Political

An unfortunate loose end from the Lib Dem leadership contest

Lib Dem 2015 leadership election ballot paper
Turnout.

It was the lowest ever for a Liberal Democrat leadership contest, and by some margin.

56% this time, compared to 62%-72% in previous contests. Tim Farron may be safely elected the new Lib Dem leader, but the turnout was poor.

Nor is this the first time in recent years we’ve had a turnout problem with an internal party contest. Turnout in the last federal committee elections was anemic – as I wrote up in The turnout massacre: what went wrong with the Lib Dem internal elections?.

Turnout in the last Presidential contest, at 39%, was well down on 2010 (42%) and 2008 (48%) – although it was at least higher than the three contests of 1990, 1992 and 1994 (33-36%).

That’s not a good picture. Those federal committee elections, by the way, were done by online voting – a salutary reminder that online voting isn’t a magical cure for turnout even if it does have a role that should be considered for overseas members who are beyond the reach of swift enough postal balloting.

In fact, turnout in party contests is generally a neglected subject. It isn’t even consistently recorded for most party contests, such as Westminster Parliamentary selections and quickly buried, if reported at all, for many other contests such as the indirect electoral system in the English Party.

Nor is ‘how do we raise turnout?’ a standard part of post-election debriefs in the way it is almost the norm for public elections. Rather, it’s a question almost never asked – and that helps explain why so many party rules around internal contests are so restrictive.

Turnout as a measure of success in engaging members just gets ignored almost every time the rules are written (except, with only a few rare other honourable exceptions, when I get on my lobbying high horse about it).

Which is why the Federal Executive would be wise to ensure turnout is central to the post-leadership election review and that it features heavily in its wider party governance review.

Turnout in elections matters – and we should start caring about it for our own contests.

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