Opinion: Who Decides?

In the Liberal Democrats’ leadership election, for all the strategic analysis and policy debates among the cognoscenti, it is the ‘armchair’ members who will determine this election.

This majority will rely on the mainstream media to make its choice rather than the party’s internal media and grapevines (bear in mind that the average age of party members is about 60 – this is not the Facebook generation).

The electorate is the whole paid-up membership of the party, 72,064 at the time of the previous leadership election in 2006, a figure that had fallen below 69,000 by the end of the year. It is safe to assume that the number eligible to vote this time is no higher.

The turnout in the 2006 leadership election was 72.2%. In the previous contest in 1999, it was 62%, and before that in 1988, 71.9%. (The figures are here.)

It is difficult to determine how many party members could be defined as ‘active’ (as opposed to ‘armchair’). A recent study by Brunel University suggested that the Liberal Democrats produced an average of 26 campaign workers per constituency in the 2005 general election. Multiply that figure by 628 constituencies and you get 16,328. Another rule of thumb is to assume a ratio of two non-councillor active members per councillor, which, with about 4,500 councillors, produces a figure of 13,500.

My guess is that the probable number of active members is somewhere in the middle of these two figures, about 15,000, which would represent only 21% of the total membership. On the other hand, active members are more likely to vote than armchair members.

Let us assume 68,000 ballot papers issued, a 70% overall turnout, but a 95% turnout among active members. This generous estimate would mean that activists still comprise only 30% of the turnout.

You may quibble about these figures, but there can be no doubt that the key battleground in this election is not at the hustings, not at the ‘pizza and politics’ evenings, not even in the Lib Dem blogosphere, but in the armchairs in front of the telly.

* Simon Titley is a Liberal Democrat activist who helps write and produce Liberator magazine.

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11 Comments

  • Peter Bancroft 30th Oct '07 - 2:56pm

    I was doing some maths on this myself, came up with numbers remarkably similar to those that Simon just derived.

    Huhne dominated the activist vote last time around, but couldn’t get enough votes to beat Ming. I think that it’s less obvious that Huhne will win over so many activists against a stronger candidate, but he still obviously views the activists as his constituency with a focus on intellectual debates about PR, LVT and trident v non-sub launched missiles.

  • You can have as many Liberal policies as you want – if you can’t get into power then you can’t practice any of them.

  • The armchair members themselves could be divided into active (e.g those who attend constituency or local party fund raising events) and passive ie those who pay the sub and thats about it. The former group is larger and may be more open to activist opinions.

    I also suspect the turnout may be lower than in 2006. That was a higher profile event due to the circumstances of Charles Kennedy’s departure and scandals affecting Oaten and Hughes. I’d guess mid 60’s this time but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong

  • Sad really. There hasn’t been the coverage we would like. Hopefully, those who vote will be those who are at least actively engaged in the debates rather than voting for what appears to be a quick fix

  • Of course, to vote we will need some ballot papers.

    Given that we have yet to see the Euro-selection ballot papers round here . . . . .

  • Simon Titley 30th Oct '07 - 11:52pm

    James @5 – To say that the activists will hold the balance of power assumes that the armchair voters will be evenly split.

    I agree that 30% of the vote is influential but 70% is more so.

    The point is that neither candidate can expect to win if they focus on tickling the tummies of active members (which is basically how John Pardoe lost to David Steel in the first democratic leadership election in 1976).

  • Dominic Hannigan 31st Oct '07 - 11:38am

    Are we not forgetting the key nature of the MPs. Last time, it was the MP vote which largely persuaded the armchair supporters. Don’t forget Ming’s poor performance as acting leader left him with bad coverage from the press during the campaign where as Huhne’s strong showing did filter through to the media.

    annoyingly, Nick’s site doesn’t have a list of all registered supporters so we can’t work out who is winning the activist vote. In my neck of the woods it seems quite balanced.

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