Weirdest poll finding of 2017: Liberal Democrat Newswire #106

Liberal Democrat Newswire #106 came out earlier this month, including Layla Moran on education and the weirdest poll of 2017.

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.


It’s been another period of rapid growth for the readership of Lib Dem Newswire, with subscriber numbers nearly doubling already since January 1st. It’s been a similarly good year so far on my website, with SimilarWeb’s data reporting that it now has a slightly larger readership than Lib Dem Voice (the obvious yardstick – and a site you should read too).

More readers (hooray!) also means more costs (boo!). So particular thanks to the kind readers who make a small regular donation to help cover those costs.

If you would like to join them and help cover the increasing costs, you can sign up for a small regular donation here. As a little thank you, I’ll send a free printed copy of the pamphlet I co-wrote this year with Jim Williams, Reinventing the Liberal Democrats, to five names drawn at random from new donors.

Happy reading!


In this edition:

Strategy plan - CC0 Photo by Kaboompics

The three ways Lib Dems win votes

(This is an expanded version of a blog post I wrote a few weeks ago. Hopefully, it has enough new material to be interesting if you read the original, and thanks to everyone who commented on that original.)

What Liberal Democrat strategy should be has been a particularly regular theme of this newsletter and my other writings for the last two years. In part that has been a response to the experience of writing 101 Ways To Win An Election with Ed Maxfield. It focuses on what candidates and campaign managers should do to win specific seats. Writing all that down highlighted just how much else there is to say about how political parties succeed which goes beyond the book’s focus on the individual seat. A national party running a successful campaign has to get plenty right which the book doesn’t touch on.

It’s not only our book which doesn’t say that much about those wider issues. The Liberal Democrats in general don’t spend much time thinking, practising or learning about them either. Just look at the list of training sessions the party puts on. Lots on how to artwork leaflets (a very important skill) but almost nothing on branding (a crucial element of the backdrop against which those artworking skills get used).

Of course, regular readers won’t be surprised to know that I think a large part of the answer to those challenges which fall outside 101 Ways To Win is to have a core votes strategy. It’s not the complete answer, however, as winning elections is about securing votes from not only your core support but also from others. Yet a core votes strategy has come to be seen at times as being at odds with those other approaches. That’s wrong, and here’s why.

First, though, an apology. If you want someone to blame for the fact that adopting a core votes strategy and targeting tightly to win seats are sometimes seen as opposites, then I’m a good person to pick. Sorry. And if you think you really like one and really dislike the other, hoping that arguing for one is a way to dis the other, then bank my apology ready for after you’ve finished reading this piece.

What then is, or rather should be, the relationship between these two approaches? Votes at election time come from one of three sources:

  • Core votes are the long-term loyal supporters of the party. They are the starting point.
  • Local votes are the support won over the year-round local campaigning and by high profile, effective candidates.
  • Tactical votes are the final piece in the puzzle, those who are persuaded to vote for us not so much because we’re us but in order to stop them.

The problem the party faces (and it isn’t new) is that we rely on a massively imbalanced mix of that core, local, tactical trio.

It starts with us having very few core votes – people who think of themselves as Liberal Democrats and pretty much always vote for us. Currently, that figure is at around 5%. It has been higher in the past but not that much higher even when the party has been scoring above 20% in UK-wide elections. There was no heyday pre-2010 of a large core vote, which is why between successive general elections there was always a very large churn in our vote even when the overall totals were looking (for us) healthy.

Having a small core vote means you start a long way from the finishing line in elections. It means you have to work that much harder to win. When you are a smaller party and with less money and media backing than nearly all your rivals, that is asking an awful lot. Those Lib Dems who manage it are amazing. They are also fewer in number than we’d like because of the size of that ask.

To make matters worse, it also means that we’ve over-relied on the local votes and the tactical votes to get over the winning line. Over-relied because, very welcome though such votes are, they come with downsides.

First, the downsides of having to over-rely on local votes. Liberal Democrats do tend to be better and harder working local campaigners all year round, and our best Parliamentary candidates do tend to be better than those of other parties at local campaigning. But there’s nothing uniquely Liberal Democrat about doing an annual residents’ survey, preferring to walk off your Christmas excess accompanied by a pile of leaflets or preferring door knocking to gardening in the spring. Other parties can do this too.

We can take some pride in just how much the other parties have copied what Liberal Democrats often pioneered. Self-pride, alas, isn’t convertible to votes.

What’s more, local votes are susceptible to a national squeeze. It is no coincidence that the Liberal Democrats have done worst in general elections were at 7am on polling day it has been most uncertain who would be Prime Minister the next day. Popular Liberal Democrat candidates and MPs have gone down to defeat as voters have decided to focus on who they want as Prime Minister, not as their next MP. (The local constituency ratings of many Lib Dems MPs in 2015, for example, was very strong. That didn’t save most of them.)

To make matters worse, that local vote reliance does not scale well as the size of a constituency grows. More and more, however, we face contests on wider scales. Regional lists in Scotland, Wales and London. Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Directly elected Mayors. The shift in the last twenty years has been to more elections across larger areas. It is also a shift away from the best territory for local vote seeking – smaller areas where a candidate can get well known and where a small team can run an intensive campaign machine.

There’s a similar problem with the over-reliance on tactical votes. For a start, many of those new, larger contests do not use first past the post and nor do local elections in Scotland. There are still some tactical voting type arguments that can be used (especially in contests using the supplementary vote) but they are pretty ineffectual at best. Then there’s also the harsh reality of the party’s current strength: we’re in a far worse position to appeal for tactical votes across elections at many levels than we have been for a long time.

I’m definitely a fan of appealing to tactical voters; it is one reason why I so often defend the use of good bar charts. The reality, however, is that this important part of the overall trio of vote sources can now only take on a diminished part of the burden of election winning.

All these limitations with tactical votes and local votes brings us back to core votes. With the mix of election types and systems we now face – very different from the party’s 1990s campaigning glory days – and with our current political situation, we need that contribution from core votes to be far stronger.

We also need it because it is the insurance policy through tough political times and difficult choices. If one large chunk of our support is really voting for us because they don’t like Labour and another large chunk because they don’t like the Conservatives, then having to make a choice in a hung Parliament or in a major Parliamentary vote is always going to risk disaster because choices split apart our support. (Imagine what a 2005 hung Parliament with a Lib Dem group having to choose between Blair and Howard would have been like.)

For all these reasons, we need to rebalance and built up massively that core votes part of the trio.

It won’t bring success on its own. But it gets us to the starting place from which local and tactical votes can then bring success. And of course, when it comes to turning local and tactical votes into extra seats, that means getting those votes in the places where they generate the most seats.

Getting a core votes strategy right, therefore, is about creating the circumstances in which a targeting strategy can work. Their power comes from their combination.

Layla Moran MP with two children at a table

Education sets people free, and knowledge is power – Layla Moran

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson and new MP Layla Moran writes exclusively for Lib Dem Newswire about her approach to her brief. 

Education sets people free, and knowledge is power. These well-known phrases have formed the basis for my passion for education all my life. They are the reasons I became a teacher fifteen years ago and again the reason I joined the Liberal Democrat’s ten years ago. Now, as an MP and our party’s education spokesperson, my passion is further ignited.

The closer I get to government, the more convinced I am that our education system is in vital need of some vision and leadership. We have had nearly three decades of a market-inspired educational landscape. The emphasis on competition between schools has slowly and, in my view, fatally eaten away at the focus on the individual student experience. This is the moment for the Lib Dems to grasp the nettle. To look at the whole system from the bottom up and ask difficult questions about what on earth we are doing to the next generation, and if it is actually the right thing.

The first step we need to take is to make the case to the electorate for why things need to change. One example of an area that has not been addressed by the government is how we prepare for a world that is increasingly being influenced by Artificial Intelligence. The science-geek part of me is actually excited by this prospect but we need to accept that the nature of work is going to change. If robots are taking our jobs, what should the humans do? I argue that our most valuable skills are our ability to engage in complex, emotionally subtle interactions. Creativity and being able to evaluate and question facts should trump rote learning and recall. Our current system, however, is moving is exactly the opposite direction. School funding shortages, workload pressures and the focus on data-driven targets mean these skills, often much harder to measure, are being systematically ignored.

We must also question many of the basic structures in the system. League tables, selection, assessments and Ofsted. Nothing should be off the table. Our guiding question must be, ‘how does this help the student?’ If it doesn’t we then we must then ask, ‘so what will?’

Ideas that are already emerging from our work include a renewed emphasis on teacher’s professional development and school leadership, a broader curriculum and more pastoral care, and encouragement for schools to cooperate in the interests of the children and not compete for them to up their funding.

We remain in early stages, but it’s worth remembering we build on strong foundations. Our party has always been sound in this area, and if we do this right, I believe we can have an impact that will last for generations to come.

I am working with a core group of Parliamentarians who have expertise from across the education sector, and with a Policy Working Group of dedicated party members. But we must also invite the wider party to engage with us. What are your big ideas? What are your fears? If you’re a parent what do you really care about? If you’re currently a student, what do you wish you’d had? We want to know and we are all ears.

Amnesty International campaign on abortion in Northern Ireland

Ice in Iceland - Photo by Roxanne Desgagnés on Unsplash

How to win the public battle on climate change

Leo Barasi‘s writings about public opinion are always worth a close read. He’s one of those people who look at why others disagree with his worldview, not with a view to disparaging them but with a view to finding out how to persuade them. (A distinction Liberal Democrats sometimes forget when it comes to Europe; loudly lamenting the claimed stupidity of others rarely secures converts.) He has just published a book about climate change and public opinion.

You could look at the news and think climate disaster is now inevitable. Each of the last three years has been the hottest on record. In the last few months, the US and Caribbean were battered by a record-breaking series of hurricanes, much of Asia was swept by floods and southern Europe was baked in crop-destroying heatwaves. All of this happened with the world only having warmed by a third of what it will this century if emissions don’t fall.

But you could also look around and think the world is finally dealing with climate change. For the first time, global emissions have stopped increasing because of efforts to deal with the threat, and nearly every country has committed to limit their emissions

Both views are right. Climate change is now killing people, and the world is dealing with it more seriously than ever. But which path will win out? Will the world eliminate emissions within a generation as it must if it is to prevent dangerous warming? Or will emissions continue at their current rate and the planet respond with increasingly ferocious storms, heatwaves and droughts?

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, looks at the difference that public opinion will make, and why, unless it’s tackled, climate apathy will stop the world dealing with the problem.

Progress so far has depended on changes that have imposed little burden on most people. But eventually, the world will exhaust the relatively painless changes. The only remaining emissions cuts will be from activities that directly affect many people in their day-to-day lives, like flying and meat-eating. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase.

Achieving these harder, but essential, emission cuts won’t be possible without public support. Yet, at the moment, that support wouldn’t be forthcoming. It’s not that many people deny climate change: no more than 20% do. The problem is that many people understand climate change is real and a threat, but just don’t think about it much and don’t understand why they should change their lives to deal with it. Without their support, emission-cutting measures will fail.

My book looks at the people who are apathetic about climate change and why they think what they do. It explores how psychology and the ways climate change is often described have made the problem seem distant, unthreatening, and a special interest of liberals.

And it looks at what can overcome apathy. There’s no magic word that will make the world act on climate change, but there are things that can persuade those who are apathetic that it is worth making the effort. It’s still possible to tip the balance away from disaster.

You can buy The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism here.

Head in hands - child - CC0 Public Domain

The weirdest poll finding from 2017, or how not to do political messaging

I am going to give you some polling figures about two different policy areas. One was in the headlines regularly during the 2017 general election, and indeed previous elections too. It is a policy area credited with a large part in boosting the popularity of one party and with explaining the struggles of another party. That credit/blame allocation is so widely shared by people from all points of the political spectrum that it is conventional wisdom even amongst unconventional pundits.

The other policy area is best known for being an example of a topic that some political activists get excited about but which the public is unmoved by. It rarely gets many headlines at a general election and was almost completely absent from the scene in 2017. For one brief period a few years back it got headlines for a while and was notable for not exciting the public when it did.

These two paragraphs are, of course, the setup for a trick question that is easy to see through. Which of these two issues scored most highly when the public was asked to select four or five issues that Britain should prioritise in the next few years?

The first gets mentioned by 28% of young people and the second gets mentioned by 27% of pensioners. The second gets mentioned by only 14% of young people and also scores 14% amongst pensioners. In other words, in each age group both the issues are seen as important as each other.

The names of them? Tuition fees and electoral reform. Yes, tuition fees and electoral reform are weirdly seen as important as each other. (Fuller data here.)

It’s a great example of the complex relationship between having popular policies and securing more votes. Most often, it isn’t the policy itself that wins or loses support but rather what the policy says about the party (or leader) more generally – are they on your side, are the competent, do they care about the things you care about and so on? Labour’s policy on tuition fees, despite being a policy that benefits better off young people rather than the least well off, hit the right general notes: a policy about the future, about giving people opportunities, about understanding the worries people have. (Similarly, Labour’s attacks on the Conservatives over fox hunting may not have played to a major issue in the eyes of voters but they were powerful at illustrating the sort of people that Conservative politicians are.)

Although technically electoral reform is considered as important an issue to address, highlighting it in the same way would have been, I strongly suspect, massively less successful – because the wider points it would have highlighted would have been more about being seen off at a tangent from the main concerns people have, not addressing the pressures they face, being about politicians wanting to get one over on other politicians and so on.

That’s a challenge for electoral reformers to address (in brief, they need to go along the same sort of road which climate campaigners have gone along to understand how to frame their case in a way that works with where public opinion is starting).

It’s also a warning against the view of political messaging as being about creating a bundle of policies, polling them individually and creating a pick’n’mix of those which individually come out best. That then leaves it a matter of luck as to whether it adds up to a coherent and successful package or not. The smarter approach is to work backwards from the bigger picture to policies which illustrate it, as Jim Williams and I set out in Reinventing the Liberal Democrats.

Save money when you shop with Quidco

Willy Wonka Golden Ticket

Who has been the best Lib Dem leader?

It’s not quite up there with winning one of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets but the results of the latest Liberal Democrat Newswire survey are in showing who is rated as the best leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Before giving you the results from the votes of nearly 1,000 people, a short pair of digressions about Vince Cable and Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Some people complained about the absence of Vince from the survey, to which my instinctive reaction is “Seriously: you think you can rate how well or badly a party leader has done after less than six months and no big elections?”. It’s also my more considered reaction too. I’m baffled that people think he’d be a sensible option to include. But a fair number of people queried his absence, so if you think you’ve got a good reason why he’d be reasonable to judge so soon in, do say.

Then there were those who complained that a survey about leaders of the Liberal Democrats didn’t include leaders of the previous Liberal Party. Being a fan of the under-appreciated Henry Campbell-Bannerman myself I can sympathise with people who wanted to put him (or perhaps more commonly, Jo Grimmond) up at the top of their list. The reason for their exclusion? There’s already a growing chunk of party members who weren’t even born when Paddy Ashdown gave up the Lib Dem leadership. Even the list of only Lib Dem leaders is already going further back in time than many members have political knowledge of (an interesting challenge for the party’s internal culture, by the way).

But with that out of the way, here are the results of people’s first preferences:

40% Charles Kennedy
29% Nick Clegg
25% Paddy Ashdown
3% David Steel
2% Tim Farron
1% Ming Campbell
<1% Bob Maclennan

An AV count has Kennedy beating Clegg with just under 60% of the vote in the final round. His support didn’t vary much around the country – he was slightly more popular in Scotland and slightly less popular with newer members (or more precisely, the newer the member the more popular Nick Cleg was in the poll).

I was, however, struck by not only the low score for Tim Farron but also the paucity of comments such as ‘he’d have been a great leader if only he’d have had longer’. As one of my previous surveys of party members only showed, although Tim Farron was extremely popular during his time as leader, first events of the general election and then the post-election perspective has seen a large majority of party members move on to thinking that his departure was the right outcome.

Lib Dem poster - photo courtesy of Lib Dems CC BY-ND 2.0

Why the Abortion Act needs extending – David Steel

A round-up of the most pertinent news from elsewhere:

101 Ways To Win An Election - book review

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

Public opinion is moving on Brexit

In case you missed them first time round, here’s a reminder of some of my pieces since last time:

Here’s how council by-election results have been looking since last time:

You can get the full council by-election results each week by email if you sign up to my blog post digests.


The Problems with First Past the Post Voting Explained

Electoral reform got a mention above. Here’s a great explanation of why Liberal Democrats are so keen to change the electoral system away from first past the post.

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