Edition #46 of Liberal Democrat Newswire came out last week, including pieces looking at the Liberal Democrat prospects in May, how polling on the EU is turning out rather well for pro-Europeans and the unlikely choice of Lembit Opik as a role model by Jeremy Browne. You can read it in full below.
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Liberal Democrat Newswire #46: May elections, the outlook for Jeremy Browne and Steve Webb, and more.
Welcome to the 46th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which includes a look at the party’s benchmarks for the May elections and the surprising emergence of Lembit Opik as a role model for Jeremy Browne.
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In this newsletter:
‘In’ consistently leads ‘out’ in Euro-referendum polls
Less noticed amongst all the attention given to the impact of the Clegg versus Farage debates has been the quiet establishment of a solid lead for ‘in’ versus ‘out’ in polling about a possible referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Although a key part of Farage’s case is that withdrawing from the EU is the view of the majority of the country, with a political establishment in conspiracy to deprive the majority of its views, YouGov’s regular referendum tracking polling in fact now has had ‘in’ ahead of ‘out’ for four polls in a row.
Though pre-dating the Clegg vs Farage debates, this switch does coincide with the increasing coverage given to the European issue in the mainstream media in the run-up to both the debates and May’s European elections. In particular, the ramping up of the coverage has seen more attention given to the views of industrialists arguing that Britain should stay ‘in’.
Whilst Nick Clegg’s debate appearances therefore may not have directly produced a swing to the pro-European case, indirectly the debates – thanks to the increased media attention in the run-up to them – may well have.
May’s electoral test: the local councils
British politics is often unreasonably London-centric, but this May there is a justification as just over 40% of the council seats up for election are in the capital.
What’s more, with all up elections in every London council, along with elections for London’s handful of directly elected borough Mayors, there’s plenty of scope for changes of political control of councils as well as in seat numbers.
Add to that the fact that all London’s local government seats have so far (the occasional by-election aside) been uncontested during this Parliament and there’s the potential for dramatic shifts which will not only affect Londoners but also the national standing of all the main parties.
Elsewhere the first round of local elections in this Parliament has proved tough for the Liberal Democrats, so this being the first time London has local elections since May 2010 means the elections won’t be easy for Nick Clegg’s party.
However, there is one partial saving grace in London; Labour did particularly well in the 2010 London council elections, helped by the much higher general election day turnout. Therefore some of the recovery in Labour’s local government performance that has been seen elsewhere is already factored into the London results from last time. The absence of a general election to drive up turnout in 2014 compared to 2010 should also disproportionately hit Labour.
(Conversely, looking across England as a whole, the turnout effect there should help Labour. Last time the European elections were run alongside the counties, pulling up turnout in the Euros in the more Tory-leaning parts of the country. This time the Euros are taking place alongside local elections in many large urban areas, a benefit instead for Labour.)
The London local elections are also particularly important for the Liberal Democrats as the city is home to more than a tenth of the party’s Parliamentary party. Every Lib Dem London MP either holds a government post or has done so, and two of the party’s Cabinet Ministers represent London seats.
The results in London will, therefore, be key to the party’s mood after the votes are counted – and hence the results in the home boroughs of the serving members of the government are ones to watch: Sutton, Richmond, Kingston (these three being primarily fights against the Tories) and Southwark and Haringey (these two being primarily fights against Labour).
Across the country as a whole, the two key benchmarks for the party are 8 and 40%. 8 is the number of Liberal Democrat controlled councils with elections and 40% is the average proportion of seats lost in previous rounds of local elections during coalition.
May’s electoral test: the Euros
All through 2014, the Liberal Democrats have averaged 9% in European voting intention polls. It’s been a consistent pattern across 14 polls and 6 pollsters. This compares with 14% actually achieved in the 2009 European Parliament elections.
At these levels of support it’s very close between a decent and very poor result for the party. A small increase in support, and voting for other parties breaking the right way, would see the Liberal Democrats hold almost all their MEP seats. If things turn the other way, a much grimmer result would follow.
It’s likely not to be until well into the Euro counts for the difference between the two to become clear, so close are the margins in the Euro-PR system.
The party has been taking a rather different approach to this campaign from previous European elections, campaigning much more clearly and strongly on a simple pro-European message.
Popular within the party, the message also has the advantage that it provides a host of people to blame for a poor results – UKIP, the Daily Mail, and so on – rather than people in the party turning on the party’s leadership.
However, the strategy is a big gamble as it’s an approach that hasn’t been tried before – to which its supporters of course riposte that the party’s previous approaches to Euro campaigns haven’t been a triumph either.
But in the past, mediocre Euro election results have at times gone alongside some very successful local election campaigns. Whether a Euro campaign that self-consciously pitches itself at a niche of the electorate ends up helping, hindering or being irrelevant to concurrent local election campaign is a question little asked yet – but which wise campaign heads should spend a lot of time asking after the election.
UKIP: two competing theories
The big wildcard in any Euro election calculations is the performance of UKIP. The contest will help put to the test the two competing theories over the source of UKIP support. Is UKIP primarily taking its support from disgruntled Tories or not?
Leading the charge for the ‘yes’ camp are several recent large-scale polls (or conglomeration of separate polls) from reputable polling companies. Looking at how people who currently say they’ll vote UKIP behaved in 2010, the pattern seems clear: UKIP’s growth in support predominantly comes from ex-Tories.
However, the ‘no’ camp has its persuasive case, complete with polling too. It’s best put by the excellent new book, Revolt on the Right by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin.
Using an all too rare combination of interviews and equations, mixing face-to-face research with number crunching of large datasets, Ford and Goodwin argue that UKIP’s support comes predominantly from a white working class vote that feels it has been left behind by social changes and neglected by all the mainstream parties, who have been chasing middle class swing voters instead.
As they conclude from their polling analysis, “Far from being ‘the Conservative party in exile’, UKIP attracts voters from the opposite side of the traditional class divide to the Conservatives”.
The two camps are not quite fully opposed to each other, for it’s possible to imagine the sort of working class voter who the Conservatives used to aspire to represent, especially in the days of Margaret Thatcher and right to buy. Perhaps swinging back to Labour off the back of the Poll Tax, the early ’90s recession or Tory sleaze, they may then in turn have voted Tory again in 2010 in reaction to recession and Gordon Brown. Technically ex-Tory (score one for the yes camp), they are also the sort of voter Labour used to appeal to (score one for the no camp).
Moreover, the Ford/Goodwin argument sees different sources of support for UKIP at different points in its history: “The Conservative Party are always a big source of UKIP recruits, but they are not consistently the main source, in fact there is clear evidence that UKIP mobilizes discontent with whichever party is in charge. The party won many recruits from Labour during the Blair and Brown governments, indeed more UKIP voters in this period came from Labour than from the Conservatives … UKIP’s success in mobilising discontent with the government may come at the expense of the main opposition party.”
Indeed that’s what happened in the 2013 local elections. Comparing vote shares on a like-for-like basis, between 2012 and 2013 it was the Labour vote share that was hit far more in the local elections than the Conservative vote share by UKIP’s rise (see graph on the right).
Why all this matters is that one theory suggests the Tories will be hit by any UKIP surge in the ballot boxes. But the other theory suggests that Labour could be hit worst, especially where it is the incumbent in local elections and particularly on the national level after 2015 if Labour returns to power.
May’s Euro and local elections will, however, give an early taster as to which theory looks to have the most convincing case.
Note: a free review copy of Revolt on the Right was sent to me.
President election news: no news to report
After the flurry of early campaigning at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York, where two people launched their campaign to succeed term-limited incumbent Tim Farron later this year, the campaign trail has gone quiet.
So far, then, it looks like a Sal Brinton versus Pauline Pearce race.
There is though plenty of time for other entrants, as the election does not take place until after the party’s federal autumn conference, to be held in Scotland in October.
Jeremy Browne goes for the Lembit timetable
Summer and autumn are the traditional times for politicians to publish books about current politics, when the spring elections are safely out of the way and the run-up to the party conference season provides a good hook for interest.
The one notable exception in Liberal Democrat ranks was Lembit Opik’s 2012 book (with Ed Joyce), published in March of that year and therefore getting a flurry of pre-election press coverage about how the book was attacking Nick Clegg.
The one notable exception, until now, that is – for Jeremy Browne has chosen to go for a similar pre-election timing for his Race Plan.
Though rather friendlier to Nick Clegg than Lembit Opik’s book, it has nonetheless unsurprisingly – and utterly predictably – generated a similar round of negative press coverage about the party.
Although Jeremy Browne has cause for complaint over some of that coverage’s content, the fact that such coverage took place was as predictable as it raining at some point over the summer.
As a way to persuade others of the merits of the book’s contents, following in Lembit’s footsteps was not an obviously astute tactic.
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Steve Webb once again demonstrates why he’s good – in small doses
The last Budget included another range of major pensions reform for which Steve Webb, rightly, got very positive write-ups in the Whitehall commentating bubble.
It’s another case of a minister who notoriously knows an awful lot about his subject getting technical changes with major impacts through government.
It was also another case, however, of Tory anti-welfare noises not being met with public resistance from the Liberal Democrat minister-in-residence.
This combination of successful quiet policy reform with a low-key approach in public to differences with the Conservatives has been a consistent part of Webb’s approach to being a minister. As I wrote of him last year:
The 2014 Budget demonstrated that dilemma once again.
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