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.