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.