour could defeat the Tories, I would consider tactically voting for them (as I did in 1992). However, Colchester’s not that sort of constituency and Jordan Newell definitely isn’t that candidate. An on-message neo-Blairite robot is not the type of Labour candidate I would consider voting for.
In contrast to Ed Miliband, my opinion of David Cameron has fallen during this campaign. He’s run a campaign based on fear, lies and division, preferring to risk tearing the country and the continent apart if it means he gets to cling to power. Will Quince, his candidate in Colchester would be nothing more than a rubber stamp for Cameron’s dangerous policies, be it cutting billions from support for the worst off in society, risking our economy with an ill-conceived plan for an EU referendum or being prepared to discard our human rights. He wins the award for the most disingenuous bit of politico-speak I’ve seen in Colchester this election:
Which of your parties specific policies do you LEAST agree with?
I pledge to be an independent-minded MP and will always put my constituents first. If that means voting against my party, then so be it. There will always be difficult decisions to take but I will never forget that the people of Colchester are my boss.
For all the fine words about being ‘independent-minded’, he neglects to mention any issues he might be independent about or even mildly disagree with his party on. You can judge a man by the company he keeps, and whether it’s the glee with which the members of Colchester’s Tory group have suggested sacking hundreds of Council staff or the negative campaigning and dog-whistle politics of his party, both locally and nationally, it’s clear that the Tories remain the nasty party, and sending another Tory MP to Parliament would be a bad thing for both our town and our country.
Which leaves us with Sir Bob Russell, MP for Colchester for 18 years and a man you may or may not be surprised to learn I’ve had many arguments with during my eight years as a councillor, but who I will still be voting for tomorrow. I don’t agree with Bob on everything, and over the past few years, I’ve disagreed with many of the things he and other Liberal Democrats in Parliament have voted for. However, no matter how much we like to talk about Doctor Who within the party, we don’t possess time travel and we can’t go back and do it all again with knowledge of how it will all turn out, but we can do the best to make the future a better place. I don’t agree with Bob with Bob on everything but I trust him to represent Colchester in Parliament far better than any of the other candidates. He’ll continue to infuriate me on a regular basis, but I would far rather be infuriated by him than by any of the other options. The Liberal Democrat manifesto (and party leadership) may have plunged down the road to centrist managerialism, but it still contains more good idea than any of the others and a heart and humanity that are sorely lacking in most of the other parties.
Aside from telling you how I’m intending to vote here, I’m not going to make any recommendations or endorsements, though I would ask you to sign this petition for electoral reform so the issue doesn’t get forgotten about as soon as the election’s done. I have been looking through some of 2010 election blogging and found this that I write about who or what to vote for, which I think stands the test of time:
You have a choice today when you go to vote. It’s a simple one: do you choose hope or fear? Do you vote because you’re scared of what the Daily Mail predicts, scared of all those nasty foreign people, scared of changing things that people say have worked for them for so long, scared of your neighbours, scared of those young people with nothing to do, scared of everything somehow going wrong unless the media’s designated strong government in waiting is allowed absolute power to tell you they’re dealing with all these problems while spending your money on finding new ways to terrify you? Or do you choose something else?
And so that brings 38 days of election blogging to an end, which has felt like a particularly nasty route march at times, but has generally been fun and interesting to do again. Now I get to shift to results blogging, then interminable government-formation negotiation blogging until we finally find ourselves with a new Government and I can get on with boring you about my Masters dissertation. I’d like to thank all of you who’ve been reading these posts, all the parties who are standing, especially those who were my minor party of the day, and all the people who’ve uploaded things to Election Leaflets to allow me to point and laugh at them. Please make sure you get out and vote tomorrow, even if it’s just to spoil your ballot paper, and let’s just hope we don’t have to do it all again later this year.
One thing that’s interested me this election is that the Tories appear to not be bothering in the local election in my ward. We haven’t received a single leaflet from them mentioning their local election candidate, but that’s not too much of a surprise when the large majority of Tory propaganda we’ve received hasn’t even bothered to name their Parliamentary candidate.
However, after spending the weekend arsing around with a cardboard cutout of Nick Clegg, I finally spotted our local Tory candidate for Castle Ward on my street last night, and he was actually delivering something. Unfortunately, it yet again failed to mention him or their Parliamentary candidate, and was instead a rather nasty smear leaflet trying to claim that Bob Russell is responsible for all crime in Colchester. Indeed, if you didn’t notice the rather blurry imprint in very small writing, you might think it was something independent and not actually a Tory campaign leaflet. I’m sure that wasn’t intentional on their part, as was the fact it omitted to mention that one of the leading local anti-knife crime campaigners backs Bob’s re-election.
I think it shows the contempt the Tories hold the electorate in by not running on their own record and policies, but instead spreading lies and fear amongst the electorate. Whether it’s fear of crime, or fear of the people of Scotland daring to vote how they want to, the Tory campaign has been a spectacularly unedifying spectacle, seeking to do nothing more than whip up divisions within the country.
Locally and nationally, Tory policies are dangerous, and coupled with a mentality that’s happy to divide society and whip up fear for short-term electoral gain, they don’t deserve to be in power. We all have the power to ensure that they’re not.