Who is ahead in the Lib Dem leadership race? Read survey results in Lib Dem Newswire #126

Liberal Democrat Newswire #126 came out last week with the results of a survey of party members on who they are going to vote for as the next Liberal Democrat leader and why. Whoever wins is going to face a big challenge with the public – so the choice is an important one to get right. If you’re one of the members who hasn’t voted yet, it may also help you make up your mind.

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.

Dr Mark Pack's Liberal Democrat Newswire - email header

Welcome to Liberal Democrat Newswire #126, bringing the results of my now traditional leadership election survey of party members on the day voting starts in the contest to succeed Vince Cable.

The traditional pattern of Liberal Democrat leadership contests is that the frontrunner wins, but by a much smaller margin that most people were expecting. Will this be the pattern again, with Jo Swinson winning by a small margin? Previous patterns, of course, are not a sure guide to future events, and indeed the Conservative Party’s pattern in its leadership contests (of their frontrunner not winning) looks about to be broken.

So let’s see what the data says may happen this time for the Lib Dems…

Best wishes and thank you to everyone who took time to take part in the survey,


In this edition:

Jo Swinson and Ed Davey

A strange contest to be similar

In many ways it has been an odd leadership contest, as caught by one of the final questions at the leadership hustings held at Gatwick airport. Jo Swinson and Edward Davey were asked how they differ from each other. Neither relished the opportunity this gave to set out a reason to vote for themselves. Instead, both spent much of their answers emphasising how alike they are. It is as if each has a message of ‘vote for me because I am much like the other’.

Yet a key part of a great campaign is to define the job in a way that you, and only you, can do – giving voters a clear reason to pick you rather than anyone else. Neither have really succeeded in doing that, and so it’s no surprise that so many members have said they are struggling to pick between them.

The upside to all that, of course, is also that many members say they will be happy whoever wins. Members also can be grateful that the narcissism of small differences has not driven a bad-tempered campaign that sows dissension amongst party ranks.

Even so, it’ll be crucial for whoever wins to be willing to use much more distinctive messaging as our leader than they’ve been willing to use in their campaign to get to be leader.

A note on methodology

I try to remember to call these surveys just that and not opinion polls because they are self-selecting and do not use a random sample of party members. However, previous surveys have, when able to be judged against subsequent party votes, proved a good guide to party opinion. Most notably, my 2015 survey got closer to the leadership election result than other surveys, polls and predictions. In addition, the number of questions asked about participants provide a variety of ways to protect against fake responses and the like.

This time around, after removing various dodgy and duplicate entries, responses with fake emails and the like, 2,863 valid entries remained. Plenty enough to deal with fluctuations due to random chance, but how might these results be systematically skewed?

Most importantly, they are skewed towards people who are the sort of members who come to hustings. Overall, between 5,000 and 10,000 members will make it to a hustings and around 65,000 votes are likely to be cast. But in the survey, 45% said they had or would attend a hustings. Hustings attendees come out with answers a little more favourable for Davey than Swinson. That matches also what I’ve heard from people who have been to hustings and my own timings on the length of applause at several: Davey comes out with more applause and with more favourable comments. So the bias towards hustings attendees in this survey may bias the results in Davey’s favour.

On similar lines, the results are skewed towards those who are more active in the party and who have been members for longer. Again, that benefits Davey over Swinson somewhat, as does – perhaps counter-intuitively – the survey’s findings that Davey’s support is higher with women than with men given that overall the responses are more male than the party’s membership.

However, nearly all the surveys were completed before the big waves of posted mailings from the candidates. As Davey generally has out-posted Swinson 2:1 this may, therefore, dampen his results, balancing out some of the above trends.

I had considered reweighting all the figures to attempt to adjust for these biases, but in the end the amount of ‘black box magic’ that would mean rests behind the figures given the absence of good data to come up with the weightings means I have gone instead for raw totals (with the dodgy returns removed) and this health warning. Take the figures that follow as being plus or minus something like 5% given the sorts of plausible levels of net bias once all the above factors are taken into account.

The best campaign?

Bearing in mind the caveat about the timing of posted mailings, for the early and middle stretch of the campaign at least members see Jo Swinson’s campaign as having had the most impact so far: 28% pick her campaign, 22% Ed Davey’s campaign and the rest either rate both campaigns as equal in impact or both underwhelming.

Swinson’s small lead reflects the contact rates for the campaigns. She edges Davey 63% – 57% for members having seen media coverage of her campaign, 61% – 57% for social media updates and 41% – 39% for email messages. Davey’s campaign outperforms but only at very low levels on literature – 9% – 5% (though note the caveat above) – and phone calls (2% – 1%).

Given how very popular Jo Swinson was in the hypothetical match-ups for the 2017 leadership contest that wasn’t, and the polling evidence giving her an edge before the campaign started, even a score draw on this campaign counts as a win for her as it has been Ed Davey who has had to do the catching up.

What do members make of the candidates?

Two words summarise the answers: charisma – Jo Swinson is seen as having much more – and experience – where Ed Davey is seen as having the advantage. Those findings in this survey mirror comments on social media.

But what are members looking for from a leader?

What attributes do members want their leader to have?

I copied a question previously asked of Liberal Democrat members by Professor Tim Bale about what characteristics people are looking for from a party leader. It gave a series of possible characteristics and asks members to pick the three they think matter the most.

Top came, “Being a good communicator” with 33% picking it as the most important trait and 71% putting it in their top three. Next came, “Appealing to the average voter”, with 16% putting it top and 41% putting it in their top three. There was also a strong showing for “Being in touch with ordinary people” with 32% putting it in their top three and “intelligence” was a top three pick for 25%.

Down at the other end of the scale, only 11% picked “being able to unite the party” as a top three skill (a reflection of the party’s unity at the moment most likely rather than a principled rejection of unity), 15% picked “coming across as likeable” (an answer I don’t quite believe – I strongly suspect that a non-likeable person would end up being downrated other criteria) and, perhaps oddly, only 16% picked “being good in a crisis” with 18% picking “ability to negotiate and strike deals”.

Both of these last two also came out very lowly when Tim Bale did research into Lib Dem members shortly after the 2015 general election. Even so, it’s a surprise that the imminence of more Brexit debates and the strong possibility of hung Parliaments hasn’t resulted in members rating such skills more highly.

That Ed Davey has made a lot of his negotiating record in the campaign is, therefore, likely to turn out to be an ineffective tactic given the low importance members give to this characteristic. Likewise, that Swinson is the one who scores better on charisma is a promising sign for her campaign given how being a good communicator came out so clearly as the top trait.

Europe: Lib Dem members like it

Possibly a survey wasn’t required to reveal this.

A massive 3% either think the party should drop its opposition to Brexit or don’t know. The other 97% want the Liberal Democrats to remain firmly pro-European. 62% back a People’s Vote, whilst 35% want Article 50 to be revoked immediately.

It’s a similar pattern if there is a general election before a decision is made on Brexit with 36% then thinking the party’s manifesto should set out to revoke Article 50 and 61% wanting it to contain a People’s Vote.

Deals with other parties

This has been an area of some difference between Edward Davey and Jo Swinson during the campaign, but it looks unlikely to be much of a vote winner for either.

That’s because not only did 53% of members go for the ‘moderate’ option of “Limited pacts: cooperate with others on campaigns and policy discussions, with pacts in individual seats on a case-by-case basis” but also other members split pretty evenly between wanting to be more or less welcoming of pacts.

20% go for the more anti-pact line of, “Cooperate but no pacts: cooperate with others on campaigns and policy discussions, but no electoral pacts” and 21% go for the more pro-pact line of, “Remain Alliance: seek one joint pro-EU candidate in each seat at the next general election and any Parliamentary by-elections”.

Lib Dem Newswire: survey results

Voting intention

(Hello to those readers who skipped straight to this bit!)

Respondents were asked to rate how likely it is that they will vote for each candidate on a 1-10 scale. This has been used to break the replies down into strong supporters of each candidate (a high score for them and a notably lower score for the other) and undecided voters (the rest).

Jo Swinson 40%
Undecided 40%
Ed Davey 20%

In a forced head-to-head with the undecideds allocated to whoever they rate higher, this becomes:

Jo Swinson 60%
Ed Davey 40%

(I’ve not rounded off these numbers to the nearest multiple of ten; they all come to a number ending in zero of their own volition when given to zero decimal places.)

Given how high that undecided category is, there is scope for a strong Davey finish to make the final result look much closer. However, the views of undecideds on the other questions in the survey are pretty similar to those who have made up their minds, suggesting that, unless something dramatic happens, they will end up splitting in similar ways.

Ready your plaudits to send my way or eggs to apply to my face depending on how the actual result turns out…

A microphone

Exclusive Davey and Swinson interviews

Episodes #11 and #12 of Never Mind The Bar Charts have exclusive interviews with the two candidates for leadership of the Liberal Democrats, following an interview with a former leader to find out his advice for the new one:

  • Tim Farron interview: “Total Marmite – Tim Farron’s advice for the new leader.”
  • Jo Swinson interview: “Mark Pack interviews would-be Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson about why she wants the job. The topics they discuss include what she thinks of the SNP, what she’d do in a hung Parliament and how the party can be more successful.”
  • Ed Davey interview: “Mark Pack interviews would-be Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey about why he’s decided now is the time to run for leader. They also discuss the Coalition Government, environmental policy and how to defeat Boris Johnson.”

You can also find Never Mind The Bar Charts on the web or in your favourite podcast app.

Find Never Mind The Bar Charts on social media
Like the show? Do follow on Twitter or Facebook. It’s a great way to hear more about the podcast – and to let your friends and colleagues know about it too.

A 'thank yoiu' message with a small plant - CC0 Public Domain photo

Liberal Democrat Newswire is provided for free. Thank you so much to all the kind readers who donate to help cover its costs. It’s quick and easy to sign up for a small regular donation with a direct debit using GoCardless:

Thank you! (Other donation options, including by PayPal or cheque, are here.)

Chuka Umunna takes up Lib Dem post

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

Spot any stories which you think I should be covering? Do drop me an email – always appreciated.

Sarah Olney being re-selected in Richmond Park

Liberal Democrat selection news

Selections of Westminster Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) since last time have included Humaira Ali in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Victoria Charleston in Salisbury, Tom Deakin in my former hometown of Exeter, Paula Ferguson in Winchester, Ruth Gripper in Truro and Falmouth and Sarah Olney in Richmond Park.

You can check on all the selections which have been made public in the prospective candidate list on my website, which includes a batch of other selections from Wales too.

Good luck to them all and if you have been recently selected yourself, this list of tips will, I hope, be useful.

As ever tips on omissions from that list much appreciated; please let me know privately as sometimes a name isn’t yet listed because the local party hasn’t yet press released it.

What the voters are saying, part 1

Here’s how the opinion polls are now looking, having had a chance to settle down a little after the drama of the European elections:

Opinion polls scorecard

To get updates about voting intention opinion polls, sign up for Polling UnPacked.

What the voters are saying, part 2

Council by-election results since May 2019 local elections

There’s been a welcome return to normality with council by-elections in the last few weeks – that is, a picture of some big Liberal Democrat gains:

One other councillor change I have spotted is the Mayor of Littlehampton, who is also a district councillor, quitting the party.

To get the full council by-election results every week, sign up for my blog posts digest and to be prepared for a council by-election in your patch, see my 7-step guide to getting ready in advance.

Other Liberal Democrats in the news

  • “The whole country must be heard on Brexit, not just the Tories. That’s why we need a Final Say”, says Vince Cable.
  • Catherine Bearder elected to lead Liberal Democrat MEPs, with Luisa Porritt as her deputy.
  • Norman Lamb gets a knighthood.
  • And finally, long-time activists may remember US consultant Rick Ridder who helped on many Liberal Democrat campaigns. There’s a lovely profile of him and his campaign consultant daughter in the Huffington Post.

Thank you for reading

This monthly email newsletter isn’t the only list I run. You can sign up for others, such as to get the latest political opinion polls news here.

And if you are looking for a speaker or trainer for a Liberal Democrat event, do get in touch.

Best wishes,


7 responses to “Who is ahead in the Lib Dem leadership race? Read survey results in Lib Dem Newswire #126”

  1. Would Swinson be parachuted into a safe English seat if she wins? Or as leader will she be proposing and debating about policies (on e.g. health, policing or education) that have zero bearing on her Scottish constituents, which she presumably (?) wouldn’t even vote on???

    • Once elected leader, she would not as leader be acting in a capacity for which she was chosen by her constituents, so she would not be responsible to them for decisions taken as leader that did not affect them. She would be responsible to Liberal Democrat members in general, the great majority of whom are in England. The same objection could have been made about the leaderships of Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy, but no-one seemed to be bothered.

  2. I deplore this bad example you are setting here.
    We all know that surveys(in general) are not reliable and that some polls used by the media, and the commercial world especially, are carefully designed to give a desired outcome. And that is because, as we know, humans can be like sheep, and that people do like to ‘back the winner’, so if in doubt will just follow what the polls(or the bookies) predict.
    We should be whiter-than-white within the party that seeks a clean democracy.
    Polls are banned in some countries in the run-up to an election, and rightly so.

    • I’m a liberal Peter; I’m averse to banning things, and all the more so in restricting the supply of information to voters about an election they are taking part in. More information is a good thing, as long as it’s honest and clear – and the details of the survey and reasons to trust/doubt it are all provided.

  3. I value the contribution that Mark makes to the liberal cause and the LibDems (separate but aligned) via his writings. I am a confirmed and unsurprising Ed4Leader advocate. Any survey that reflects the sentiments of an active and energized subset of the party membership is possibly less representative of the total party membership. I am more confident that at least 75 percent of overall membership (an electorate of significant numbers) will be tempted to vote. Higher turnout and later voting (electronic or paper) is likely to see the result reflect a broader group beyond the active survey participants. What Mark has done is turned our minds to the importance of this ballot. This is the most important liberal decision in over 20 years …. getting this right is critical for our four nations. Time for a national government followed by a LibDem government.

  4. Mark, I accept your ‘liberal’ argument, but telling people how the result looks before it happens can and will influence those who haven’t voted.. note how the tory debacle has evolved, in part as a result of publicising such surveys of members.. If they had done their election by one STV ballot, instead of weeks of ‘publicity for the party’ elimination rounds, how different it might have been..(not that any of their candidates are a patch on our two)
    oh, and by the way.. an election is not a ‘race’, it is a choice, a selection, so comparisons with racing, betting odds, etc, should equally be avoided.

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