Why the Liberal Democrats need a core votes strategy

The words Lib and Dem spelt out in Scrabble pieces

The basis of sustained significant success, whether in politics, sport, commerce or civil society, is a core of loyal, regular support. The repeat customers who buy every new product, the fans with season tickets, the parents who ensure that every year the PTA’s fundraiser is a success: these are what allow their favoured outfit to prosper.

So too in politics, where have a core vote – people who repeatedly and consistently support a party – is the crucial underpinning of sustained success. The absence of one, or more accurately the smallness of the Liberal Democrat one, is one of the continuing explanations through the party’s various missed opportunities, setbacks and disasters of the last few years.

The worst Conservative general election result since the Great Reform Act of 1832 introduced democracy (sort of, men only) still saw the party poll in the low thirties. The worst Labour Party general election result since the party’s rise early in the twentieth century still saw the party poll in the mid-twenties. And the worst Liberal Democrat result? Down in single figures.

The smallness of the current Lib Dem core vote leaves the party highly vulnerable in bad times, unable to weather a tough election with a goodly haul of MPs. The party is still, even after the 2017 seat gains, only one bad election result away from Westminster extinction.

But it is a problem too in good times. The smaller your core vote, the further you start from the finishing line in elections. That coalition of the core vote, the local vote and the tactical vote is that much harder to put together when the first is so small.

What’s more, when the starting core vote is not only small but much smaller than that of other parties, we’re starting with a big handicap – one that doesn’t go away even when we win. Because even when wins are secured, they require yet more intense work to repeat – constraining the ability to spread out and win more because you still have to fight so hard to hold what you already have.

And then there is the hobbling effect of drawing in a wide range of transitory support. Now, winning over new support from many different places is a political virtue. As long as those new converts become, in at least reasonable numbers, sustained supporters. Just as a local party membership model where you recruit 100 new members and then promptly lose 100, stuck forever on an intensive treadmill of work going nowhere, is undesirable, so too a model of recruiting and losing votes in large numbers has serious issues. This was a burden even in the Liberal Democrat heydays, with huge churn in the party’s support between general elections even when our vote was going up.

What was a burden in good times became something even worse in politically difficult times, most notably the 2010 hung Parliament. When you have a diverse range of supporters, with few possessing a long-term attachment to the party, whatever decision you make in a hung Parliament is bound to end badly.

You may have issues with how Nick Clegg handled 2010, but imagine how grim it would also have been for Charles Kennedy in 2005 faced with a hung Parliament in which the Conservatives were led by Michael Howard, fresh out of his dog-whistling campaign on immigration, and a Labour Party led by Tony Blair, fresh out of Iraq. The only escape is to be so small in a hung Parliament that you do not have to choose (thank you, 2017).

The contrast with the SNP is striking: the SNP was in a minority government, often making deals with the Conservatives, in the Scottish Parliament. The outcome? The SNP winning an overall majority at the next election, not the 2015-style Lib Dem meltdown. The reason for the difference? Because voters felt they knew for sure what they were getting with the SNP – and that the deals with Tories were a means to tht end. For the Lib Dems in 2010-15 the problem was there wasn’t that core vote based on an understanding of what the party was for to fall back on.

The contrast is striking in another way too: when a UK general election looks close, the Lib Dems tend to suffer as voters concentrate on the Conservative versus Labour choice for 10 Downing Street. But the SNP prospers, because it is seen as a greater opportunity for influence.

That is why for sustained success the Liberal Democrats need to build a much larger core vote – one based on people who share our values being won over by the party’s effective demonstration of them, creating long-term loyalty.

How can this be done? That’s where the pamphlet I co-authored with former Cambridge MP David Howarth comes in, which in turn was followed up by a more detailed organisational plan and then a roadmap for reinventing the party.

Happy reading!

12 responses to “Why the Liberal Democrats need a core votes strategy”

  1. I think this is the first time you’ve said something I completely agree with for ages Mark. This is good.

    When people like, for example, Gary Lineker are saying they feel politically homeless, espousing positions that are basically our core positions, then saying “and don’t say the Lib Dems, pointless” then we know we’ve got a massive problem.

    We need to be shouting our values from the rooftops and rebuilding a proper movement, you triangulate to win over the last few percentage points to victory, not when starting from effectively nowhere.

  2. You are right, but the triangulation has taken the place of a strategy based on values. The dubious bar charts have rather created the impression you don’t believe in anything other than not being the other lot. I desperately want a centrist force, by the way.

  3. We need to seize any opportunity to take votes off both Labour and Conservatives. Both are vulnerable because of their unwieldy sizes. It is amazing how people change support on a single issue and then remain loyal.

  4. Reading recently a biography of Clement Attlee, I made a discovery that challenged my views on what’s best for the Lib Dems. Attlee started as a fully integrated Fabian socialist, but quickly recognised that Fabians were were never going to build a mass following because they sought to build a political movement based on ideas and policies resulting from those ideas, and the British people’s political views were based on sentiment. Only the party that recognised and understood the sentiment had a chance of building a large following in Attlee’s opinion. He left the Fabians and joined Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party. And the rest is history.

  5. This is a necessary (reworked?) repeat article.

    Perhaps based around the Party’s constitution statement, there needs to be a constant message of what Liberalism is and what we stand for. Much of the foundations can be found in JS Mill’s ‘On Liberty’, which provides a rationale for the value of liberty of thoughts, actions and lifestyle for a healthy, responsive society and outlines limits to how and where government has the right to interfere in human affairs.
    Importantly it firmly places the onus on governments to account for their actions to people rather than on people to have to justify themselves to the governing authorities.

  6. Lineker should be converted with a selling process of our values.He, a well known figure would be a good recruiter to develop that core vote.

  7. The reason for the lack of a large core vote, according to my experience when canvassing, and reports in the press, is that people do not know what we stand for. Yet, the principles of the party have not changed since I was first involved back in the 1960s.We always seem to be campaigning for different causes, and never talking about why we campaign for those causes, and the reason we campaign for any cause is because of our principles, Had our leadership put principle before temporary gain we would never have joined the coalition. But if we had stated our principles loudly and publicly before going into coalition we would have had a much greater ability to bend the coalition in the direction we needed it to go in, and would have been able to retain public support. ……Unless of course we had been seen to compromise on our principles, which is what happened, so many members who joined because of our principles felt betrayed and left.
    Its no good talking about recruitment strategies and setting up mission statements and business plans if principles are not at the centre of everything we do.

  8. My opinion is that it is all about resources. The reality of the Liberal Democrat story since 2010 is not that the electorate have left the Liberal Democrats, but that for most people the party has disappeared. The other parties have difficult times, but there are sources of money. Traditionally of course the Labour Party has been able to rely on Trade Unions so there was continuing income when times were bad. The Conservatives have been able to rely on all of those institution which are able to use other people’s money to preserve their own status and wealth. The Liberal Democrats relied to a large extent on local councillors, and supporting activists. Huge numbers have disappeared.
    The evidence is that the core vote is the past. There is the possibility of course of exploring the introduction of a participatory democracy through the use of the internet. I do not see much interest in that though.

  9. Very interesting point by Huw. Throughout the coalition I was keenly aware that we were appeared to be so in love with coalition that we lost sight of how others perceive us and how we are operating within that vision. Tuition fees (and reading the insiders’ accounts of that time there isn’t even a clear narrative) could have been dealt with, and still can be, not with a long explanation, but with a simple statement – yes, we should have called a vote but we were never going to win it as the Tories and Labour would have defeated us. With Brexit chaos all around and a hugely dogmatic and destructive approach by the Eton educated bunch among others, people really need to know that politicians care about their views. We need to be clear as Mark started out, in stating our values, and that our values start with people.

  10. There is actually a lot of opportunity for the Liberal democrats.
    There is great skepticism with the two political parties on offer with remarks such as “…they don’t listen or understand the problems of ordinary people” and they are right because government is remote from them. There is the feeling that wealth and power is held in central London and everyone else gets the scraps.
    The LD must concentrate on the theme of too much centralisation with wealth and power held in too few hands.
    Solution Federalisation – the people need to know that is a key policy of the LibDems.
    People do warm to the local idea of decision taking – you can see that with the SNP core vote. In Wales, Plaid Cymru has become the real liberal party in Wales.
    The next principle should for egalitarian capitalism following that wealth creation is too concentrated. Rather than private monopoly capitalism by the Tories or state capitalism by the Socialism – Individual share ownership and access for the people to benefit from ownership of wealth creation. A good model is that proposed by the Share foundation.
    Then, of course, fair votes and equality of opportunity and freedom from discrimination.

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