Paul Tyler writes…Lessons for our new campaigner-in-chief?

I was lucky enough to be invited to a symposium of academics, pollsters and (a very few) politicians this week at Nuffield College on “Beyond General Election 2015”. It was sponsored by the British Election Study, which takes an in depth look at the voting behaviour and motivations of a 30,000 strong sample.

The discussion was held under the Chatham House rule, so I cannot disclose who said what, but here are some themes.

The incumbency factor for sitting Liberal Democrat MPs seems to have been worth some 11%+ on the national vote share. Our 334 lost deposits are very troubling but these figures do show that without fairly ruthless (some might say not ruthless enough) targeting, we could not have maximised what little advantage we had.

Secondly, the perceived likelihood of a hung Parliament appears not to have diminished the Lib Dems’ vote share as the campaign entered its later phases. We started at a low base and did not see a mid-campaign bounce, removing the tendency I recall from previous campaigns, right back to the 1960s, of diminishing attention resulting in substantial falling support during the last 7-10 days. It was this phenomenon that saw so many marginal seats desert us at the last moment in 2010.

Perhaps most remarkable, in view of later commentary, is solid evidence of the impact of our Party Leader. Data suggests that Nick Clegg increased his favourable rating in each wave of the biggest sample poll during the year before polling day, arriving at the 2nd most favourable rating of all the leaders on 7 May. The contrast with other party leaders is striking. He was only just behind David Cameron in attracting votes to his party, and had most impact of all the leaders in achieving a switch from other parties.

Had our candidates, and their teams, known this, I wonder if more of them would have been keener to make use of Nick in their campaign materials? It seems doubtful – given the margins of loss in most seats – that this would have made much difference, but at least it helps us base our reassessment of the campaign on more secure foundations than guesswork, hunch and prejudice.

And, who knows, all this may even be relevant as we decide who should be our next Campaigner-in-Chief!

I look forward very much to more detail emerging from BES and from other eminent researchers in the coming weeks.

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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21 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Jul '15 - 11:21am

    Excellent stuff.

  • Malcolm Todd 2nd Jul '15 - 12:08pm

    Well, I’m not so sure. “The incumbency factor for sitting Liberal Democrat MPs seems to have been worth some 11%+ on the national vote share.” – meaning what, exactly? That in held constituencies we got about 20% of the vote on average? If that’s true, it’s a disastrous failure of incumbency, but I find it hard to believe. Perhaps rather than “vote share” you actually mean “change in vote share” – implying that on average our vote only went down in held seats by about 4% rather than the 15% elsewhere. But given the carnage of 7 May I can’t believe that either. In fact, the preceding article on LDV includes this claim: “the Liberal Democrat vote was down 15.3 percentage points (pps) on average, but down slightly more in constituencies where the Lib Dems won in 2010 (15.7 pps).” In other words, there was an anti-incumbency factor.
    Finding it impossible to make any plausible sense of this part of the analysis, I’m inclined to give little credence to the rest, I’m afraid.

  • I don’t buy all this ‘we should have made more of Nick’ stuff.

    Yeah, Nick is very well liked by people who always vote Tory, but despite their professed respect for him, almost all continued to do so. Unfortunately, I think if you were to look at the breakdowns, you would find he had low ratings among many who were hitherto Lib Dem voters – the sort of folk attracted by a penny in the pound for education, etc. in past campaigns.

    The lesson is: betray the people who vote for you, and you will reap what you have sown.

  • David Howarth 2nd Jul '15 - 12:58pm

    Another note of scepticism: in the published BES daily campaign data, using a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is strongly dislike and 10 is strongly like, the median voter placed Nick Clegg on ‘4’ both at the start and at the end of the campaign. The movement that occurred was small – crudely from the low end of ‘4’ to the high end of ‘4’ – and the voters’ view of Nick was always negative.

  • Paul Pettinger 2nd Jul '15 - 1:22pm

    For a more nuanced understanding of the former leader’s appeal, we should be asking who did and didn’t approve of them. If many of those who disliked him and weren’t interested in what he had to say were former Lib Dem voters, and many of those who liked him had little intention of voting Lib Dem (perhaps because many were Conservative voters who liked his support for the coalition) then this kind of appeal wasn’t helpful.

    Let’s not forget the very favourable coverage Clegg received this year from the right wing press, including the Murdoch press, as they concluded (falsely as it turns out) that the Tories wouldn’t get a majority and so might need to rely on Lib Dem support again (which would likely need a steer [stitch up?] from the right leaning Lib Dem leadership to make happen).

    By 2015, relatively few had strong opinions on the Lib Dems, and that was part of the problem. By then the Party was becoming an irrelevance, in part due to the leadership having hijacked the Party as a body that could easily negotiate another coalition and deliver govt jobs, demonstrated through its bland and indistinct ‘split the difference; in favour of good things; against bad things’ positioning.

    Focusing on the personal rating of the leader, as the analysis does above, shouldn’t distract from a broader view of the Party’s (leadership’s) strategy and direction, which was self serving and overwhelmingly disastrous.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Jul '15 - 3:06pm

    Also look at the result in Sheffield Hallam and previosu results for others.
    Nick Clegg is at Wimbledon with his wife watching Andy Murray, 6-1, 6-1, 6-4.

  • well, the reality is that our national vote did not increase at all in 2015 up to the general election day, so if Nick Clegg was the best at switching votes from other parties it just shows how useless the other leaders were! Since the BES data is in a format that I don’t have time to decipher, and since Paul presents no actual data, it is pretty hard to evaluate… But I think that saying “He was only just behind David Cameron in attracting votes to his party” is perhaps designed to conceal the fact that he still had a hugely negative approval rating and had already lost us 2/3 of our votes long before 2015.

    People started to feel sorry for Nick Clegg during the election, but it did not make many of them vote for us or we would have won more seats…

  • Sammy O'Neill 3rd Jul '15 - 3:34am

    There is one success from the election which I think has been overlooked to a large degree, and that is the surprising willingness of Conservatives (and to a lesser extent Labour) supporters to “lend” their votes to the Lib Dems even now. Seats like Cambridge, East Dumbartonshire and Sheffield Hallam are perfect examples of this. The reality is that in seats like this the task of regaining is arguably made easier as to any Conservative minded supporter there is no hope of a Tory win, hence tactical voting remains a valid consideration. I would argue our tactical vote in some areas held up very well all things considered, it’s just the core vote that fled! The difficulty is depending who you have as leader may upset this balance.

    Of course it goes both ways though, other seats we’ve seen our position fall so much that our own supporters may well feel inclined to vote tactically. Berwickshire and West Aberdeenshire being fair examples of this.

  • Richard Underhill 3rd Jul '15 - 7:01am

    Ed Miliband was also crucified by a hostile press and also benefited from the relative impartiality of TV and radio,
    Andrew’s point about a “negative approval rating” is correct for both leaders.
    Nick Clegg made two visits to Maidstone during the campaign, both well attended and broadcast live.

  • Amongst the plethora of data and analyses the one biggest concern is how we were successfully portrayed as ‘irrelevant ‘.
    This poses our biggest existential threat ; however it also provides our biggest opportunity because demonstrating our relevance is something we can all achieve as members, local parties and regions. It is not a task just for the new leader. It is something we should already be engaged with.

  • Andrew Purches 3rd Jul '15 - 10:24am

    I doubt that this gathering was a “symposium” as such, which in its true sense is a “drinking party” at which a discussion on various views on one subject were aired – although perhaps the need for strong drink was probably quite necessary to be able to cope with this particular matter. But why was such a gathering held under Chatham House rules ? That in itself is ridiculous, after all it is only politics that were discussed, and democratically we should know all that was said,by the speakers in or out of their cups.

  • I’m with Malcolm Todd & PAul Pettinger – there’s something pretty fishy about the information here and the way its presented, lots to explain why we’re winning here, little to explain losing so violently. Pollsters failed to predict any of the major hallmarks of the election, with logic like this that hardly seems surprising now.

  • David Howarth 3rd Jul '15 - 1:54pm

    @Andrew, @Paul
    I also don’t think it can be right to pitch this in terms of ‘attracting votes to the party’, since the vote didn’t go up and Nick’s rating was consistently negative. As someone who does have access to the BES data, I might mention that Cameron’s rating with the median voter began on ‘5’ and stayed on ‘5’ throughout the campaign.
    On Paul’s point about voters we lost, I ran some regressions a while back on the characteristics of voters who said they voted for us in 2010 but weren’t voting for us now. Of course there are always a number of methodological problems with such models, but it is worth saying that, even controlling for dislike of the Conservatives and a variety of social characteristics, disliking Nick came out as a statistically significant variable in explaining the difference between those who had left us and those who stayed.
    Water under the bridge now, however…

  • Picking up the comments on Nick…. I was standing in a. Constituency where A weak local party which was seeing the national party as toxic meant little had been done to detoxify the national. On the doorsteps views of Nick varied widely, but one of my strongest memories is of how often it seemed quite a quick and easy tweak to turn around people hostile to Nick — especially as much of that was rooted in misinformation. If that is anything to go by, we have a golden opportunity now to draw attention to the difference between the Tories on three own and the Tories in coalition to show how much we moderated them. That is both about rehabilitating Nick’s reputation and that of the coalition. But we need to get on with this before memories of the coalition fade and people go from being aware of the contrast to wondering how on earth we could have worked with them.

  • Paul does not say, but i suspect this meeting was part of the on-going post-mortem by opinion pollsters about how it all went wrong in May….

    Since information about polling companies (who make their money out of polls on why people like Pepsi, etc) and their reliability is very commercially sensitive, that would explain the “Chatham House rules”

  • I could not help but notice that despite Nick taking part in the Leeds debate there was no photo of him afterwards shaking some Otley resident’s hand accompanied by a smiling Greg Mulholland…

    And despite not enlisting the services of our biggest election asset (apparently), Greg still managed to win, somehow

  • Can understand most of what you said, however Clegg turned me off, still does. Good person, lousy leader. Never heard anything positive lamenting about Clegg … only that we were unfavourably punished, even though those same people did not vote for us!

  • David Evans 3rd Jul '15 - 7:07pm

    I think Data is sadly being economical with the truth here when Paul says “Data suggests that Nick Clegg increased his favourable rating in each wave of the biggest sample poll during the year before polling day, arriving at the 2nd most favourable rating of all the leaders on 7 May. The contrast with other party leaders is striking. He was only just behind David Cameron in attracting votes to his party,”

    We all know that Nick has repelled voters from the party since his betrayal of them over tuition fees, NHS reform, Secret Courts etc etc, and anyone who thinks that he attracted any votes to the party other than from those Conservatives who wanted him in Sheffield Hallam just in case the Conservatives needed a tame stooge to lead us forward as their coalition buddies and human shields in a hung post 2015 scenario, simply needs his or her head examining.

  • Cllr Nick Cotter 6th Jul '15 - 9:00pm

    All water under the bridge.
    Time to move on.
    Being Blunt about it, little political mileage/currency in “rehabilitating Nick’s reputation and that of the coalition” – How is it proposed one would do that, and to what end ??
    As my late Grandpa would have said: “Let’s just draw a line under that shall we” ? ………………..and move on ………….
    The only way is up ? !!

  • John Marriott 6th Jul '15 - 9:25pm

    Stop the inquest now. S–t happens,. The decline of the Lib Dems started with the Labour landslide of 1997 and that party’s failure to champion PR. With a natural liberal vote that will struggle to get to let alone stay in double figures and with the prospects of our returning to the old two party system that reached its zenith in 1951 highly unlikely the only hope of dislodging the Tories, barring a major recession, is for all the opposition parties, including Labour, to campaign in 2020 on a platform including a commitment (not pledge) to bring in PR if they are elected to government, either alone or in coalition.

  • Simon Banks 7th Jul '15 - 2:52pm

    Yes, Nick Clegg reminded people that he’s a nice human being. Since there was no chance whatsoever he would end up as PM, his popularity rating was just that. He also talked plenty of sense in the early stages before being suckered into reinforcing the Tory Miliband-in-the-pockets-of-murderous-Scots message and talking as if the most important issue in the election was that we stayed in power.

    But using his face more would have reminded people of the one thing for which he’s most famous in the general population, the abandonment of the student finance pledge. As many others have said elsewhere, it wasn’t that so many people cared about student finance. It was the picking out of one thing to make a special promise, followed by ditching it almost casually.

    He had also lost the confidence of about half of the activists. Without fired-up activists we don’t win.

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