It looks like you’re starting a new centre party. Would you like some help with that?

There used to be a distinct summer ‘silly season’ in British politics. Unfortunately, global warming and the catastrophic meltdown of most rational sense about politics in this country means we’re now living in a permanent silly season where ideas that would normally be laughed off are now taken utterly seriously. So, we have this:

Blair has publicly stressed that the institute will not become a new centrist political party. But in private, close allies admit that the idea of a new party emerging around the time of the next British general election is being seriously considered.

With Theresa May’s Conservative Party resolute in its hard Brexit stance, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn declining to offer resistance to the triggering of Article 50 to take Britain out of the EU, and the Lib Dems a minuscule parliamentary force with just nine MPs, the question of whether a new party is needed to oppose Brexit has become a favorite topic in Westminster.

While the Lib Dems publicly eschew such talk, Farron was contacted last summer by a close ally of former Tory Chancellor George Osborne, who suggested the creation of a centrist party called “The Democrats,” the New Statesman reported. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem former deputy prime minister, met with Blair in November, ahead of the creation of his new institute in March.

Like so many ideas associated with Blair, this one too has its roots abroad, this time in the remarkable and rapid ascent of Emmanuel Macron to frontrunner in the French Presidential election. In the past year, he’s jumped from the Socialist Party, set up his own movement (En Marche! – or, as Google Translate likes to call it, Walk!) and become very appealing to a population that’s become very tired of the old parties of left and right. (By the way, if he gets into power and disappoints his supporters with his education funding policies, I’ve already copyrighted ‘Nick Cloeuf’)

Of course, if Macron wasn’t there to be held up as the shining example, then the mantle of Great Centrist Role Model would have remained with Canada’s Justin Trudeau who took the Canadian Liberals from third place into majority government in 2015. Like Macron, Trudeau was an outsider if you squint hard enough – the son of a former Prime Minister, he’d eschewed a political career until a few years ago – but unlike him, had the advantage of becoming leader of a party that, while it was at a low ebb, had provided more Canadian Prime Ministers and governments than any other.

Somehow, these two pieces of electoral fortune outside of the UK have translated into a belief that what the British people are crying out for is a new centre party led by Tony Blair and George Osborne. Like a rushed undergrad essay, it’s making a big leap to some rather bold and unsupported conclusions, but it is based on some solid ground.

Voter left-right self positioning, 2015 BES
First, there’s the fact that the voters of Britain do tend to describe themselves as being generally quite centrist. The graph to the right here (from the 2015 British Election Study) shows how voters position themselves on a scale from 0 (left) to 10 (right), showing a marked peak in the centre and fewer and fewer voters the further you get from it. Second, there’s evidence to show that in Britain when the two main parties move away from the ideological centre, there’s an increase in support for the centre (see Nagel and Wlezien, 2010).

Obviously, people talking about setting up new centre parties is of great personal and academic interest to me, but the actual prospect of Blair, Osborne et al doing it doesn’t fill me with any great hopes for its success (even if they’re eminence grises, kept well away from the public spotlight). It feels to me as though they (and others) have spotted that there’s a gap in the electoral market and decided that it’s necessary to fill it without asking why no one’s come along to fill it already.

The first problem is that the term ‘centre party’ covers a wide range of different parties and proponents of one don’t seem to have any clue about which of them their party would be. We can probably assume it won’t be one of the old Scandinavian Centre parties which tied old agrarian parties in which the urban bourgeoisie, but are they looking at following the model of the Christian Democrat parties that sought to occupy the centre between extremes of right and left, or the various post-dictatorship Democratic Centre parties (like the one David Sanders advocated last year) that sought to rebuild the democratic foundations of a country, or are they looking towards the model of catch-all liberal parties that try to combine both right- and left-liberalism in the same party? They’re all commonly referred to as centre parties, but they have a very different approach to politics and come from different political circumstances. It’s all well and good talking about the need for a centre party, but what is that party actually going to stand for?

Second, there’s the problem that just saying ‘we’re going to create a new political party’ is just a tiny part of the process. One can set up a nice shiny office somewhere in London, pay someone to design you a nice logo, but political parties need people to function, especially in Britain. Not only do you need to recruit a membership, you need to find an activist base within that membership who’ll go and do all the donkey work of populating the institutions that make up a political party. The key driver of the RoadTrip 2015 campaign that’s got the Tories under such heavy investigation at the moment was the problem of getting actual feet on the ground to do campaigning in key constituencies. It’s all well and good having lots of people to make interesting graphs in your HQ, but who’s going to be calling members and supporters in Easthampton West to find out who’ll agree to do polling station telling on election day? The idea that a party might somehow ’emerge’ shortly before the next election ignores everything that’s involved with creating an actually functioning political party.

Third, there’s what you might call the SDP problem (and I deserve some sort of congratulations for going a thousand words into this without mentioning them): the British electoral system makes it ridiculously hard for a new party to break through into Parliament. There’s a catch-22 problem for all new parties: you’re going to need well over 20%, possibly 30% of the national vote share to make a significant breakthrough into Parliament, but unless you’ve made that breakthrough into Parliament, people aren’t going to think you’re credible enough to be worth voting for to get you that share of the vote that gives you a breakthrough. Otherwise you’ll be following the example of the Alliance in the 80s (and UKIP in 2015) in doing moderately well in a lot of seats, but winning next to none of them. As I’ve said before, being an equidistant centre party is good for winning votes and terrible at winning seats.

That’s three questions anyone wanting to set up a new centre party has to answer, just as a preliminary: What does your proposed party stand for? How are you going to build an actual party, not just an HQ? How are you going to win Parliamentary seats and not just accumulate wasted votes?

Once they’ve got the answers to those, then we can move on to the more important ones, like how are they going to actually work in the current British party system. But we’ll save the advanced questions until we’ve got answers to the basic ones.

Stuck in the middle with who?

It’s been interesting watching the reaction from some to the Liberal Democrat victory in the Richmond Park by-election. One trend I’ve noticed is people (generally from the left) pointing out that Tim Farron hasn’t said that the party would never be in a coalition with the Tories again it means that the party is clearly just a bunch of evil Tories in disguise, can never be trusted and are somehow responsible for everything bad that has ever happened.

Now, while the interpretation might be a bit extreme, the basic fact is true in that Tim Farron hasn’t ruled out coalitions with anyone. (What he has done, however, is set out that any Lib Dem participation in coalition would be based on red lines like electoral reform without a referendum, that it’s hard to see the Tories agreeing to) However, there’s a reason for this, which is best illustrated by comparing his position to Paddy Ashdown’s back in 1992.

Back then, the party was well know for its policy of equidistance between the two main parties. Paddy’s Spitting Image appearances generally revolved around the phrase ‘neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere inbetween’, and polling showed that the public were pretty much evenly split on which party we were closest to. Then, a few weeks after the 1992 election Paddy gave a speech in Chard which declared a new strategic direction for the party. The party’s task for the next Parliament would be:

to create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories; to assemble the policies capable of sustaining a different government; and to draw together the forces in Britain which will bring change and reform.

That set the party on an explicitly anti-Tory path, which passed back and forth through various levels of co-operation and co-ordination with Labour, and eventually gave the party its best electoral performance in years at the 1997 election. (I’ve written a lot more about that here)

There’s plenty of people who would like to see Tim Farron make a similar declaration, but despite being from the left of the Liberal Democrats, he’s not in the same strategic position Ashdown was. For a start, Paddy was talking after thirteen years of Tory rule, which an unexpected election victory now threatened to make eighteen. That’s considerably longer than they’ve been in power now or will be by the time of the next election. Perhaps more importantly, Labour was in a completely different position. They’d just got 37% of the vote in the election under Neil Kinnock, who was about to be replaced by the very popular John Smith. Even though they’d lost the election, they were a credible alternative Government.

The problem Farron faces is that if he explicitly positions the party as anti-Tory, the immediate question from the media becomes ‘so you want Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, do you?’ Labour in 2016 are simply not a credible alternative government in the way Labour of 1992-97 were, and the way our media frame politics as a binary choice mean Farron’s options are limited for the time being.

All that being said, Farron also has to be conscious of a much bigger opportunity than Ashdown ever had: a realignment of British politics. The referendum and its aftermath has shown up a division in our politics that could supplant the left-right cleavage as the main determinant of voter identification and electoral choice. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that there are already two parts of the UK – Northern Ireland and Scotland – where questions of identity and nationalism drive the political debate much more than economic. If the politics of England and Wales follow a similar path and Leave/Remain (or nationalist/internationalist or open/closed) becomes the main political division then which side of left/right the Liberal Democrats support becomes a moot point.

If that happens, then the important issues for the Liberal Democrats are how to organise and co-ordinate a whole new wing of politics, which is an entirely different mindset to operating a party in the centre of it. It also puts Labour into a whole new set of troubles, trying to straddle a division and hold itself together while forces within it are pulling it in vastly different directions.

Farron’s having to play coy on the ‘which side do you support?’ question right now because giving a definitive answer weakens the party’s position, but if things keep changing, it might not be him who gets asked that question in the future.

My article in the new edition of Liberator

liberatorcoverI got the latest edition of Liberator in the post this morning, and was delighted to see that my article in it is mentioned on the cover. It’s based on the research I did for my Masters dissertation on the links between equidistance, tactical voting and Liberal Democrats winning seats and hopefully will prompt some thinking and discussion within the party. If you’re not a Liberator subscriber (still only £25 a year!) you’ll be able to read it when the edition is available online in the New Year, or you can read the blog post I wrote on the same subject a couple of months ago. You can also read Nick Harvey’s article from this issue on how the party lost seats because we believed our own propaganda too much)

If you have read my article, I’d appreciate any comments or thoughts people have, and I’m open to suggestions on topics to write about for future issues of the magazine if you liked this one.

Equidistance is good at winning votes, but not seats

winninghereI handed in my Masters dissertation a couple of weeks ago, and rather than reproduce the whole thing here, I thought a summarised version of the key arguments would be of more interest than the whole thing. (That some of it would be an absolute bugger to format for WordPress is entirely by-the-by) Should you be interested in reading the whole 10,000 word original (“The role and strategy of the Liberal Democrats in the British party system: Strategic coordination and the structure of competition”) let me know.

The main aim of the dissertation was to look at Liberal Democrat positioning and strategy since the party was formed in the light of different theories. In the first part, I looked at spatial (Downsian) models of party positioning (which I discussed in more detail here), specifically in terms of papers by Adams & Merrill, and Nagel & Wlezien. They find some interesting patterns in British politics, most notably that when the two major parties diverge from the centre, the vote share of the centre party tends to grow (and when they converge, the centre party gets squeezed).

However, what’s interesting about this relationship is that it only applies to vote shares, not seats, and as even a cursory look at Liberal Democrat and Alliance electoral history will show you, there’s not a strong relationship between number of seats won and number of votes in the party’s results. Indeed, some of the best results in terms of votes (1983, 1987, 2010) have seen disappointing returns of seats. Why was the party suddenly so successful from 1997 at turning votes into seats, when it hadn’t been before?

To explain that, I looked at theories of strategic coordination by voters (also known as tactical voting), particularly in the light of the theories proposed by Gary Cox in his book Making Votes Count. Cox looks at voters as two different types: expressive voters, who are voting to make a point; and instrumental voters, who are seeking to achieve a certain goal. It’s very hard to get expressive voters to shift from their preferred party to another, but instrumental voters might if they think another party will have a chance of achieving that goal.

This is something that’s a key part of Liberal Democrat campaigning, of course: persuading people to shift from supporting their first choice party to the Liberal Democrats because the bar chart shows that only the Liberal Democrats can defeat Party X here. However, the assumption in that message is both that the voter wants to see Party X defeated (they’re an instrumental voter seeking that end), and that they see sufficient difference between the Liberal Democrats and Party X to prefer the Liberal Democrats over them. It’s that second point which to me is the key to explaining why the party managed to do so well in 1997 and after. It wasn’t just that the party got better at targeting seats, but that the way the party had positioned itself made it more attractive to tactical anti-Tory voters.

Consider that when someone is casting a vote, especially a tactical one, they’re not just thinking about their constituency but the national situation. So, when asking a Labour voter to tactically switch to the Liberal Democrats to defeat a Tory in their constituency, they’re not just considering whether they prefer the Liberal Democrat candidate to the Conservative one, but the effect that will have on the national picture. A voter may want to beat the Conservatives, but in order to tactically switch, they have to see a difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives not just locally but in terms of the end result. If the party’s being officially equidistant and not saying who it’d support, it weakens the argument for tactical switching as it doesn’t help prevent the end the voter wants to avoid.

To see this in action, look at what Paddy Ashdown did from 1992. Starting with the Chard speech soon after the election, he positioned the party as explicitly anti-Tory and the party’s general behaviour up to and including 1997 general election tended to reinforce that. (One key signal in this, I think, was both parties standing down in favour of Martin Bell in Tatton) You can see the change in British Election Study data – at the 1992 election, 44% of voters thought the Liberal Democrats were closer to the Tories, 38% to Labour, but by 1997 that had shifted to 56% saying closer to Labour, and just 10% to the Tories.

That’s important, because at the 1997 election, the party had a huge number of seats it could win from the Conservatives if enough Labour voters would switch. So, even though the party saw its share of the vote drop as Labour moved to the centre, the increased level of strategic coordination by voters meant that the Liberal Democrats won a lot more seats than ever before. Voters who were seeking to remove the Conservatives felt able to vote for whichever was the best anti-Tory option in their constituency because Ashdown’s actions had made it clear what we would do afterwards. Similar things happened in 2001, when even more voters thought the party was closer to Labour than in 1997, as the results of 1997 had made the best anti-Tory option in a constituency clear.

2005’s a bit more complex to explain but one interesting fact from then is that voters still saw the Liberal Democrats as closer to Labour than the Conservatives at the same level they did in 1997. That, I believe, is what led to the gains from Labour that year – people who would normally vote Labour switching as a protest, but generally these voters were demographically close to existing Liberal Democrat voters (this article by John Curtice explains it in depth, if you can access it). In other countries, this is the sort of voter shift that would be called intra-block movement, where voters still want the same block of parties in power but shift their support between the parties within that block – Denmark and Sweden have good examples of this sort of system.

By 2010, the party had returned to equidistance and this affected voters decisions, hence why the share of the vote went up, but the number of seats went down. The overall share of the vote went up because there was more space in the centre, but because Labour voters couldn’t be sure that the party wouldn’t support a Tory government, there was an unwinding of the tactical votes that had previously won seats for the party. (While the party’s national share was going up, it was going down in many held seats) This was only accentuated after 2010, when the ‘we voted for you to keep the Tories out, but then you joined the coalition’ argument undid the tactical vote. It’s interesting to look at the different patterns of where the Liberal Democrat vote went in seats lost in 2015 – in seats gained by the Tories it tended to scatter, while in seats won by Labour there was a much more pronounced direct swing from Liberal Democrat to Labour.

I could go on at a lot more length (I haven’t even mentioned Mair’s structure of competition yet, which was an important part of the dissertation) but the key point to remember is that in the British system, votes and seats aren’t the same thing. As the Alliance showed, and the result in 2010 echoed, it’s easy to pile up 20-30% of the vote in a lot of seats, but that sort of share of the vote isn’t going to win you many of them. Unless the party can get above a tipping point level of about 30% of the vote to win seats by itself, victories are going to require tactical voting and tactical voting requires giving people the motivation to switch their vote. Equidistance doesn’t help in providing that motivation, and any wins rely on motivating purely local factors. The national factor – and the significant level of gains – came when the party had picked a side, and gave voters much more motivation to tactically switch because they could be sure of what effects it would have outside of the constituency battle.

In short, equidistance when the two big parties are moving away from the centre might be a good way of increasing the party’s vote in 2020, but it’s not going to bring a lot of seats with it.