How will the Lib Dems do in May? (Liberal Democrat Newswire #111)

Liberal Democrat Newswire #111 came out last week, with a look at what the Lib Dems can expect from this May’s local elections. One of the stories looks at the number of candidates the party is putting up this time round, and so it’s worth giving an extra shout-out to Salford Lib Dems, whose performance I only spotted after finishing this edition.

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.

The May elections are only a few weeks, a couple of dozen leaflet drops and three score candidate tweets away. So this time I’m taking a look at the Lib Dem prospects, how Brexit may play out in those contests and what we can learn from the candidate numbers.

But before all that, are you a Lib Dem? Have you done the survey about Lib Dem meetings yet? If your answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’, then this link is for you.

Best wishes,


In this edition:

Benchmarking the Lib Dem local election performance

The first Thursday in May sees a big round of local elections across England (along with a few extra by-elections scheduled for that day). Most of the seats up for election were last fought four years ago, which means there will be rich pickings for anyone wanting to talk up or talk down any party. That’s because you can legitimately argue over whether the best comparisons are with last year (the last big round of locals) or with four years ago (the last time most of these seats were fought). Add to that the massive decline in Ukip over the last four years, giving scope for all parties to hope to gain votes or seats from them, and it’s even possible every major party will be able to talk about being a winner.

What will count as success for the Liberal Democrats? One benchmark is votes. Here we can make comparisons across the years because each year an ‘equivalent national vote share’ is calculated for each party. This takes the actual vote totals from each year and adjusts them to take into account the differences in seats fought so that you get figures which can be compared across the years. In fact, two different teams do this – Thrasher and Rallings and the BBC. Both tell a similar picture although their exact numbers for each party often vary a little.

The story of local elections during the coalition years (2011-15 inclusive) was of low and falling Lib Dem vote shares: 16% falling to 10%, with an average of 13% for Thrasher and Rallings (16% to 11%, 14% average for BBC). 2016 saw a small recovery – back up to 14% (15% BBC) – with a bigger recovery in 2017, taking the party up to 18% (also 18% BBC). In all the other electoral headlines last year, the fact and size of that Lib Dem vote share recovery were mostly missed (unless, ahem, you were a Lib Dem Newswire reader).

So what counts for success in 2018?

  • Under 13% (under 14% BBC): awful – back down to coalition years vote shares, and worse even than the average in those years.
  • 13%-18% (14-18% BBC) would be disappointing as that would mean static or slipping back on last year yet a result in this range would still be up on the coalition years to varying degrees. The Lib Dem vote share in 2014, it is worth noting, was 11% (13% BBC) so it could slip on last year and still be up on four years ago. That would have to count as disappointing – a bullet dodged, perhaps, and maybe only mildly disappointing depending on the figures. But you can’t call vote share going down on last year great.
  • 19%-22% (19-23% BBC) would be good – vote share up again although not yet back to pre-coalition levels.
  • Over 22% (over 23% BBC) would be amazing – not only a big increase in the Lib Dem vote but also back up to where the party was at a couple of times in the pre-coalition Parliament.

When it comes to seats, the starting point is to bear in mind that the party has gained seats only once in the last nine years (stretching back to include pre-coalition contests too, note – the problem with the party’s slipping strength pre-dates coalition). Simply being up this year would be a good break in the trend of seat losses.

If the party is down and it is a two digit fall, then when you factor in by-election gains and the gains in May 2016 it’ll mean that overall the party has been flat since coalition. Worse than that and it starts to get into much more troubling territory for the party.

Thinking about the other parties, the factor that most strikes me is one people haven’t been mentioning. Since 2014 there has been a swing from Labour to the Conservatives (yes, away from Labour and to the Conservatives) in the national polls. The Conservative boost at the expense of Ukip* has more than outweighed the Corbyn revival of last spring for Labour. For example, in March 2014 Labour was averaging a four-point lead over the Conservatives. In March this year, it was a half-point Conservative lead.

So could the Conservatives pull off seat gains from Labour, helped too by the fact that Labour hasn’t actually managed to close the turnout gap on the Conservatives? Could the headlines be about Conservative triumph? It seems unlikely, especially given all the signs of serious Conservative meltdown in London and the shortage of Ukip seats for the Conservatives to win compared with their likely loses in some areas. And yet… at the very least, expect plenty of variation in the pattern of results around the country.

In particular, watch out for how the Conservatives fare against the Liberal Democrats across southern England including – though not only – in heavily Remain voting areas. This has been particularly fruitful territory for Lib Dem progress in council by-elections.

Yet for all the very real progress in by-elections – as one Conservative Cabinet minister told BuzzFeed, “They’re definitely doing better than we’ve seen for a while” – as last year showed, promise in council by-elections is no guarantee of progress in the May contests. To help make that promise real, you can of course donate to the Lib Dems.

UPDATE: Thrasher and Rallings have published their predictions for vote share and seat changes in May.

* Yes, the churn within the figures makes it rather more complicated than that. The overall pattern though is Conservatives up, Ukip down.

How local an issue is Brexit?

How big an issue should and will Brexit be in these local elections? Procedural puritans in all parties and none are often keen to say that council elections are about councils and shouldn’t be about national issues. Happy though I often am to don the procedural puritan’s garb, this is one case I pass up on it.

Partly that’s because fundamentally in a democracy voters get to choose. Parties and candidates may very well want to persuade them to choose a particular option. They can – and should – point out the importance of what councils and directly-elected Mayors do. But it’s the right of voters to choose the criteria they will use for casting their vote. That power of choice should be respected.

Especially as the other reason I pass is that local elections are something that national parties, national leaders and the national media all draw national lessons from. Whether it is changes of policy, leadership or strategy, local elections can and do change national politics. So it’s hardly unreasonable for a voter deliberately to make use of that opportunity. All the more so for European Union citizens who didn’t get to vote in the European referendum or the general election but can use these elections to express a view on Brexit. Saying to an EU citizen, “No, don’t make your vote about your ability to continue living here” would be just a mite harsh.

Will voters, therefore, make Brexit a big part of their decision-making? Polling so far (albeit only from London) suggests they will. An affirmative answer is also what a large chunk of the Liberal Democrat campaign for the May elections depends on and is trying to secure, including the party launching a huge digital advertising campaign aimed at EU citizens and using 21 different languages.

This push for their vote, helped by the public support from figures such as Gina Miller for anti-Brexiters to vote Lib Dem, depends on people knowing what the Lib Dem position on Brexit actually is. That, so far, is not really the case as the evidence shows the public remains unclear where any of the parties sit on the issue. A reminder as ever that when a political activist says, “My party talks far too much about our policy X” that should almost always be followed by the refrain, “But the public have barely noticed we talk about it at all”.

That said, a promising trend is the slow but steady movement towards opposing Brexit in various forms: people thinking the referendum result was the wrong outcome and that there should be a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal. Findings are sensitive not only to fluctuations but also to the exact question wordings different pollsters use, which is why the trends are the thing to keep an eye on. And the trends are heading in the right direction.

Perhaps most importantly, more people now think that Brexit will be bad for the NHS than think it will be good for it (31% – 25%). If that sort of lead increases, then the NHS will be a powerful way of reaching some of those who voted Leave and persuading them to change their minds, not on the basis of abstract arguments over Europe or projections about macroeconomic statistics in the future. But on the basis of the immediate health service they know, use and cherish.

Westminster Lib Dems full candidate slate message from Facebook

Candidate numbers show promise for Lib Dems

Lots of Liberal Democrats have been reporting increases in candidate numbers for this May, continuing the recovery of the last two years. It’s by no means all been in areas that support Remain or where the party has been traditionally strong. Across the North West, for example, the Lib Dem candidate coverage looks to be up to around 69%, up from 64% in 2016 and 59% in 2015.

A special mention must go to the team in Birmingham who, thanks to boundary changes triggering all-up elections, have managed to find and successfully nominate a full slate of … 101 candidates.

A full slate in Salford, from none last time, a full slate in Plymouth for the first time since 2010 and a full slate in Bromley for the first time since 2006 show the range of places seeing at least an organisational recovery.

In London too, with all-up elections in every borough, candidate numbers are up with 1,416 Lib Dems this time reported, compared with 1,322 in the last set of London local elections in 2014 (boundary changes have resulted in only a small change in the total number of seats in London).

One detail to note within those London figures is the decision not to stand a full slate in Richmond. Rather, in six wards the party is fielding only two candidates, rather than three, with the Green Party by mutual agreement standing one candidate in each.

As for the overall picture, in 2014, Liberal Democrat candidate numbers were 70-71% of the Conservative and Labour numbers. This time it will be 75-76% by the looks of it (with just a final few council numbers to be added in).

Podcast recommendations

Two podcast episodes to highlight for your listening pleasure when out delivering leaflets or being a normal human being:

  • One of the latest editions of The Limehouse Podcast took a look at Brexit campaigners: “I travelled to a place to meet with two of the most exciting groups in politics today, Our Future Our Choice and Remainer Now. Remainer Now speaks with people that have had second thoughts about their decisions to vote Leave in the 2016 Referendum. OFOC focuses on talking with younger voters who took part in that referendum but also to those too young to vote but who of course now can.” (iTunes / Soundcloud)
  • The latest edition of Polling Matters takes a look at what the polls say about the state of Labour: “Keiran Pedley and Leo Barasi focus on recent polling of Labour members by YouGov looking at Corbyn’s job approval rating and their reactions to the recent anti-Semitism row engulfing the party. Leo looks at how these results compare to a similar survey this time last year and Keiran has a bone to pick with how the anti-Semitism numbers were presented in the media”. (iTunes / Podbean)

Advert for Nick Clegg's book, "How to stop Brexit"

News in brief: Lib Dem nursing law comes into force, old party HQ for sale and more

A new law to ensure adequate nurse staffing levels has come into force in Wales, following an original Private Member’s Bill from Lib Dem Assembly member (and current Cabinet Secretary for Education) Kirsty Williams.

Lib Dem leader Vince Cable has launched a major commission on life-long learning, to be chaired by Rajay Naik, Chief Executive Officer of Keypath Education and former director of The Open University. Cable said: “Fast-paced economic and technological change will have a real impact on the job market in future. People could find themselves having to retrain and change career several times through their working lives, as industries evolve with developments in automation and AI.”

Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is now chair of the Social Mobility Foundation. Improving social mobility has long been a passion of his… and I’ve long been a sceptic of focusing on “social mobility” not only because of the huge variation in what people mean by it and because of way people who talk about it leave out that increased mobility means people moving down as well as up. But also because there are better ways to approach the range of problems which motivate those who are concerned about social mobility.

Recent staffing changes at Lib Dem HQ include the promotion of Greg Foster to replace the departing Al Ghaff as the party’s Head of Membership & Engagement. Given how important digital communications are now to those tasks, it’s great the party has appointed someone with such extensive digital skills.

Party HQ was previously at 4 Cowley Street in Westminster. That building is now on sale as a £36 million mansion with extensive photography of the new interiors online. It’s scrubbed up pretty well and, in case you’re wondering, the indoor swimming pool wasn’t there when it was party HQ. RISO printers took up much of that space.

One of the very many impressive Liberal Democrat candidates in the May elections is Pauline Pearce, running to be Mayor of Hackney. As one recent media profile put it, “Pauline’s mixed experiences throughout life have given her a feisty edge and a no-nonsense attitude. Having spent three years in jail for drug smuggling, she is now the mayoral candidate for Hackney Liberal Democrats. Previously, she was well known for jazz singing and her role as a part-time community radio DJ, where she discussed knife crime. However, her true rise to fame culminated from the London riots of 2011, where she beat off looters with a walking stick and held off youths from attacking a photographer, all while recovering from breast cancer.”

Meanwhile, a Liberal Democrat councillor has hit the news for his views on the gender pay gap: “A city councillor has been criticised for claiming women face “no glass ceiling other than their own ambition”. Liberal Democrat Robin Ashby made the comments during a speech on Newcastle City Council’s gender pay gap. His remarks sparked an outcry from opposition councillors and from the female leader of his own party on the council.”

There have also been some councillor movements with Christina McGilligan-Fell, formerly independent, joining the Lib Dem group in North East Lincolnshire. But in Three Rivers, a councillor quit the party after it became clear he wouldn’t get re-selected and has decided to run as an independent. Two other Lib Dem councillors have left the party – Laura Booth in Stockport has turned independent as has Michael Stelling in Bradford. Finally, Richard Webb in Maidstone has lost the party whip after being charged with assault. He had pled not guilty and his trial has been adjourned until July.

Expanded Lib Dem news service launched

Want to read the latest news stories from Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats direct to your email inbox? Just sign up here, picking the combination that best suits your interests.

Even better, I’ve just updated the national Lib Dem news option so that it includes not only the official stories from www.LibDems.org.uk but now also includes a carefully selected range of coverage from across the media too.

Feedback on this additional coverage is of course very welcome.

Evidence-based campaigning: does Twitter work?

Welcome to the latest in my series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. This time, it is the findings from “Does Campaigning on Social Media Make a Difference? Evidence from candidate use of Twitter during the 2015 and 2017 UK Elections” by Jonathan Bright, Scott A Hale, Bharath Ganesh, Andrew Bulovsky, Helen Margetts and Phil Howard.

Their conclusion is a version of “yes, it does”:

We find support for the idea that Twitter based campaigning is associated with voting outcomes, a finding which is robust to a variety of different model specifications and a strong empirical test using a two wave panel design.

How big is the impact of Twitter which they find? Small but consistently positive across different ways of trying to measure it:

Our most conservative model suggests that tweets would need to be increased by 175% to generate a 1% increase in vote share.

If you are tempted to say something about correlation and causation at this point, hold on. Not surprisingly for such a strong cast of researchers, they’ve heard of this too and address the point head-on in their paper. Their statistical approaches are designed to separate out spurious from causal correlation.


We address only one social media platform in this paper (Twitter). We do not know the extent to which the use of Twitter correlates with use of other types of social media (such as Facebook and Snapchat), hence we are unable to say to what extent it is Twitter itself which makes the difference, as compared to other platforms.

A crucial further caveat is that this study – in line with most studies trying to understand the impact of particular tactics or effort – tries to adjust for variations in campaign spend by using the locally declared expenditure. That is, it tries to separate out the impact of using Twitter from the impact of spending more money on a campaign, an important separation as it may simply be that campaigns which spend more money also do more on Twitter, but it is the money and not Twitter which produces votes.

Yet, the long and short local campaign limits are now only a small part of overall actual campaign expenditure given the massive scope to target quite legally national campaign expenditure in specific constituencies. My own estimates for the 2017 election, for example, based on sources from across parties, is that for every £1 that got declared locally, around £8 were spent via the national limits. As a result of such problems, a few political scientists have stopped using local campaign expenditure totals to try to act as a proxy for overall campaign levels. A few, but far from all.

Here is the research paper “Does Campaigning on Social Media Make a Difference? Evidence from candidate use of Twitter during the 2015 and 2017 UK Elections” in full.

If you are a Liberal Democrat wanting to make the most of online campaigning, see my round-up of tools and services. You can read the other posts in the “Evidence-based campaigning: what the research says” series here.

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Mystery Euro referendum cash kept secret

In case you missed them first time round, here are the highlights from my blog over the last month:

Here’s how council by-election results have been looking since last time, looking only at those for principal local authorities (for the reason explained at the bottom of each of these posts). It’s been a pattern again of frequent though not universal progress, with progress against the Conservatives in southern England the strongest trend:

To get the full council by-election results every week, sign up for my blog posts digest.

Council by-elections round-up April 2018

Vince Cable speaking

Vince Cable: Brexit is sucking the life out of Westminster

Best for Britain campaign poster

Anti-Brexit forces gather their strength and break cover

Having a cluster of different organisations all campaigning for the same broad aim can be very effective. You get the benefits of different styles, different approaches and different expertise, bringing a breadth that it is all but impossible for one organisation to manage on its own. Witness the impact last year for the cluster of different organisations campaigning one way or another for Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister. The risk is that you get a set of uncoordinated organisations pulling in different directions and with different objectives. Anti-Brexit campaigners have been rather more like this, but big steps have recently been taken to change that.

As Bloomberg put it, with a touch of James Bond:

Early every Wednesday morning, 15 people leave their homes and travel separately to a secret location in central London, where, over cups of filter coffee and plates of cookies, they plot to stop Brexit. Those who gather, bleary-eyed, in the meeting room are a mix of women and men, old and young. They include politicians and activists, both professional and little-known, though their identities haven’t been formally released. The one thing that unites them is opposition to Theresa May’s plan for Britain to make a clean break from the European Union.

Their aim: engineer a new referendum so the British people can reconsider Brexit before it’s too late.

Six of the ten organisations which attend these meetings have now moved into the same set of offices. Huffington Post picks up the story (can you spot a press briefing campaign…?):

Open Britain, the European Movement, Britain for Europe, Scientists for EU, Healthier IN the EU, and InFacts – which represent a combined 500,000 people – will now be based under the same roof in London’s Millbank Tower, in what staff have dubbed ‘Grassroots Co-ordinating HQ’.

It is hoped the move will allow strategists to better co-ordinate their battle to keep strong links between Britain and the European Union, alongside the All-Party Parliamentary Group on European Relations, chaired by Conservative MP Anna Soubry and Labour’s Chuka Umunna.

Other groups, including youth campaigners Our Future Our Choice, will also use the new hub as a base for some of their operations.

One thing that is helping the coordination beyond physical proximity is finding a shared campaign goal. Politico explains:

Having previously differed in what they were calling for — soft Brexit, no Brexit or a second referendum — there is, [Hugh Dixon, founder of InFacts] says, “alignment” now among all the groups around a single campaign goal: a public vote on the final Brexit deal.

“A few months ago we wouldn’t have been there. There was quite a dispersion of views,” Dixon says. “I’m not saying everybody in all these different forums agrees on everything but that’s the sweet spot around which there is a very large consensus.”

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