Liberal Democrat Newswire #79: data shows Lib Dems most unpredictable party

Liberal Democrat Newswire #79 came out last week, taking a look at the Liberal Democrat strategy for the May council elections, what happened to the grassroots Lib Dem campaign machine in 2015, data which shows the Lib Dems are the most unpredictable party, and more.

You can now read it in full below, but if you’d like the convenience of getting it direct by email in future just sign up for it here.


Welcome to issue 79 of what Tim Farron himself calls a “must read”. So let’s get on with the latest stories with only a brief pause to mention that if you’ve got elections in your area this May and are planning to vote Liberal Democrat, this Facebook event is just for you…

Best wishes,


In this edition:

The softness of the Liberal Democrat vote

The unpredictable Lib Dems

A new study of the 2015 general election, Austerity and Political Choice in Britain, shows how Liberal Democrat support is the least dependent on the geographic and socio-economic makeup of a constituency.

This is a double-edged sword, because it both illustrates how the Liberal Democrats can win in a very diverse set of constituencies (even the mere eight won in 2015 are rather varied), but it also shows how little rooting there is for the party’s support in a core vote of long-term loyal voters.

As the authors point out, this lack of a core vote to match that of the other parties means the Liberal Democrats are much more vulnerable to politically tough times – a point David Howarth and I wrote about further in our pamphlet on Lib Dem strategy.

Moreover, as Austerity and Political Choice highlights, the absence of a larger core vote is party of a long-term problem for the Liberal Democrats. The proportion of the electorate identifying as a Liberal Democrat bubbled along at around 10% for most of the 2005-10 Parliament (except briefly around the time of the TV debates in 2010), and during the 2010-15 Parliament only dropped a couple of points to around 8% at the end. The difference between 8% and 10% is fairly minor compared with the much bigger issue of it not being up in the twenties and thirties along with the Conservatives and Labour.

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Barbie dolls decorate a pothole, from the guerrilla art campaign Pothole: Positively Filling Negative
You see, pothole photos can be interesting.

Lib Dems think local for a winning election strategy

Both Tim Farron’s big speeches this year and the party’s TV broadcasts for the May council elections have had a common ‘think local’ theme, emphasising local campaigning in communities.

At one level, that is the obvious route to take: for local elections, talk about local issues (and remember to add the right different nuances for Wales and Scotland).

But the ‘think local’ strategy shouldn’t be just for this May, because one of the lessons of last May is a reminder of how badly the Liberal Democrats do when a general election is expected to be close. As I wrote shortly after the last general election, a major lesson from 1992 and 2015 is that if voters think the election is very close they focus far more on the choice of Prime Minister than on the choice of local MP. That polarises vote choice and is why Liberal Democrat MPs with great approval ratings still lost in 2015.

Likewise, it is not a coincidence that the best Lib Dem general election results have coincided with the greatest certainty about who would be PM the day after polling day.

Whether the election seems close is out of the hands of the Liberal Democrats. But the party can plan to maximise its chances at future general elections by learning from the past and minimising the risks from a close election.

It is what several seats managed in Scotland in 1992, securing Lib Dem gains by – in this case – emphasising how the choice of Prime Minister was down to marginal seats in away in England but the local contest could choose who would be the MP. That is not the only route to minimising the risk.

Another is to focus the attention of voters on why having a strong liberal voice as their MP will be good regardless of who is in government.

That isn’t just about who fixes potholes best. Although, it has to be said, I have quite a fondness for campaigning on potholes. Heck even after my spare time goes on the Lib Dems, my spare spare time goes on potholes. And for all the fun even Lib Dems like to make of those ‘pointing at a pothole’ photos, there are serious issues for people with back pain getting jarred as their vehicle goes over a pothole. Or for people in a wheelchair or pushing a pram having to navigate around them. Not to mention the wider context of how looking after the physical state of a community helps cut crime.

Such local super-activism is not enough on its own to distinguish a Liberal Democrat campaigner from someone of completely different ideological persuasion. That’s why the party’s approach needs to be about the merits of having a liberal local champion – which of course is where community politics originally came in.

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The Elections Centre website - screenshot

A new treasure trove of electoral data.

So you think you know political facts?

The Elections Centre website is a treasure trove of electoral data. One of the team behind it, Professor Michael Thrasher, writes exclusively for Liberal Democrat Newswire about it.

History shows that Liberal Democrats like a challenge. Well, I have several that should test readers’ knowledge of local electoral history in Britain, particularly in respect of the Liberal Democrats and its previous incarnations (Liberals and later the Lib/SDP Alliance).

Our website, www.electionscentre.co.uk, features a new application that allows users to view each council’s political composition. The data extend from the 1960s in the case of London boroughs, and early 1970s elsewhere, to 2015. Each council in existence over that period is included, apart from the City of London and Isles of Scilly. That gives a total of more than 600 local authorities, although of course a fair number of those are no longer in existence.

To find a particular council a user simply types in the council name (afraid it’s not clever enough to cope with places like West Derbyshire that altered its name to Derbyshire Dales in the late 1980s; such authorities are listed under the current name). If the text string is unique to an authority it will bring it up. For example, typing ‘ply’ immediately finds Plymouth. In other cases, especially when compass points are incorporated into the name, the user may need to be more specific.

The result produces a year by year count of council seats held by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats, as well as nationalists and a catch-all category of ‘Other’. Also listed is the party that had control or alternatively, ‘No Overall Control’. The data ignores casting votes when describing majority control.

This is not a dataset that we have used extensively and so it contains errors, some of which we have discovered for ourselves and will eventually correct; others we are hoping users will spot and report back to us. The file does not monitor councillor defections although it does get updated annually with by-election changes.

So, here are the challenges.

There are only three local authorities where Liberal Democrats have occupied more than 90% of council seats in any year. Name these authorities and identify the council where Liberal Democrats have dominated to this extent for the longest period.

There are a further five councils where Liberal Democrats held more than 80% of the available seats at any one time. Which are they?

I suspect that such questions are not much of a challenge to hard-core party activists, many of whom may well have campaigned in these places. A slightly more difficult task, therefore, is to consider the places where Liberal Democrats have failed to establish any electoral presence over the past forty years or so.

Our records show that there are 42 councils where a Liberal Democrat has never been elected. There is some double counting in this number since a council appears twice in the list if it is both part of an old structure and reappears within a new structure – Orkney Islands for example. In most cases the absence of Liberal Democrats is because these areas eschew candidates sporting party colours and all councillors are classed as ‘Independents’. Scotland and Wales dominate the list, therefore.

But there are three English councils amongst the number that may be regarded as perennially ‘Lib Dem free’ zones. Which are they?

And finally, there is a local authority where the party once held more than 70% of council seats but where it currently has none. Painful though this might be, can you name it?

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In case you missed it

Catch-up service: Lib Dems set to win Parliamentary by-election and more

In case you missed these stories from the last month first time round:

Cover of Liberal Democrat constitutions booklet
On paper, the Liberal Democrats are a very democratic party. But that only means much in practice if members know what is being done in their name by party officers and committees.

What have the policy and conference committees been up to?


  • Relocating the Lib Dem HQ and the party’s candidate selection rules feature in Anders Hanson’s update from the latest meeting of the English Council Executive (ECE).
  • Syria and the party’s civil liberties policies feature in Geoff Payne’s update from the latest meeting of the Federal Policy Committee (FPC).

Finally, if you find the jargon such as FPC, FCC and federal confusing, take a look at A Glossary of Liberal Democrat Terms.

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Lynton Crosby

Lynton Crosby’s campaigning talk is packed full of useful advice.

A must-watch talk on how to win campaigns

Lynton Crosby’s politics, and indeed his political tactics, are very much not to everyone’s taste. But his advice on how to run winning campaigns is widely applicable whether you like him, loathe him or have no idea who he is. Note particularly his point about how to use policies smartly in campaigning.

Watch the Video

Nick Clegg campaigning with Ed Davey, 2015
Why weren’t the Lib Dems able to hold on to more seats in 2015?

What happened to the fabled Lib Dem grassroots campaigning machine?

For the Journal of Liberal History‘s special issue on the Liberal Democrats and coalition (Issue 88, Autumn 2015, available here), I wrote a detailed piece about why the Liberal Democrats won only 8 seats in May 2015, which I’ve updated further since.

It is a sequel of sorts to my earlier history of Liberal Democrat campaigning, The Liberal Democrat approach to campaigning: the history and debunking some myths. Together with What went wrong with the Liberal Democrat polling and key seat intelligence? these pieces form a painful trio. Unfortunately, whichever order you read them in, the outcome is the same but there is also a treasure trove of lessons to be learnt.

Here’s how the 2015 post-mortem starts:

There were two elements in the disaster that was the 2015 general election result for the Liberal Democrats: just 8% of the vote and also just eight MPs. Many of the other articles in the special edition of the Journal of Liberal History explain the 8% vote share. However, the fact that even such a low vote as 8% turned into only eight MPs also needs explanation, both because it was well below prior expectations – inside and outside the party – and also because in the past the party had consistently won more seats than the percentage of the vote it secured.

Indeed, up until the 2005 general election, the Liberal Democrats had been starting to learn to live with the bias that first past the post (FPTP) imposes on smaller parties who do not have a very strong geographic concentration in one part of the country.

You can read the rest of the article about what went wrong with Lib Dem campaigning in full (and for free) here.

David Laws
The shortest-serving Lib Dem Cabinet minister has written the longest coalition memoirs so far.

David Laws’s Coalition memoirs published

The most weighty post-election book from a former Liberal Democrat MP, David Laws’s Coalition, has just been published. Fully of juicy insider stories about Conservative extremism, it has already caught many headlines. Headlines which of course prompt the question of whether the party should have been doing more to reveal such extremism prior to the general election.

Chris Mullin, the former Labour minister and acclaimed author himself, has said of Laws’s book, “This is an impressive work. A lucid, engaging mix of anecdote and forensic detail, it has a fair claim to become, at least for the foreseeable future, the definitive account of the UK’s first post-war experiment in coalition government.”

I’ve yet to read the book myself so I don’t know how far I will agree with that verdict, but it’s certainly quite an accolade. If it tempts you to read the book yourself you can order Coalition: The inside story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government by David Laws here.

In other Lib Dem book news, Nick Clegg’s own forthcoming book is now available for pre-ordering too. Also available are books by Norman Baker, Lynne Featherstone and Vince Cable.

Other Liberal Democrats in the news


A Swiss Army Pen Knife

Essential campaigning tools: round-up

Over the previous six months I’ve been featuring a series of essential digital tools to make political campaigning easier or better. Here’s a recap of what the series has covered:

  • Buffer – for scheduling your social media updates to maximum impact
  • Dropbox – for easily sharing files
  • Canva – for quick creation of social media graphics
  • CCleaner – to keep your Windows computer all ship-shape
  • TweetQureet – to keep on top of what is being said on Twitter
  • Backblaze – to keep your computer safely and effortlessly backed up

Doubtless many readers will have their own favourite essential tool which isn’t included in this list. Do let me know your own must have.

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Thanks for reading

I hope you’re found this edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire interesting, informative, useful – or all three!

Best wishes and thank you for reading,


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