How do the Liberal Democrats become a national party again?

Concentrating our vote in ever fewer seats is not a sustainable strategy. Could a Gladstonian pitch to younger voters provide an alternative?

Does the party need to go back to the future?

The Liberal Democrats faced two ‘difficult’ sets of elections last week: local elections in many parts of the country and elections to the European Parliament. Both elections produced results that were clearly bad for the party. However, the extent of our losses differed greatly.

Even though this round of local elections were mainly contested in the kind of Labour leaning urban authorities where the party is most vulnerable. At the end of the night hundreds of Liberal Democrat councillors were left standing. And what is more the places where the party did best also happened to be the seats we need to hold onto. Stephen Tall summed it up nicely when he tweeted:

When the results of the Euros were announced we saw a much simpler and bleaker pattern: we lost everywhere! Our share of the vote tumbled and only a single solitary Lib Dem MEP was returned.

While the party has always struggled in European Elections, the divergence in the two sets of elections conducted on the same day is large enough to be striking. What explains it?

The most likely answer is the differing electoral systems. Council elections use first-past-the-post which, ironically given how much Liberal Democrats hate it, has been serving our interests pretty well of late. Faced with national unpopularity we’ve focused our resources into the seats we have the best chance of retaining and promoted ourselves to the electorate on the basis of the popularity of our local representatives. For all the ridicule Malcolm Bruce received for saying so in its own limited terms this strategy has indeed worked.

In a European election this approach just isn’t an option. There is no meaningful way to target resources in a constituency with millions of electors nor is it possible for MEPS to build up a rapport with that many people. [Warning GoT spoiler in the next sentence] The result thus wound up looking something like the Red Wedding, only with Lib Dem MEPs rather than members of the Stark Family.

It was not always like this. In 1983, the SDP-Liberal alliance scored a quarter of the national vote but it was spread so evenly that it netted victories in just 23 individual seats. Even as the party began to concentrate its vote it still retained significant latent support in the areas it didn’t win. As recently, as 2005 the party produced adverts based on polling showing that the party would have comfortable majority in the House of Commons but for the fact that most voters thought the party couldn’t win in their constituency. Now there seems to be no floor through which we cannot fall outside our core areas and we only keep our vote up in them through the most massive amounts of campaigning.

File:LibDem vote-seat percent.PNG

Note the pretty limited correlation!

This is not only a problem for European Elections but also General Elections. It is tempting to think that it only matters how we perform in seats we are not fighting to win. This is probably true in the short term but is ultimately misguided.

For example, the fact that our council groups in Islington and Camden have been devastated will doubtless reduce their capacity to help Lynne Featherstone hold her seat in neighbouring Haringey.* It will also make it harder if we ever try to target parliamentary seats in those two boroughs again. And of course for as long as they are depending on the party’s present strategy Haringey would be in trouble if Lynne Featherstone fell under a bus or say a split in their local party undermined their ability to campaign.

For these reasons and others, I would be happier if we were in a position closer to Labour and the Tories (and perhaps now UKIP) where a significant minority of the electorate feels a sufficient affinity with us to go out and support us without needing prompting by intensive campaigning. The obvious manifestations of this would be that our vote wouldn’t crater outside our target areas and that we could hold many of our seats with fairly modest campaigning effort.

I am not entirely clear how we would go about carving out such a vote and imagine that there might be multiple ways of doing it. However, it seems that one of the most straightforward routes might be to target younger voters. As a recent Economist article noted: “Young Britons are classical liberals: as well as prizing social freedom, they believe in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility.” This suggests that despite their present antipathy to us as a bunch of tuition fee raising promise breakers, the post-Organ book Lib Dems might actually be the most natural fit for these young voters. Were we to go down this road we would be advised to tweak our policy platform to better appeal to them, by for example, coming down decisively on the side of home buyers rather than aging and monied NYMBYs. We might also want to focus our campaigning on areas that have younger populations such as University towns and in particular London.

This is of course not an alternative to ramping up our campaigning or to having a targeting strategy. Rather it is about not making these do all the work of electing Liberal Democrat MPs. The function of campaigning should be to push us over the top in marginal seats not build our vote from the ground up. That is to expect too much of it and is only likely to be sustainable in a handful of seats.


P.S. I do appreciate the irony of calling for Clegg to resign and in effect saying that Cleggism is the future!


*Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge of these local parties. I think they were the examples that dropped into my head because I am staying with a friend in Highgate and on my way here walked past a road sign with ‘London Borough of Haringey’ on it.