Welcome to the 55th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which returns to the Ashcroft polling of Liberal Democrat seats to see how many the party is likely to win in May and also takes a look at the collapse in turnout in internal Lib Dem elections.
As ever I hope you enjoy reading Liberal Democrat Newswire, which has more subscribers than the party’s own official monthly publication, Ad Lib.
Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft has now polled 38 Liberal Democrat held constituencies (counting Portsmouth South as Lib Dem held although its MP is now sitting as an independent), having started working his way up from the most marginal. In those seats, his polling finds the party ahead in 17, dead tied in two and behind in the others.
Although the wording of his polling questions is good, getting voters to think about their local constituency, he doesn’t name candidates in the questions – which where there is an MP with a personal vote is likely to depress the party’s share. (For more on his methodology see Liberal Democrat Newswire #52 and it’s noteworthy how his polling results mirror the internal constituency polling conducted by the party. Reassuring too given the criticism of the party’s own polling accuracy after the 2010 election.)
So a reasonable starting point in projecting seat numbers is to look at what happens if the party were to hold the seats not polled and those where it is currently tied or ahead. That would give the party 38 seats (important caveat – of which 11 are in Scotland).
The number of held seats might be topped up by gains and Ashcroft’s polling has shown the Lib Dems in with a chance in a limited number of seats it doesn’t currently hold – although not ahead in any of them.
As the more detailed breakdown below shows, especially with the number of seats in the 5% either way bands, there is a quite plausible for the party to hope to end up with 40+ seats in the next Parliament and hence an almost inevitable share of power in another hung Parliament.
Not guaranteed by any means, and getting comfortably into the 40s requires a bit of a following political wind (finally) for the party, but clearly possible, just as the number of small margins shows the possibility of a much worse result too.
There is still an awful lot to play for, and confident predictions about seat numbers tells you more about the over-confidence of the person making the prediction than anything else.
Lib Dem ahead (by over 10%)
Carshalton & Wallington
Sutton & Cheam
Thornbury & Yate
Lib Dem ahead (by 6-10%)
Kingston & Surbiton
Lib Dem ahead (by 1-5%)
Bermondsey & Old Southwark
Brecon & Radnorshire
Lib Dems behind (by 1-5%)
Berwick upon Tweed
St Austell & Newquay
Lib Dems behind (by 6-10%)
Mid Dorset & North Poole
Lib Dems behind (by over 10%)
Hornsey & Wood Green
Somerton & Frome
Possible gains (1-5% behind):
Possible gains (6-10% behind):
Oxford West & Abingdon
Possible gains (over 10% behind):
Camborne & Redruth
Hampstead & Kilburn
Harrogate & Knaresborough
Truro & Falmouth
How likely is that route to 40+ seats for the Liberal Democrats? Aside from the current snapshots provided by Ashcroft, the other major factor is how support changes between now and polling day – and in particular the relative intensity of the different local campaigns.
Excluding the June polling where the activity level figures are distorted by the European Parliament freepost, the correlation between level of Liberal Democrat support and level of campaign activity by the Liberal Democrats recalled by voters is 0.43. Or in other words, if the activity level is 10 percentage points higher in a seat, the Lib Dem vote is 4.3 points higher.
There is an even higher 0.49 correlation between level of activity and change in vote share for the Lib Dems since 2010, where again higher activity goes with a better Lib Dem performance.
Moreover, the current activity level scores, averaging at 26% of electors recalling a recent Lib Dem campaigning contact, show plenty of scope for increase.
It’s a promising sign that the imminence of the 19 December long campaign election expenses start date has seen both a huge burst of voluntary activity in many seats to get campaigning done before then. Moreover, the party’s successful fundraising (frequently beating Labour in private donations and boosted by a huge recent bequest) has also seen a large slug of paid-for activity added in.
(Note: the start date for the long campaign is 19 December. The Electoral Commission made a mistake in its guidance when it previously said it was 18 December.)
Lib Dems revise hung Parliament approach
All this makes it wise for Liberal Democrats to spend a modest amount of time thinking about the prospects of another hung Parliament in 2015 (and indeed it’s a prospect that senior figures in both the Tory and Labour leadership are privately expecting).
There is even the distinct possibility of a Parliament so hung that even a two-party coalition isn’t enough, with at least three parties required for a stable majority instead.
Key strands of current thought in the senior levels of the party are:
As far as possible, specific numerical policy commitments are to be avoided with preference instead for clear statements about the direction the party wants to move in. As I said after this attitude was on show at Glasgow conference: “It’s most obvious on tax. Simply saying the Lib Dems want to raise taxes a bit and the Tories are against raising taxes at all makes for a decent hung Parliament negotiation. Get any tax rises then and it shows the Lib Dems making a difference. Trumpet plans for £x billion of tax rises, however, and then end up with negotiating a smaller number – well, however unfairly, that looks to many voters like having a policy and then ditching it.”
That if there is a hung Parliament then, in the absence of a complete Lib Dem meltdown, Nick Clegg will stay on as leader – as a leaderless party can’t negotiate an agreement. All the more so as the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party, Malcolm Bruce, is standing down from Parliament, so there will be a vacancy for that post come what may, and the new Party President, Sal Brinton (see below), is not an MP either, meaning that if the leader resigns there is no senior MP in post to take up the Parliamentary leadership reins in mid-negotiation.
Some are keen that in a future coalition the party should go for taking up posts in a smaller number of ministries, having some ‘pure’ Lib Dem ministries instead of spreading the party thin across many. I’m deeply sceptical of this idea of having islands of Lib Dem purity in a sea of coalition compromise because in practice ministries are not isolated from Downing Street or the Treasury, so they won’t be islands of pure Lib Dem government – whilst the absence of Lib Dems from other departments will leave the party permanently playing catch up in the wake of disliked decisions being made in them.
Nick Clegg has ruled out serving in a coalition with Nigel Farage (and hence by implication with UKIP in general, even though Nigel Farage’s personal election prospects are now looking shaky in constituency polling). This wasn’t a carefully planned strategic move but rather an instinctive answer in a press conference. Bu it is popular in the party and reflects a desire to show that there are some things the party will say no to even in a hung Parliament where deals have to be made.
UKIP: enemy of liberalism, friend of Lib Dems
There’s an odd contradiction at the heart of the impact of UKIP on the Liberal Democrats. In policy terms, in many ways the political spectrum is one with UKIP at one end and the Liberal Democrats at the other. Think not just Europe, equalities or immigration but welfare and civil liberties too given Labour’s frequent hardline rhetoric – attacking the government for not doing more to reduce the welfare bill and for not doing more to restrict civil liberties.
In that sense, UKIP are very much the opponents of the Liberal Democrats – or rather of liberalism. For when it comes to party political success in the ballot box, UKIP is helping the Liberal Democrats. Both by often taking votes disproportionately from the main opponent in Lib Dem held seats but also by dragging both the Conservatives and Labour onto UKIP’s agenda. The political space for a liberal party is getting larger as a result.
For lovers of military analogies, the challenge for the Liberal Democrats is to fight an orderly retreat up until May next year, regroup and then be able to return to a political battle where there will be huge open stretches of the landscape left free for liberals to manoeuvre in.
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One of the first items facing new Party President Sal Brinton when she takes over on 1st January from Tim Farron will be ensuring the party learns the lessons of the at times variously shambolic and farcical elections which saw her and a new Federal Executive (FE) elected.
Turnout in the biennial contest for Party President was respectable for an all-member ballot at just under 40%, little changed from last time. (40% may sound low if you’re not familiar with looking at such turnout figures, but in fact that’s a pretty standard yardstick for all-member ballots in all sorts of organisations, inside and outside politics.)
With the party set to expand its future committee elections to ballots of all party members, learning the lessons of what went wrong with these contests is vital, else the expansion of the electorate risks being a damp squib, at best.
It wasn’t just the administration of party elections that came out of the recent internal Liberal Democrat elections with a battered reputation. So too did the polls that Liberal Democrat Voice conduct of party members. The Lib Dem Voice polls had Daisy Cooper winning comfortably in the race for Party President, when in fact Sal Brinton won by a large margin.
I used to be very closely involved in running the Lib Dem Voice surveys of party members (until I stood down from the editorial team) and the FAQ I wrote two years ago gave then a pretty solid set of reasons why they were very likely to be accurately representing the party membership overall.
Since then there have been some snippets of further supporting evidence (extracts from the party’s own polling of its members I’ve unofficial seen) but that gets completely knocked sideways by what Nick Barlow aptly describes as the LDV polls ‘Literary Digest moment’, a reference to the most famous example of a previously accurate poll getting an election hopelessly wrong, in this case involving another President, but one who could order the dispatch of troops rather than the dispatch of membership cards, Franklin D Roosevelt.
For Lib Dem Voice it was a case of getting the party President contest very wrong.
Does that mean the LDV polls are sunk irredeemably? I hope not, as I think there is great value in having reliable information about what party members thinks – and such information not to be wholly within the control of party HQ.
So here’s my suggestion for trying to fix them: in the past weighting the results by age, region, gender, attendance at conference or length of membership didn’t seem to be necessary as it made little difference to the results.
Give it a go again and see what happens and even better try it out on the Party President poll (as some such questions were asked), as what seems to be the problem is failing to balance in the polling those activists who network heavily with other activists on the one hand with less connected or active party members on the other.
For Lib Dem Voice editor Stephen Tall’s take on the survey results, see his post here.
But in better party organisation news…
With the end of the year approaching, Liberal Democrat party membership is set to grow for the sixth quarter in a row (though there is still a fair way to go until it returns to its 2010 levels).
A statistical footnote for calculator-wielding pedants: if you take the number of votes cast in the party’s Presidential election and the turnout figure, that seems to give a total party membership which is down on the figure published at the end of last year, contradicting the picture of membership growth.
That’s because the party lapses members four times a year, on one day at the end of each quarter. So with a growing membership the numbers go up during a quarter and then drop on the quarterly lapse day before starting to go back up again. Therefore to compare membership figures over time you need to compare like with like – either the pre-lapsing figures at the end of quarters or the post-lapsing figures the day after. If you mix the two you get a false trend, and the membership ballots were sent out based on a post-lapsing figure but the end of year figure cited for 2013 is a pre-lapsing figure.
If you count membership consistently either way it has been consistently growing (and, judging from the more limited data released by the Labour Party, growing more quickly than Labour’s).
In other news…
Malcolm Bruce has taken over from Duncan Hames as chair of the party’s Federal Policy Committee, the body which has to agree the general election manifesto.
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