Saturday, May 03, 2008

Why are the Lib Dems so bad at PR elections?

For a party that is so keen on proportional representation, the Liberal Democrats do disappointingly badly when the system is actually employed.

In London neither the use of the alternative vote for the Mayoral election nor the top-up lists used for the Greater London Authority elections have done anything to boost Lib Dem support.

In Wales we do very well where local authorities are elected by first past the post, and Assembly elections reflect our strength in a handful of Westminster seats. But we have yet to make much of an impact on the second "list" votes. The same broadly holds true for Scottish Parliament elections.

(Let me know if I have got any of this wrong. News was always slow to reach Market Harborough.)

Why is this?

Ironically, it is because we are very good at working the first past the post system we so despise. At ward or even constituency level it is possible to flood the area with workers, and we are very good at fighting local campaigns and at putting a tactical squeeze on the third party.

Our failure to do well when more proportional systems are used - granted they are not what we would choose, but is there evidence that we would do any better under the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies? - suggests that we are less good at identifying ourselves in the public mind in with a positive and unique policy agenda.

Granted that is far easier said than done, but should we Liberal Democrats be praying that we never achieve our heart's desire - proportional representation?


Anonymous said...

I think there's two reasons we do relatively poorly in PR elections, because (a) we're actually trying to use PR elections as building blocks for future fptp elections - either council or Parliamentary and (b) because we've yet to really work out how to campaign effectively in PR elections

For example, in my London super constituency we were active in only 10% of the wards across the two boroughs. This was part of our standard approach to targetting, which concentrates all our resources in specific areas that we want to win council seats in next time or the time after.

Similarly, our campaigns focussed on our specific mayoral and constituency candidates and their strengths and not the party (again a standard fptp electoral tactic, but which is not going to lead to extra votes on the list, except and unless, vicariously). And you're right, third party squeeze just isn't as effective.

Whilst local parties clearly have to target to win, these types of elections could have been an opportunity to investigate different strategies. For example, local parties' campaigns could have been based around target wards and pushing individual candidates - but the campaigns run by London Region could have involved direct mail/telephone messages to voters in non-target wards across identified as most likely to vote for us using something like mosaic etc, with the hope of increasing list votes across whole boroughs whilst leaving target wards in a good shape too.

Perhaps we'll see a bit more inventiveness in the Euro elections next year?

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

I think it also doesn't help that the London Mayor & Assembly election is very confusing for voters - you get one ballot paper for Mayor on which you have to make a first & second choice, another for assembly constituency member to make one choice only and yet another for the top-up list which is often called a "second vote".

Is it any wonder that lots of voters seem to think the third of those ballot papers is a "second preference", especially when they do have a second preference elsewhere?

The result is that someone who likes the Lib Dems and then the Greens can end up voting what they think is "Lib Dem 1, Green 2" but is actually "Lib Dem wasted constituency vote, Green PR vote". I think the Greens spotted this and their deal with Livingstone was designed to exploit ignorance of the system amongst Labour voters.

Linda Jack said...

Absolutely agree Jonathan. We really have to rethink our approach to PR elections. It is an issue those of us in the "In it to win it" Euro group are determined to push. All help gratefully received!


Anonymous said...

I'm sure many people who have voted Lib Dem in FPTP elections have done so as a 'tactical' or 'compromise' option.

Proportional systems encourage people to vote more expressively. They also encourage more smaller parties to field candidates and so siphon away votes that might otherwise have gone to the Lib Dems.

Maybe you just have to recognise that your support base isn't that strong? Maybe two party politics is the natural product of evolution? Perhaps the radical progression in politics will come not through multi-party competition but looser party bonds in the two party system, as in the US.

James Gilmour said...

I think TR-P hits the nail squarely on the head. The Additional Member System used for the Assembly elections is very confusing for voters. For many voters it is very difficult for them to know in advance how best to use their two votes to achieve the result they really want. In consequence, many, many votes are wasted - by the voting system.

The solution is to change the system of PR to one that allows each voter to vote for what he or she really wants in the sure and certain knowledge that their vote will not be wasted and will contribute effectively.

Anonymous said...

Very few people agree with the Lib Dem warped idea of "liberalism". You are, first and foremost, a protest vote. You are the safe anti-Labour vote in safe Labour areas, and ditto with Tories. People who have no idea what you stand for can use you to stick one in the eye of a more important party they don't like. So you have a high enough vote under FPTP based on that.

In PR, there is no need for protest votes, every vote counts.