If you want someone to blame for the fact that adopting a core votes strategy and targeting tightly to win seats are sometimes seen as opposites, then I’m a good person to pick. Sorry. And if you think you really like one and really dislike the other, hoping that arguing for one is a way to dis the other, then bank that apology ready for after you’ve read this piece.
What then is, or rather should be, the relationship between these two approaches? Votes at election time come from one of three sources:
- Core votes are the long-term loyal supporters of the party. They are the starting point.
- Local votes are the support won over the year-round local campaigning and by high profile, effective candidates.
- Tactical votes are the final piece in the puzzle, those who are persuaded to vote for us not so much because we’re us but in order to stop them.
The problem the party faces (and it isn’t new) is that we rely on a massively imbalanced mix of that core, local, tactical trio.
It starts with us having very few core votes – people who think of themselves as Liberal Democrats and pretty much always vote for us. Currently that figure is at around 5%. It has been higher in the past but not that much higher even when the party has been scoring above 20% in UK-wide elections. There was no heyday pre-2010 of a large core vote, which is why between successive general elections there was always a very large churn in our vote even when the overall totals were looking (for us) healthy.
Having a small core vote means you start a long way from the finishing line in elections. It means you have to work that much harder to win. When you are a smaller party and with less money and media backing than nearly all your rivals, that is asking an awful lot. Those Lib Dems who manage it are amazing. They are also fewer in number than we’d like because of the size of that ask.
To make matters worse, it also means that we’ve over-relied on the local votes and the tactical votes to get over the winning line. Over-relied because, very welcome though such votes are, they come with downsides.
First, the downsides of having to over-rely on local votes. Liberal Democrats do tend to be better and harder working local campaigners all year round, and our best Parliamentary candidates do tend to be better than those of other parties at local campaigning. But there’s nothing uniquely Liberal Democrat about doing an annual residents’ survey, preferring to walk off your Christmas excess accompanied by a pile of leaflets or preferring door knocking to gardening in the spring. Other parties can do this too.
We can take some pride in just how much the other parties have copied what Liberal Democrats often pioneered. Self-pride, alas, isn’t convertible to votes.
What’s more, local votes are susceptible to a national squeeze. It is no coincidence that the Liberal Democrats have done worst in general elections were at 7am on polling day it has been most uncertain who would be Prime Minster the next day. Popular Liberal Democrat candidates and MPs have gone down to defeat as voters have decided to focus on who they want as Prime Minster, not as their next MP. (The local constituency ratings of many Lib Dems MPs in 2015, for example, was very strong. That didn’t save most of them.)
To make matters worse, that local vote reliance does not scale well as the size of a constituency grows. More and more, however, we face contests on wider scales. Regional lists in Scotland, Wales and London. Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Directly elected Mayors. The shift in the last twenty years has been to more elections across larger areas. It is also a shift away from the best territory for local vote seeking – smaller areas where a candidate can get well known and where a small team can run an intensive campaign machine.
There’s a similar problem with the over-reliance on tactical votes. For a start, many of those new, larger contests do not use first past the post and nor do local elections in Scotland. There are still some tactical voting type arguments that can be used (especially in contests using the supplementary vote) but they are pretty ineffectual at best. Then there’s also the harsh reality of the party’s current strength: we’re in a far worse position to appeal for tactical votes across elections at many levels than we have been for a long time.
I’m definitely a fan of appealing to tactical voters; it is one reason why I so often defend the use of good bar charts. The reality, however, is that this important part of the overall trio of source of votes can only take a diminished part of the burden of election winning.
All these limitations with tactical votes and local votes brings us back to core votes. With the mix of election types and systems we now face – very different from the party’s 1990s campaigning glory days – and with our current political situation we need that contribution from core votes to be far stronger.
We also need it because it is the insurance policy through tough political times and difficult choices. If one large chunk of our support is really voting for us because they don’t like Labour and another large chunk because they don’t like the Conservatives, then having to make a choice in a hung Parliament or in a major Parliamentary vote is always going to risk disaster because choices split apart our support. (Imagine what a 2005 hung Parliament with a Lib Dem group having to choose between Blair and Howard would have been like.)
For all these reasons, we need to rebalance and built up massively that core votes part of the trio.
It won’t bring success on its own. But it gets us to the starting place from which local and tactical votes can then bring success. And of course when it comes to turning local and tactical votes into extra seats, that means getting those votes in the places where they generate the most seats.
Getting a core votes strategy right, therefore, is about creating the circumstances in which a targeting strategy can work. Their power comes from their combination.