The Liberal Democrats need a core votes strategy

I wrote this originally in 2012 but with the new pamphlet from David Howarth and myself about building a core vote strategy for the Liberal Democrats, now is a good time to give it another airing, especially as having seen the full arc of the 2010-15 Parliament gives a new spin on some of my analysis from 2012. I’ll let you judge if it has aged well or not.

Nick Clegg’s summer tour has one major aim: to reassure, to charm and to motivate Liberal Democrat members and supporters. The risk is that it is done on the basis that all he needs do is meet people, face their questions head on and question by question provide good answers.

The ability to win over people one question at a time has served Nick Clegg well in his ascent up the political ladder, as the key election contests for him have not been winning a council seat from nowhere or a close-fought marginal seat contest at a general election. Rather for him they have been internal contests: the closely fought selections for the European Parliament, to be Richard Allan’s would-be successor in Sheffield Hallam and then for the party leadership.

None of those three contests, not even the last, required that much more than a series of tactical answers to each question. Despite the over-energetic efforts of Chris Huhne and some of his campaign team to make the party leadership contest about ideology and party direction, that never really took off. Instead it was a contest largely fought over different personal attributes. Televisual charm versus sharp elbows and the like.

The risk, then, is that the summer tour is a repeat of these previous selection contests – meeting members, charming members but never really getting that stuck into policy detail or ideological positioning.

That would be a huge missed opportunity as the party is greatly in need of a core votes strategy – and the summer tour provides Nick Clegg with the opportunity to set out how his passion for the media-bubble phrase of social mobility becomes an election-winning strategy for a political party. Too often the party relapses into semi-random lists of policies – as if a set of bullet points full of numbers with decimal points makes for a political message or purpose.

It is all rather too redolent of the 2005 manifesto problem – 10 individually popular headline items but not adding up to a coherent vision for the country or the party, resulting afterwards in an excess of culinary metaphors as people picked over the 2005 result with analogies such as ‘we had the right ingredients but we didn’t have a recipe to make with them’.

Since 2010 the ‘revive David Owen strategy‘ (economic competence plus social concern) has occasionally been played with but is not, at least yet, a clear core votes strategy running throughout the party’s operation.

For the two largest parties, talk about a “core votes strategy” is usually code for minimising the scale of the likely impending defeat. That is because for Labour and Tories their core vote is short of what they need to win an election outright. However, the challenge for the Liberal Democrats is rather different as the party still needs to get on an even playing field with the other two – and with a much smaller core vote at the moment, a major part of that is increasing it to the sort of core vote size Labour and Tories have.

Building a core vote for the Lib Dems: the 20% strategy

Read David Howarth and Mark Pack's pamphlet on how the Lib Dems can recover more

The relatively large size of Labour’s core vote helped it weather its disasters under Michael Foot and  then again with the Gordon Brown calamities. By contrast, the smallness of the Liberal Democrat (and before that Alliance / Liberal) core vote means that tough events are far more dangerous.

Targeting Plus: how we can rebuild the Liberal Democrats

As a follow-up to last year's pamphlet on building a Liberal Democrat core vote, I've written a new pamphlet with fifty-three specific recommendations: How to rebuild the Liberal Democrats. more

For all the promise of the long-term political and social trends seeing the two-party dominance fracture in the 1970s, the perils of the Lib-Lab pact and the tragic fiasco of having a party leader on trial for conspiracy to murder were more than enough push the party into skirting with disaster instead. The merger times too are not exactly happy memories but ones that lead to the same lesson: parties with small core votes are far more vulnerable to events and adverse headwinds (to borrow the meteorological phrase that has become a favourite of those across the political spectrum from Barack Obama to David Cameron in recent times when talking about the economy).

This summer, ahead of party conference, gives Nick Clegg the chance to set out his vision of how to build up a much larger set of committed, consistent liberal voters to underpin the party’s long-term success. It would be a huge missed opportunity to pass up on that.

5 responses to “The Liberal Democrats need a core votes strategy”

  1. I'm afraid Clegg's leadership is living on borrowed time. He won't be a credible leader in a General Election campaign. Everytime he tries to make a commitment people will just shout 'tuition fees'. Every MP and candidate who stood in 2010 will find their opposition reprinting pictures of them signing the tuition fees pledge. Alongside that he will have to explain why we are supporting brutal austerity economics that is pushing the country further into recession. He is toast.

    • Martin – doing a deal with the largest party in a hung Parliament wasn't selling our soul. Selling our soul would have been saying, "hey, we're just another left wing party and so the only deal we'd ever do is with Labour" or saying "forget all that stuff we've said about how PR and coalitions are good for countries, we don't actually ever want to be in one".

  2. I would have described myself as a core voter but not any more. Promising words are not going to be enough to win over those who feel betrayed by deeds.

  3. A party's core vote is probably best analogised as who is left in the room when everyone else walks away from you. Whilst hindsight is both perfect and a wonderful thing, I fear that the coalition has not just eroded our core vote, but also represented a missed opportunity for us to greatly increase it.

    A lot of Labour's core vote is on the left and has nowhere else to go really (with the possible exception of Respect, if they ever become a credible force). The Tories have UKIP and to a lesser extent the BNP offering alternative choices for their right wing, which has the potential to reduce their core if they don't nurture it. As a centrist party it is by definition always more difficult to build a core, as you're exposed to losing support on either flank. But cores can often be as much about who you're not rather than who you are – so that when Labour's core are unhappy with their party, they can at least comfort themselves with the fact that it's still in their views better than the Tories.

    Our problem is that the majority of voters in Britain have come to the Lib Dems from one or other of the two main parties – many only in very recent years, without the chnace to build any genuine affinity to us. They can therefore be tempted back to where they started if they're not hapopy with us. The coalition has seen the left-leaning section of our support (though not activists) walk away to Labour or the Greens. Whilst the upside of this is that we're in a better position to attract centrist 'one nation' Tories, that support would most likely be fleeting and mush smaller than what we've lost. Our party's support has always been more left of centre than right, so we've had the largest part of our core eaten into through the coalition. Getting that back again any time soon will be extremely difficult – no matter how rational the arguments for what we've done in the coalition. Nick Clegg traversing the country will do zero to change that. For many of our lost core he isalso the epitomy of the problem rather than the solution.

    In terms of the missed opportunity – in hindsight, sitting out of the coalition might have been the best thing for our party (though probably not the country). I don't buy the whole argument that we had to go into coalition or be seen as bottlers. It would have been easy to convery a plausible principle-based rationale for why we couldn't go into coalition with the Tories at that time. If we'd done that we'd have been in a position to scoop up votes from those unhappy with the Tories in government, and from those still scarred by recollections of the mess Labouir left the country in. That would've given us an ideal window in which to build a bigger core by better articulating who we are and who we aren't. Instead, coalition has removed the 'who we aren't' bit from us as the public won't let us differentiate ourselves form the Tories any more. As stated earlier, hindsight is a wonderful thing. But it's interesting to ponder what might have happened if different decisions had been made (decisions our party membership backed to the hilt btw, so I'm not pondering from a position of dissent).

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