10 criteria for judging the Lib Dem general election result: LDN #99

Liberal Democrat Newswire #99 came out earlier in the week, setting out 10 criteria for judging the Liberal Democrat general election result.

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 all 9,790 subscribers to Liberal Democrat Newswire #99, the final one of the 2017 general election campaign and once again overshadowed by the tragedy of a terrorist attack.This one took place just run the corner from where I work and rightly saw political parties pause their national campaigns in respect. I did, however, set out for some low key local campaigning in a key seat earlier today, as that felt the right way to react to those who despise democracy and freedom.

This one took place just run the corner from where I work and rightly saw political parties pause their national campaigns in respect. I did, however, set out for some low key local campaigning in a key seat earlier today, as that felt the right way to react to those who despise democracy and freedom.

Hence also going ahead with this edition today, which takes a look at how to judge the Lib Dem performance on Thursday. Consider it the sibling of my early campaign piece on Lib Dem prospects in the election.

There’s still time to show your predictive brilliance in my election prediction competition – enter it here [now closed] and if you’re looking for a little something to relax after polling day, there’s always the biography of Theresa May by Rosa Prince which featured in LDN #98. But first, don’t forget to help make those Lib Dem results as positive as possible.

Best wishes,


In this edition:

What the Lib Dems believe – see my new graphic >>>

Tim Farron with child on 2017 general election trail - photo courtesy of the Liberal Democrats CC BY-ND 2.0

How to judge the Liberal Democrat election result

When the votes are in and the seats declared at the end of next week it’s a fairly safe bet that even if we have the opinion polling mother of all errors, Tim Farron won’t be headed to 10 Downing Street as our next Prime Minister.

Downing Street or bust isn’t the way to judge the success or not of the Liberal Democrat election campaign. Here, instead, are some better criteria to use.

Tim Farron at the 2017 general election manifesto launch - photo courtesy of the Lib Dems CC BY-ND 2.0

Vote share

Up is better than down, obviously. More specifically:


  • Test #1: does the Liberal Democrat vote share go up on 2015’s 7.9%?
  • Test #2: is the party’s absolute number of votes up on 2015’s 2,415,862? This matters in particular as it is vote totals which help determine public funding levels – the annual ‘Short funding’ for opposition parties was calculated from 1 April 2016 on the basis of £16,938 for every seat won at the last election plus £33.83 for every 200 votes gained by the party. (The figures are uprated yearly in line with CPI.)
  • Test #3: are the Liberal Democrats back into third place in share of the vote across the UK? That matters for helping re-establish the party as the third (fourth in Scotland and Wales) party. Aside from the psychological and general political benefits that would bring, there are practical benefits too such as when it comes to the BBC deciding who to invite on Any Questions?

Tim Farron with Tessa Munt on the 2017 general election campaign trail - photo courtesy of the Lib Dems CC BY-ND 2.0

Seat numbers

Once again, up is better than down, obviously. More specifically:


  • Test #4: does the party win at least 8 seats? The stark reality is that both Conservatives and Labour are up in the polls on 2015 and the Liberal Democrats aren’t.
  • Test #5: how many seats does the party win in Scotland? Previously a heartland for the party, Liberal Democrats were wiped out on the mainland of Scotland in 2015. The party’s now back fighting a handful of target seats along with trying to hold Orkney & Shetland. For Labour, its days of Scotland being a heartland look well and truly over. For the Lib Dems, there could be a path opened back up to Scotland being a (more modest) heartland for the party.
  • Test #6: does the party end up with more than 14 seats? 14 was the high point of the Liberal Party in the long years from 1945-1979 (inclusive), from the Second World War through to the formation of the Alliance. Being back above 14 would, at least, be doing better than the Liberal Party ever did on its own post-war.

Tim Farron on the 2017 general election campaign trail looking down a microscope - photo courtesy of the Lib Dems CC BY-ND 2.0

What does the party’s future look like?

Four other considerations are particularly relevant to judging the future prospects of the Liberal Democrats:


  • Test #7: what does the votes:seats ratio look like? This ratio shows how good, or not, the party is at bucking the national trend by effective target seat campaigning. Back in 1987, for example, 23% of the vote turned into only 22 votes – a ratio of 0.9 (22/23). By 2005 increasingly more effective target seat campaigning meant that a lower vote share, 22%, secured a much higher tally of 62 seats, a ratio of 2.9. That ratio then fell to 2.5 in 2010 and 1.0 in 2015, the worst since 1987. If the ratio is back on the rise, that signals an improvement in the party’s ability to buck the national trend in seat numbers.
  • Test #8: are there signs of a new core vote for the party forming? In particular, even if vote numbers do not change much from 2015, that could still mean a shift to a more coherent, robust make-up of support, based more clearly on the sort of small l liberals which former MP Professor David Howarth and I talked about in our pamphlet. There were signs of this in the local elections this May. Are there more signs?
  • Test #9: how do Tim Farron’s ratings fare by the end of the campaign? The solid research evidence about links between having a popular leader and the level of voting support for the Liberal Democrats is (surprisingly) weak. The two don’t go directly together, a point which featured in perhaps the most unpopular internal polling memo I wrote when working at Lib Dem HQ earlier this century. But indirectly, a popular leader is certainly useful – for raising money, motivating activists, getting media opportunities and even attracting defectors from other parties, for example. It’s perhaps unfair to compare the ratings for the leader of any party with predecessors too far back as overall party leader rating figures seem to be much lower these days. But comparisons with the more recent past and with rival parties are relevant.
  • Test #10: does the new Parliamentary Party look more or less like the electorate than the current one? It’s very unlikely the party will leap from having an all white, all abled bodied, nearly all male Parliamentary Party to one that reflects the electorate in all its diversity in one bound. But there are plausible routes to significant improvement. Does that happen?

Vince Cable recently caught up with actor Samantha Bond. Watch the video on Facebook here >>>
Confused robot - CC0 Public Domain

Far from being all over the place, the polls are telling a very consistent story

It is not often that someone comes up to me in the street and accosts my about a blog post I’ve just written. But that’s what happened with my post on Friday about the opinion polls. Strictly speaking, the portion of street in question was just outside the HQ in a Liberal Democrat target seat and the person was a fellow activist. But it is technically true too that it was a member of the public accosting me on the street. It was one of several kind comments about the piece which seems to have hit the mark, so here it is for non-blog readers.

Black humour about next Thursday being polling day and next Friday being the announcement of the next polling industry inquiry highlight the nervousness amongst pollsters about who will have been seen to get it right and wrong when the votes are counted.*

No wonder, given the huge range in Conservative leads in recent polling, from, at the time of typing, just 3% in the data behind the latest YouGov seat projection up to 12% in the latest ICM and ComRes polls. The former would be a worse result for the Conservatives than in 2015, the latter would be up there with the crushing Conservative 1987 victory (one which also had a ‘polls closing’ wobble mid-campaign) and only a fraction down on Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide.

Yet scratch under the surface and all the polls are telling the same story.  First, the Conservatives and Theresa May have been going backwards during the campaign. Second, how far backwards all depends on the turnout of young people (and perhaps young women in particular).

Different calculations as to likely turnout amongst younger voters explain the bulk of the difference between pollsters, and they all come up with the same story. If it’s at usual levels, the Conservatives are headed for a big victory. If it’s at record high levels, the Conservatives are heading for a narrow victory, one that may even involve losing their overall majority.

What makes the pollsters’ headline figures different is that some are based on the former turnout scenario and some on the latter. (More specifically, pollsters who rely on self-reported likely turnout levels are showing – even after making adjustments for people inflating their likelihood of voting when asked – a much closer race than pollsters who rely on demographic modelling to predict turnout based on the patterns this time being very similar to the past.)

The Liberal Democrat fate in 2010 shows how polling surges based on young people have fizzled out in the face of actual voting in the past in Britain. But the unprecedented can happen.

The problem for pollsters faced with a need to report one headline number is that they have to make a decision between these two turnout scenarios. But no amount of sampling or modelling wizardry, in the end, can remove that fundamental unknown: are young people predicting their future behaviour correctly this time and set to turn out in a way they’ve never done so previously?The only thing that will tell us that are the results when they come in (or the exit poll, which will come first and have the benefit of only polling actual voters on the day**).

The only thing that will tell us for sure are the results when they come in (or the exit poll, which will come first and have the benefit of only polling actual voters on the day**).

* I have good news for you if you are a pollster reading this: if the overall polling picture is wrong and we get a hung Parliament, you could be really in luck and have a second general election to poll this year, giving you the chance to change your methodology, get it right and restore your reputation all in time for Christmas.

** Unless something really weird has happened involving postal votes cast in advance that breaks the exit poll model.

Second referendum opinion polling results

Independent view: Lib Dems face a fight for survival on June 8 but the future can be brighter

However hard you try, there’s an obvious risk that if you write about something you care about, you don’t give a balanced view. So to round-off this look at the Liberal Democrat prospects ahead of the election I’ve asked pollster at GfK and podcaster extraordinaire Keiran Pedley to write up how he sees the Liberal Democrat position. Here’s his take. I don’t agree with it all (something I’ll return to in my first post-election edition) but that’s no reason to dismiss his views out of hand.

It is fair to say that this election has not gone as planned for the Liberal Democrats.

Following the Brexit vote last June, many expected their unapologetic pro-Remain stance to reap dividends at the ballot box. The EU Referendum result came as a shock and many Remain voters were angry that their side had lost based on what they saw as outright lies from the Leave campaign. Following this, the Lib Dems have seen some signs of recovery. The Richmond Park by-election that unseated Zac Goldsmith was a major coup for the party and the Lib Dems increased their projected national vote share at the local elections to 18%.

Yet the party’s numbers in opinion polls have stubbornly refused to rise.  At the time of writing, the poll aggregator Britain Elects puts them at 8 points – virtually identical to their performance in 2015.

So what happened?

In many respects, this election came at the wrong time for the Lib Dems. Their flagship policy – a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – is not popular with the wider public. Voters consider the Brexit issue ‘settled’ and want whoever wins next week to ‘get on with it’. Polling produced by Opinium for our Polling Matters podcast shows this clearly (see table above). Even 1 in 4 Remain voters do not want to revisit the issue right now. YouGov have produced similar figures asking this question in a slightly different way.

So with Brexit seemingly settled, the Lib Dems have been squeezed by the two main parties in a way few expected. A recent opinion poll by Ipsos Mori puts the combined vote share of Labour and the Conservatives at 85%. This is a substantial increase on 2015 that, if reflected on June 8, would represent the largest combined vote share for the parties since 1970.

In admittedly difficult circumstances, Tim Farron has struggled to breakthrough as Lib Dem leader and has not had a good campaign. A recent poll by my company, GfK, shows that half of British adults hold no opinion on him. He remains an unknown quantity, basing a campaign on a policy with limited appeal. This is bad news for the Lib Dems and points to a very tough night for the party next week.

However, if they can hang in there, the future can be brighter. Just because their policy on a second referendum is unpopular now, this does not mean it will continue to be so as ‘Brexit proper’ gets underway. Those Remain voters that now want to ‘get on with it’ may change their mind if Brexit goes badly in practice. Then the Lib Dems can capitalise. Just as a bad Tory campaign has reminded Labour voters that were considering a switch to the Tories why they didn’t like them in the first place, a similar process could happen with Brexit that will benefit the Lib Dems.

But for now, as far as next Thursday is concerned, the aim of the game is survival.


Post-it note - "In case you missed it"

Catch-up service and Lib Dems in the news

In case you missed these stories from my blog and around the internet:


Liberal Democrat general election briefing #7: polling day

Liberal Democrat general election briefing #7: polling day

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