Thursday, July 19, 2012

Is the Lib Dem "core vote" circling the plughole?

Stephen Tall's article "Do the Lib Dems have a core vote, and can we grow it?" has stimulated a very interesting discussion on LDV.
Image: Nicoze

Stephen identifies three reasons why the Liberal Democrats have historically lacked a "core vote":

"1) liberalism tends towards rational scepticism which rarely equates to core votes, which tend to be any or all of the following: class-based / ideological / tribal;

2) liberalism, at least in the UK, is generally centrist in terms of the key issue for most voters, the economy. As a result, our party’s ‘Venn diagram’ overlap with the Conservatives/Labour means liberal voters are less oppositional by nature, and more likely to move between us and one of our two opponents;

3) liberalism’s disdain for vested interests means it’s harder to coalesce an interest group. We don’t do favours for trade unions or big business: that’s fundamental to who we are. But it means we don’t have powerful lobbies campaigning on our behalf — still less the news media — persuading the public their future will be rosier under the Lib Dems."

The article and the subsequent comments are perceptive, and well worth reading. Some excellent points are made, on all sides of the arguments. It's also worth reading Simon Titley's 2008 article arguing that "The Lib Dem vote is like a bath with the taps left on and the plug left out."

I would venture that three groups of voters who have traditionally come out strongly for the Lib Dems can no longer be taken for granted:

1. With the advent of the Coalition, many of those in England who used to vote Lib Dem as a protest against the prevailing Lab-Con duopoly might well switch to smaller parties - Greens or UKIP, one supposes - or not vote.

2. Lib Dem strengths in the so-called "Celtic fringe" are likely to be severely disrupted by the presence of Lib Dems in a Tory-led coalition, by the SNP having a majority in Scotland, and by long-term adjustments in Welsh politics as a consequence of the growing importance of the Welsh Assembly.

3. Young, independent-minded, largely middle-class graduates who do not have strong political affiliations (and so assess the arguments of the parties on merit) will be much less likely to vote Lib Dem, as a consequence of (i) perceived broken trust; (ii) NHS changes; (iii) austerity measures; and (iv) a possible return to "We need to keep X out" thinking, because of the Coalition and the rejection of AV.
Image: Vaidotas MiĊĦeikis
Furthermore, at the next general election Labour might well be revitalised by being back in its comfort zone of opposition to public service cuts. The Conservatives might well be revitalised by being back in their comfort zone of enforcing economic discipline. If the economy is seen to be recovering well, the Conservatives will be the likely beneficiaries. If austerity is seen to be causing unemployment, stagnation and plummeting public services, Labour will likely benefit. There are no obvious scenarios in which the Lib Dems can expect credit for their role in fostering economic recovery or protecting public services.

So commentators who predict a "perfect storm" for the Liberal Democrats at the next general election are, in my view, on the money.

Moreover, the signs are not looking good that Lib Dem strategists know what to do about this. I'm not convinced that suddenly acquiring a "core vote" is plausible; I doubt that focusing all energies on retaining current seats would work either; there are no indications that lessons have been learned from 2005, 2010, or the AV campaign; some seem to think it's just a matter of crafting a compelling enough message in a couple of years time to motivate voters who tend to liberalism or to attract or persuade other voters; current policy development lacks drive; narratives are confused; and not much seems to be happening to improve rebuttal, persuasion and projection.

And if strategists are playing a subtle, behind-the-scenes game that I wouldn't be able to see, the outcome measures look poor: the public continues to see Clegg as compromised; the Lib Dems are repeatedly out-manoeuvred by Labour and the Conservatives in the Commons; leading commentators rarely have good things to say about the Lib Dems these days; and British political culture remains inimical to liberal, pluralist politics [1, 2]

I'm a natural optimist (How could I be otherwise, being a long-time member of the Lib Dems?!) and I think the Lib Dems have the best agenda for the country and a talented leader. But the situation is not looking good.

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