Monday, 5 May 2008

Lessons from London for the Lib Dems

Here’s a paradox from Thursday’s local election results.

Where voting was by first-past-the-post – that is, outside London – the Liberal Democrats won a respectable set of results, which have generally been recognised as such by the media.

Where other voting systems were used, however, it was different story. In the race for London Mayor, where supplementary voting was used, Brian Paddick won a 9.6 per cent share, 5 points down on 2004. He was squeezed in the titanic Boris / Ken clash. His campaign lacked a story. But none of that fully explains why Lib Dem supporters did not give him their first preference votes. According to an eve-of-poll YouGov survey, two out of three Lib Dem identifiers voted for Ken or Boris or other candidates. It seems that many just didn’t get that they could vote “with their conscience” with their first preference, while using the second preference more pragmatically.

In the London Assembly, which is elected using the Additional Member System [note to NZ readers: it’s very much like MMP], the Lib Dems went from five assembly members down to three Our total vote share dropped by nearly seven points, to 11 per cent. And yet constituency candidates achieved an average of 14 per cent, with none being elected.

Despite years of campaigning for fair votes, the Lib Dems still don’t seem to know how to campaign effectively when systems other than first-past-the-post are used. I believe that the party’s campaigns need to go back to basics when it comes to explaining how the voting systems work and how people can make their choices count. Our supporters can use the party list vote to elect more Lib Dems to the London Assembly. But that didn’t seem to feature in our campaign.

People can give us their party votes because they like what the Lib Dems say and do. There could be other reasons to back the party. For there was an especially stomach churning result on Thursday: the election of a British National Party (BNP) candidate to the London Assembly, off the party list.

What can the Lib Dems do about it? For a start, we could dust off some of the Australian Democrats’ old campaign materials and see what can be applied in London. In 1998, the Australian Democrats were campaigning to hold their Senate seats in a PR (STV) election. Their main rival in some states, apart from the Greens, was Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, which wanted to drastically cut immigration, as well as ending multicultural policies. Once you assumed that the two parties would win the first few Senate seats, it came down to who people really wanted to hold the balance of power in the Senate. So the Democrats invited their sympathisers, plus anyone else who had no truck with Pauline Hanson, to keep her out. The slogan was “Vote Democrat to stop One Nation dividing Australia.” It worked.

The voting systems are different, but the basic arithmetic is much the same.

The Lib Dems may have an opportunity – or a duty – to try a similar tactic.


Anonymous said...

I think a slogan such as "London United" could be something to work on. The fact is, the Lib Dems have yet to work out an effective strategies, not only to campaign under PR, but also against the push-polling tactics of the opposition, as used by John Howard's coalition in Australia.

mhuntbach said...

Neil has a good point in that we do find it hard to work the system here. It's easier to get motivated to go and do the stuff when it's a matter of you and a few fellow local activists trying to win your local seat, much harder when you're just a small part of a much bigger campaign to win a share of the vote across a wide geographical area. I also think what happened in London is that most of us realised Brian was never going to move out of third place, so there wasn't too much of a point in us busting a gut for him - better save our resources for the borough elections in 2010.

Alex in Greenwich said...

Anybody who thought it wasn't worth busting a gut for Brian is spectaculalry missing the point. Not only will these results be thrown in our faces by the Greens and the Tories for years to come, but we also missed a chance to winkle out more activists, deliverers and data.

mhuntbach said...

Yes, but of course there's always a case for fighting every election hard on the grounds that it'll look bad if we do bad, and even if we don't win it will help identify supporters etc. But we know in reality it's much easier to get motivated when there's a prospect of victory than when we're just trying to avoid disaster.

It's certainly what I've observed in the three London Mayoral and Assembly elections so far. Borough parties just don't want to commit the resources to an all-out campaign across the borough. Instead, they generally seem to want to run something in their target wards and use that to help build up to the borough elections.

Psychologically, it is much easier to push yourself to go that extra mile, to deliver that extra bundle of leaflets, to canvass another street when what you're doing is a big chunk of the work of winning a ward than when the same effort is just a tiny part of winning more votes across a huge conurbation. I'm not saying this is a good way of thinking, but I'm putting it forward as an explanation of why we seem to find it hard to really push ourselves in the London mayoral/assembly elections,

Left Lib said...

Once we have PR, we miss one of our most compelling narratives that we have in many places under FPTP; the two horse race.
As far as Brian Paddick was concerned, there was nothing compelling enough about what he stood for that would make voters even want to understand this voting system that they are not used to.
Livingstone was a one off as far as London is concerned. It is hard to imagine the LDs being squeezed so ruthlessly when Labour finds it's next candidate. However our next concern is preventing our vote going to the Greens, as it did in many parts of central London.