Do the Lib Dems have a core vote, and can we grow it?

Is it possible to build a bigger Lib Dem core vote? Mark Pack has previously written here on the need for the party to adopt a ‘core vote’ strategy to protect the party from the adverse headwinds of the next election. I don’t disagree with the aim, I’m just not sure of its realism. Here’s why.

What do we mean by a ‘core vote’?

First, let’s define what’s meant by a ‘core vote’: voters who identify with the party and stick with it through the bad times as well as the good. Traditionally this identification has tended to be class-based: working-class Labour, upper-middle-class Conservative, with elections decided by who most effectively wins over voters inbetween. That class-based voting bloc has diminished since the end of the war (as I pointed out most recently here), but it does still exist.

The Liberal core vote has never been class-based under the mass franchise. The closest we’ve come to a core vote is a regional one (the ‘Celtic fringe’ of parts of Scotland, Wales and the South-west), together with a ‘type of voter’, usually stereotyped, not wholly inaccurately, as middle-class graduates rooted in the public sector. What’s tended over the years to unite them, keep them voting liberal, is an instinctive preference for a party viewed as ‘centrist’ — what Mark Pack terms the ‘David Owen strategy’ of economic competence plus social concern.

3 reasons I think we lack a ‘core vote’

Unfortunately for the party, though, none of this really adds up to much of a ‘core vote’. When Mark and I discussed this a few weeks ago, I came up with three reasons why this has historically been the case — and, indeed, why I’m not convinced that it’ll change much:

    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.

Ultimately, I think there’s a genuine Catch 22 for the Lib Dems… That until we’re a powerful parliamentary force (ie, above 100 seats) we won’t get the real traction needed to deliver long-term policies which connect with voters. But until then, we’re asking voters to trust the Lib Dems based on hope not experience, and that makes it much, much harder to build your core vote.

A ‘core vote’? It’s the economy, stupid

Crucially, there has never been a Lib Dem voter consensus around an economic model in the same way Tories (free enterprise) and Labour (worker rights) have a clearly defined USP. The closest we come to distinctiveness is belief in mutualism/co-operatives, ideas which are shared with Labour (and a few Tories) anyway.

Mostly Lib Dem voters are value-based around issues which for many voters are either non-key, or where the liberal view is a minority one. We’re pro-European and pro-immigration, we defend civil liberties, we advance constitutional reform, etc. These are fundamental tenets to liberals, but are either unpopular with, or irrelevant to, large chunks of the population.

Where does this leave us? I have no simple, pat conclusion to offer. I am sceptical of the notion the Lib Dems can build a ‘core vote’: the Coalition has, of course, made it harder, principally because it’s forced a party which voters locate in the centre to choose between right or left.

I am more optimistic that we can build a ‘core mission’, one which wouldn’t actually be a million miles from the ‘David Owen strategy’ — more responsible than Labour, nicer than the Tories — but which will still need Lib Dems pounding the streets to win every vote the hard way.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Simon Titley 18th Jul '12 - 11:12am

    We do have a potential core vote. It isn’t class-based but is what pollsters called “drawbridge down”, i.e. people who are younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan. I made the case fully on Lib Dem Voice some time ago:

    Stephen argues that any core vote must be based on an economic model. This is not the case. Our potential vote is based on culture rather than economics.

    A core vote is essential. Without one, the Liberal Democrat vote will remain like a bath with the taps left on and the plug left out, and at each election we will continue to focus on re-winning our previous vote instead of building out from a secure base.

    Further, the lack of a core vote is the basic reason why the party is in such a mess, as I explained here:

  • quote – ” liberalism, at least in the UK, is generally centrist in terms of the key issue for most voters, the economy…”
    and – “We don’t do favours for trade unions or big business: that’s fundamental to who we are.”

    Hmm. Stephen, you have an odd perspective on this party’s record over the last 2 years since, as far as I can see, we have supported an economic policy which could only be described as neoliberal-Friedmanite. And as for doing favours, well, the entire country has borne witness to the private sector’s ongoing scramble to get in on the plundering of public services. Voters are not, as you suggest, forced to choose between right and left but between civilised accountable democracy (or at least the hope of it) and the cruelty of the free market jungle. You started by offering highminded opinions of what liberalism means, but that accounts for nothing when society’s disadvantaged watch as their meagre state aid is reduced or cut altogether while the prosperity of the rich goes untouched.

    When 2015 comes along the cuts are likely to be biting even deeper, and this party will be responsible. And will pay the price accordingly.

  • Silent Hunter 18th Jul '12 - 11:41am

    I will tell you one thing . . . your so called “core vote” certainly won’t have many students or their families on board any more after your abysmal reneging on a cast iron promise.

    I voted for you in the hope of something different to the same old Coke or Pepsi choice in politics.

    It was a wasted vote . . . a mistake I will not repeat and neither will many others if you read as many blogs as I do.

    Enjoy your time in government while you can; it will be your last.

  • Stephen, I think you accidentally named the LibDem core vote: “a ‘type of voter’, usually stereotyped, not wholly inaccurately, as middle-class graduates rooted in the public sector”.

    In my experience, it is these people, teachers, speech therapists , health visitors etc. who are the bedrock of LibDem support. They are progressive but not vindictive, believe passionately in the idea of public service and it’s capacity to improve the lives of all, and want to see an economy that delivers for all.

    The policies of the coalition might as well have been deliberately designed to alienate this ‘type of voter’.

  • I think most Liberal and Lib Dem voters have looked for something different from your everyday politics as delivered, traditionally, by Labour and Tory. You use THAT word again (the ‘c’ word) to describe where we stand. I can tell you, that turns many people off, and I don’t think you will find many “centrists” in our core vote (which I tend to agree with you, is difficult to identify). Simon is right, however, to say that we do have a large group of people, who up till now have voted loyally with us – that will not, of course, be so in the future.

    We “went too soon”, as a result of impatience to be in Government by a critical mass in the Parliamentary Party, which led to selling ourselves short. You mention a figure of over 100 MPs, Stephen – I think you’re about right – and going in with only half that has been unhelpful. The larger figure would also have enabled us to hold to a radical programme. Of course some compromises will need to be made, as in any programme of Government, but I cannot accept that an “Orange Book” programme is any more realistic than a more mainstream (ie 2005 manifesto style) Lib Dem programme.

  • Simon Titley 18th Jul '12 - 1:54pm

    @jedibeeftrix – In answer to your question, it turned out that the 2009 European election campaign was run on more or less the same basis as 2004, with a similar dismal outcome, i.e. another 4th place behind UKIP, and a percentage share of the vote lower than the opinion poll ratings.

    @Stephen Tall – I disagree. Culture can and does replace the economy as a key identifier. It is happening in the UK – as early as 2005, Stephan Shakespeare of YouGov detected a new fault line opening up in Britain between ‘drawbridge up’ and ‘drawbridge down’ values (see: It has happened in the US, where most of the grassroots support for the Tea Party comes from people who are suffering from the effects of right-wing economic policies and the lack of healthcare, but who nevertheless identify culturally with Tea Party values. See George Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant, which explains why people vote for their values and identities, often against their best interests, and why politicians need to campaign on values rather than programmes.

  • paul barker 18th Jul '12 - 2:11pm

    The point about the Centre is crucial because its where most voters live, most of the time. At the moment both the big parties are moving towards the extremes, the media & voters havent noticed yet but they will at some point.

  • Simon Titley 18th Jul '12 - 2:24pm

    @Paul Barker – But the problem with “the centre” is that it exists only in relation to other things. It has no independent existence. Therefore if you align with the centre, you are aligning not with a fixed point but are allowing yourself to be defined in terms of other parties.

    The problem is worse when all the mainstream parties are offering only variations on the same economic orthodoxy, as they have been for over 20 years. Then, aiming at a mythical ‘centre’ makes it impossible to be distinctive.

  • Centrism is defined as being in the centre of the political spectrum, not a point mid-way between two parties. Someone that believes in a mixed economy is in the centre. Someone like David Laws who believes in reducing state spending to 35% of GDP is firmly to the right of centre. I would hardly describe the Labour party as moving to an extreme at the moment – as far I’m aware they’re not advocating the nationalisation of the majority of industry. The tory backbenchers, on the other hand, are way off to the right. If the Lib Dem leadership are positioning themselves between the two big parties then they’re positioning themselves between a right-wing party and a centrist party in economic terms

  • Simon Titley 18th Jul '12 - 5:21pm

    @Steve – But the political spectrum is itself dynamic, not static, so if you define the ‘centre’ in terms of the spectrum as opposed to party positions, you still end up merely attempting to split the difference rather than define yourself in your own terms.

    Also, there is a problem with saying, as Paul Barker does, that the centre is “where most voters live”. This assumes there is such a thing as the ‘average voter’, but a statistical mean is not necessarily typical. The average voter has one breast and one testicle.

    In reality, there is always a wide diversity of opinion. Our job is to promote our values and appeal to our natural constituency (which is how we build a core vote). It is not to calculate a statistical average then cynically vector in on that.

  • Surely you would need to be open to either/both state and/or private production of all goods and services to be truly centrist economically, not just ‘public services’ – but isn’t that more a definition of evidence based objectivity rather than an ideological position. The right-left spectrum describes ideology. If Davis Laws wants to reduce state spending to 35% because he likes the sound of the number, then he’s hardly being open to anything is he? His position is ideologically on the right.

  • Peter Watson 18th Jul '12 - 5:34pm

    A very intersting piece, and some very interesting comments as well.
    I wonder if we have had two core votes. I think that one group is left-ish, defined more by being anti-tory than pro-labour, but believing that the state has an important role in protecting and nurturing society. This is probably my group, and one that our parliamentarians have alienated. I think that the other group is right-ish, and puts more emphasis on individualism and a small state but with more compassion than the stereotypical tory.
    Since going into government this schism has become more apparent, and to me it feels like the right-ish group has come to the fore in controlling the party, and has successfully herded the left-ish members in a direction with which they are uncomfortable. I can only see the party going forwards by appealing to one of these groups, and driving the other to leave to become compassionate tories or liberal labourites, and I think that the direction will be determined by the success or failure of the party in coalition.

  • Martin Crosby 18th Jul '12 - 7:25pm

    I can’t see how a core vote is built upon the term ‘Centrist’. People only go out on a wet Thursday evening to vote for an individual they assume is probably a crook and know is definitely a liar on the basis they believe that not voting, or voting for an alternative will materially damage their life in some way. Isn’t that what drives the core vote of the other two parties? That’s what the ‘Owen Strategy’ picks up on: Tories go out to vote because they believe Labour are so irresponsible that they will make that voter poorer and less free. Labourites go out to vote because they believe Tories are so uncaring that they will cause the suffering of that voters friends and family.

    The ‘Owen Strategy’ though is a total dead end though because no one believes both of these facts are equally important, and if they do, what’s the point in them voting?

    We will be fighting two horse races for the forseeable future. So we, as a party need a core vote. How do we get that? We need to pick a party to hate, and then spend all our energy hating that party better than our opponents do. The places we do well have this down to a fine art and we need to start doing it nationally.

    And so, what side should we be? Well, personally (thanks to the coalition) I think we’ve made our bed and so we have to lie in it. The ‘post-coalition political spectrum’ puts us squarely on the centre right, so rather than apologising for that, we need to own it and own it better than the Tories. Their entrenched (older?) core is less likely to switch, but the younger centre-right voters might and everything we do for the next 10 years should be built around cultivating them, educating them as to why we’re a better opponent to Labour than yesterday’s people in blue.

    An obvious response to this would ‘I joined the party to beat Tories, not to become them’ well yes, so did I… But if you think that 1. believing Labour are wrong about most things, 2. our budgets should be balanced and 3. we should try to keep taxes down… makes us exactly the same as the Tories, then I’m afraid the party you want us to be doesn’t exist to the general public anymore…

  • “That until we’re a powerful parliamentary force (ie, above 100 seats) we won’t get the real traction needed to deliver long-term policies which connect with voters. But until then, we’re asking voters to trust the Lib Dems based on hope not experience, and that makes it much, much harder to build your core vote.”

    No, no, no. What we need is a clear philosophy that is stuck to and is the touchstone we refer to in our negotiations with other parties. Establishing a core vote, if that were possible, is all about that strategic level of policy and not an MP head count. We have had hundreds of Councillors and dozens of Lib Dem groups in local authorities up and down the country quietly working away at that for years.

    And the identified core vote (students and white collar public sector workers) is the very vote the coalition has worked hardest to disenchant. You could almost think the Tories had thought about this beforehand and planned it.

  • “Why on earth do we assume that laws has no good reasons for supporting a reduction in public expenditure?”

    He said some that some people from ~100 years ago would be shocked, simply shocked, by high how it is now. Presumably, he got his evidence from a seance.The coalition’s plans for tax receipts (up to 2017) are to keep them lower than the period of 1981-1989 when that well known leftie, Thatcher, was in power.

  • Grammar Police 18th Jul '12 - 8:26pm

    A couple of the comments mention students. The stats don’t seriously stack up that students voted for us en masse. IIRC only circa 35% of 18-24 year olds that voted backed the Lib Dems in 2010. Whilst this was the highest level of support for any of the parties, it still means that a majority of 18-24 year olds who voted backed parties that wanted to raise fees. Whilst it is depressing that a lot of students apparently now would vote Labour, it is a myth that millions of students turned out for the Lib Dems because of their policy on tuition fees.

    On core votes generally – this book consolidates a lot of the research on who votes Lib Dem (or at least who did) in 2005:

  • Simon mcgrath 18th Jul '12 - 8:40pm

    @mike Cobley “Hmm. Stephen, you have an odd perspective on this party’s record over the last 2 years since, as far as I can see, we have supported an economic policy which could only be described as neoliberal-Friedmanite”
    How on earth can borrowing 500 billion pounds over the course of this parliament be described as neo liberal Friedmanite?

  • Simon Titley 18th Jul '12 - 8:45pm

    If you want to see which demographic groups vote more or less for the Liberal Democrats, take a look at Ipsos-MORI’s detailed exit poll results. Links to data from the past four general elections, plus an overview of the period since October 1974, are here:

  • Stephen Donnelly 18th Jul '12 - 11:01pm

    This thread is a good read, especially some of the links to Simon Tiley’s perceptive articles. A consistent line he has been arguing since I was a student.

    Liberals will always struggle under FPTP, and it is unlikely that a liberal party will ever be successful under that system.
    Our ‘strategy’ was to hope for a coalition and then get PR so we could then survive in the D66 territory by getting the 10-15% liberal vote, and sometimes playing a part in government. We blew it, this time. We are now faced with the need to rely on the power of incumbency together with the argument that neither Tory or Labour party deserve a majority, to keep a solid wedge of MPs in the next parliament. The percentage share of vote obtained by the two ‘main’ parties will continue to decline. PR will come back on the agenda, sooner than we think, but we have to build a coalition for constitutional change by joining with the Greens and UKIP, and with those in the main parties who support change. For those of us not in target seats, the immediate task is to maintain a national party. Those who dispair of this strategy should look at the path followed by the SNP after the Scottish Devolution Referendum in 1979.

  • david arthur william 19th Jul '12 - 8:10am

    I live in Pyle in the county of Bridgend, … can be described as Labour Country, …… However i feel that those who claim ”to be Labour” …. are not so much Labour as they are ”Anti- Tory.”

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jul '12 - 11:42am

    “He said some that some people from ~100 years ago would be shocked, simply shocked, by high how it is now. ”

    Yes, and they would be “shocked, simply shocked” at how long people live now, at the hugely greater things we can do (at a cost to keep people alive), at the hugely greater need for much more infrastructure in a complex society we have now than then. Quite obviously when state pensions were expected to be paid out for about 5 years after retirement, less money was needed to be spent on them than when they may be expected to be paid for 20 years. Given that 19th century Liberal introduced these things, I do find it silly to suppose they would not understand the arguments that more state expenditure is necessary because of the different nature of society today. When I look at what REAL 19th century Liberals did, as opposed to the fantasy figures dreamt up by Ayn Randists who like to call themselves “liberal” because it hides their real aims, I find they were pragmatic on state expenditure, and quite often explicitly in favour of the state (sometimes the local state) taking over from “private enterprise.

  • Charles Beaumont 19th Jul '12 - 5:32pm

    Looking at the actual polling data, what’s interesting is where we have a core non-vote: overall vote in 2010 was 24%. The numbers are slightly higher for young voters (30% – wonder how that will look, post tuition fees) but pretty consistent across all age groups until you get to voters over 65 – and there we got a mere 16% – nearly half our vote for 18 – 34 year olds. Given the importance of the grey vote, this is something we really need to take a look at.

  • Simon Titley 19th Jul '12 - 8:30pm

    @Charles Beaumont – There are good reasons why the Liberal Democrat vote is much lower among the over-65s. Think about it. Someone now aged, say, 75 was born in 1937. The first general election at which they could have voted was in 1959. Someone now aged 80 was born in 1932 and the first general election at which they could have voted was in 1955.

    The 1950s were the high-water mark for class-based voting and the two-party system. The people who first voted in that decade therefore have a deeper attachment to their party than later generations. And these loyalties tend to be cemented early in life. So, compared with later generations, most voters over 65 today have a deeper attachment to Labour or the Conservatives, based on class loyalties cemented in the 1950s. Even if they were Liberal voters, the Liberal Party did not field a full slate of candidates during the 1950s, so the chances were that you could not vote for a Liberal candidate even if you wanted to.

    The Liberal Democrats would be wasting their time if they attempted to chase the ‘grey vote’, because fewer of them can be persuaded to switch than younger voters. Yes, the grey vote is sizeable but, to be blunt, it is also dying off. The generation that first voted in the 1950s will have mostly gone within about twenty years.

    There are much better prospects for the Liberal Democrats in the grey vote of the future. Younger generations are less informed by the tribal distinctions of the 1950s. They also tend to be better educated and more cosmopolitan, and are therefore more inclined to hold small ‘l’ liberal values.

    So, given the party’s limited resources, the Liberal Democrats should focus on demographics more inclined to support them. Let the grim reaper deal with the rest.

  • Charles Beaumont 19th Jul '12 - 10:05pm

    “Let the grim reaper deal with the rest.” Love that. But I worry about the very young vote, so let us hope we can shore up that early middle-age group and hang onto them as they get older.

  • @Simon Titley (19th Jul ’12 – 8:30pm)

    I found that comment quite fascinating for a couple of reasons, one personal and one because of the numbers.

    Many years ago (so long ago that the impact of what I’m about to say went way above my school time feather cut), my mother was watching a Lib Party broadcast, she made the comment “I’d never vote for them because they were real b******s last time” (quite shocking as she never usually swore).

    At the time I was to young to either understand or (to be blunt) really care why she said that. But many years later I realised that she has never lived under a Liberal Gov as she was born in 1933, so it was obviously my grandparents who passed down the reason for that belief. She isn’t a tribal voter, but I would hazard a guess that she has never voted for you. (In case you’re wondering, no I’ve never asked her why she thought that, if I remember I may though as it is quite curious).

    On the numbers side, the majority of the generation you mention (born in the 30s) have probably already departed this mortal coil, the latest generation of 65+ voters would have been post war children, the parents of whom would have just been through the wartime coalition government and would’ve seen Liberals in power. Looking at the figures, there is a 2 point drop between 2005 & 2010 for this age group (65+), not only that but the 2 generations after them (55-64 & 45-54) are only showing a +1 difference each between those 2 elections.

    It should also be noted that, if the commentators on this web site are to be believed, you may be going backwards. A sizeable portion of your voters may have defected (returned?) to Labour, so those +1 figures may now be in the minus category.

    In all honesty, I think you really are going to have to spend treasure on the older generations and hope that a new tribal group hasn’t been created. The alternative could be another very long wait.

  • Simon Titley 20th Jul '12 - 1:10am

    @Chris_sh – I think you are missing my point entirely. I was not suggesting that the welfare of retired voters be neglected. And I cannot understand where your mother’s (inherited) prejudice came from, since it was the Liberal Party that brought in the old age pension!

    I was arguing that, in campaigning terms, there is little point in the Liberal Democrats focusing on trying to win the support of the over-65s since most of that generation has ingrained voting habits that make any sort of electoral payoff unlikely.

  • @Simon Titley
    Hi Simon, no I actually think I understood the point you making perfectly, however what I was saying is that the generations hitting 65 over the next 2 or 3 decades don’t seem to be in a rush to go Lib Dem either and the majority of them may already have “ingrained habits”. If your intention is to wait out those habits, it is going to take some time.

    “I was not suggesting that the welfare of retired voters be neglected”
    Nor was I actually suggesting that you said that, the conversation was about spending Party funds on campaigning, not tax payers money on welfare issues.

  • Simon Titley 20th Jul '12 - 10:21am

    @Chris-sh – The difference is that the generations that will hit 65 in the next couple of decades are people who first voted in the 1970s and 1980s. Fewer of these people have ingrained class-based party affiliations, and all of them have been voting throughout their adult lives in an era when the Liberals/Liberal Democrats were always on the ballot paper, along with nationalists in Scotland and Wales. Moreover, these generations are better educated, so that more of them will have small ‘l’ liberal values. Of course, a majority of these people have never voted Liberal Democrat, but they are more promising territory than the people who are over 65 now.

    We already know (from the evidence I assembled here: that people who are younger, better educated and more cosmopolitan are more likely to vote Liberal Democrat. My point is that, if the Liberal Democrats want to devote any of their limited resources to consolidating a core vote, they should focus on the demographic groups most likely to support them and not waste time chasing the groups least likely to support them.

  • I would like to be the core vote of a moderate, centrist party. I don’t like the tribalism of the tories and Labour and if I engage in a political discussion, people always assume I am liberal because of my attitudes. Me and my family all come from western, celtic parts of Britain which traditionally are liberal but until you reverse your attitude on the European Union 180 degrees and, among other things, take back the fishing rights you helped sell away I will never vote for you ever.

  • Just a quick comment on the issue of chris_sh’s mother and her hatred of Liberals. When campaigning in a strong Labour area (industrial South Wales), I found that many people remembered the breaking of strikes using troops, who were not always gentle.
    Many also remmbered the official Liberal line on women’s votes – till it was, electorally, too late for them.

  • Cllr Steve Radford 21st Jul '12 - 1:06pm

    The Liberal Party did have a core vote rural working class communities and those of the Free Church traditions where Liberal beliefs in social responsibility and a fairer society were common valkues

    When you look across northern communities like Lancashire / Rochdale Liverpool wards where Liberals have represented for years the LIb Dem vote has collapsed to all time depths after selling out every Election pledge to the Tory Agenda

    In contrast the highest non Labour vote in the city is in the Liberal party Ward Tuebrook Stoneycroft 73% – a lesson to be learnt Liberalism can survive in working class areas outside the Lib Dems

  • @Tim13
    That would probably explain it then, my maternal grandmother was an Ebbw Vale girl , daughter of a miner, grand daughter of a miner and steel worker.

  • David Claughton 24th Jul '12 - 5:11pm

    To my mind there is something of an irony with someone posting on the Internet asking where all the liberals are!

    Short answer – we’re here, the Internet Generation, reading blogs like this, hanging out in places like Slashdot , Reddit or Techdirt, formally on Usenet, contributing to Open Source projects, or Wikipedia, blogging about Freedom of Speech, Civil Rights, ACTA, TPP, DEAct etc. etc.

    We potentially have a lot in common with Lib-Dems, but if you want us you need to woo us. Start with getting the atrocious DEAct repealed. Then make it clear that when you say you support the EU, that your sensibilities lay with the EU Parliament, rather than the EU Commission. Finally you could do a lot worse than adopt a forward thinking IP policy similar to the EU Greens / Pirate Party. We care about Democracy and things like Lords Reform, but above all else we care about protecting the Internet as a free, open platform, and if the Lib-Dems showed a deep commitment to the same, then IMHO there’s a good chance you would have your “core vote” and then some.

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