What the Lib Dems can learn from the SNP

The SNP does best in the very sort of general elections where the Liberal Democrats do worst. So what can the Lib Dems learn from the SNP?

In recent years, Liberal Democrat election campaigns have built up rather a track record of drifting off message during the last few weeks before polling day – switching from a good message to a bad message (as in the European election campaign of 2014), slipping from a promising single message to a melange of different simultaneous messages (as in the London elections of 2016) or rotating through a range of messages in a frantic search for one that works (as in the 2015 general election campaign).

The motivation behind the 2015 message promiscuity was certainly understandable. Changing message when your current one is not working was well intentioned, even if the process had more of the rapid improvisation by a slightly random changing cast of people, and less of the careful strategic thought by the structures nominally in charge, than desirable.

If the changing messages had worked, then no-one would have minded. But they didn’t. A major reason for that is they doubled-down on the party’s strategic problem. It is that the closer a general election result is perceived as likely to be, the more voters concentrate on who they want to PM, they less they concentrate on who they want to be their MP, and so the worse the doughy Liberal Democrat MPs and target seat candidates do.

I thought the Liberal Democrats had slain the ghost of 1992. I was wrong.

Press stunts, leader's speeches, target mail, glossy leaflets, email messages, social media adverts and more were all applied to the great task of resurrecting the ghost of 1992. more

So it was in 1992. So it was also in 2015. Despite very high approval ratings in their constituencies for Liberal Democrat MPs, they went down to defeat as voters focused on who they wanted in Downing Street.

The party’s changing messages, increasingly focused on who would be in Downing Street too, if anything therefore worsened that problem.

The need to break the fatal touch of closeness is one of the reasons why the party should concentrate on building up a larger core vote, loyal to voting Liberal Democrat through close or landslide general elections.

Moreover, the Liberal Democrats can learn from the party outside the big two which does prosper when general elections look like they will be close. For them, general election which look to be close boost rather than squeezes support.

That party is the SNP, with its three best results since 1945 in February 1974, October 1974 and 2015 and its fifth best result in 1992. The British Election Study (BES) data for 2015, for example, shows that the more likely a Scottish voter thought a hung Parliament was, the more likely they were to vote for the SNP.

The reason? Clarity of purpose based on a clear sense of which people the party was fighting for, provided in its case by nationalism. Hence perceived closeness means those people view the SNP as more likely to secure political influence and hence be able to act on its purpose. That attracts and keeps support.

Building a core vote for the Lib Dems: the 20% strategy

For the Liberal Democrats without an equivalent liberal purpose or sense of who the party is fighting for nearly as firmly established in voters’ minds, closeness does not raise such hopes but rather drives voters away to the so-called ‘real’ choice between Labour and Tory.

Another reason, then, for building a larger core vote based on liberalism for the clearer the party’s purpose, the more attractive it can be when elections are close.

The SNP’s success in close general elections is explored in the opening chapter of Takeover by Rob Jones and James Mitchell. They also point out how important valence politics has been to the rise of the SNP – attracting support on the basis of perceived competence at governing, another important theme for planning a Lib Dem recovery. For the SNP that was possible before even having a governing record for people to look at thanks to the party’s careful choice of policies and positioning and – most importantly – personifying its competence message in its projection of then party leader Alex Salmond.

Buy Takeover: Explaining the extraordinary rise of the SNP by Rob Johns and James Mitchell here.

Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.

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