Random accumulation of hard work isn’t enough: the Lib Dems need to pivot

Following the publication of the party’s proposed new strategy, I’ve updated one of my previous posts about a key element behind it: the need to find a durable basis of long-term success.

For the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors the party’s strategy for success at general elections was based on the accumulation of random chance through hard work. That is, a particular Parliamentary seat would become winnable through the combination of the right mix of personalities coming together at the local level, opposition errors, issue opportunities and helpful demography or tactical situation. Causal factors one and all, but with the accumulative appearance of random chance when you looked at which seats ended up being runners and which not.

It made for a diverse set of winnable, and won, seats without nearly as much in common between them – and those who voted Liberal Democrat – as is the case with other parties.

Why the Liberal Democrats need a core votes strategy

The basis of sustained significant success, whether in politics, sport, commerce or civil society, is a core of loyal, regular support. more

Hence the problem of the Liberal Democrats never having built up a large core vote, with all the downsides in terms of vulnerability to bad times and the certainty of losing a large chunk of support in a hung Parliament regardless of what you do. Without a larger core vote, the party is simply too vulnerable to tough times and facing too uphill a struggle to progress in good times.

For more on all of that see my Lib Dem strategy pamphlet written with David Howarth, in which we also set out the alternative: targeting instead a group of voters who share our liberal values in order to build up a core vote. In other words, picking what we want our party support to look like in the future and then going after the voters who will deliver that, rather than seeing the random accumulation of locally-driven success in diverse areas and then trying to stitch that together into something.

We tried that and it fell apart under stress. As it would have had there been, say, a Lib Dem-Labour deal in 2010. Different voters would have deserted the party, but they would still have been counted in droves.

The cleavage over Brexit provides the opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to set out on this different approach. Or more accurately, the difference in values and hopes for the future which differences over Brexit illustration provide that opportunity. For simply talking about a referendum on the Brexit deal, increasingly popular though that idea is, means talking about process and means rather than about vision and hope.

This opportunity also comes as a time when such a pivot in the party’s strategy is much easier to do.

For the sad fallout from the 2015 and 2017 general elections are that there are far fewer Lib Dem MPs than there use to be. Pivoting to a core vote strategy when you have lots of MPs elected in a very diverse set of seats is much harder because of the understandable reluctance to do anything which doesn’t appeal across all your held seats. We saw that problem in the past when an understandable hesitancy to say anything that might not go down well in all the different Lib Dem held seats often held the party back from saying anything too distinctive and strong in the first place.

This hangover from the past still rests heavily on the party. In the run up the last general election, possible candidates I talked to kept on referring back to old election results. Regions kept on thinking about supporting future target seats based on the past. The party’s selection rules kept on mostly looking backwards to work out what are the winnable seats. And the list went on.

As a trained historian, I am of course keen on learning from the past. But to rebuild as a better and stronger party, we mustn’t just look to replicate the past. We need to build something different, more durable and therefore more successful.

Which is why looking at the make-up of seats based on that core vote potential – along with how they voted in the referendum – is much more important than Lib Dem vote shares ten or more years ago.

We have – hopefully – only a brief window in which to carry out that pivot in party strategy before there are too many internal vested interests in place once again which would stop it.

That’s why premature Stakhanovite optimism is problematic. That’s why the regular switching around of party messaging is risky. What we need instead is to take a strategy and run with it, reversing our usual approach to policy.


UPDATE: A comment on Facebook referenced this apposite Friends clip.

18 responses to “Random accumulation of hard work isn’t enough: the Lib Dems need to pivot”

  1. I agree with your core voters strategy but in my view the only hope for the Liberal Democrats to be successful is proportional representation.The present electoral system will never allow us to get importance and power unless in a coalition. Unluckily not only does the last one (2010-2015) still burn but it didn’t deliver what we really need:PR. What a missed opportunity!!

  2. Thoughtful post Mark, and I suspect that you are right, the party needs strategic thinking, instead of reactive opportunism. ( Didn’t you hear that Stakanov was a fraud :-)?

  3. Worked well as a Strategy on June 8th -record 375 lost deposits and 7.4% of national vote.
    Five of our 12 MP’s were elected (according to the Core Vote Strategy) by ‘the wrong voters in the wrong places’ but we can probably pivot away from them given a bit more time.

    Meanwhile what does the ‘Strategy’ offer to all those members and voters who do not live in concentrations of ‘urban, educated, middle class, Remain voters’? Perhaps, “We are not interested in you because we have given up on being a National Party and are content to be a niche interest pressure group.”

    • As they say in marketing, if you try to sell to everybody you end up selling to nobody. We need to appeal to the part of the country (between 25% and 40%) that is in full agreement with our principles but isn’t getting our message. Sure, we can have council policies tailored to local areas but our national message needs to be clear and consistent.

  4. I agree about a strategy and I agree about building a core vote. However, I see pitfalls. One is to let a core vote strategy based on what people believe slip into one based on what we expect certain socio-economic groups to believe. While some calculation on this basis has been part of Liberal (Democrat) local strategy for ages, applied nationally it’s likely to exacerbate imbalances in the party membership and lead to us becoming a party that has very little to say to, for example, retired people on low incomes or Black social housing tenants. There is also a metropolitan assumption that people in remote quite rural areas like, say, Sutherland or St Ives won’t have liberal views. This isn’t always so if you define liberal views cleverly.

    It is also dangerous to base our long-term strategy overwhelmingly on how people voted in the referendum. Yes, it’s important, but in ten years other issues may have come to the fore. Even in the recent general election, the NHS and social care seemed to become a more and more important issue for people as the campaign proceeded.

    The other

  5. Totally agree. We need a mission statement that we can sell on the doorsteps.
    We need three or four Unique Selling Points.
    I was disappointed that during the campaign we hardly mentioned green issues – yet it is in our DNA. Or was…
    I have been working on a Tidal Power scheme that could make us self sufficient, as a nation, in producing all our electricity generation from renewable sources. Tidal Power is the future – let’s become it’s champion.
    I have also been in discussions with the OECD, The Nuffield Trust and the ONS regarding working up a strategy that would pay for ALL Social Care costs. The figures I have got back make this very feasible. This would be a worthwhile, affordable and popular policy initiative. Millions of people are worried about this issue but no one is really taking it seriously. Definitely one for us.
    Of course our stance on Brexit should stay the same (second referendum) and this should start paying dividends in the near future.
    Why did we ditch Local Income Tax? This was a very worthwhile and popular initiative that just disappeared.
    And legalising soft drugs. We need to make the case strongly for this. We adopted it too near the election without explaining our thinking. The result was that people just saw the headline proposal and thought we were barmy.
    So my USP’s would be,
    Fully funded Social Care
    Tidal Power
    Local Income Tax
    Legalise soft drugs

    I believe that this would give the party a clear message to sell that would be different from the other parties.

    If you wish me to explain in greater detail my work on Tidal Power or Social Care then please contact me.

  6. I agree, when our core values are explained people like them. However our last two general elections our leaders and spokesmen and women appealed to voters by saying that the other two parties were wrong on the economy and wrong on brexit. Hence vote for us we were just in the middle. The fact is we should push our values and policies all the time.

  7. Very good points, but they do hinge on Brexit/foreign policy. I believe that is a good thing, but then I have always been a bit of a foreign policy nut. To quote Eddie Izzard, the world needs a strong European Union. However, the issue of Brexit and ‘Exit from Brexit’ is likely to be resolved – for better or worse – within the next 13 months. What should our POSITIVE internationalist message be after that? ‘The world needs a European super-state, a United States of Europe’? That is what I believe but how much of a core vote would that bring us? And would it be too much of a distraction from the closer-to-home issues that most other people care about, like the NHS?

  8. I totally concur, but the window of opportunity is very narrow, and the shift great. However certainly not impossible.

  9. Totally agree Mark. Just a few thoughts…

    We need to be much more Radical and Liberal. Core Vote Strategy essential.

    Tie in to our Stategy a link with European progress in service provision.
    European Healthcare funding and outcomes, Transport infrastructure advances are all well ahead of UK so show that our support for Europe is about improving living standards and life quality. Voters can then plainly see why we support Europe not just for commerce but for quality of life.

    Support an NHS fit for 21st Century by mirroring funding in France and adopting French Sytems in Healthcare which gives Patients much more insight and control of their healthcare. Lots of measures which improve access to medical records and test results would be almost cost neutral. Most Patients in Europe have their own Medical notes, X Ray reports and blood test results are sent directly to Patients with a copy to their Doctor. Give Patients real choice about where and when they can be treated.

    Promise to end Ambulances waiting outside A & E making 999 calls a real emergency again.

    Copy European Apprenticeship schemes to make them much more in depth.

    Be much more open as Tim Farron suggested in supporting Public Sector Workers like Teachers, Nurses, Doctors, Care workers in Care Homes and The Comunity too.

    Be Different, yes be controversial and not be equidistant.
    Both Tories and Labour want to be radical in their own ways. We should be Radical in Liberal ways by handing control back to People. Isn’t that what Liberalism us about?

  10. @Andrew Palmer. I certainly do not want to ‘just stay as we are’ .

    We are where we are precisely because a new Leadership tried to ‘Pivot’ the Party away from the policies that had given us a fairly steady 20% average vote at General Elections for the last 20-30 years plus the best levels of electoral representation for nearly a century. They believed that swathes of ‘Liberal Conservatives’ would switch to us after 2010 once we had shown we were ‘safe’ on economic issues such as tax cuts and spending cuts. This they argued would replace the ‘wrong type of voters’ we had up to 2010. In reality we were wiped out in successive elections from 2011-2015.

    Now we are being told to ‘Pivot’ again. Initially the emphasis was on ‘proper voters’ mainly professional, educated, urban voters but after the 2016 Referendum with the added bonus of all those Remain voters to pull on. The latter pool have not in fact switched to us -we actually did even worse in the 2017 GE than in the 2015 one. The Vauxhall experiment in particular showed the folly of this approach.

    The former group are available in sufficient concentrations to win FPTP elections in a very limited number of Constituencies and in some such places -Sheffield Hallam and Cambridge for example -did not seem too responsive in June 2017 to the narrow message we were proclaiming. In others such as Exeter we have never made any inroads at all, yet we have quite recently won every other seat in Devon and Cornwall despite them being the ‘wrong type of voter in the wrong places’. Now we are being told to abandon such traditional areas of strength in order to ‘Pivot’ to new ground.

    Such niche positioning can work in PR systems. It cannot work in our FPTP system.

  11. Mark your counterfactual is that things would have been different with a core votes strategy. I am not convinced by that in the circumstances of 2010 where there would almost certainly have been a coalition squeeze regardless. However I offer some thoughts on this –

    1. Arguably the mistake was in political positioning. I don’t think you can go from being a Party of the centre left over 60 years to one of the centre right without dropping core voters.

    2. In the Scottish coalition of 1999-2007 we went through 3 Government coalitions with Labour without significant damage.

    3. Individual policies however worthy do not make a core votes strategy but the tuition fees debacle nevertheless severely damaged both our core votes and our credibility.

    5. The SNP have never been on Coalition but their success in becoming the dominant Party in Scotland is worth studying, albeit there are major issues of identity politics there too. We forget that in 2003 when the SNP were languishing there was a serious prospect that we could overtake them to become the second Party to Labour in Scotland. 15 years on Labour is the 3rd Party, the Tories are 2nd and we are 5th.

    7. The argument over core votes or target seats is important but is only part of the picture. Any strategy is developed, damaged or destroyed by political choices or indeed by circumstances.

    • There’s much in what you say I agree with Robert. I wanted to highlight one detail, which is very important: our support in 2010 collapse immediately on the formation of the coalition and before issues such as tuition fees were decided on. Tuition fees, NHS bill, welfare reform and all the issues often quoted back at us came *after* our collapse in support. They certainly hindered our recovery, but they weren’t the cause of the collapse – for that we have to look elsewhere. That’s what takes us to the problem of just how diverse the party’s support was – so that whatever we did losing large chunks of our supporters was inevitable.

  12. What of Robert’s point that 3 successive terms in Coalition in the Scottish Parliament did not destroy us in the same way – or indeed the term in Coalition in the Welsh Assembly?

    In those cases we did not ‘pivot’ away overnight from our longstanding policies and so did not destroy our longstanding suppport and hard won credibility.

    • I think what’s different about Scotland and Wales from Westminster is two-fold. One (apoint on which I suspect we agree!): the level of astuteness in how we handle ‘hung Parliament’ situations. The second, though, is that in both Scotland and Wales there are centre-left nationalist parties – so being positioned as an anti-Tory party doesn’t lock us into permanent alliance with Labour. That’s important as positioning ourselves as the permanent ally of Labour is problematic for all sorts of reasons – the illiberal nature of Labour in many places, the question of what the point is of a party always taking this position and also the weakness of our negotiating position in hung Parliament situations. For example, saying ‘we’d never ever do a deal with the Tories’ is rather different in its implications in Westminster than in Edinburgh.

  13. I certainly agree that the recent Westminster Coalition was appallingly badly handled in many ways.

    I’m not sure where your point about positioning ourselves as a permanent ally of Labour comes from though? Paddy’s ‘project’ was to do that in the late 1990’s but the Party said no. More recently Nick’s expressed disdain for Labour saw him trying to ‘pivot’ our policies to a permanent Liberal Conservative stance. Both surely are wrong.

    If we are not a distinctive separate Party what have I wasted the last 34 years of my life on? Events of recent years have certainly led me to ask myself that question more than once -but not because we have become a Labour Party support act, a Party I have spent 34 years fighting against (with some success).

  14. Yes and no. We certainly need to build a core votes strategy and think hard about what characterises our potential core vote. Oddly enough (or maybe not oddly) this kind of thought was often employed in the days when we tended to be moving into new local government wards: we’d look at the characteristics of the area and its people, for example a high proportion of owner-occupied terraced housing, a low turnover, an ethnic mix rather than a heavy preponderance of one group.

    However, aspects of the proposed refocussing worry me. Brexit is the number one issue now, but will it be by the next general election but one? Do the great majority of Remain voters share Liberal values? Many Remain constituencies outside London are either very heavily Tory and most unlikely to abandon the party of the Haves, or very Tory – Labour marginal and difficult for us to build up a head of steam in.

    I too am a trained historian (at least, I assume a degree in the thing amounts to that) and it seems to me a properly historical approach to the traditional areas of Liberal strength is to study what made them so and then whether these factors still apply. Some don’t: the robust regionalism of the places a long way from London counts for less in the internet age and many of their inhabitants have come from the South-east or the Birmingham or Manchester conurbations. Nonconformity has declined and with it the “If you’re Cornish and Methodist, you must be a Liberal” kind of vote. But often there remains an instinctive egalitarianism, an opposition to concentrations of power and wealth (which can explain a Brexit vote not based on loathing of foreigners), a “live and let live” attitude, a dislike of Toryism coupled with a correct view that Labour is not really for places or people like them and a fondness for community and mutual self-help, all of which seem to me quintessentially Liberal and part of a good basis for a core vote.

    If we build the core vote on values and underlying attitudes, I believe it’s perfectly possible to win and hold seats like Cambridge, Sutton & Cheam or Edinburgh West and seats like Ceredigion, St Ives or Taunton.

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