Good, bad or indifferent? Lib Dem election result analysed: LDN #100

Liberal Democrat Newswire #100 came out last week, taking a look at the Liberal Democrat 2017 general election result.

It went out before Tim Farron stood down as party leader, so events have overtaken slightly the section about his performance – but I think it still reads well as helping to explain why many people in the party felt that he was not the right choice to lead the party into the next general election.

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Well, that was some election result…

Unexpected, although as regular readers will know not completely unexpected, because as I wrote, in advance of polling day:

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.

When asked in advance about how many seats the Lib Dems would win, my answer in the closing stages of the campaign was that there were about 25 seats in play, all of which were looking close – and so on the basis of winning 50% of the 50:50 toss-ups, we should expect about 12.5 seats. Being within half a seat of the actual result I’d like to put down purely to skill… though the truth is matching up my list of seats with actual results shows a degree of luck in errors both ways cancelling out. I won’t be rushing to place large bets based on future predictions just because of my 2017 accuracy…

As for the predictions from others, I’ve not yet had the chance to crunch the numbers from the general election prediction competition. Watch out for the winner to be announced next time round.

On then to this edition, and a return to the criteria I set down in advance by which to judge the Liberal Democrat election result. How did the party do judged against those?

Best wishes,


In this edition:

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

Child holding Jo Swinson poster - photo courtesy of the Lib Dems CC BY-ND 2.0

Partially prepared, the Lib Dems endure May’s political ambush

When the Liberal Democrats started selecting candidates ready for a snap general election last summer, it generated a fair amount of controversy in the party. This was not only for the way in which it was done but also for the very act of doing it. Many loud voices said it was completely unnecessary.

It was, as it turned out, very necessary for when Theresa May attempted to spring a political ambush on other parties. The party also benefited from having a draft manifesto prepared last year, enabling the actual manifesto to have the sort of rigorous costings behind it which made it stand out from the minimal or non-existent costings of rivals.

Other preparations, alas, were not as far advanced by the time May started the process which ended up ambushing herself. In particular, the party’s work on refining its messaging and branding was only partially progressed, something that helps explain how neither took on a settled form at the start of the election. The party was also deprived of what could have been, on the early data, a massive boost from a strong showing – even a win – in the Manchester Gorton by-election. The election happening in 2017 rather than 2020 moreover meant memories of the coalition were that much stronger in people’s minds.

Therefore, simply to survive the ambush is an achievement of some sort. Let’s look more at what sort of achievement it was.

Tim Farron and Layla Moran - photo courtesy of the Lib Dems CC BY-ND 2.0

The Liberal Democrat vote share

Test #1 of my ten from last time was: does the Liberal Democrat vote share go up on 2015’s 7.9%? No, it didn’t. What’s more, it fell to 7.4%, the lowest since 1959 and a vote share that came with 375 lost deposits. There are some silver linings to this – in particular, the Lib Dem vote share went up in around one-third of constituencies, not just in a tiny number of target seats. Another is that part of the explanation may turn out to be, when the more detailed evidence comes in and gets crunched, the legacy of the coalition, a legacy which should fade over time.

But those are small silver linings and give the party a particular dilemma – how to hold a dozen Parliamentary seats with mostly small majorities, try to gain some more and yet also build up its broader strength. That’s doable, as I’ve set out in Targeting Plus, but it won’t be easy. It will require a larger, broad-based and diverse membership to help make it happen.

On that score, it is good news that the party’s membership reached 103,951 – higher than any previously published membership total in the party’s history – and that the party continued to make improvements in how data is handled, in particular with this time information about people volunteering to help the party through the central website feeding through to local parties via the Connect database regularly through the campaign. In previous elections, those central offers of help have often been a bit of a black hole when it comes to follow up. Much less so this time.

Test #2 was: is the party’s absolute number of votes up on 2015’s 2,415,862? No again, even though turnout was up. The gain in seats means the net effect will be an increase in the party’s state funding, but there’s no saving grace about how many people voted Lib Dem in 2017 compared with 2015.

Test #3 brings some more positive news as it was: are the Liberal Democrats back into third place in share of the vote across the UK? Yes – back above Ukip and well clear of the Greens. This, combined with the number of MPs the party won, should bring some practical benefits, such as when it comes to the BBC deciding who to invite on Any Questions?

During the election campaign, Peter Kellner wrote of the Lib Dem failure to surge that one explanation was broadcasting rules:

The rules for broadcasters used to help the Lib Dems; now they don’t. For some years, before the Greens, Ukip and SNP attracted much attention … the Lib Dems secured almost as much coverage as the two main parties. Attractive leaders such as David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy had the opportunity to make a real impact, and sometimes made good use of that opportunity. [But] the Lib Dems no longer have a near-monopoly of TV coverage of anti-big-battalion parties. Their voice is being drowned on TV news and current affairs programmes.

Now the Lib Dems are headed back towards those more helpful circumstances.

Lib Dem vote share in the 2017 general election - courtesy of the BBC

Lib Dem seat numbers

Disappointing as the Liberal Democrat vote share was overall, the distribution of it around different constituencies (as shown in the BBC map above) was actually rather helpful, with concentrations of support in enough places to enable seats to be won.

Test #4 was: does the party win at least 8 seats? Yes, we did. 12 seats was higher than most external predictions and many internal expectations as the election came to a close. The party also came agonisingly close in another four seats – just 463 votes more would have seen four more Lib Dem MPs elected. As it is, there are 28 seats where the party polled over 30%, not a massive number but a basis for further Parliamentary growth.

Test #5 was: how many seats does the party win in Scotland? More than most Lib Dems, especially outside Scotland, expected, with four won and another two close. That’s particularly important because it looked as if Scottish politics might be polarising in a way that squeezed out the Liberal Democrats from the political system. Instead, the party is back on the up, with a clear potential role and realistic chances of continued growth. If you’re outside Scotland, chances are you missed just how much media coverage was generated by Willie Rennie’s photo stunts. They might only make the London media when animals are doing something unfortunate in the background but in both the Scottish Parliament elections and now in the general election, Rennie’s photogenic election trips have helped underpin a very welcome recovery for the party.

Test #6, however, was less positive: 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. Instead, being at 12 the party is still above the levels of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, but simply using that as the benchmark says something in itself.

Tim Farron with Alex Cole-Hamilton and Christine Jardine - photo courtesy of the Lib Dems CC BY-ND 2.0

What does the party’s future look like?

Test #7 was: 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. This time the ratio was back up to 1.6, an increase from 2015 although still lower than the 1997-2010 era. That it rose at all is a tribute to the target seat campaign which this time – unlike in 2010 – managed to match the concentration by other parties, especially the Conservatives, of national campaign items (such as direct mail which doesn’t name the candidate) in specific target seats.

This activity is a result of the broken election expenses regime which tightly restricts campaigning that names candidates but gives in effect unlimited sums to spend on campaigning in target seats which doesn’t name candidates. This puts the Liberal Democrats at a huge disadvantage, so any improvement in being able to buck the national trend in target seats is impressive. There will certainly be lessons to learn, such as over how accurate the party’s tracking was of different seats on polling day. But overall the still relatively new in post Director of Campaigns and Elections, Shaun Roberts, and his team had a good election.

We will need more data to come in before being able to properly judge test #8: are there signs of a new core vote for the party forming? Early signs are a tentative yes, however, in that there was significant churn in the party’s vote from 2015 with a shift towards a more pro-European, socially liberal and internationalist base for it, as seen in both national polling and the pattern of constituency results.

One area of debate during the election was whether the pool of Remain supporters the Liberal Democrats were fishing in was large enough given that the majority of voters either voted for Brexit or wanted to get on with it. However, the proportion of people who still wanted a political party to argue over Brexit, and from a pro-European position, was – depending on which polling question was used to measure it – between a quarter and a third of the electorate. That was a big enough pool to have supported a significant increase in the Lib Dem vote. The problem wasn’t the size of the pool, it was the party’s ability to capitalise on it. And if the party had capitalised better on it, then that pool could have grown as well. This will be a key area for the party’s election post-mortems.

Then there is test #9: how do Tim Farron’s ratings fare by the end of the campaign? There was some progress, with for example on the YouGov figures the percentage saying they have a favourable opinion of him rising from 14% early in the year to 20% late in the campaign. The unfavourable figure, however, also rose – from the mid-thirties to the mid-forties. Similarly, MORI’s figures, which are much more volatile, show progress early in the year but then a fading in the last two months with a final net dissatisfied rating only slightly better than Nick Clegg’s in 2015.

More detailed data from the British Election Survey later this year will help pin down the details of the trends and hence the likely causes, in particular the question of how much of an impact there was from the round of interviews which focused on his religious beliefs. I suspect this will turn out to have been a significant factor, both because it deprived the party of momentum and also because it contributed to a very confused picture of the party cutting through to ordinary voters who don’t pay much attention to politics. Focus groups such as those for Britain Thinks show that what voters noticed about the Lib Dems was Tim Farron, legalising cannabis (which received an enormous volume of local and regional media) and Europe. Being in favour of legalising cannabis can be a useful high profile signal of being a modern, socially liberal party. But when contrasted with the questioning over Tim Farron’s religious beliefs, it was more a picture of confusion than of a consistent worldview that came over to voters judging by that focus group evidence.

However much many Liberal Democrat activists may be angered by some of the questioning over Tim Farron’s beliefs, it would be foolish to close our collective eyes and hope it won’t ever happen again. Just as we might greatly dislike first past the post but know we need a strategy for the next election which can deal with it, so too Tim Farron and the party will need an approach to the next election that can deal with Andrew Neil or another journalist’s opening question in the first big set piece interview being, “So Mr Farron, now that you’ve had another few months/years [delete according to speed of next election] to think about it, do you think abortion is wrong?” Unfair question perhaps, but also likely.

And finally to end on a more positive note with test #10: does the new Parliamentary Party look more or less like the electorate than the current one? In short, yes – one-third female and including both an MP with a disability and one from a minority background, not to mention Tim Farron’s own working class roots. Very much a work in progress, but progress made.

When do you think the next general election will be? Join the debate on the Lib Dem Newswire Facebook page


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Best wishes and thank you for reading,


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2 responses to “Good, bad or indifferent? Lib Dem election result analysed: LDN #100”

  1. Mark -in 1966 the Liberals had 12 seats , by the election in 1970 it was 13. More than your comments about the 60s suggest

    • Tony: Good point – I was referring to the number of MPs elected at general elections rather than peaks reached courtesy of by-elections in-between. Sorry for not being clearer.

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