Sunday, 2 October 2011

What should the LibDems do next? What does the data tell us?

The last year has been terrible for the LibDems.  Their brand, based on realignment of the left and carefully constructed for over half a century, has had a coach and horses driven through it.  Their poll ratings are disastrous – even accounting for a recent turnaround from absolute rock bottom.  They have a mountain to climb to save seats with a less than favourable economic backdrop, and the result of going into coalition has exceeded even the most miserable of worst case scenarios.
Perhaps worst of all there has been a complete loss of trust, pulling the rug of credibility from under them and seeming to undermine everything they say or do to try to make it better!

What should the Liberal Democrats do - the data says... ?

Evidence based solutions is something of a buzz phrase these days for everything from scientific study, to corporate strategising.  In this regard therefore Lord Ashcroft’s polling of marginal Conservative constituencies is extremely interesting. (As was his analysis in December of the LibDem vote).  A number of blogs have covered the results in detail.  See Mark Pack, UKpolling report, Solutions Focused Politics and Solutions Focused Politics again.

These results tell us the following:
  • 41% of voters in LibDem target seats say they share their values (it’s even 33% in other seats).  This is a very high number – more than the other parties in LibDem target seats. 42% also felt the LibDems were on the side of ordinary voters (more than for any other party albeit just ahead of Labour)
  • Only 32% say the LibDems are clear about what they stand for, in their target seats.   It is 28% in other seats.  These numbers are lower than for the other parties.
  • A derisory 24% say the LibDems will do what they say, the number falls to 21% in non target seats.  The other parties have low numbers on this category too – but more than the LibDems.
Also, looking at LibDem targets, on a whole host of issues the LibDems could only struggle into the teens for those who think they would do the best dealing with the given issue - except for the environment where they score highly.

What issues are considered important remains very similar across Tory, Labour and LibDem held seats.  Education, the Environment and dealing with the deficit come up slightly more important in LibDem areas than other seats.  Crime and Immigration come out as slightly less important than the norm in LibDem areas.

So what should the LibDems do?

In order to recover the Liberal Democrats need to be much better at defining precisely who they are and what they want to do, and communicating that effectively.

Everything comes from that.  General ideas of fairness will not do.  General ideas of listening to the public and then working to deliver their needs sounds laudable but ultimately is more confusing; that is casework which is very important but should not be mixed up with a political credo.  It is very important for the Liberal Democrats to get this right as this is at the heart of their problems.

Secondly, there is a need for delivery.  A number of substantive things need delivered that make a difference to men and women's lives.  Civil liberties and constitutional reform are important but they should be treated as a ring fenced area.  The key issues are the ones that make life better.  If the LibDems succeed in implementing good policy in these areas - and being perceived as having delivered - then that outweighs things they have not done - such as on tuition fees in England and Wales and in failing to prevent a rise in VAT.  This is the only route back to credibility and re-establishing trust.

Delivery needs to come with it some sort of vision, an analysis of where they find themselves, some sort of story or narrative of what is wrong and how this can be put right.  This ties the two key ingredients of core principles and doing what they say together.

This, if they can begin to deliver, could pay dividends as there is a pool of potential belief in the Liberal Democrats out there as shown by the numbers of people who still feel they share their values or they are basically on their side.

Other interesting things we have learned

  • We have also learned from Lord Ashcroft that a significant number of voters seriously considered voting LibDem in 2010 but decided not to.
  • The main reason for deciding not to was because they felt the LibDems could have no influence and were a wasted vote. 
  • Two thirds of these people think the LibDems are making an important contribution to government.
  • Nearly all LibDem voters felt Labour seriously lost their way in government.  The poor showing of Labour in Scotland - once a General Election against the Tories was removed from the equation - and difficult poll ratings for Ed Milliband, suggest that while Labour may be doing reasonably well in the face of the government's austerity plans they have not yet sealed the deal for themselves with the British public. 
  • Many 2010 LibDem voters will not decide for some time how they will vote for a General election and do not rule out going back to the LibDems.
  • The polling in Conservative/LibDem marginals at least is consistent with between election polling in previous electoral cycles 
What does this all mean?

In Conservative held seats at least, there is a pool of voters who have considered supporting the LibDems before, believe they share their values and think they are making a contribution in government whereas before they felt they were a wasted vote.  If the LibDems can develop a coherent narrative as to who they are and if they start to be seen to deliver worthwhile things, some of these people will vote for them.

When you consider the LibDems are not that far behind in Conservative marginals, and certainly no worse than in previous electoral cycles, there is hope behind their low polling numbers - the data tells us so.

We have been here before 

Because we have been here before.  After the successes of 1974 and assorted by-election victories the Liberals fell back towards the end of the 70s and the big parties were eager to write them off.  I remember listening to Clive Jenkins, the crusty old trade unionist, on the radio on some local election night late in the 1970s, saying the Liberals results were patchy - which meant bad.  This, he argued was a good thing because they were a distraction from the real political argument.

After the Alliance ended and the Owenite SDP rump refused to join the merged party, poll ratings collapsed to lower than they are now and the 1989 Euro elections were a disaster.  Again commentators were very quick to write off the LibDems.

Their opponents are so condescending but fail to understand the resilience and depth of their position.

I felt then, in the late 1980s that the LibDems would be alright because there was a 'market' demand to vote for a decent centrist party.  This time I have not been so sure.  The trust and credibility thing feels ominous to me - and the damage feels particularly severe in Scotland where an Alex Salmond lead SNP are resurgent and occupy the centre ground.  However, this data tells me there is still a market demand as there was before.  It may be that some of the cities of northern England where we had made inroads against Labour are lost for at least this electoral cycle.  Scotland may also be more of a challenge for a period.

Nevertheless, even in Scotland, there is hope and the Ashcroft data shows that there is potential for LibDem growth if they can get their core values right, deliver something substantive in government and communicate it effectively.

The data says there is hope!


  1. I think one small but helpful step towards making the link to those potential voters would be to publish Lib Dem News online. Far more than a typical party website, it could better convey the personality and feel of the party, much like a conference can for those minded (and with the time) to watch it.

    It's where news and interviews should appear first, to get accreditation and extra publicity as a legitimate newspaper's accessible online version. The place to go for videos of important speeches (why so few?), and publicised at every opportunity as the place to get the facts (jack)!

    And the cost? I would suggest that a £10 levy on membership subscriptions (with an opt out rather than an opt in) and in return an member's only section with access to research material, archives and suggestion box.

  2. Thanks John.

    This could help. LibDem Voice is also good.

    I also think writings are important. The Orange Book has become a bit of a cliche and misunderstood but deep thinking of what liberalism is, what it means and working principles through to policy ideas is really vital.

    Lets have a yellow book and a gold book etc etc as we build a clear and deep and holistic idea of who we are and what we are about.

  3. Perhaps those new books could be the result of a new, accessible "democratic" and participative Liberal Summer School

  4. The participative way would be an excellent project.