What seven focus groups reveal about why the Liberal Democrats did so badly in May
The perspective of ordinary voters are curiously absent from most accounts of elections and politics more generally. Instead, the usual accounts are based on what figures at the centre get up to, even though almost all of the events recounted are barely noticed by most voters. That is why I am such a fan of Deborah Mattinson’s Talking to a Brick Wall as it tells the story of New Labour’s rise and fall not through the gossipy details of Westminster but through the voices of actual voters, captured in numerous focus groups.
Done well, and leaving aside the whimsy of ‘if a politician had to be a type of paperclip what type of paperclip would Boris Johnson be?’, focus groups are a vital tool to understanding what really makes voters come to the decisions they do. Done well, they provide a level of explanation opinion polls only rarely manage to match.
Lord Ashcroft has done us all a similar service for understanding the 2015 general election with the focus groups he ran and published, which have now been conveniently collected in Pay me forty quid and I’ll tell you: The 2015 election through the eyes of the voters (who largely ignored it). A lengthy title for a slim 119 page volume, but one which is packed full of insight – especially for Liberal Democrats with the 7 then held Lib Dem seats that feature, 6 of which were subsequently lost.
There are clues aplenty in the book as to why the Tories ending up winning, as with the pithy comment from one focus group member that, “David Cameron’s pretty good but Ed Miliband is a muppet” or from another that “Ed Miliband feels like the interim Labour leader, until the next one”.
Of course, the importance of those views is easier to spot with hindsight and had the Tories lost there is a different set of quotes that would leap out as you read the book, this time about how the Tories seemed to be heartless and for the rich, how the economic recovery was not being felt, and how weakly the ‘Miliband in the pocket of the SNP’ message went down at first.
But even so there is much in here that helps explain the election result – and how voters really make up their minds. In the focus group held the day before the 2015 Budget, none of the participants knew the Budget was due the next day, yet they were able to make pretty coherent judgements about different parties and their leaders. That mix of ignorance and sense is at the heart of how politics really works – not the details that usually fill up political coverage.
So what does this all tell us about the Lib Dem defeats? Well, what comes out very clearly is just how good the reputation of Liberal Democrat MPs were in the seats researched. Defeat for 6 out of the 7 (Nick Clegg being the sole exception) was not a result of people failing to appreciate the virtues of their own Liberal Democrat MP.
Nor was it based on hatred of the Lib Dems nationally – “As if often the case, comments about Nick Clegg were not so much critical as sympathetic… ‘He’s trying his best… he was always on a hiding to nothing’” is now one focus group was reported. Even the more critical comments were more those of a disappointed friend, as with the view that Clegg was most like “the clean-cut but somewhat ineffectual Fred Jones from Scooby-Doo” and the a feeling that the Liberal Democrats “lost their soul” along with worries over whether the Lib Dems “are … going to roll over again like they did last time?”
The picture from the focus groups is one of people seeing the party not being clear about its beliefs or tough and consistent in acting on them.
Hence even when in Sheffield Hallam the focus group recognised many of the Lib Dem achievements, such as the pupil premium, free school meals and £10,000 income tax allowance, it wasn’t enough for many to win them over to voting Lib Dem again. And all the more so in the places where recognition of such achievements – and the Lib Dem responsibility for them – was lower.
Or in other words, the old Lib Dem formula which worked so well under Chris Rennard of popular, hardworking local candidate plus pick’n’mix selection of individually popular polices wasn’t enough. That’s because when it worked it relied on two other factors.
First, public certainty about who was going to become PM. The less certain that is on polling day, the worse the Lib Dems do in election results – hence the disappointments of 1992, 2010 and above all 2015 compared with the relative successes of 1997, 2001 and 2005.
Second, when this approach worked the party overall had a national image that was not a major hindrance, and indeed was often a benefit. The nice decent people who don’t usually win was an okay national backdrop against which to buck the trend locally.
In 2015 the problem was a hugely damaged reputation for competence, consistency and standing for anything much, which a selection of individual policies plus a nice local person could not match. Valence politics won out.
Whilst the first factor is mostly beyond the reach of the Liberal Democrats to influence, the second was more in the party’s power. The mistake was to concentrate on the popular local candidate plus smorgasbord of policies approach rather than concentrating on how to rebuild the party’s reputation. For example, polling of policies and constituency candidates was done at huge detail and, on the Lib Dem scale of things, high cost, but those reputational questions? They were left un-researched.
Nor did it help that grassroots campaigning in the immediate months after the general election – when initial views about coalition were being set by the public – was mostly very quiet as exhausted campaigners finally slept, washed and met their families again. Understandable, but lethal.
Especially when combined with the ‘dog that didn’t bark’ in the Ashcroft focus groups. Successful local Liberal Democrat campaigners used to be very skilful at persuading voters in their local patch that they were on their side, fighting against common enemies (the council, Whitehall, etc.).
It is possible to continue to be seen as on your side, fighting a common enemy, when in power – such as the periods when Labour has been both in power and anti-posh, rich people. What’s notable from the focus groups, however, is that sense of being on the side of voters against common opponents was lost by Liberal Democrat MPs. Instead they had become the slightly scolding teacher explaining to people why they were wrong in their view of coalition.