Sunday, February 04, 2018

Lib Dems slip back in Cornish local by-election

Photo of Falmouth © Colin Babb
On Thursday the Liberal Democrats scored a magnificent victory in a local by-election in Sunderland. We went from fourth place and 4.4 per cent of the vote to first place with 53.9 per cent.

This was a reminder of what hard work targeted on a compact urban ward can achieve against a party that has been in power too long – in Sunderland that was the Labour Party.

It is good that the Lib Dems can still record such victories and may well be an omen of further gains in Sunderland in May.

This result also reminds us that it is not so long since we ran Newcastle upon Tyne and had serious ambitions of gaining Labour seats in the North East.

What it does not do is show that Sunderland has changed its mind on the European Union or show that we are poised to sweep to power with similar swings across the country,

On the same night there was another local by-election in Falmouth, where Labour held the seat made vacant by the death of the town’s former MP Candy Atherton.

Even though the Conservative candidate had to apologise during the campaign Nazi-themed Facebook posts he had made, the Liberal Democrat vote slipped back from 18.9 per cent to 17.2 per cent.

A former MP will probably have looked after the ward and her death might well have led to a significant sympathy vote for Labour, but this is still disappointing.

After all, the Liberal Democrats held the old Falmouth and Camborne constituency between 2005 and 2010.

Last year we came third in the new Falmouth and Redruth with six per cent of the vote. If there had been a Ukip candidate we would probably have come fourth.

Yet we have fallen back on our result in the election that took place in the same ward a month before the general election.

I love to see the Lib Dems gaining seats in local by-elections and tweet the results as eagerly as anyone.

But, as I have blogged before, we must beware of confirmation bias – our tendency to notice evidence that supports our view (say, that there is a Lib Dem revival taking place) and pass rapidly over evidence that does not.

I suspect this bias explains why we Lib Dems were disappointed by last year’s general election result and even more why we were shocked when we lost seats in the local elections the month before.

This week a national opinion poll showed the Lib Dems on 6 per cent. That sounds a little low, but if it had been 7 per cent it would have been more or less in line with other recent polls.

And that means the party is still deep in the doldrums. Yes, there are wards and constituencies where we are doing much better than 6 or 7 per cent, but those areas will have been polled like any others.

That means there must be plenty of areas where we are doing significantly worse than 6 or 7 per cent.

Local by-elections often tell us this, but those are not the results we retweet to each other.

I once tweeted to point out that we had scored less than 1 per cent in one contest. I immediately had someone giving me reasons why this was nothing to worry about.

I take no pleasure in this situation and can suggest no easy recipe for improving the party’s fortunes.
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But it is best to face the truth, otherwise we shall continue to be disappointed by every round of national elections.


Mark Pack said...

I mostly agree with your analysis Jonathan, save on one point about last May.

The run of council by-elections was genuinely pointing to much better results, as shown by the Thrasher and Rallings predictions for the party based on them. What undid that wasn't that it was based on confirmation bias but that Ukip collapsed, massively to the Conservatives' benefit, shortly before polling day. In this case it was a sudden last minute event rather than confirmation bias that was our undoing.

David Evans said...

Sadly, I find confirmation bias is rampant in most Lib Dem commentators' posts. Mark says Rallings and Thrasher's predictions indicated we were genuinely polling well, but he ignores the fact that R&T's predictions have almost invariably over estimated our performance in recent years.

I am afraid too many of us are still trying to avoid facing up to our failure to even try to save the party when coalition was going so badly wrong, whether it is senior figures (all of whom hid or even worse peddled the lie that it would all work out fine) or mere activists who just believed things would be OK. So many comforting self delusions are out there - "It was all inevitable" (so no blame can accrue); "We sacrificed ourselves to save the country" (actually we sacrificed the party and those people who will now not have Lib Dems to fight for them in future to save David Cameron from having to deal with his Brexit loonies) or the even more smug "History will look kindly on what we did ..." (No it won't. For those who look, in the margins, it might just say "The Liberal Democrats were a political party ...")

We are now in a very bad place indeed, with most of those on the left never going to trust us to vote tactically ever again, and the rest (including all of the media) thinking we are totally unimportant as a national force. The Conservatives will ensure that the country will leave the EU in a years time, aided and abetted by Jeremy Corbyn, but most of us just go on telling each other how right we were opposing it and how bad it will all turn out - if only people would see how right we are.

On other matters all we seem to talk about is the usual traditional trendy liberal issues, sex and drugs, while ignoring the issues most people vote on.

All in all, virtue signalling has become the favourite pastime of far too many, and real liberals who are prepared to get their hands dirty to fight for the downtrodden are becoming increasingly rare.

Good luck to the guys and gals in Sunderland all all those like them - they have obviously worked hard for it, but for so many of us telling ourselves we are right seems to be good enough. We have to change and soon or we will simply disintegrate, but I fear so many of us simply don't want to face up to facts.

Mark Pack said...

David - I'm not ignoring the typical errors in the Rallings and Thrasher predictions. In fact I made the very point about needing to taking them into account when I wrote about them in advance of last May's elections - - and, ahem, my site is the only one that has produced a historic table of size of errors on all their predictions.

The Lib Dem vote as it turned out was pretty much what you'd expect given their typical errors, but the big thing is that the Conservative vote was much higher than they predicted which, given the number of wards we were fighting to gain off the Conservatives, made a big different to the results. E.g. in Cornwall we didn't make anything like the scale of gains off the Tories people were hoping for, but that was often due to our vote share going up but, courtesy of Ukip's collapse, the Conservatives going up even more.

Theakes said...

Right on the money, glad there are others who support my constant view over the past 6 years of the party choosing to ignore the reality.

Phil Beesley said...

When I read Stephen Bush's article in The New Statesman "Why are the Liberal Democrats doing so badly?", I expected a blog community response. Stephen Bush asks questions why Lib Dem policies aren't getting across to voters. From the perspective of a journalist, he observes that Lib Dems aren't getting "core support".


Unknown said...

David and Mark are both right - as far as they go. However what this story tells is that we should not have abandoned our principles to go into coalition with the Tories,(or to stay there) and having done so, to concentrate our fire on our so recent, coalition partners was suicidal. What would wobbly conservative or labour voters think? They were fed up with their own parties, that seemed to be turning against them, and wanted a solid party that behaved consistently. Tactical voting is one thing, you can swap your vote to a party whose principles overlap with your own, but why vote for a party that stands on its head after every election? Our leaders spend too much time with their noses in books on political theory, and not nearly enough time thinking about the family living in the house whose door that they are about to knock on. Councillors and MPs are supposed to represent their constituents, not join a gravy train in which they are always in office.