The Liberal Democrats need a core votes strategy

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 that 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.

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.

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.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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32 Comments

  • If you defined yourself as the party of the left, then you would easily be able to court the voters that are disenfranchised with the nu-labour / conservative right. To do that, you should actually stand up for civil liberties, welfare, public services.

  • Simon Titley 26th Jun '12 - 10:20am

    Mark is spot on. I made this point in an opinion piece here in November 2008:
    http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-the-bnp-membership-list-and-the-lessons-for-lib-dems-6175.html

    Mark doesn’t say which people constitute the Liberal Democrats’ core vote, but my 2008 article identifies them.

    I also analysed how the lack of a core vote has been a major factor behind our current low poll ratings in last August’s edition of Liberator:
    http://www.liberator.org.uk/article.asp?id=224704181

  • Martin Pierce 26th Jun '12 - 1:33pm

    Excellent article, Mark. Right on the money I think. It has long been my contention that having never slogged through no hoper elections or fought the everyday battles community politicians fight, Nick Clegg doesn’t really understand the strength of the party – genuinely and demonstrably being on people’s side and working in and for local communities, or its weakness which as you point out is a very small core vote. This makes him dangerous to the party because he neither plays naturally with the grain of its ‘brand’ nor instinctively sees political (electoral) disasters coming

  • Tony Dawson 26th Jun '12 - 2:17pm

    “Since 2010 the ‘revive David Owen strategy‘ (economic competence plus social concern) has occasionally been played ”

    What evidence is there that David Owen ever had “economic competence plus social concern”? Or, indeed, half of thicscombination?

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jun '12 - 2:38pm

    I think we have a core vote strategy. It was the one which for years Tory press commentators used to urge us to take in their annual article when due to our conference taking place they dropped their usual policy of ignoring us. It’s the one which the right-wing fringe in our party who appeared from nowhere a few years back were vociferous in saying would win us a big group of voters just waiting out there for some party to offer it. Extreme free market economics, which certain groups have been working very hard to steal the word and get called “liberal”. When the coalition was formed, these people were urging us “This is it, stand up and show you are proud to be in government”, with the aim being that the main thing that would distinguish us from the Conservatives would be a little social liberalism where it did not conflict with economic liberalism e.g. pushing for gay marriage.

    Thanks to their efforts, this is what a large part of the country thinks we are about, so now where are the votes?

    I’m afraid from what Clegg has been saying recently it really does look like this is the strategy he is pursuing – throwing away too much that ordinary people do care about for a few symbolic things which actually they don’t.

  • Gareth Jones 26th Jun '12 - 4:50pm

    An excellent article which mirrors my own thinking on the two key ponts mentioned:- a nation wide tour which talks to (and more importantly listerns to) non-party members and the need to find/develop a core vote.

  • Simon Titley 26th Jun '12 - 5:12pm

    I would add that any core vote must comprise recognisable demographic groups, not a fatuous category like ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ – see:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/17/clegg-alarm-clock-britain

  • David Allen 26th Jun '12 - 5:55pm

    Colin Green said:

    “We want people to have a fair chance in life without being held back by the entrenched disadvantage of their background. To achieve this we have policies such as reducing tax for the lowest paid and giving more money to schools with large numbers of children on free school meals. This makes us a little left of centre but this is not a left wing identity, it is a result of our Liberal identity.”

    The first sentence can be summed up as “equality of opportunity”. The trouble with that philosophy is that it leaves too many questions begging. Colin has answered them with the humane view that it is not enough just to assemble everybody on the starting line, one ought also to make sure that everybody is properly equipped to have a fair chance in the race. The right-wing Tory view of “equality of opportunity” is that it provides an ideal support framework for enabling gross inequalities of outcome, that everybody should be forced into the same race whether they are hobbling along barefoot or motoring along in daddy’s Rolls, and that the devil should be helped to take the hindmost. That is what Mr Cameron is now proposing, and whilst we are enthusiastically wringing our hands, we are not able to offer any very clear alternatives. We need something more than a “Liberal identity”.

    We don’t have a core vote any more, because we don’t any longer have core beliefs that we all share.

  • Toby MacDonnell 26th Jun '12 - 6:48pm

    The Liberal Democrats can’t identify their core principles because although they can capture them in the general sense (“equality of oppertunity”) the party diverges in terms of its utopia between big-sate and small-state liberals.

    So rather than focus on a single strain of liberalism, let’s refer to the very democracy which exaserbates this friction.

    Campaign on the platform of devolving national powers of revenue raising and supplementory spending on healthcare, edcuation, infrastructure, and welfare to either the regions, the counties, or the cities, alongside the relevent democratic apperatus.

    This would place us in an equidistant position between the Tories and Labour, who both pay lip service to local government and communities regularly.

    If we could win those concessions in a coalition agreement with either party, we would gain influence on the local level where local campaigners and local candidates can fight for the liberalism they believe in rather than having to split the national party.

    This would give local Lib Dem volenteers and councillors the chance to enact the changes they would like to make to our society in their own communities, which would make government service provisions much more reactive to changing circumstances and local situations as well as re-energise the base regardless of its ideological bent.

  • Richard Dean 26th Jun '12 - 8:39pm

    IMHO LibDems need an identity, perhaps even a personality. That would lead to a demographic of core voters who identify with that identity. Disunity is no substitute for rational debate, and unwillingness to take responsibility does not seem like a likely vote-catching aspect of personality..

  • @Simon Titley. Great analysis, even better satire 🙂

    However, I think Clegg and Laws et al have decided on what the Lib Dem core vote should be – namely the Tory half of the LibDem vote, plus any Tory voters who get left behind when Cameron tacks right to appease the UKIP sympathizers in his party.

    Whether or works we’ll have to see.

  • Toby MacDonnell 26th Jun '12 - 9:08pm

    Richard: An opposition between disunity and rational debate pre-supposes that a debate will end in unifcation.

    The premice of democracy is that we won’t agree and must come to a compromise.

    So let’s not force one-another into supporting policies we don’t support and give one-another power to affect the situation most relevent to us.

    Democracy becomes the national personality, and the local personality becomes the responsibility of the people who live there.

    Trying to be responsible for the situation nationally is impossible, which is why all national governments are unpopular regardless of their take of the vote.

    JUF: You’re reading a long-term implication into a short-term strategy at the expence of dozens of other possibilities.

  • Toby MacDonnell – it didn’t sound like a short term strategy, when Clegg was talking about moving away from Labour tactical voters, those who voted for us over Iraq etc in 2007! There was a quote from around that time, saying something like he would have failed if the Lib Dems are not seen as to the right of the Labour Party by the next (2010) GE. So I think you have to acknowledge that is the ongoing aim of Cleggistas. The strange thing at that time was that (unlike when the nuLabour project was gestating) we had not even the perception of being electorally unpopular because we were too far to the left, so it seems like it was a policy choice by Clegg, Laws and others of that tendency, rather than a positioning choice encoiuraged by electoral or media pressure.

  • Richard Dean 26th Jun '12 - 9:40pm

    Refusing to take national responsibility is the same as refusing to govern. It is unlikely to be attractive to a general electorate looking for someone to form a national government.

  • Agree on the need for a uniting set of principles. I disagree about 2005 – I am sure it could have been better, and obviously the campaign had as its well known nadir when Charles was unable to explain how local income tax would work. But I think the 2010 manifesto / campaign was more disjointed, with some more mainstream Lib Dem standbys being displaced by more rightist ideas, which didn’t really hang together at all. Unless the next GE campaign comes back to more mainstream principles, I see even more activists and supporters becoming inactive. Trouble is, we may not have 3 years to wait for that, and the campaign will be unsuccessful unless the move back is achieved – it may be so even with such a move!

    As for the “Summer Tour”, if the aim is to persuade Lib Dems that the leadership has the right ideas, I think he is wasting his time. The time now is to do some real thinking with leading activists, and then with the parliamentary party, about how to get back to a mainstream track, and then do those things which are necessary. Maybe it is argued “Give it one more chance”, but we are getting pretty close to the end of that particular road. I notice that unlike in previous midterms, the powers that be are not constantly warning the troops on the ground of impending General Election!

  • @Richard Dean

    Devolving powers to the regions, cities, communities isn’t refusing to govern, it is choosing to govern well. I would take a little more of such localism, after decades of government after government trying and failing to govern everything from the centre. What we need, in this most centralised, opaque and ossified of European nations, is a little more accountability held a little more locally.

  • Richard Dean 26th Jun '12 - 11:22pm

    @T-J. IMHO “a little more accountability held a little more locally” is far far too vague to attract voters. It needs to get firmed up, made precise – what accountability, what is meant by “held” and “locally”. Would locals be able to tax petrol at local rates? Define local NHS quality standards? Decide which aspects of welfare they wish to support and which they wish to export to a neighbouring locale?

    Once nationally-applicable concepts like that have been agreed, there’ll also need to be arragements at national level that ensures local things go right, prioritises and directs the flows of funding (which is money taken from some locales and distributed to others), encourages cooperation betwen locales and discourages undue competeition, and polices that system. Those are all arrangements – even laws – at national level, and they are what the national election is about.

    Developing this kind of thinking might certainly IMHO be one way of developing some aspects of something that might fit as a national LibDem identity. But an electorate won’t support a party that ducks its national responsibilities and opts instead for an anarchic squabble of localized powers..

  • Toby MacDonnell 27th Jun '12 - 1:15am

    Richard Dean: Those are all precisely the kind of policies and provisions I’m suggesting, and are exactly the kind of things to bargain over in a coalition agreement following a long grassroots consultation.

    Although Spiderman once said “With great power comes great responsibility”, it works better the other way around: give people power and they take responsiblity, which is precisely how to prove to disillusioned citizens that they do matter and they can affect things, particularly things which matter to them.

    National government won’t go away, and local government will be constitutionally processed, so I think “anarchic” is a bit strong as a discriptor, but if the politicians do squabble then the voters can kick the buggers out.

  • Richard Dean 27th Jun '12 - 2:01am

    Oooooo! It’s good to agree occasionally, on as few things. A new experience for me! 🙂 But the details need to be worked out and agreed and in a manifesto BEFORE 2015, otherwise the electorate would not give it credibility.

    The manifesto would also have to have a lot of stuff about national responsibilities too, agreed party-wide – most of the manifesto would be about those national things – because people will be electing a national government, not a local one.

    And if we did happen to end up in that kind of negotiation, we would need a previously-stated starting point and a few no-crsossing lines.

    Unfortunately, if the squabbles get bad enough that the voters have to kick them out, we might end up getting blamed for the mess.

    Nut in the end, how would our proposals differ from the other parties’? What part of this might be a starting point for a national liberal identity, as disticnt from a tory or labour or even PC or SNP one?

  • Mark -like many esoteric Party commentators you disparage the 2005 General Election result and Manifesto.

    Now lets see, in 2005 we got 22% of the national vote and 62 Mp’s -our third consecutive record breaking increase in MP numbers since 1922 (1997, 2001, 2005).

    In 2010 we got 23% of the national vote and LOST seats overall -our first fall in numbers for a couple of decades or more.

    I know which result I prefer and that’s before we get on to the predominantly Social Liberal manifesto of 2005 as compared to the slightly more Economic Liberal manifesto of 2010 and the dramatically more Economic Liberal policies post Coalition.

  • Toby McDonnell said:

    “the party diverges in terms of its utopia between big-sate and small-state liberals. So rather than focus on a single strain of liberalism, let’s … Campaign on the platform of devolving national powers of revenue raising and supplementory spending … to either the regions, the counties, or the cities, alongside the relevent democratic apperatus.”

    Sorry, you are trying to be constructive, but I’m afraid that to me, this translates as follows:

    “Seeing that we completely disagree with each other on the important things, let’s search for unity on something completely different.”

    “We’ll have to make out that it’s something important. Hey, what about the balance between central and local government spending? So OK, maybe this balance normally doesn’t vary over time very much, and maybe there are good reasons for that, such as the need to spend lots of money in impoverished communities which can’t possibly be raised by taxing those communities. But hey, if we ignore these realities, we can make localism look like a mega campaign issue!”

    “Oh, wait, nobody is listening, they’re all still arguing about national policies on jobs, tax, health, crime, schools etc, the subjects on which our social liberals and our Clegg liberals can’t agree. Oh sh*t!”

  • Toby MacDonnell 28th Jun '12 - 1:13am

    David: That’s only one element of what I wrote: this debate emerges out of the structure, so change the structure, lower the stakes, move the important stuff out of the hands of people who are far removed from its every day application, and thereby create a more responsive, representational system.

    The thrust of my proposal is that the important stuff shouldn’t be handled on a national level in the first place: no-one welcomes national government because national democracy is a way to select your dictator.

    Use the national system to put in some scafolding so that people talk the same public-service language, and within that let people chose how they want to run their local schools; hospitals; police; and tax: my proposal is not just about spending, but about governing.

  • Guy Patterson 29th Jun '12 - 4:19pm

    As Simon Titley says, every party needs a core vote, meaning that it supports primarily the interests of one class of voters. But our party claims universality and maintains it has no class interest. This cuts us off from any substantial class of voters. A party may be founded on principles, but it wont go far unless it appeals to a core vote, and that means a social class.

  • John Carlisle 1st Jul '12 - 11:40am

    Our core strategy has to include an economy that promotes jobs above excessive profits, encourages cooperatives above plcs and demands efficiency over political correctness and compliance in the delivery of all public services.

  • Simon’s article is interesting: a lot I agree with.
    With Charles Kennedy we were building such a core base.
    For a core base we need principles that are distinct.
    These I believe should be a free liberal decentralized society with a wide popular inclusive capitalist system where public ownership of the means of production is voluntary held by wide public share ownership (by deed). We should stand against oppression and against imperialism.
    We did the right thing in opposing the Iraq war, but we should have extended this to oppose intervention in Libya and Syria. To this the Russians got it right. We can be the party of the left if this means campaigning and implementing peace, justice, freedom and liberal democracy.
    What is the term left? We can be Anti-imperialist without having a centralized market Doctrine of socialism or communism which will remove the rights and choices from the individual.
    Let the Labour party follow or fudge those options and then they support US imperialism in Iraq, etc.
    In the USA, their system is growing corporatism: a form of centralized capitalism we should oppose, and I fear it is the road that the Tories are attempting to embark on. Again this centralism is creating dissidents such as Assange and Manning. The USA today is not much different than the soviet union of yesterday.

    Yes, we do have a lot to campaign for. Only with core principles will we have a strong core electorate.
    Are we up to the challenge ?

  • Donald Cameron 2nd Jul '12 - 1:05am

    I am glad to see Simon post as I have been saying this for decades to unreceptive Lib Dem meetings. We need to promote and support a hardcore vote as he describes. People vote by Tribe and Class. In Britain they vote by Class , the Lower Class to Labour and the Upper Class to Conservative. We should target the Liberal Middle Class where our votes are based. As views fluctuate we pick up floating voters at Gen. Elections. One day we may get enough power to force an Act for PR by STV and then good fair government will come to our country for the first time [as I witnessed] since the National Government of 1940- 1945. You just need to go to a Conference and listen, eat, drink and watch to see where our CORE VOTE really is. Get it, support it and then build on it. doncame.

  • social liberal or economic liberal?

    Not me, I’m culturally liberal, because I’m at least prepared to listen to what each side has to say before I make my mind up.

    BTW I’m a floating voter, I don’t believe in default positions.

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