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.

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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.

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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.


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