Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Where are the Liberal Democrats?

We have had a visit from a Conserative canvasser and more than one piece of Labour literature. Labour signboards urging voters to 'Re-elect James Plaskitt' are sprinkled around. Last night we received a piece of campaign literature from the Greens.

But nothing so far from the Liberal Democrats. They are practically invisible. Now it may be that they have decided to concentrate their limited resources on the nearby seat of Solihull where they are defending a narrow majority. That would make tatctical sense.

However, that begs a bigger question. The Liberal Democrats have done reasonably well in local elections, at one time joining governing coalitions on the county and district councils. Admittedly, there are people who would vote for them in a local election but not in a general election. Nevertheless, in constituencies with a not dissimilar demographic to Leamington such as Cheltenham they have built on this to win the parliamentary seat.

Why have they not done this in Leamington? I don't have a straightforward answer, but it may be that the Labour vote in Leamington was too solid for them to chip away at and Labour was able to establish itself as the main challenger to the Conservatives. The Liberals have not managed to take second place away from Labour and build from there. They just managed to come second in the Alliance high tide of 1983, but only with a quarter of the votes.

The contest is essentially one between James Plaskitt and repeat challenger Chris White. That does not mean, however, that the votes for the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens will not be important in influencing the outcome.


MatGB said...


That's your answer right there. Lib Dems have very small amounts of money and have to use their money and activists very carefully.

If they don't do this, then they lose seats. I think they (we, now) over-target and resources should be spread out a bit more, but even I wouldn't suggest going to seriously fight a seat like that with the sitting MP going for re-election.

If it was a brand new slate, or there was a strong local issue, then yes, I'd fight, but as it is, campaign for Alan in a seat where he'll likely still come 3rd, or go help Lorely get re-elected.

Not a hard choice at all. They'll likely be sending out the election address freepost, and you might get an extra leaflet or two in the wards where they've got Cllrs, but beyond that?

Not going to happen. The electoral system means that they have to pick their battles wisely, and that's not a battle even I would pick.

Of course, if something weird were to happen during the campaign, things might change; but it's unlikely.

Wyn Grant said...

All this makes a lot of sense, but it doesn't answer the underlying question of why the Lib Dems have been unable to build on a local government support base as they have done successfully elsewhere.

MatGB said...

Can't answer that, it's normally a variety of local factors up to and including support for sitting MP. Frankly, if my retiring MP were running again (Chris McCafferty, Calder Valley) I'd be voting for her and campaigning elsewhere or just for the locals.

But because she's standing down, it's all open, and we're trying to capitalise on our local government dominance within the constituency.

It can be for any number of reasons, including lack of a local volunteer prepared to put in the 3 years or so work as PPC to have a reasonable chance of making the jump forward. My PPC is already exhausted, she's incredibly lucky to have a decent part time job and a very supportive partner.

And sometimes voters just get so ingrained to vote for one of the big two in the GE that getting them to switch is difficult; if they split the vote they might "let the others in", etc.

Third party squeeze/ratchett effect can be for any number of reasons, and I don't know your area well enough.

Josh Payne said...

The topics on Leamington are quite interesting. I was born in Leamington, have worked at (what is left of) AP Braking and worked in Whitnash as a volunteer for a year.

I don't think MatGB is entirely correct in the first paragraph of his first post. The Lib Dems have always, for example, held Orkney and Shetland - one of the most expensive seats to campaign in.

His comments indicate that the Lib Dems may well have the edge in Solihull. They will be able to use it was a magnet to drawn in their activists - an advantage the Conservatives won't have.

Maybe the Lib Dems don't do well here for the reasons they don't do well elsewhere; their overall strategy is poor. I think they have to emulate the Conservatives in various ways to encourage voters to swith to them, yet they cannot do this because their activist base doesn't allow it. In other words the necessary step - as far as their long-term success is concerned - never gets taken. David Laws's attempt to do this resulted in uproar at one of their conferences.

Also, I think Leamington is the type of seat that likes to vote for those likely to form a government. Maybe something to do with its position inbetween Britain's two largest cities? People who want to support a competent government rather than protest by dabbling with the third party? Ongoing 'gentrification' of Leamington and Warwick in particular pushing voters to the right?

In addition the SDP success in 1983suggests that the Lib Dems may be redundant in this area at parliamentary level due to Plaskitt and his ministerial role in a right-wing New Labour government. The Lib Dem candidate here in 2005 and 2001 was IIRC a former SDP member, so maybe the Lib Dem candidates haven't suited the area well, plus they weren't filling the right niche once Plaskitt had won.

MatGB said...

Josh, not sure I follow your logic. Frankly, holding Orkney and Shetland shouldn't be a massive challenge given its history, it's one of the 'safest' seats in the country for any party. I have no idea what the local issues are to make it so, but the LDs and predecessor Liberals always did well in the Isles.

But the cost of running a campaign in one seat does not reflect the costs of running a campaign in many seats. If you've got the cash to run an effective campaign in one seat in, say, three, it's better to target resources so you win one-in-three, rather than spread them out and run an inneffective campaign and win none.

Which is the point I was making.

You may also be right in that the sitting MP is close enough to LDs on issues that LD voters are prepared to switch to him, I've not encountered him at all.

Think you're wrong in the idea that the LDs need to emulate the Conservatives to do well, especially given Cameron's posturing about being a "liberal" Conservative and the number of policies lifted wholesale from the LDs. But that may be an interpretation/bias perception filter.

Not sure what you mean regarding Laws and uproar at conference; I was at the debates in conference when the most recent two education policies were agreed, can't recall much uproar; honest debate, yes, but the strongest debated issue was faith schools, not Laws proposals.

Media reporting bias?

Josh Payne said...

The key question is: how well would the Lib Dems perform in Orkney and Shetland if they did not campaign there at all? Would 'tradition' alone be sufficient for the voters to return them? I've visited the Isles four times recently and I think Lib Dem campaigning is essential to the party's success there.

Maybe the party's policies aren't understood very well by the 'average' voter? The first paragraph of your first post is interesting as it implicity suggests that electoral politics is all about 'dragooning' the voters to the polls. Perhaps voters generally find Lab/Con agendas easier to make sense of, hence money is more important to the Lib Dem campaign machine. Lib Dem campaigning has to be more intense to work, yet they actually have less money to spend on it.

Still think they have to emulate the Tories to do well (in the long-term). This would give them greater intellectual force, e.g. promise to cut taxes across the board, coherent policies for tackling anti-social behaviour etc.. In my view the party fudges too many important issues. For instance, Clegg tries to say he wants tax cuts, yet there is never any attempt to do this for high earners. Thus you get more money if you work behind the till at the petrol station, but if you are running BP in senior management, you pay more far more income tax and more road tax. So the policy is just an attempt to present the party as to the right of the Conservatives and to the left of Labour at the same time, when in fact this is not possible?

MatGB said...

Josh; one thing LDs know across the country: if you stop talking to voters, you start to lose. I doubt you'll ever get an incumbent Lib Dem stop running campaigns, regardless. They'd never stop in O&S, so it's impossible to judge. However, they're unlikely to be getting any extra money from central campaign funding, don't need it.

"The first paragraph of your first post is interesting as it implicity suggests that electoral politics is all about 'dragooning' the voters to the polls."

How do I imply that? The real problem is that, until this last weekend, the national media narrative has always been that Lib Dems can't win. People like to back a winner, and if they believe that narrative, then they don't vote LD, even if they support them and the policies.

"Perhaps voters generally find Lab/Con agendas easier to make sense of,"

Or you could as easily say "perhaps the media finds it easier to talk about", which is palpably true when you look at policy discussion on shows like Newsnight until recently.

Yet, strangely, when Clegg gets decent screentime to talk about policies, which he did on Paxman and in the debate, voters respoind very well.

"Lib Dem campaigning has to be more intense to work, yet they actually have less money to spend on it."

This. Very much this. To persuade people within a single seat that the LDs can win within that seat and therefore aren't a wasted vote, estimates are you need between 5 and 15 leaflets/flyers/adverts, etc. That's just to persaude people it's not a wasted vote, let alone sway them if they're also undecided.

Hence the need to target.

However, with the national media narrative changing, you might see a different response now; if the media are talking as if they could actually win, the need to negate the squeeze is lessened.

Your last paragraph essentially says to me "I'm a Tory voter, I want the Lib Dems to espouse Toryism". Is that what you meant to come across as?

On one specific point? Someone in a minimum age job like a till worker pays much more in tax as a proportion of their income overall than a senior manager (depending on how senior we're talking). VAT, Council Tax and other indirect taxes hit the lowest earners the hardest.

Sure, they pay less income tax, but as you observe, that's not overall tax, and most of us still need a car, etc.

The LD policy is income tax cuts for everyone earning under £10K, paid for by closing tax loopholes and going back to taxing capital gains at the same rates as income tax, with a few other things.

(Blogger says my comment is too long, I've excised a fair bit of policy exposition, that's really not what this post is supposed to be about after all)