Opinion: What the US midterms do (and don’t) mean for the Liberal Democrats

I’ve heard a few Liberal Democrats express concern about the mid-term election results. The fear, as it has been expressed to me, is that Cleggmania had a lot of superficial similarities to Obamamania – it was a campaign based on hope, by a progressive liberal who offered something new, and it led to the formation of a government. Seeing Obamamania apparently swept away in a surge of vehemently conservative tea-partyers, several Lib Dems fear that the same fate could befall them at the next election.
I think this is simplistic.

Firstly, the midterms will be bad for Obama. But I don’t think they will be that bad. Obama and the Democrats are undoubtedly far less popular than they were – but the Republicans are not necessarily the direct beneficiaries. The Republicans are indulging the political extremes at the moment – they are not reaching out to the centre. Nor are they united: one of the side effects of the tea party’s success in the primaries is a record number of third party bids by incumbents (3 at the last count). A lot of people who voted Democrat last time will not be voting Democrat this time; but many of them will stay at home, and a few will vote other – they are not flocking to the republicans in droves.

The opinion polls back this up. At this stage before the 2008 elections Gallup were recording the Democrats on 51% and the Republicans on 45%. Currently the Democrats are on 44% and the Republicans on 47%. The Republicans have only actually gained two points, but it seems like more because the Democrats have lost 7. Obviously you cannot lose a fifth of your vote and expect to have a stonking election, but with the Republicans not really picking your vote up, what are the likely effects? –

The Democrats will lose an awfully large number of seats in the House. This is because they did so well in 2008, they won seats that were traditionally deep Republican – seats they never should have won – and of course they can’t keep them. We’ve had the same thing happen in Britain: you can think of many of the seats the Democrats will lose as the Thanet Souths and Enfield Southgates of the House of Representatives. If the Democrat was a particularly good member they might just hang on (as Labour held Finchley and Golders Green until Rudi Vis retired) but a two year term is not a long time to build up a support base.

But the Democrats have a large number of seats to lose. The Democrats’ majority in the House is 75: losing 33 seats in one election hasn’t happened since 1980, 16 elections ago – and that was in a highly unusual election (the Democrat majority in 1978 was an almost obscene 119, it had to come down and even a loss of this magnitude didn’t change the balance of power much).

As for the Senate: the Democrats will certainly lose seats. But the seats they are contesting were last contested in 2004 – at the same time as Bush beat Kerry by what, in the end, turned out to be a substantial 3 million vote margin. These are not seats the Democrats should never have won – these are seats which are solidly Democrat and will take some cracking. Moreover the Republicans need to win 10 seats to rob the Democrats of their majority – and there are only 19 Democrat seats up for election. It’s not impossible that the Republicans will do it (they just need to win Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin and one of California and Washington) but it’s a big ask and they are not on track to do it.

I’ve heard the election described as for Obama what the May election was for Brown. I think a better analogy is Labour’s 2005 result, where they lost a lot of vote share (6%), but, as they had the seats to lose, the result was minimal.

So can the Liberal Democrats relax? Well firstly, the extent to which the Lib Dems are in the mire at the moment could well be overstated. We are in a new political situation and we do not know how the peoples’ reactions to it will change over time. Normally the Governing party takes a 6-10% dip from their election position in their first year – even if they then go on the get re-elected. We’ve never had a governing party this small before so we don’t know if that still applies. But if it did then you’d expect the Lib Dems to be between 12% and 16% – and they are.

However I don’t think the Lib Dems can relax entirely because the reasons for their slump are not the standard reasons for an incumbency slump. People know what the Democrats are for – and now its mid-term they are starting to have their doubts about it. The Lib Dems problem is different – nobody is sure any more what they are for.

To have purpose, for there to be any reason for the party’s existence, there needs to be some distinction between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. Wedge issues need to be identified and the Lib Dems need to win at least one battle.

This is what Karl Rove did so effectively for the Republicans in the early 2000s. The wedge issues he identified weren’t really things the public cared about (illegal immigration, the size of the wound John Kerry received) until Rove made them into big issues. Nor were they necessarily issues where the republicans were necessarily in tune with the public (in 2004 55% of Americans thought immigration to the USA should be increased). What they were, and the reason Rove chose them, were issues where the Republicans realised they could offer something different: a purpose for the party, a reason to vote for them.

What the Lib Dems need to do is look at their manifesto and look for the things that distinguish them from the Conservatives (scrapping Trident, making the taxation system fairer on the poor, Single Transferrable Vote, building a world class education system which is freely accessible to all, regardless of wealth, an evidence based approach to drugs legislation, a progressive immigration policy) and use these issues as wedges. They don’t necessarily need to be issues which are either of major importance to the public or where the public agree with the policy (although obviously these things are to be desired). Any issue of difference with the Conservatives will have some supporters, and will therefore create some votes – without any of these, there is a danger that the Lib Dems will become pointless. And the public are brutal towards pointless parties.

Fred Carver is a former Liberal Democrat councillor in the London Borough of Camden. He blogs on world elections and politics at Who Rules Where.

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This entry was posted in LDVUSA and Op-eds.


  • There are multiple differences between the political situation in our country and the united states.

    Firstly, the tea-party movement is a popular movement based on economic discontent. Historically, and especially today, it has only been the left which has been able to project a mass-appeal to the disillusioned. Unlike mainstream America there is no mainstream right-wing place or support for discontent with the status quo. Our equivalent to the Tea Party would probably be the BNP, although the tea party is not as ‘radica’ (or as egalitarian).

    Secondly, our culture is much more one of putting our heads down and getting on with life, although we moan constantly the only times there have been British mass-mobilisations were for left-wing causes, or anti-war demonstrations. America is fast becoming a land gripped by ignorance and mass hysteria, and for all you can say about the British we are definetely not hysterical. We (the media especially) are much more skeptical and mocking of our politicains, so populist movements based on utter crap don’t hold so much truck witht he population at large. We also are much more moderate, wer don’t want fast swings to the left or the right. American politics is much more polarissed, with the Democrats supporting a moderate right-wing agenda, and the Tea partiers supporting a radical right-wing agenda that is designed to alter society for good.

  • “To have purpose, for there to be any reason for the party’s existence, there needs to be some distinction between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. Wedge issues need to be identified and the Lib Dems need to win at least one battle.” (From the lead article above.)

    They did that during the election campaign. Two of the “wedge issues” they chose – which everyone remembers:

    To vote against any increase in student fees.

    To restore people’s faith in British politics.

    “These are four steps to a fairer Britain.
    They are promises you can trust.
    Together they will change our country for good.”

    Nick Clegg, Wed, 14 Apr 2010

    Have you got any more ideas?

  • Clegg continued:

    “There is one other major innovation in this manifesto.
    There isn’t a line or policy in this book that will cost money that we haven’t accounted for with savings elsewhere.
    We have scrutinised public spending line by line, and found the savings we need to pay for all of our priorities as Vince explained”

    “And also to put well over £10bn into the deficit every year from 2012.
    I believe this is the first time a political party has spelt out its figures, line by line, right there in its manifesto.”

    “Turn to page 100.
    The figures are there for everyone to see.
    We know how every policy will be paid for.”

    It doesn’t say much for their economic competency, does it?

  • paul barker 17th Oct '10 - 4:17pm

    Making comparisons with other European countries is tricky, making them with the US is pointless.
    On the polls, we are anywhere between 11 & 18%, depending on whether you think phone polls or online panels are better. Let Yougov lull Labour into a false sense of security, we will only find out the real situation in May.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 17th Oct '10 - 4:43pm

    Excellent articles from:
    John Rentoul:”Clegg drives his voters away” in today’s “Independent on Sunday”
    and Andrew Rawnsley “Wake up and smell the burning rubber, Dr Cable and Mr Clegg” in the “Observer”

    The LibDem situation is not comparable to that of the Democrats in America. Our predicament (and I speak as one who first joined the Liberal Party in 1962) is that it matters not what policy positions we now take up or what we put in our next manifesto: no-one is going to believe them.

  • Fred Carver 17th Oct '10 - 5:05pm

    Thank you all for your comments, and thank you libdemvoice for the pulpit. Unfortunately as LDV are so efficient in getting these things up we did miss off a line from the end in which I say if you want more on global elections please visit my website http://www.whoruleswhere.com.

    On the comments, the fact that these situations are not comparable was indeed the point of the piece. Whilst it may be a bit of a paper tiger on this site, I had heard the argument made and I wished to offer a counterargument. At the same time I wished to make the argument that just because direct comparison is pointless doesn’t mean there are not lessons to be drawn – or at very least an interesting way of approaching familiar problems.

  • Agree with the thrust of the article. The difficulty for our party is that we presented ourselves as distinct from the other main parties: honest, thorough, consistent, etc. Whatever the reasons, and some of them are good reasons, we have shown ourselves to be not that different. That can smack of hypocrisy. And the electorate hates hypocrites.

    The other key point is that the electorate don’t know what we are for anymore. Truth be told, I think a few party members are starting to ask that question too, to some degree. We keep going on about the distinction in policy between the coalition and the party, but we can’t make the distinction too deeply. By buying into the coalition, we are making a cost-benefit analysis: Lib Dem + Conservative >> Lib Dem in opposition. So we can’t disown any of the coalition’s policies when push comes to shove, because we voluntarily entered into this marriage of ‘national interest’.

  • The merest analogy to the Republicans is the Labour Party. Take no responsibility for the mess they got the country into, offer no solutions, oppose everything

  • Liberal Eye 18th Oct '10 - 5:51pm


    As a psephological tour of the US landscape this is very reasonable. But so what? The two main parties are bought and paid for by powerful vested interests, especially but not only Wall Street. Ditto some of the judiciary. It’s no longer Republicans vs Democrats so much a Republocrats vs the people.

    The US is in crisis, far far more serious than most yet understand. The ‘foreclosuregate’ crisis (which has so far received remarkably little coverage in the media over here) has at last brought the corrupt finance industry complete with blatently forged affidavits etc. up against the pretty dysfuctional justice system. If the rule of law is asserted the US is bankrupt, if not it is a banana republic.

    So to talk of percentage shifts in votes as in normal times is hardly where it’s at. Nor is the suggestion that we should seek, Rove-like to find some points of difference to act as wedge issues.

    How about we try to work out what would be good for the country as opposed to what scores best in opinion polls? The Party exists because ultimately we have a different world-view from the Tories and working that out is what we should concentrate on. Wedge issues would then emerge naturally and they would be the right ones, not manufactured to create difference.

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