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A warm welcome to all of the 9,355 subscribers to Liberal Democrat Newswire #93, a general election special looking at the likely Liberal Democrat fortunes.
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Immediately after the 2015 general election, many painted a very bleak outlook for the Liberal Democrats, the huge surge in membership notwithstanding. Only 8 MPs, many with very small majorities over the Conservatives, looked a precarious base which could even be wiped out at the next election.
Since then yet more members, numerous council by-election gains, a decent round of elections last May, victory in Richmond Park and the political gap which has opened up to be the pro-Brexit, pro-Union party all make even usually hostile political commentators talk about how many seats the party might gain in the snap general election.
So how optimistic or pessimistic should Liberal Democrats be? I’ll try to answer that following my own medicine because, as I wrote when reviewing the excellent book Superforcasting, there is clear evidence from the research into forecasting as to what makes for a good forecaster:
The best forecaster has to behave almost like the opposite of what makes for a media-friendly pundit.
They should always be questioning their own assumptions and approaches. They should always remain modest about their certainty. They should always listen to the views of others. They should be more interested in learning how to be better at forecasting than in declaiming their own claimed brilliance compared to others. They should admit when they are wrong and learn from it. They should value revision and improvement over consistency. They should think in terms of doubt and probabilities rather than certainties and absolutes. They should break issues down into component parts rather than apply one grand theory to everything. The should understand that being right with one forecast may well be followed by being wrong with their next.
With that in mind lets look and the upside and downside for the party across a range of key factors.
National polls: some good news for Lib Dems, but…
Let’s got the boring ‘but the polls are useless’ out of the way first. There have been 18 general elections since polling started in the UK. The polls have got the broad picture right in 15 out of the 18, and were well off in three (1970, 1992 and 2015).
Unless you’re foolish enough to think the last data point is the only one that matters, that’s a pretty good track record. Especially as the errors in the polls are consistent: when the polls are roughly right, they usually over-estimate Labour a bit and when they are way off, they over-estimate Labour by a lot.
For the Lib Dems, the polls are sometimes high, sometimes low but always in roughly the right territory. It is only if the Liberal Democrats are polling close to another party that the pattern of errors seen in the past means caution is really needed about whether they are actually ahead or behind that party.
So what can we make of the early general election polls?
The Liberal Democrats are back into third place, ahead of Ukip (ahead in seven of the eight polls carried out since Theresa May’s announcement and tied in the eighth). At 11% on average in those polls, the party is around three points ahead of where it was this far out from polling day in 2015 and only one point down on where it was this far out from polling day in 1997.
Why mention 1997? Because that election saw the Liberal Democrats win 46 seats, a sign that 11% is not that bad a starting platform. What’s more, leaked Conservative polling showed the government very worried about its weakness against the Liberal Democrats in many Conservative-Lib Dem battles.
But, 11% is still only 11%… and although that may be three points up on the 2015 result, the Conservatives are up around eight points. The baseline is a big swing to the Conservatives from the Lib Dems since 2015 in national popularity. That’s tough news for Liberal Democrat hopes of gaining seats from the Conservatives and it’s also a reason to include in the range of possible election outcomes ones where the Lib Dems lose seats to the Conservatives.
The Lib Dem versus Labour position of course looks much better (Labour are down five points on their 2015 showing at the moment), but there are many fewer Labour-held seats with the Lib Dems in second and in shouting distance.
The verdict from the national polls then? It could go either way. Watch out in particular for what was the normal political pattern during the Chris Rennard period: the party went up noticeably in the polls during general elections, but that rise only kicked in relatively late in the campaign. In other words, it’s not only too early to tell, it will be too early to tell for quite a while.
What, then, about the seats where the Lib Dems may hope to win, possibly bucking this national picture regardless of how it turns out?
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing
To borrow that Duke Ellington song, poll ratings don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got the swing you need in target seats. The 48% Remain vote is certainly a big pool of voters for the party to fish in nationally, but as the above two tables from the ever-excellent Anthony Wells show, there are only six seats (four Conservative, two Labour) which voted Remain in the referendum and where the Liberal Democrats finished less than 10% behind in 2015. Or, to draw the net slightly differently, as Roberto Robles pointed out,, there are only 17 seats where the Liberal Democrats came second in 2015 which both voted Remain and have a less than a 10,000 majority for the party to overcome.
There are, however, good reasons not to be too locked into a mantra of ‘look at those big majorities; no way the Lib Dems will win those seats’. One reason is simply Scotland in 2015. All the comments about how Labour wasn’t really going to lose that many seats as they had such huge majorities turned out wrong.
Another is that even when there is a small national vote movement, the Liberal Democrats have massively bucked the trend in individual seats. Back in 2005, for example, although the Lib Dem vote only went up 4% nationally, I ran a campaign which overturned a 10,000 plus Labour majority. The prior write-up of that majority as “probably impregnable” by Dod’s is firmly lodged in my list of favourite political quotes.
What’s more, there are signs that the Liberal Democrats can overturn huge majorities in seats once again: not only victory in Richmond Park but also the very strong showing for the party in early Manchester Gorton canvassing. Despite the Liberal Democrats starting the aborted Gorton by-election nominally on the 4% secured in 2015, the evidence was very strong that the party had already leapt upwards to a strong and challenging second place by the time the by-election was cancelled.
Moreover, many of the seats which voted Leave that are on the lists above are ones where the Liberal Democrats held the seat until 2015 and where the defeated Liberal Democrat MP is standing again. This is the big factor to watch out for: are the Lib Dems toast in such seats, or are the Lib Dems able to win in them, giving the party an ability to get up to well above those low numbers which the ‘small majority plus voted Remain’ calculations give?
Again, there’s a promising straw in the wind on this: the Liberal Democrat in council by-elections has been going up more in areas which voted Leave than in areas which voted Remain. It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why, in part explained by the way the Remain cause has helped the party recruit high-quality candidates and volunteer organisers. Even though the campaigns in those winning council by-elections in Leave areas have sometimes avoided Europe completely, the quality of the candidates and campaigns are still heavily down to the Remain effect.
The verdict then on this factor? Seat results combined with referendum voting set out a tough playing field for the Liberal Democrats, but it is one the party can prosper heavily on if seats such as Eastbourne (voted Leave, popular Lib Dem MP re-standing) or Oxford West and Abingdon and Vauxhall (big Conservative / Labour majority but huge Remain vote) can be put into play.
Watch out to see where Tim Farron visits during the general election proper, and in particular where party members are urged to go and help, to judge how this is turning out.
#LibDemFightback or #LibDemHype at the grassroots?
What victories such as the 2005 one mentioned above required, of course, is a very well organised and efficient grassroots campaign. Will the Liberal Democrats manage that in the snap general election?
There’s no doubt that the Lib Dems have been caught on the hop by Theresa May’s calling of the general election. There may be elegant and energetic hopping going on, but it’s still hopping.
The contrast between what normally happens in a Lib Dem key seat when the Prime Minister announces an election and what happened in the last week is striking in nearly every place. A traditional full-on local campaign would have 100 plus stakeboards up by now, two constituency-wide deliveries completed, tactical vote squeeze messages already hitting areas of known third-party support and an intensive digital campaign launched. This time, surprise means much, much less, even candidate selections still going on.
There’s a partial exception to that in areas which already had full-on council campaigns up and running, but only a partial exception, because in most places those are based on maximising the number of wards won and so not configured to maximise the vote share across a constituency. Areas which are irrelevant for the former but crucial for the latter are not yet getting the attention they would in a normal general election.
But it’s not all pessimism by any means. Volunteers and money are flooding into the party. Membership is about to hit 100,000 – a level that was last seen in the mid-1990s. Early fundraising has been running at double the level for Labour and both Labour and the Conservatives have been caught on the hop too. What’s more, the very expensive and intensive Conservative campaigning seen in the months running up to the last general election in many Lib Dem held seats has not been taking place in the last few months.
A big risk for the party, however, is self-immolation drive by enthusiasm and blindness. The risk of over-enthusiasm was seen in the 2010 election after Cleggmania broke: suddenly lots of people were convinced they would win in their own patch, the party’s ability to focus efforts on key seats dissipating and central spending being diverted too. The result? Lib Dem vote up but seat numbers down and a frustrating list of near misses.
As for blindness, in both 2010 and 2015 the party’s tools (polling and canvass analysis in particular) for judging how constituency campaigns were going frequently misled. The full story of why that happened is complicated but it is one that could be repeated.
The verdict on this front? Keep a close eye on the Lib Dem fundraising numbers and whether the party suffers from an outbreak of candidates all thinking they are about to win and so don’t lead their teams to help anyone else.
On the subject of targeting, I’ve done a little video explaining what it’s all about.
How much will others help the Liberal Democrats?
Two big sources of outside help may yet help boost those grassroots campaigns. First, there is the pool of discontented donors floating around both the other main parties. The business minded pro-Europeans who have donated to the Conservatives and the supporters of a moderate Labour party who despair at Jeremy Corbyn. Between them, they have given millions to their usual parties in the past and before this election was called, there was much quiet chatter going on about who they might support in future. If only a fraction of them are attracted to the Liberal Democrats, it would massively dent the usual huge spending advantage that both Labour and Conservatives have over the Lib Dems.
Then there’s also the possibility of outside grassroots assistance with a mix of organisations pressing for tactical voting based on a variation of anti-Brexit platforms. Whether it is More United with its already very successful fundraising, the new anti-Brexit tactical voting drive being organised by Gina Miller of the Article 50 court case, old stalwarts of progressive tactical voting such as Compass or anyone else, these moves will in some places doubtless frustrate Liberal Democrats who see support go to another party on their patch. But if they really amount to anything much, they will also help the Liberal Democrats in many places and won’t be directed against the defeat of any Lib Dem MPs.
What will the media do?
Then there’s the national backdrop formed by the media. Liberal Democrats love to hate many of the country’s newspapers (even when, sssh, Daily Mail readers form a large part of the Lib Dem voting base). The research evidence into the impact of newspaper partisanship on election results has spawned careers spanning decades for multiple academics, all to very little firm conclusion. But for the Lib Dems in a general election, such media is very likely to be important: will the media give the Lib Dems enough attention in its coverage for the party to have a chance of converting many voters?
Early signs are promising for the Liberal Democrats in this regard. One is simply that newspapers like having or making news to report. There is a clue in the name… and so ‘one party long way ahead, nothing to see here’ is coverage they will do their best to avoid. The putative rise of the Liberal Democrats will, as early coverage has already shown, given them a story which fulfils their basic needs. And all the more so when it can be combined with bashing Labour. Stories about the Lib Dems on the up can certainly be deployed to do just that.
Hence moves so far as the fair write-up of the party’s possible seat gains in the printed edition of the Daily Mail during the week and even the inclusion of Tim Farron alongside May and Corbyn in the Mail‘s polling where in the past he’d been left out. Promising too that The Observer gave full front page treatment to Tim Farron’s comments on coalition.
Of course, media attention can wane and attention can turn into negative coverage (witness the fate of the pre-2015 Green surge), but this all suggests plenty of upside potential for the Liberal Democrats – especially if TV debates go ahead. Even if they happen without Theresa May they will give Tim Farron the opportunity to break out of the women’s hockey trap he has been in pre-election.
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* As with my coverage of council by-elections week-by-week on my blog and social media, this covers all principal authority council by-elections, i.e. excluding town, parish and community councils. This is the usual approach for analysis of council by-elections as the latter are often a mix of uncontested and contested without party labels, and there’s a danger in cherry picking only some of those results to report.
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The polls are mixed and might not move until late in the campaign for the Liberal Democrats.
The ability of popular former MPs to win in Leave voting areas will be crucial.
Lib Dem grassroots enthusiasm is massive but may be undone by unfocused enthusiasm or a breakdown once again in the party’s ability to accurately track what is going on in target seats.
Former donors to other parties, fans of political realignment and deals and the media may all give the party major boost, but none is preordained.
In normal times those factors will balance out and give the Liberal Democrats a modest recovery, I would say.
But just sometimes a political wave hits which is so massive that all those sorts of considerations get washed away. (Hello, Scotland.) The cautious move, of course, is always to bet against the wave. But many of the elements are in place, including a major rival party in a tailspin, a mid-general election campaign set of local election results which will likely boost the party, an overall media story which plays to reshaping British politics around a new spectrum and an internet-fuelled burst of members and money.
Unlikely, but not impossible.
As is another outlier. Popular political leader wins landslide election whilst talks of law breaking to secure electoral success bubbles away in the media. Then an investigatory and media firestorm hits, destroying them, massively damaging their party and changing citizens’ views of democracy permanently.