Opinion: A perspective on the 2014 European elections

European Union flagThe Lib Dems have suffered their worst European election performance for 25 years.

In 1989, that election was fought by six parties – Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem (as SLD), Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru – which also fought the 2014 election.

Of those six parties, five got fewer votes in 2014 than they got in 1989. One got more. Can you guess which one?

Let’s look at the figures:

1989 2014 Change in votes
Lab 6,153,640 4,020,646 DOWN 2,132,994
Con 5,331,077 3,788,405 DOWN 1,542,672
LD (inc. SDP, 1989) 1,062,178 1,087,633 UP 25,455
Grn 2,292,705 1,136,670 DOWN 1,156,035
SNP 406,686 389,503 DOWN 17,183
PC 115,062 111,864 DOWN 3,198


If you guessed Lib Dem you’re right. To make sure that this is not an artefact of a split vote with the SDP (which won 75,886 votes), I’ve included that in the 1989 Lib Dem total.

Of course, this is not grounds for complacency. UKIP winning 4.3 million votes in 2014 is of enormous concern. But I believe it’s worth taking a moment to note that Labour, Conservative, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru all have had a worse performance in 2014 than 1989 in terms of votes. Our troubles are not ours alone.

In 1989, the Lib Dems were a party of near bankruptcy and electoral irrelevance, going on to struggle to retain 20 MPs in the 1992 General Election (remember the late Sir Russell Johnston squeaking in with 26 per cent of the vote?!).

In 2014, the Lib Dems are a party of government – one that came in at a time of financial and economic crisis. We won over a million votes for an avowedly pro-EU stance – not bad when the mood was overwhelmingly anti-EU. And this came in an election when barely a third of the electorate turned out.

On the same day, many millions also went to the polls for local elections. The results of these two elections suggest voters are making sophisticated choices; something the parties hardly ever seem to acknowledge. Presumably they chose whichever party offers them the best representation and/or service for the level of government in question.

Politics is not about winning elections for their own sake but to have the power to take action – to provide representation and service – that might improve the lives of all (from the point of view of one’s ideology, of course).

Should Clegg go? I don’t think so. Should the Lib Dems change in some way? Yes.

Ultimately it’s about communicating emotional benefit. We are not in government to act as a brake on the Tories. We are in government to help people – help them find and stay in work, help them pay the bills, help them get their children a good education, help them feel safe in their home and neighbourhood, help them in their older age, help them when they or their loved ones are sick.

If one million people are prepared to back us in the depths of political gloom then that’s got to be a good start for 2014 onwards, as much as it was in 1989.


1989 results

2014 results

* Andrew Garratt is a Lib Dem member, who has served as a councillor in Southampton and Bournemouth, stood as a PPC, and worked in the leader’s office.

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  • Peter Chegwyn 27th May '14 - 9:32am

    There’s an old saying that you can prove anything with figures.

    I know you’ve worked in the Leader’s office Andrew but if you have to go back to the pre-UKIP 1989 results to try and suggest we’ve somehow done well in 2014, then things really are desperate.

    By your own admission : ‘the Lib Dems in 1989 were a party of near bankruptcy and electoral irrelevance, going on to struggle to retain 20 MPs in the 1992 General Election’.

    Are you seriously suggesting that a return to 20 MPs in 2015 would be an acceptable result? Surely not.

  • Bill le Breton 27th May '14 - 10:01am

    Andrew, good to see you again!

    I am not sure whether you were one of the team from the Whips office that joined us and some seriously good campaigners from round the country in Hebden Bridge a couple of weekends after those 1989 Euros. It resulted in the production of the People First Campaign packs that sold out over that summer, reached a crescendo at the 89 Brighton Conference but which saw people campaigning on those issues for months and months.

    But the key to saving the Party then were:

    A activist base hungry for (campaigning) action
    A choice of very good campaigns – genuine campaigns that relied on local intepreatation
    An independent and decentralised organisation distanced from the fiasco of the central campaign – ALDC of which I was then acting General Secretary.
    A leader willing to give his authority to that organisation’s intervention (eventually when he saw the activity and hope being generated)
    A group of staff members within the Westminster village (John Ricketts as head of the whip’s office in particular) all signed up to and knowledgeable about integrated campaigning.
    A motivated team (at Hebden Bridge) keeping the recycling and refining of the campaigns going. .
    This quickly produced a virtuous cycle of campaign production, campaign implementation locally, reinforcement by the Party in Westminster, feedback of that Westminster action to local campaigners, further implementation, further refinement.
    It played to a philosophy that was based on helping people take and use power.

    We were then also lucky enough to secure the patronage of Trevor (now Lord) Smith and the support of the Joseph Rowntrees Trust because he believed in the good that our campaigners were doing to the social fabric of our country.

    I am not sure that anyone today in key Westminster positions knows, understands or supports this kind of Liberal Action.

  • Maria Pretzler 27th May '14 - 10:14am

    The only thing that’s missing here is the appropriate bar chart.

    I don’t think that this a particularly good message of hope, when 1989 is considered some kind of terrible example of electoral weakness in most of the party rhetoric I have heard about past elections.

    The one interesting thing about these figures is a chance to think about the impact of UKIP’s rise and, more generally, the effect of multi-party politics on voting patterns.

  • “If you guessed Lib Dem you’re right. To make sure that this is not an artefact of a split vote with the SDP (which won 75,886 votes), I’ve included that in the 1989 Lib Dem total.”

    In other words, if you guessed Lib Dem you would have been wrong. Particularly as you had been so pedantically careful to specify ” Lib Dem (as SLD)” when you asked the question!

  • I have to say, Andrew, that even I cannot find the two arguments here compelling.

    1 = Even if we ignore population growth, higher overall turnout and an increase in the number of parties, being (statistically) better than awful is not good.

    2 = Even if the other parties do have problems, that does not really help us. Whether we have three groups of people drowning with us, or we are drowning alone, we are still drowning.

    The key thing I can take from this is that there is a problem with our system, which needs fixing; however, I already knew that, which is why I joined the Lib Dems in the first place – they were the one party seriously offer electoral reform (sadly, even when we got in, it did not happen, but I will not wholly blame us for that, even if our mistakes did not help the situation).

  • Bill le Breton 27th May '14 - 10:31am

    Maria, sorry to come in again, but the 89 Euro campaign was a shocker – rather like this one. But the reaction from the Party post June was the foundation upon which our successes were built. The grass roots took control of the Party’s campaigning. It worked. Then the leader backed the process.

  • Andrew Garratt 27th May '14 - 10:39am

    Robin – in 1989 the Lib Dems alone got 986,282 votes. If I’d not included the SDP votes on top of this – which I thought fair to do – then the Lib Dem INCREASE from 1989 to 2014 is over 100,000.

    Peter – I’ve made clear that this is a very poor performance for the Lib Dems. A lot of the people who argue for a change in Leader are drawing out the comparison with 1989. My aim is to show that Labour, Conservatives and Greens all had BIG drops in numbers of votes. Smaller drops were recorded by the SNP and Plaid Cymru. To isolate the Lib Dem performance is to misuse the numbers. The very fact that there wasn’t a UKIP in 1989 is material; and that can be seen in the much higher numbers for Labour and Conservatives then. Indeed, the UKIP vote in terms of numbers of votes is very similar to the aggregate change in vote from 1989 to 2014 for the six other parties I’ve highlighted. No, I don’t want a return to 20 MPs; which is why I do think that there is a need for change, but not a change in Leader.

  • Desperate times call for desperate arguments!

  • Maria Pretzler 27th May '14 - 10:59am

    Bill Le Breton,
    I understand that the party’s response to the 1989 election debacle was exemplary.
    Notably, it did not include an attempt to remove the leader, but actually tried to tackle the issues constructively and creatively.
    There might be an interesting lesson there somewhere.

  • Andrew Garratt 27th May '14 - 11:00am

    Bill – my first campaigning was 1988 in the Kensington by-election, though I didn’t really get going in earnest till 1990. From then till 2007, I campaigned; helping Southampton Lib Dems grow from four to fourteen (or thereabouts); and helping Bournemouth win overall control with 33 seats in 2003. In those campaigns, tactics were overwhelmingly based on the community campaigning model.

    If we saw the same kind of grassroots activism this time as in 1989 to reinvigorate the party then I would be very happy. But I don’t think that requires a change in Leader. One million people voted for the Lib Dems this year. Whatever one feels about the campaigning style and message that is still a lot of support. The base is there to be built on – can the party respond?

  • Paddy had only been leader for less than a year. According to the wikipedia links you supplied he went on to go from 6% – 17% in the next election. Surely Clegg has done the opposite so therefore statistically speaking the opposite course of action would seem at least as logical as sticking with him.

    Also Paddy was commando trained you try sacking him !!!

  • Hello Andrew, good to hear from you again. On a less positive note, although I agree with some of your sentiments here, you mention building up Bournemouth to 33 seats, you do not, however mention your fall from grace in the 2005 elections, both Borough and as a PPC, which was very precipitate, and has not really left Bournemouth in a good position in the long term. Clegg has suffered in some way a parallel fate at national level, so your advice to him should very much be based around your experience. I fear the party will take a lot of rebuilding whether he stays or goes (or more accurately, on the timing and circumstances of his departure). As in your case, it might have been better to go, accompanied by apologies for things which were very unpopular to the electorate, and the party starting with a clean slate. By this, I do not mean disowning the EU – the people know we are pro EU, and that has been factored into our vote at Euro elections over several cycles.

  • Andrew Garrat you say —
    “….The base is there to be built on – can the party respond?..”

    Well that neatly shifts any responsibility away from Clegg.
    It is for the party to respond ! (what is left of it after seven years of being ground down).

    Some figures you did not include in your piece is the size of the party in 1989. Someone will know the correct figure but was the membership around 110,000 and was the average age around 30 years younger than it is now?
    Was the party completely and utterly knackered in 1989 as it is today?

    You go on to say — “…………….Ultimately it’s about communicating emotional benefit….”

    Oh really? Emotional benefit.

    I guess the ten MEPs who lost their seats will take enormous comfort from that statement.

    As for the 18 London Boroughs where there is now not a single elected Liberal Democrat councillor – I am struggling to think how party members in those boroughs would respond to this concept of emotional benefit.

  • We got 6% in 1989 & 18% at the following General Election. We usually get 10-12% more in the next GE, its a consistent pattern, presumably because Voters see Euros & Westminster Elections as very different things; one is about “sending a message” & the other decides The Next Government.

  • Andrew Garratt 27th May '14 - 12:52pm

    John Tilley – good points about the size of membership; though isn’t it the case that there has been a shift in cultural attitudes over the last 25 years, such that people generally do not join or remain members of political parties as they did before. As for age – well, the times I’ve been to conference or to by-elections I’ve particularly noted how young so many people look. That may be a reflection of my advancing years!

    Emotional benefit – you’ve misunderstood. It is not about comfort for those who’ve lost. Having lost my seat in the rout of 2007 in Bournemouth, I know that it is painful emotionally. I didn’t see fit to blame the Lib Dem leader of the time.

    Apparently some good reading is The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” by Drew Westen. Emotion is much more influential than dispassionate factual argument. It is one of the reasons why community campaigning works – people feel someone cares. It is also why UKIP were able to tap into the feelings of around four million people – despite the evidence highlighted of the unsavory views of many UKIP candidates.

  • Helen Tedcastle is absolutely right! And this article is pretty desperate stuff. Look, it’s not rocket science – listen to the voters on the doorstep. The activists who actually speak to these people are told ‘we won’t vote for you while Clegg is leader’. It’s actually really simple. You sent foot soldiers out to fight for votes – now listen to what they are telling you . Looking back at 1989 is irrelevant when you have people telling you what us going on now, in 2014.

  • Andrew Garrett – of course there is an emotional element to voters. They feel Clegg betrayed them. His standing is at minus 56, the lowest in living memory. Presumably when you lost your seat, the leader hadn’t betrayed the trust of whole generation if voters, (lib Dems used to have 50% of the student vote ) wasn’t’t perceived to be weak and self-serving and there weren’t an army if councillors telling you that the leader was hated in the country. Moreover, the Lib Dems are coming LAST behind the Greens now.

  • “Emotion is much more influential than dispassionate factual argument. ”

    You’ve hit the nail on the head! This is exactly why arguments about ‘ we must explain that the new tuition fees system us much better and fairer etc. ‘. carry no weight with voters. You can explain all you like but the emotion of betrayal is too strong.

  • Andrew Garratt 27th May '14 - 1:10pm

    Phyllis – the article is not desperate stuff. I am not saying that all things are rosy. I am saying that there is context. We are told that this is the worst election since 1989 for the Lib Dems. So, it is only right to see how bad things were then compared to now. And they were dire. But the party came back from that. Not by ditching its leader but by engaging with itself in developing its campaigning and its structures to deliver success.

  • Mark Inskip 27th May '14 - 1:31pm

    Andrew I am not sure that your colleagues at the Royal Statistical Society will be too impressed by this analysis. As Peter Chegwyn says “There’s an old saying that you can prove anything with figures.”

    You rightly state “Politics is not about winning elections for their own sake but to have the power to take action.”, prior to Thursday we had 11 hard working and very effective MEPs doing just that in the European Parliament. Today we have just one.

    You and I were both councillors and campaigners in Southampton in the 1990s when the group grew from 4 to 14 councillors, the group went on to be the largest on the council and take charge as a minority administration. Since Thursday there are no Lib Dem councillors in Southampton and therefore no Lib Dem influence on council decisions.

    You went to Bournemouth where the group went to 33 councillors and a majority administration in 2003. Today there are just 2 Lib Dem councillors, both the Labour and Independent groups are larger and the Tory administration has a massive majority. What hope have those two councillors of bringing any Lib Dem influence to council decisions?

    To claim that Thursday’s results have “got to be a good start for 2014 onwards,” is frankly a ridiculous statement that I doubt even you really believe.

    We have fundamental problems which we need to acknowledge and address. You are a physicist by training and I would hope therefore recognise the quotation from Albert Einstein “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

    We would do well to take heed of those wise words.

  • Andrew Garrat, thank you for your response. A couple of quick questions from me that I hope you will answer.

    You presumably knew all this stuff before last Thursday. So did you suggest it to Clegg and have it rejected by him?

    Or if this approach failed so dreadfully last week , why should it work in future when yesterday Clegg said clearly on TV that there will be no change in direction and no change in strategy?

  • This is a very telling point.
    Phyllis 27th May ’14 – 1:04pm
    “Emotion is much more influential than dispassionate factual argument. ”

    You’ve hit the nail on the head! This is exactly why arguments about ‘ we must explain that the new tuition fees system us much better and fairer etc. ‘. carry no weight with voters. You can explain all you like but the emotion of betrayal is too strong.

    Clegg is surrounded by special advisors and bright young things, in fact he has almost as many special advisors as UKIP have MEPs. Just a reminder that we have one MEP and UKIP have 24.
    These people who surround Clegg maybe do not have any emotional bond with ordinary people.
    Could be why he and they just do not have a clue about issues such as the bedroom tax or sanctioning people on benefits and thereby driving them into destitution.

  • Andrew Garratt 27th May '14 - 2:04pm

    John – I’m not sure what you mean; or are you forgetting that the leader I worked for – and you were critical of then – was Paddy Ashdown?

    Mark – I’m sure my colleagues in the Royal Statistical Society would have no problem as the figures are appropriately sourced and the calculation of vote changes is correct. There is no inference from the comparison as to likelihood or not of electoral success or failure to come. The figures do give us context. The best comment here has come from Bill who points out how the whole party responded to the challenge they faced.

    You have misinterpreted my comment. I shall repeat it: “If one million people are prepared to back us in the depths of political gloom then that’s got to be a good start for 2014 onwards, as much as it was in 1989.” Of course, I’d prefer the two million plus secured in 1994, 2004 and 2009.

    But I’d note that between the election of 1994, when the Lib Dems secured 2,552,730 votes and the election of 2004 when we got 2,452,327 votes was the 1999 election — when we got 1,266,549 votes. That last figure is only around 175,000 votes more than this dismal year. Of course, turnout was much lower then than 2014; and turning out voters has always been key. While thinking of 1999, it is interesting that the leader of the Lib Dems was reported as accusing the party that won the most seats ‘of riding to success in the elections on an “extremist nationalist tide”.’ Plus ca change …?

  • Peter Watson 27th May '14 - 2:10pm

    @paul barker “We usually get 10-12% more in the next GE, its a consistent pattern, presumably because Voters see Euros & Westminster Elections as very different things; one is about “sending a message” & the other decides The Next Government.”
    I suspect that the recovery in a General Election is largely due to the return of tactical voters, especially when compared with voting intention polling figures from opinion polls in which people can express a genuine preference.
    That is why I am coming round to the view that Clegg should go now rather than after the General Election, having only this week posted why I believed the opposite.
    I expect that in 2015, under any leader (including Clegg) results will probably be better than recent polling and electoral performance because many anti-Labour and anti-Tory tactical voters will return, though support from the latter group is less likely if Lib Dems are not perceived as an alternative to Tories. Also, I cannot rule out a persistent anti-Clegg / anti-LibDem vote damaging the party’s prospects since that is what I will be doing if the party does not change direction. I believe that replacing Clegg now would lead to a better recovery in support than would otherwise be the case, and would allow a new leader to demonstrate an improvement. I suspect that Clegg and his advisers want him to hang on so that he can point to a similar sort of recovery in the General Election results.
    It might be unfair to make Clegg a scapegoat for the shared failings of other senior Lib Dem MPs, but perhaps that is best for the party as a whole. If it is the will of the party is to move forward as an economically liberal / Orange Book one (whatever that means) rather than a more leftist one (whatever that means) then it won’t win me back, but so be it. In any case, a new leader might be able to communicate the party’s message without the baggage that has become personally attached to Clegg and mark a change in the way that coalition is presented.

  • Jayne Mansfield 27th May '14 - 2:25pm

    @ John Tilley,
    I think that Nick Clegg and his advisors must come from such rarified backgrounds they really cannot comprehend what devastating effect their behaviour has had on people. Do they get get their understanding from a book? Page 14……

    ‘ Yes we betrayed you, but we felt bad about doing it. It hurt us more than it hurt you, but let us explain why we did it. So now you see, we are the real victims.

  • Heken I agree with everything you say and on the point if eschewing limousines in times if austerity, this reminds us that before the election Nick Clegg criticised the previous administration for the number of SPADS but in government he has the highest number of SPADS – 21 at the last count, costing well over one million pounds! While telling us that ‘the country cannot afford….”

    Is there anything that this man says that can be trusted!

  • Helen apologies for dyslexic keyboard!

  • Thank you, Dr Pangloss

  • “We usually get 10-12% more in the next GE, its a consistent pattern …”

    Paul, you know that’s not true, because I pointed out on another thread that in 1999-2001 the increase was only half of that, and that on that basis the Lib Dems would poll (from memory) 12.5% next year, the worst result since 1970, when the Liberals won 6 seats.

    Why do you keep saying these things, when it’s been pointed out to you they’re not true?

  • Alex Macfie 28th May '14 - 9:56am

    we should not have made Clegg the central figure in the Euro election campaign. It should have been led by our MEPs, our PEB should have had several of our MEPs showcasing what THEY had done in the European Parliament to shape EU policy. By having Clegg as the front person, our campaign was associated with the Coalition, when we needed to emphasize the independence of our MEPs from what happens at Westminster. We needed to show what our elected representatives do when they are free to advance the undiluted Lib Dem line on issues affecting the whole of this country. The leader-focused campaign was a BIG mistake.

  • Alex, Labour made their election strategy for Euro and locals all about national issues and it didn’t do then much harm

  • But they’re in opposition, and their leader isn’t toxic.

  • Labour get 30% regardless as we have seen many times. Milliband has added nothing to that number, so in their context he is.

  • Tabman,

    Labour get 30% regardless as we have seen many times. Milliband has added nothing to that number, so in their context he is.

    Actually Labour increased their Euro vote to the highest level since 1999 with an increase of nearly 10% over last time and up 7 MEPs, despite UKIP undoubtedly taking a large chunk of their support.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 28th May '14 - 11:51am

    Bill and Maria,
    That is my position too. Back to the activists, regain members who have left [and are on the left] when other parties are not what they want to campaign for. It will happen slowly because members realise that you gain others slowly and lose them rapidly – especially if relying on central messages which have recently been unworthy of us. And don’t concentrate on the losing part of the party who thought they could gain a career by deserting activists. Now they know will they change? If they don’t we will have to lose them.

  • Anthony. I suggest you change the electorate as they’re clearly voting the wrong way!

  • g. This is a party aspiring go be the next government. 20 years avo Blair was over 50% and headed for a landslide.

    Nearly all lib dem votes come from the change pool. Labour have a 30% bedrock that they don’t have to do anything for. That they are not beyond this shows how toxic Miliband is.

  • Anthony. The electorate get what they vote for, and by extension what they deserve. They are always right.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 28th May '14 - 1:01pm

    Well Mrs Mayor of Watford – 4th term in office I think. That lady is amazing and could teach the young careerist people in our HQ a thing or two. Get out on the streets and greet citizens, listen to them and be a good liberal democrat by supporting the people of every party – thereby helping your own party as well. It’s very hard work and only for the fittest!

  • Anthony. I’m not advocating aping ukip, quite the opposite. But what can you do when most don’t bother and the few that do are si susceptible to simplistic rubbish?

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