Monday, August 17, 2020

The mismatch between the Lib Dems and their voters after 2010

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Christopher Butler has been interviewing figures involved in the Liberal Democrats' decision to support an increase in tuition fees after entering government in 2010.

His research is published in the academic journal British Politics, but he has also written a blog post for the London School of Economics' British Politics and Policy blog.

There he quotes a 'former adviser' as saying that it turned out that a lot of Liberal Democrat support came from

broadly public sector workers who were being hit in numerous different ways with the policy choices we were making. Fees is probably a good example but certainly not alone; NHS reforms, pension caps, wage caps this kind of stuff; hugely problematic for them.

This would not have been news to many Lib Dem activists, because our local campaigning had for years presented us as the people who defend local services. 

Instead, writes Butler:

Having finally got back into government, the party’s initial strategy was to focus on delivering the four policies which had featured on the front page of the manifesto (of which tuition fees deliberately was not one), on the assumption that these were the policies which had secured its support at the 2010 election.

Those four policies were raising the income tax allowance, introducing the pupil premium, electoral reform and the environment. Yet, as Butler says, this ignored the campaign the Lib Dems had fought at the 2010 election.

He reprints one of Nick Clegg's own leaflets:

The Liberal Democrats are committed to getting rid of tuition fees and oppose the top-up fees that Labour and the Conservatives support.

And people in Leicester remember that when Clegg's battle bus swept into Leicester it made for De Montfort University so he could be filmed receiving the adulation of students.

Butler ends by pointing to new research that suggests a developing core vote for the Lib Dems in certain seats in London and the South East.

He complains that, despite this, both Ed Davey and Layla Moran are claiming the party can win parliamentary seats across the country.

But I believe Ed and Layla are right. You cannot build a national political party on the interests of a handful of seats in the Home Counties.

In order to listen to your voters you have first to acquire them.


Phil Beesley said...

Did I miss something when the Mark Pack and David Howarth core votes strategy was proposed? I thought that it was about bringing in natural liberal voters -- middle class internationalists et al -- as an extra, not pushing out other natural liberal voters.

Pack and Howarth are right about socially liberal, middle class voters (not many, but enough) who might vote liberal. It is hard to think that the bosses of liberal charities prefer to vote Labour rather than Lib Dem.

Paul Holmes said...

Yes Phil, like many others you did miss the proposituion that concentrating policies, campaign resources etc on'Core Vote' issues (Revoke anyone?) would inevitably alienate many who had happily voted Lib Dem before. After all 30% of LD supporters voted Leave in 2016.

There was also Mark Pack's later paper on a Pivoting Strategy which basically said that: 'Now we have so few MP's we can abandon[Pivot from] areas where we won in the past with the wrong sort of voters in the wrong sort of places [the West Country, Wales the 11 Labour seats we gained in 2005?] and concentrate on policies that appeal to the urban, professional, educated middle clsses who are 'natural' Liberal voters.Few people seem to have read this although Mark published it twice on his blog site. It reads like an exact blueprint for the 2019 GE campaign however!

As a result we are now confined to a 'Golden Halo' in and near London and currently irrelevant to most of the UK population.

Chris Butler said...

Hi Jonathan, thanks for posting to my article. It's always interesting reading your blog. Firstly you should be able to access the full article for free via this link:
(apologies for the paywall).
My broader question about the party's strategy is whether trying to build too broad a coalition of voters in a wide range of seats presents problems for the party in future scenarios where it is able to be the junior coalition partner (or prop up a government via supply and demand). Such arrangements involve considerable policy compromise and I wonder whether that is only palatable to voters if a party's messaging and priorities are clear, and consistent nationally which I don't believe the Lib Dems' were in 2010. To me, that's the lesson that the party doesn't seem to have dwelt much on since 2010: not just how do you build a broader coalition of voters but how do you do so in a way that you can maintain their support when in office as part of a coalition (which is the party's most likely route to national power).

Phil Beesley said...

I think, Chris, that you misunderstand Liberals.

Have you ever thought about losing whilst being right?

Jonathan Calder said...

Many thanks for your comment, Chris. I have now used the link to your full paper.

I agree that a party needs to be close to its voters and Orpington Man is not a new discovery. As the title of the post suggests, I think this distance from our voters became a particular problem after 2010. You have spoken to the people involved, but my impression is that the people around Nick Clegg, like Clegg himself, lacked roots in the party and believed they could "position" us wherever they chose.

The danger now is that by concentrating on a few target seats we give up on most of the country and adopt policies that make it unlikely we shall ever regain support there. Not upsetting people in Esher isn't a policy that will sustain a political party, particularly not one that still has ambitions to be radical.

Trying this approach in the 2015 general election left us fighting on the Vichy slogan "Stability. Decency. Unity." And in Scotland, trying to the unite the Unionist vote in half a dozen target seats has left us unattractive to voters elsewhere.

We will always have target seats, though I wonder if all the seats we did well in last time will remain realistic targets if the Brexit issue begins to fade a little.

Our real problem is that we have nothing but target seats. At the the height of Cleggmania in 2010, when the polls were suggesting we could win 100 seats, Newsnight (I think it was) went to report on the L:b Dem campaign in one of the Bournemouth seats, which we would have to win to get to 100. They couldn't find it. There wasn't one.