Sir John Curtice on the Lib Dem general election performance

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Jonathan Fryer has blogged about this week’s presentation at the National Liberal Club by Sir John Curtice entitled: “The 2019 Election: A Tale of Hope and Disappointment”.

Jonathan notes the following points about the drop-off of Lib Dem support during the election campaign itself:

Many commentators at the time also attributed the fall in LibDem support to (1) Jo Swinson’s call to Revoke Article 50, rather than pitching wholeheartedly for a second EU Referendum, and (2) her claim to be a potential PM in waiting, despite the modest number of LibDem MPs (albeit supplemented by both Labour and Conservative defections). However, Professor Curtice said polling, notably from YouGov, did not support that assumption. Instead, he highlighted three conclusions about the election result based on his research:

1) It was not clear that the decision to back revoking Article 50 without a referendum was electorally costly;

2) Jo Swinson failed to make a favourable impression on voters and thus provide a point of attraction in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn;

3) The Party failed to communicate what a “brighter future” for Britain might entail.

Other points from John Curtice’s brilliant presentation which particularly struck me were that the Liberal Democrats drew most of their support from the educated middle class, but unlike the other parties had an almost equal level of support across all age groups.

You can read the full article by Jonathan Fryer here.

* Web Magpie, collecting shiny things from the internet (and, yes, we know such a characteristic has no ornithological basis). Magpie photograph by Steve Bittinger, Flickr CCL CCL licence

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  • Paul Barker 17th Jan '20 - 2:19pm

    The crucial point is that we got a Boost from our Results in The May Elections. There is a long History of such Boosts (all those famous Byelection Victories in The Alliance Era for example) & they were always temporary, usually they faded after 6 to 9 Months. The 2019 Boost peaked at the end of September & had vanished completely by Polling Day.
    As a small Party with an even smaller Core Vote of loyal supporters we are vulnerable to such shifts, we dont get to call Elections when they would suit us.
    The Hope was largely illusory.

  • Here are my observations

    1. The LDs were almost wholly reliant on being pro-Remain. The revoke Article 50 policy and disrespectul “Bollocks to Brexit” stance alieanted half the country who supported Leave. The LDs, according to Lord Ashcrofts poll, only got 21% of the Remainer vote – a fraction higher than the Tories.

    2) Jo Swinson was unknown to the British public. It made no sense to have branding such as Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats. The notion she could be PM was clearly not believable.

    3). The Lib Dems had no issue apart from Remain in the EU that the public were aware of.

    4) The Coalition years have badly damaged the Lib Dems. Jo Swinson was always on the defensive. The next leader can’t be Ed Davey but someone not ‘tainted’ by austerity and tuition fees.

  • Hopefully we can now focus on solid data as presented by Sir John Curtice and Lord Ashcroft
    Here’s a third source Paul. Electoral Calculus has an excellent summary here of how voters shifted their support between 2017 and 2019. Well worth a look.

  • There is also a good piece on Electoral Calculus website with a 2017 to 2019 GE Voter Migration chart. In summary the Tories won big by keeping hold of the Tory remainers. Of their 44% total, 11 were remainers, 33 leavers. The Lib Dem 4% gain was 2 from Labour remainers, 1 from previous non-voters and only 1 from Tory remainers.

  • Paul Holmes 17th Jan '20 - 5:21pm

    Of course the key reason we ‘failed to communicate what a Brighter Future for Britain might mean’ -is that we didn’t try beyond reciting for over 3 years Stop Brexit which we changed to Revoke at the last minute.

    Even when we threw out a policy on something else (and you have to repeat over and over again to lodge a policy in the public mind, not just make a single speech/press release about it) it was invariably topped or tailed with ‘…and stopping Brexit is vital to achieving …………….’

  • That is a really useful post with the really salient point picked up by a couple of others. Our failure to articulate what we meant by a Brighter Future.

  • @John B: I agree that the presidential campaign ended up putting the cart before the horse – you run that kind of campaign when people have shown they really like someone already – but I actually do think it was reasonable to be bold. People didn’t know Jo Swinson and needed to be acquainted with her quickly, and the Lib Dems also needed to be brought out of obscurity. The campaign got peoples’ attention. It’s just that that’s only a good thing if people like what they’re seeing.

    So, keep some of the boldness, but work on core narrative and policy awareness. People should always have an idea how your policy platform might be able to help them in their day-to-day lives. If healthcare or crime are the top voter priorities, as in 2019 (Brexit aside), have a strong and easily understood stance on them. Even if the real passion is in implementing PR or reforming education or whatever.

    Brexit dynamics won’t really come into play in future elections (tabling Rejoin for the moment) so it’s not necessarily worth agonising over things like why the Tories held their Remainers. I suspect things like ‘honouring the referendum’, Corbynphobia, wanting Brexit ‘done’ played a part, but I don’t know how much there is to learn from that to incorporate into the next campaign. Finding effective strategies against populism and disinformation, more generally, might be useful. If avoiding scrutiny and lying compulsively are rewarded with votes, then that’s what the Conservatives will continue to do.

  • If we are to consider the reason for the results we must also consider the enthusiasm of the volunteers who are the main resource that the party has. This is much more difficult than using the polls of the electorate. However there is a danger of considering only things that someone else has measured.
    The is hide evidence over the years that the slogan of where you work you win has produced results. We might conclude that people are in reality heavily influenced by enthusiastic neighbours giving out leaflets and knocking on doors.
    Since this has been taken as axiomatic by most who have been successful in the party for many years it is unreasonable to ignore it.
    I am not aware though that the effects of the campaign on members’ enthusiasm has been investigated.

  • Well, keep telling yourselves that it wasn’t Revoke and Swinson our next Prime Minister if you like, but that is not what I have heard at street level, and even I (a member and activist for more than 50 years) voted reluctantly this time because of Revoke.

  • Denis Loretto 18th Jan '20 - 9:30am

    Unquestionably major errors were made in the Lib Dem campaign but I think there is a more fundamental underlying point. We (and I include here many keen remainers outside the Lib Dems) decided in the wake of a shocking referendum result that leaving was so potentially harmful to the UK that enough people were bound to realise that they had made a mistake. This sparked off a sustained campaign to reverse the decision once details were known rather than accepting the decision and ameliorating it by pushing for the softest possible brexit. For example we had the debacle of the “indicative votes” with our representatives trooping through the lobbies in company with the ERG voting against the single market and the customs union. A confession here – I went along with the idea that while there was any chance of shifting the majority of the electorate to change their minds we must throw everything at this objective. But guess what – it never happened and we are now left with a much harder brexit than if we had taken a different path. History will judge whether we were right or wrong.

  • The ‘real’ reason the election was lost was by agreeing to it in the first place…Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon both wanted it; Johnson out of desperation ‘to get Brexit done’ and Sturgeon because ‘getting Brexit done’ would give a massive fillip to the SNP’s ‘raison d’etre’. This party was absolutely opposed to both ambitions so ‘why the heck’ give them exactly what they wanted.

    That timing split the ‘Remain’ party’s message and ‘Revoke’, on the one hand and ‘Second Referendum’ on the other, sent a mixed and muddled message to the electorate. Labour’s ‘red wall’ was almost entirely ‘Leave’ so the call of ‘Get Brexit Done’ was a vote winner.

    In short, as far as the opposition parties (excluding Scotland) were concerned, December 12th was a ‘perfect storm’.

  • John Barrett 18th Jan '20 - 12:06pm

    I agree with a number of comments including the ones from John B (no relation), Paul Holmes and TonyH.

    It was also very odd for many long standing members and campaigners to be told that we were all now in Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems, which was news to many who had been in the party much longer than Jo.

  • David Evans 18th Jan '20 - 1:07pm

    I normally have a lot of time for John Curtice, but I can’t find anything on the YouGov site or from other polling companies that would provide any data (for or against) the views that “attributed the fall in LibDem support to (1) Jo Swinson’s call to Revoke Article 50, rather than pitching wholeheartedly for a second EU Referendum, and (2) her claim to be a potential PM in waiting,”

    Does anyone know if he give any detail?

  • richard underhill 18th Jan '20 - 1:47pm

    We still need to see whether Labour will come to its senses, ignoring comments from candidate/s who did not make the cut. Did Labour MEPs all vote for their brexit spokesman? Is it true that one Labour MEP has started talking about rejoining. If so, who? Are there any Scottish Labour MEPs?

  • It ought to have been obvious to the party that the Revoke policy was a mistake. For generations we have rightly criticised our voting system as being illegitimate, delivering majority power from a minority vote, yet how did we find ourselves suddenly advocating it as a trump card over a nationwide referendum?

    Further, Revoke might have cheered already LibDem supporting ultra-remainers yet repelled the soft Tory-leaning remainers who ought to have been our target market in the 2019 campaign.

    Whoever it was that thought that making our unknown and soon-to-be-discovered unempathetic leader the centre of a presidential style campaign needs to be sacked ASAP.

  • If the party decides to campaign to rejoin the EU at some stage it will no longer be able to duck the issues about the benefits of long term membership. Remain policy up to now has been largely based on Project Fear.

    I refer to the march towards more integration, the necessity to join the Eurozone, the need for economic integration with central budgetary control, an EU treasury with finance minister, central taxation and debt sharing to allow a number of countries to alleviate the high financial and social cost of Eurozone membership.

    Uncontrolled immigration, further and significant loss of sovereignty, endlessly increasing regulation and the prospect of a federal Europe are all going to be issues that present a challenge to even the most enthusiastic Europhile.

    I have never heard any UK party try to put a positive spin on such benefits of EU membership. An ambition to rejoin means that the party will have to confront this challenge.

  • Peter Martin 20th Jan '20 - 6:45pm

    “Jo Swinson failed to make a favourable impression on voters”

    No she didn’t. You’ll need to establish just why that was, and without accusing anyone who had a problem with her style of sexism.

  • Alex Macfie 21st Jan '20 - 7:26pm

    The principal reason why “Jo Swinson failed to make a favourable impression on voters” was she was subject to the most vicious trolling from her opponents, particularly on social media, and particularly from the Hard Left, who were more interested in attacking us than attacking the Tories. So voters didn’t get to see the real Jo, but the caricature from the Haters. The idea that she was “unpopular” therefore took root and became self-fulfilling. I mean some of the stuff that was going around about Jo was just absurd (e.g. Squirrelgate) yet it was being taken seriously. Unfortunately, the Lib Dems can expect this to happen to the leader during an election, whoever he or she might be, and our failure was that we were woefully unprepared for the spiteful trolling for which hard-left keyboard warriors are known, and so didn’t fight back effectively. We need to learn how to fight back against the trolls and put them in their box. We need better media management (especially for social media). We need a rapid rebuttal unit. We ned an Alastair Campbell approach to media management.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 21st Jan '20 - 11:48pm

    “we didn’t try beyond reciting for over 3 years Stop Brexit which we changed to Revoke at the last minute”

    this isn’t strictly true Paul.

    From end of 2018 we had the slogan “Demand Better” It had been extensively tested with focus groups of electors (rather than just lauded by activists) and went down well on doorsteps. It allowed us to build a narrative around the issues that were important to voters in particular areas whilst also maintaining a national brand and message.

    I still have no idea why it was dumped after it had worked well in the 2019 local elections and would have encapsulated our message that neither Johnson or Corbyn was good enough to be PM, without having to propose the frankly ludicrous idea that the leader of a party with 20 MP’s could be.

  • Mary – I canvassed extensively last year and never found a single person who said anything about the slogan Demand Better -anymore than they ever did about Stronger Economy Fairer Society.

    Slogans are not policies anyway.

  • Paul and Mary

    I think you could both be right – certainly slogans by themselves don’t make or break a campaign (well they can if they are awful but we don’t mention Take Courage For The Future!!!). I’ve certainly been around the party long enough to find that what activists hear on the doorsteps is what reinforces their own beliefs! And it’s a lousy test – remember the story was in both 2015 and 2019 that the ‘vibe’ on the doorsteps was different from what the polls were saying.

    Both SEFS and Demand Better were ‘poll tested’ (seemingly). Now you can argue about the robustness of that testing. But both got rapidly ditched for no apparent reason – in the case of SEFS mid campaign, and from what Mary says in the case of DB a few months before.

    At the risk of going into stuck record mode the questions that need asking are what was the research behind any decisions, were the right questions being asked and were the answers being interpreted correctly.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 22nd Jan '20 - 7:27pm

    Paul – I didn’t do any doorknocking last year, but I did ensure that Demand Better was used (either as a slogan or in the messages) on every single one of the approx 500k leaflets and letters that helped us to take control of Chelmsford Council. And I spoke to pretty much every one of the hundreds of people we had out canvassing and no-one had any negative comments about it. And whilst I can’t say we had lots of residents repeating it back to us verbatim, the idea that people should demand better than the crappy Tory administration they had was the centrepiece on which we hung the many impressive and specific policies that candidates in that campaign came up with and one which resonated with voters.

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