Liberal Democrat Newswire #15: did you miss out on what got the media’s attention last week?

Last week saw the publication of Liberal Democrat Newswire #15, including stories which subsequently got picked up by The Guardian, The Independent, Daily Mail and Radio 4’s Today programme.

If you missed out at the time, you can now read what got all their attention here – including my favourite scenes of political canvassing from the TV screen.

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Mark Pack

Exclusive polling analysis, local liberal heroes and more

Thursday 5 January 2012

Dear Friend

Welcome to my first newsletter of 2012, which this month majors on the political prospects for the Liberal Democrats, including exclusive polling analysis and a look at the trend in local council by-elections. For some light relief at the end, you can watch two of the funniest clips of political canvassing from our TV screens.

If you like this newsletter, the chances are other people you know would like it too, so please share it with them – either by forwarding it on or via social networks.

Thanks for reading,


What’s happened to Lib Dem voters?

An exclusive new analysis of polling data shows what has happened to people who said in May 2010 they were voting Liberal Democrat.

One of pitfalls of polling is that if you ask people how they voted in a previous election, their answers get increasingly less accurate over time. People like to think they voted for the winner, that they did not vote for whoever is unpopular at the moment of asking and also tend to forget any last minute switches. However, as YouGov recorded what people actually told them in May 2010 and has polled many of them again since, its records can strip out this problem and reveal what what changes have really taken place.

The usual polling caveats apply, including that YouGov’s final poll results in May 2010 over-estimated Liberal Democrat support and that its results can vary from other pollsters. So it would be unwise to draw conclusions based on decimal points. The broad picture, however, is clear – and in fact the findings help explain those pollster differences.

It is a stark picture: of people who said they voted Lib Dem at the time of the general election, only around a quarter are still Liberal Democrat voters. Another quarter have switched to don’t know, an additional quarter to Labour and the rest are scattered across the other options.

The smallness of the switch to the Conservatives (under 10%) mirrors the pattern from council elections – Lib Dem / Conservative fights are generally much more promising for the party than Lib Dem / Labour ones.

A big churn in the Liberal Democrat vote is not in itself anything new. The best political science estimates over previous general elections are that only around half of those who vote Lib Dem at one general election did so again at the next. In the past, however, such churn has seen new voters come in to replace those being lost. This time that has mostly not happened, with only 1% of Labour and Conservative 2010 voters having switched to the Liberal Democrats.

There is some consolation to be found in that as many people have switched to don’t know as Labour. Perhaps helped by Ed Miliband’s lukewarm impact as Leader of the Opposition, these voters have been put off, but not so alienated as now to be backing someone else.

(The large chunk of ex-Lib Dems who are now don’t knows also explains the systematic differences in results from different pollsters, because the way in which such don’t knows are treated is one of the major differences in their methodologies. YouGov’s methodology treats these don’t knows more harshly than ICM’s from a Lib Dem perspective, for example.)

Nine in ten tactical voters lost
A different way of looking at matters is by the reasons people gave for voting Liberal Democrat. Of those who said they voted Liberal Democrat as a tactical vote (a full fifth of the party’s overall support in May 2010), only a tenth have stayed with the party. The other nine-tenths have been lost with don’t know and Labour the main gainers.

It is therefore not a surprise to see that amongst ex-Lib Dems, 43% put themselves on the centre left or left when asked to place themselves on the political spectrum (picking 0-4 on a scale of 0 – left – to 10 – right). This rises to 59% amongst those who have switched to Labour. Amongst those who have stuck with the Liberal Democrats the figure is only 29%, although much of the difference is explained by more loyalists than switchers plumping for the dead centre option – 31% compared with 22%.

Three groups for the party to target
The political lesson from all this is that there are three roughly equal different groups to target: the don’t knows, the ex-tactical voters and the missing new converts. That will require a new approach to targeting voters by campaigners, especially as for the ex-tactical voters a message based purely on reciting past election results is very unlikely to be sufficient to win them back.

This makes the switch to the party’s new CONNECT electoral database timely, as it will make it easier to identify and target these three different groups. So if nothing else, a good new year’s resolution for local Liberal Democrat campaigners is to be extra nice to their local data officer as they ask them to push the limits of their ability to tease out information from old data and past voting patterns – and then to get out on the doorsteps to expand that knowledge.

You can view the full data at https://www.markpack.org.uk/files/2012/01/YouGov-Lib-Dem-2010-analysis.xlsThank you to YouGov and Anthony Wells for providing this data. The total sample size was 17,448 adults, of whom 4,300 were Liberal Democrat voters in May 2010. Fieldwork was undertaken between 31st October – 30th November 2011 and the results also make use of the answers which the same people gave in May 2010.  The survey was carried out online and the figures have been weighted. YouGov is a member of the British Polling Council.

Local by-elections: recovery continues

Week by week local by-election results can fluctuate greatly thanks to the luck of the draw over which seats are up. However, aggregated over longer periods the pattern of results does say something about the state of the parties, as you can see from this analaysis of the more than 90 council by-elections since the May 2011 elections.

By-election vote share changes graph

The sort of consistent vote share gains seen in November and December is still a long way short of past opposition heydays, but the trend has been one of consistent recovery from May’s nadir.

There won’t be a general election in 2012

You wouldn’t know it from reading some political pundits or would-be pundits, but the old rules for Prime Ministers calling snap elections have been scraped.

During 2011 Parliament passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, ending the old power of the PM to call a election whenever it suited their own political self-interest.

As I wrote for the London School of Economics:

The ‘fixed’ part of the new rules is pretty fixed, but not completely set fast in legislative Araldite. As with fixed-term rules for other legislatures (including Scotland’s) there are caveats for cases where there is either wide cross-party agreement or no one can form a government.

Caveat number one is that the House of Commons can vote for an early election – but the number of votes ‘for’ must be equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including vacant seats). That means 217 votes are guaranteed to block an early election. Both Labour and the Tories have more than 217 votes, so an early election under this caveat can only happen if both major parties agree. Forget the idea that Cameron might face a politically bountiful time and try to cut and run for an early election – if the timing is good for the Conservatives, it would be bad for Labour, meaning Labour could and would block it.

However, there is a second caveat: an early election also happens if the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence in the government (by a simple majority) and then fails within fourteen days to pass a motion of confidence in a new government.

Superficially, this sounds rather more plausible, at least at first. There is no overall Conservative majority, so at some point the ranks of rebellious Liberal Democrats could swell and join with others to vote through a no confidence motion. But however plausible or not that is, what happens next?

We only get an early election if no one else manages to form a government. Can you imagine a scenario in which the Liberal Democrats decide both to oust Cameron and block Labour from power, either by voting against Labour or by abstaining? Perhaps if the Liberal Democrats were running away in poll position in the opinion polls. But even as a Liberal Democrat member of over twenty years standing, I’ll happily bet that we won’t be in that situation for a good while (the loyalist in me adds, “yet!”).

This leaves just one option that results in an early general election: Lib Dems vote to oust the Tories and vote for Labour in a confidence motion, but the minor party and other MPs gang up in sufficient numbers to join with the Conservatives and overcome the combined Labour/Lib Dem vote. This would cause a general election – but what is in it for those minor party MPs? The threat of doing so gives them a great negotiating position from which to extract concessions from Labour, but it is a negotiating power that is lost the moment the threat is exercised – and can easily be counter-productive. A parliament with a simple one party majority, which of course could happen after an early election, would give minor parties even less leverage.

The very simple version of all this: even if you think it likely, possible or just about conceivable that the Liberal Democrats would at some point vote to oust the Conservatives from power ahead of 2015, it isn’t a general election that would result.

Tim Gordon starts as Lib Dem Chief Executive

January 2012 sees new Liberal Democrat Chief Executive Tim Gordon take up his post.

Tim is a long-standing activist and his professional life started at the Financial Times, before working at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and most recently as Group Development Director at European Directories, a large European media company.

The recent Liberal Democrat Voice survey of party members showed a huge range of priorities that party members think he should take-up, including sorting out the party’s main political message. I think that’s wrong, as I explained in an open letter to him:

There will be more people telling you that you need to sort out the party’s message than I’ve eaten chocolates in the last year.

They’re right that the party’s messaging needs sorting.

But you should ignore them. It shouldn’t be your job.

More than one of your predecessors tried to run the party’s messaging and the result was disaster.

Unless you are Chris Rennard, trying to run the party’s messaging and tell ministers, MPs, the Federal Policy Committee and the Campaigns Department what they should be saying will wreck your time in post, distract from what you could be achieving and end in failure just as it has done for others. More than once.

Perhaps after a few years in the job you will become a new Chris Rennard, but at the moment – sorry, Tim you’re no Chris.

What you can – and must – do is get the party’s ability to send a coordinated message sorted. Leave it to others to sort out what the message is, but make sure that whatever it is, the party is in a fit state to communicate it consistently, incessantly and effectively.

It isn’t just the absurd inconsistencies of different messages from ministers in the same conference pack that needs fixing. It is also the hugely wasteful duplication that goes on with at times every staff member – not only federally, but in constituencies too – apparently wanting to choose their own fonts, their own colour schemes and their own layouts. People work all sorts of silly hours, saying how busy they are – but promptly waste hours time after time coming up with their own versions of what should be said and what publications should look like.

Get to grips with this wasteful inconsistency and you will not only make the party’s communication efforts better, you will even save that most precious of resources in the process – staff time.

You can read what I think his priorities should be here.

Banking reform

December saw a big win for Vince Cable’s vision of banking reform with the Conservatives committing to implement the Independent Commission on Banking’s final report in full, including Parliament legislating before the next election.

The bank industry’s lobbying for a slower implementation than Vickers recommended has been rejected.

You can watch Vince Cable setting out the plan here.

How members have changed their views of senior Lib Dems

Jeremy Browne, Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Lynne Featherstone are the four Liberal Democrat ministers to have significantly increased their standing in the eyes of party members in 2011.

Liberal Democrat Voice has regularly surveyed party members through the year, asking if they are satisfied or dissatisfied with the performance of leading party figures.

Aside from this quartet’s improvement, an honourable mention should also go to Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael, who has a role which traditionally is only high profile when it is going wrong. However, thanks to his assiduous and funny use of Facebook, he has continued to see his ratings quietly move up through the year.

The top five Liberal Democrats in the December 2011 survey, with their net scores, were:

  1. Vince Cable: +63%
  2. Tim Farron: +60%
  3. Lynne Featherstone: +53%
  4. Steve Webb: +51%
  5. = Simon Hughes and Kirsty Williams: +45%

The bottom five were:

  1. Nick Harvey: +16%
  2. Fiona Hall MEP: +15%
  3. Andrew Stunell:+15%
  4. Danny Alexander: +14%
  5. Paul Burstow: +14%

Meanwhile, when asked about Nick Clegg, 65% of members said in the final 2011 survey they are satisfied with his performance as party leader, with the net score of +32% confirming the recovery from the lows of +19% and +17% early in 2011. The recovery still has some way to go to return to the net scores of over +60% he scored in the summer of 2010 however.

For more on these results see here and here.

(Note: unlike the similar surveys carried out by ConHome and LabourList, only paid-up current party members are able to take part in the Liberal Democrat Voice surveys.)

Ian Swales comes out fighting

The Liberal Democrat MP for Redcar was in particularly pugnacious mood over the Christmas break, penning a list of twelve cuts that Labour doesn’t like to to talk about.

Ian Swales wrote,

The Labour party think they can win the economic argument by just wailing about cuts on behalf of their public sector union paymasters. They give no credible alternatives for what they would do about Britain’s economic crisis.

What they also like to ignore is some of the changes that are being made towards making this country fairer. Here is a list of twelve cuts WE should be talking about because they are mostly happening through Lib Dem action and pressure.

  • The CUT from £250,000 to £50,000 in the maximum annual pension contribution to receive tax relief – clawing back a staggering £4,000,000,000 (£4bn) that Labour was giving to the rich.
  • The CUT in bank profits with a new tax raising £2.5 bn a year.
  • The CUT in regional disparity through the £2.4 bn regional growth fund.
  • The CUT in tax paid by ordinary people with the basic tax threshold raised to £8,105 by next April from £6,475 in 2010/11 – and no more 10p tax rate fiascos…

You can read the full list, including the other eight, here.

Elsewhere from me…

  • Political opinion polls since 1943: you can now access my opinion polls database.
  • Political news in one place: Have you tried out yet my political news and blogs aggregator, which brings together the best news headlines and political blog posts from across the ideological spectrum, all on one convenient page?
  • My other email lists: aside from this monthly newsletter, you can also sign up to other lists such as more frequent blog post digests.

This month’s local liberal hero: Poddy Clark

In my experience, the Liberal Democrats are little different from most other organisations in one respect: we don’t say thank you often enough. So I have been writing a series of profiles of local liberal heroes, both to thank and praise them and also, I hope, to encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

Southwark’s Poddy Clark is the latest:

Politics often runs in families with the activism flowing through the generations.

The story of Southwark councillor Poddy Clark, however, has an unusual twist, as in her case it wasn’t a matter of daughter following mother into politics but of mother following her daughter.

After her daughter had been a councillor for eight years in the borough (and also a Parliamentary candidate elsewhere), Poddy herself was very familiar with the Liberal Democrats and local politics before finally moving from Hampshire to Southwark and running seriously for the council herself.

You can read the full piece about Poddy Clark here and you can read all the local liberal hero profiles here.

My latest books

Campaigning In Your Community – co-written with Shaun Roberts, it is a guide for both the new and the experienced to making the most of genuinely local campaigning, building an effective team to help give residents more power over their own lives.

Peace, Reform and Liberation – a one-volume history of the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors since 1679. I’ve co-authored the first chapter.

Available from Amazon
– and you can also watch Paddy Ashdown, Julian Glover and Shirley Williams speaking at the book’s launch.

Campaign Corner: Is it better for a candidate to have a website or a blog?

From my weekly Campaign Corner series, in which three tips are providing to answer common campaign questions: I’m standing in May and not sure what matters most – my website, having a blog or both?

  1. Ignore most of the advice people give you: You’ll find lots of people who have very strong views about the pros or cons of political blogging despite having very little knowledge on which to base them. To sort the bad advice from the good, a handy guide is simply to ask people how many different websites / blogs they have knowledge of and on which they are basing their own conclusions. Very firmly held advice based on one experience a few years back, for example, tells you much about their self-assurance and attitude toward evidence; it tells you very little about the subject at hand.
  2. Blogs are to websites as newspapers are to books. Blogs are best suited for regular updates, often briefer stories and building an audience which expects a new edition most days. Websites generally work better for more detailed, less time-sensitive and more timeless information. Think which will suit you best.
  3. Blogs require a more personal tone of voice. Blogs require a regular, personal contribution from someone who can write well in a personal tone of voice, and so are not the best answer for everyone. A less personal tone may not work as well in theory, but a less personal tone done well is far better in practice than a personal tone done badly.

You can read the other Campaign Corners here – and let me know if there are any particular questions you would like to see answered in future weeks.

And in other news…

I do hope this doesn’t happen to you when canvassing


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Best wishes,


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