Making sense of the differences in results across the country in the local elections

Winning elections is hard work and those in the Lib Dems know better than most how hard it is and as a party we are often faced with confusion about why we lost when we should have won. The recent local election results have produced generally very poor results with some exceptions in some areas and while some people put this down to the fact that we have a sitting MP in that area, this is misleading so it is worth looking at this in more detail to learn the lessons for all local parties.

It is true that in some areas where we have sitting MPs we had some good results in the local elections such as in Cheltenham where we picked up an extra councillor where we have Martin Horwood as the Lib Dem MP, or in Eastleigh where we picked up an extra 2 councillors where we have Chris Huhne as the Lib Dem MP. However, we lost 18 councillors in Cardiff where we have Jenny Willott as an MP and we lost 3 councillors in Cambridge where we have Julian Huppert as the MP, so the results are not uniform. So how do we make sense of the results?

The national picture is the same across all areas but how this is interpreted by each individual or community is very different. We see the Lib Dem vote holding up better in areas we were fighting the Tories than in areas we were fighting Labour. A Labour area will interpret the national picture in a much bleaker way than perhaps a Tory area and so we see a more damning result against the Lib Dems in these areas as we are in Government. Whereas in Tory areas the Lib Dems were not punished at the polls in the same way, in fact some areas even rewarded us. So we can start to see that the national picture is filtered by the regional picture.

We also see that in some areas the vote held up better than in other areas in similar regional climates i.e. Lib Dem v Labour areas or Lib Dem v Tory areas. I don’t have any firm stats on this anecdotal evidence but some are saying that where there were more conversations with local people, through conversations on the doorstep or via telephone, the vote held up better than in areas that ran a predominantly paper campaign. The research from the Get Out the Vote would certainly back this up which suggests that paper produces a minimal, or even negligible, improvement in voting while face to face canvassing produces an 8% increase in votes. So we can start to see that the regional picture is also filtered by the local picture.

This results in a way of understanding election results like this:

So we can see that in Cardiff, while we may have a sitting MP and had run the council, the regional and the local influences on the voters had a significant impact on the result than in say Eastleigh. Feeding in the differences in the different levels allows us to see the different influences on the voter. Clearly there will be additional influences such as friends and family in the local dimension or colleagues and local media in the regional dimension, but understanding the results through this will give a more accurate reason as to why some areas will have done well while others have not. It seems that having an MP is a bonus, or at least can be, if the local MP can help influence the regional and local dimensions. Sometimes they can if they are popular, work hard, and have a good team who communicate with the local people. But sometimes they don’t such as Lembit Opik who lost a fairly solid Lib Dem seat in the last election.

It will be better to compare similar regional and local areas than it will be to the compare against the generalisations of the national picture.

Lib Dems voters did not defect they stayed away

Labour supporters all over the country are celebrating their return to winning ways and non more so that the ever increasingly annoying paper the Guardian such as in this article but the reality is more that they won so convincingly because our voters just didn’t turn up. In many areas the number of people voting for Labour decreased but at a lower number than those voting Lib Dem, allowing the Labour candidate to claim victory.

Take the 2 wards my local party targeted as an example, in Great Barr with Yew Tree Labour polled 1,831 votes in 2011 but 1549 votes in 2012 whereas we polled 950 votes in 2011 and 866 votes in 2012. The fact that we had a very popular and competent sitting councillor in Sadie Smith standing in 2012 meant that our votes were probably a lot higher than they would have been had someone else stood. An example is our other target ward Newton where Labour’s vote reduced from 1,787 in 2011 to 1483 in 2012 whereas ours reduced from 1,048 in 2011 to 519 in 2012 despite an excellent and motivated local candidate and a significantly increased campaign effort compared to 2011.

Results for Great Barr with Yew Tree in 2011:

Results for Great Barr with Yew Tree in 2012:

We can see this in many places across the country for example in Birmingham Kings Norton Labour’s vote reduced from 2,762 in 2011 to 2047 in 2012 and in Sheffield Broomhill Labour’s vote reduced from 1741 in 2011 to 1303 in 2012 despite Labour gaining the seat. Clearly there are examples of areas where Labour has increased the number of votes but because the turnout was so low generally we saw a reduced number of people voting for all parties.

The fact that Labour couldn’t even maintain their votes this time around says that there are a significant number of people who are yet to be convinced of which party to vote for. What is for sure is that they do not want to vote for the Lib Dems right now. Many previously active campaigners aren’t campaigning and some aren’t even voting for the party they belong to so it is no surprise that many of our previous voters wouldn’t turn up to vote for the party.

An example is this comment taken from a LibDemVoice article:

We need to be asking the question what can we do to attract those who have previously voted for the Lib Dems? And what can we do to attract those who would have previously voted Labour but didn’t? The answer certainly isn’t do more of what we have been doing, as while nothing can be predicted, we could make the assumption that we would see a similarly poor result next time round.

From my conversations with people over this campaign I think that one of the biggest mistakes, by which I mean has caused us the most damage, is that we allowed, and even promoted, the perception that we were at one with the Tories: the so-called-love in, the rose garden press conference, the jeering and back slapping at the first budget, the changing of political position/opinion, the rumours of joint tickets, Danny Alexander announcing Lib Dem fiscal policy was the same as the Tories to 2017, etc. Differentiation should have started the moment we entered the Coalition – we can still work with people while showing we are not the same as them – and then we should have moved towards active disengagement towards 2015, rather than being at one and moving to differentiation.

What we need to do now is a number of things which I will be writing about over the coming weeks.

A broken party and broken hearts: The election result shows we are asking the wrong questions

We had a small team but a committed one. We had a well respected sitting councillor along with other well respected former councillors. We came close in one area last year without even campaigning. The team went to ALDC Kickstart and attended all the sessions. We ran a campaign as close to the ALDC advice as we could given our budget. But when we stood watching the votes come in, we lost, and lost badly. Those who were elected were early 20’s and didn’t even live in the borough – clearly it didn’t matter who was standing as long as it was in red, but it doesn’t alter the fact that our area lost the best councillor they ever had and our local party is now in a poorer state because of it. So what are the questions that the party is asking following another dismal performance at the local elections?

Perhaps it is how do we show that coalitions can work? So we see the ‘rose garden 2’ coming up. We will also see the parties put out some positive spin about the coalition. But I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘work’. The coalition has been working so far and it hasn’t helped us one bit. It is not that people want the coalition to work but they want a government that does broadly something that can either agree with or at the least that they are not offended by. Too many people are offended by the decisions that this government has made. If by ‘working’ it is the Tories and Lib Dems not arguing and not falling out but more decisions that will offend people then making this coalition work is not what we or the public need.

Perhaps a question being asked is how do we show what we stand for? So we will see more ‘differentiation’ and more traditionally liberal policies being defended such as House of Lords reform and gay marriage. While these are important and appeal to liberal voters it does nothing to address the fact that many voters are offended by the decisions that this government has made. Fear is a powerful force and makes people vote against those who have made these decisions (which includes those who didn’t stop them). Every decision that is made that goes against what we believe in does significantly more damage than bringing in a policy that we do.

Perhaps it is how do we communicate what we have done better to the public? But again for every list of things we can produce that we have done well, people produce a list of things that ‘we’ have done that is far worse and many feel offended by. Providing a cherry picked list says that we are not listening to their concerns.

I have heard people put it down to the fact that this is midterm blues, or it is to be expected, or we have waited 80 years to get in to this position, or the voters are stupid, but the reality is that we are not doing what we need to do to survive and believing that things will change by carrying on with what we have been doing is madness. At the moment the strategy seems to be to get the electorate to listen to us because we have important things to tell them and convince them. But perhaps the questions we should be asking are how can we listen to them? How can we show we have listened to them? And how can we demonstrate that we have listened to them?

We cannot underestimate the damage that has been caused by the Health and Social Care Bill, the Welfare Reforms, tuition fees or things like the 50p tax rate cut. Members have left, councillors have been lost and have given up helping the party, and there seems to be an attitude that this is necessary and inevitable because we are in government. Clegg is ‘sad’ that councillors have been lost, not sorry. He should be very sorry [edit he has now emailed to say he is sorry]. Until the public think that we are addressing their concerns, or at least understand them, at a national level it won’t matter how well we campaign at local level, or how well we follow ALDC campaigning guidelines, people won’t vote for us.

Black and Ethnic Minority voting results: The good and bad news for the Lib Dems

Recently the results of the biggest comprehensive study into the voting habits of ethnic minorities ever undertaken in Britain were released. While statistics are difficult to make definite conclusions, it does make for some interesting reading for the Lib Dems for a number of reasons.

The 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Survey (EMBES) was directed by Professor Anthony Heath, Professor of Sociology at the University of Oxford. The headline results, which you may have read, were:

  • 16% of ethnic minorities voted for the Conservative party at the last election compared to 37% of the wider population.
  • 68% of ethnic minorities voted Labour compared to 31% of the wider population.
  • Those of a Black Caribbean heritage feel the British political system has not treated them fairly the most.

But dig a little deeper and we find some interesting results for the Lib Dems. Overall we performed poorly in attracting BME voters as we gained only 14% of their vote compared to 23% for the wider population and generally we are performing worse than the Tories in attracting BME voters. However, we out performed on the votes from people with Pakistani origin gaining 25% of their vote:

The fact that we are performing worse than the Tories may be explained by looking at the attitudes of BME voters.

On the tax cuts versus spending question we find that every ethnic minority group is less supportive of greater government spending than the white British group. In this respect they appear to be less ‘left-wing’ than the majority, which contrasts strangely with their greater support for Labour but may suggest that those who do not have an affiliation to Labour are more inclined to vote Tory than Lib Dem given our position going in to the General Election. In further items covering different aspects of the left/right dimension there was either no significant difference between the majority and the minority, or the majority was more left-wing than the minority.

If we look at answers to the question of what is the most important issue facing Britain today we see that there are some differences between the majority and minority:

They are far more concerned about unemployment than the majority suggesting where to focus our campaigning efforts to attract this vote. Other things which are important to attract this vote would be improving opportunities for minorities and tackling oppression and discrimination:

It is also of interest to look at those who voted for the Lib Dems in terms of religion. We did best with those with no religion, what they classified as ‘Other’ and Muslims:

So there are some positive aspects to this study for the Lib Dems in terms of the fact that we have had a good result from the Muslim / Pakistani voters  but there is a lot of work to do to start attracting a wider share of the vote from BME voters. Labour has a large proportion of their vote despite the fact that ideologically they probably do not fit well with them. There are opportunities here to start taking the votes from Labour if we can get our message to BME voters that we think unemployment is a big issue and we are doing something about it, that we think that cutting spending is necessary and right and that we are addressing the barriers to opportunities for minorities.

Is the Coalition changing the Lib Dems? Polling data shows people more confused by the Lib Dems

Is something strange going on? Nick Clegg and many others have called Ken Clarke a Lib Dem. Now Ken Clarke is calling Nick Clegg a One Nation Tory. The Tory conference didn’t ridicule the Lib Dems and Labour conference wanted to rule out a Coalition with the Lib Dems. With so many people having an opinion of the Lib Dems having now gone into Coalition, there maybe signs that the party itself is changing?

For Labour, the Lib Dems have been a left leaning political party that should really be a wing of the Labour Party. For many in the country the Lib Dems were an independent centre-left party. Labour and many on the political left have been confused by the Coalition with the Tories. If we look historically at the leanings of Lib Dem support we see that in recent years there was a tendency for the Lib Dems to favour Labour:

But you can also see that in 1983, 1987 and 1992 the Lib Dems favoured the Tories so it has not always been the case that the Lib Dems have been a left leaning political party, more of a centrist party. So have things changed back to a pre 1997 state? PoliticalBetting report that

there’s been a big change in the views of Lib Dems supporters. Back in August the split was 45%-27% in favour of the Tories/Dave. In the overnight poll that’s moved to 53%-18%.

So a hardening of the support for the Tories over Labour by Lib Dems? This could be explained by the positioning of the other parties – The closer Labour or the Tories are to the centre ground the more support for them by the Lib Dems. So when Labour moved to the left we saw people move to the centre:

When Labour moved to the centre people went with them:

So with Labour moving to the left surely this means people should be more attracted to the Lib Dems? Apparently not as we are constantly reminded everyday by opinion polls. So maybe Labour’s taunts are true – that we have moved to the right leaving people to move to Labour? If this were the case then our support would be going to Labour. In fact what has happened is that Lib Dem support has deserted in all directions:

YouGov are showing that 35% of Lib Dem voters have moved to Labour and 17% to the Tories and 11% to other parties. If this was all about political posturing then the picture would be very different. If we had moved to the right then why would 11% move to the Tories, even while we are in Government with them? Surely it can’t just be about political posturing? And this is where we need to look elsewhere to see the bigger picture

At the General Election people did not know what the Labour party stood for and people were more sure about the Lib Dems. Now we see a reversal of this trend with people saying they know what the Labour party stands for more now and the Lib Dems less. It is interesting that the Labour party vote is higher than the vote for Ed Miliband, maybe a sign they have more trust in the party and what it stands for than him? Whereas for the Lib Dems people are saying they don’t know what the Lib Dems stand for, or Clegg for that matter. The Tories have remined fairly consistent in this area and so have their poll ratings – so it maybe an important indicator?

So as attitudes in the Lib Dems change towards the Labour party, potentially due to changing in political posturing, this is being seen as a change in what the party stands for, and this is damaging. If we want to regain voters, we need to show what we stand for and that this is consistent. We need to stop talking about left/right/centre and more about values. We need to focus on a small number of topics and get the message out. We need to show people that we are consistent and we need to accept that we have not been consistent over the years.

Is the Lib Dem poll rating the fault of the members?

Who was more affected by going into Coalition with the Tories? The soft Lib Dem vote who seem to think we have sold out on our principles (see here)? Maybe the many on the political left in general? Or maybe it is actually the Lib Dem core vote? Those who are fully paid up members of the party and who are active members? Perhaps the core Lib Dem vote has been so rocked by this Coalition that it has had a significant contribution to our current poll ratings? Are we, the members of the Lib Dems to blame for our low poll rating?

When looking at recent polling we can see a very interesting development:

We can see that the Lib Dems are campaigning at a significantly different levels in different areas. Where Labour is second to the conservatives we can see we have a significantly lower intensity than that of the Tories or Labour, while where we are second to the Tories we are out performing the other parties. And what is the effect of this?

We see that we are scoring 12% in the polls where we are not campaigning as hard as the other parties, which is where most people quote our poll ratings at the moment. However, where we are campaigning much harder we are recording 31% of support, a significantly higher level of support in the same national context. While areas can’t be compared like for like and one poll doesn’t tell you a lot, this is something which Nick Clegg has been talking about – the fact that it has been the Lib Dem activists which have stopped going out on to the streets and speaking to people about the Coalition, about what we are doing and why.

There are no such things as Lib Dem safe seats and every vote needs to be won. We have a slogan of ‘where we work, we win’ because Lib Dem support is based on people going out there and getting support. We need activists more than other parties to maintain that support but if we withdraw our activism then the support drops away. So it may be that going into coalition with the Tories has affected the Lib Dem members more than it has other groups? I certainly know people who are worried about knocking on doors for fear of hostility. Some members are supportive of the Lib Dems in Coalition but not of some Coalition policies and they wonder how to deal with this on the door step.

This was something Nick Clegg was worried about when I spoke to him and his response was to get people out there again and to give them a script in his speech at conference so we knew what to say. He saw the success of the conference as motivating people to get back out there and maybe he is right? This was the summary of my conversation with him (see here for its explanation if it makes no sense):

But if we do start getting back out there who knows what will happen to our poll rating?

Bashing the Daily Mail will kill off the Lib Dems: We need a smarter strategy on difficult papers

It is very popular in the Lib Dems to bash the right wing media, particularly the Daily Mail. At conference we heard most ministers having a go at the Daily Mail and Nick Clegg particularly had some strong mocking words reserved for the paper. This seems a funny strategy considering the Daily Mail is the paper with the second largest Lib Dem readership, second only to the Sun. In fact the majority of Lib Dem voters read a right wing paper, so perhaps we should be looking at winning over more voters, not turning them away. So how do we do this?

Firstly for those who missed my post on Lib Dem readership here is a table showing the papers and how many Lib Dem readers they had in 2010:

In terms of strategy we can see it like this: There needs to be a seven fold increase in Guardian readers, or a 10 fold increase in Independent readers to make the same impact as 1% in Sun or Daily Mail readers. If we think our core vote is in the liberal papers and tailor our message to them, we will be in big trouble. A much better strategy would be to get a message which appeals to both. Perhaps this is impossible. But no one ever made any progress without some damn hard work which probably seemed impossible at the time.

Clearly there are many things the Lib Dems stand for that the Daily Mail are not going to like. It might also make us feel good to bash the Daily Mail. I certainly find the paper very difficult to read but there are not enough people out there willing to vote on the basis they hate a newspaper. They are more likely to pick it up and read it, even if they didn’t buy it or don’t like it.

However, there are messages that will appeal to the Daily Mail that are still grounded in Lib Dem values.  We need to resist the baiting by the paper and right wing pundits and see opportunities. If we listen carefully we even hear them telling us how to tailor our message:

If the LibDems want to strike a pro-enterprise rather than anti-rich tone, then they need to get to grips with the nightmare of burdensome anti-business rules. They could even position themselves as the champions of small business in contrast to the Conservatives, who are often characterised as supporters of big business interests… In their own interests, not to mention those of the nation, the Liberal Democrats need to applaud and encourage economic success, not be seen to be hellbent on deterring it.

Who in the Lib Dems would disagree with being a party to support small business, supporting those who employ local people, supporting local communities and the country? Who in the party would disagree with opposing big business interests which serve shareholders rather than local people and communities? Who in the party wouldn’t want the Daily Mail to praise the Lib Dems for taking a stand on these issues? I doubt the Guardian or the Independent would disagree with such a position either.

When this government and opposition will live or die by the economic positions they take in the coming years, can we afford to have any paper suggesting that we are not doing what is needed to get this country back on its feet economically? Particularly one with such a large Lib Dem readership?

I am sure there are also other messages which would play well to the Daily Mail, and maybe they are even giving us good advice, it’s just no one in the party is reading it? Unfortunately, people who vote for the party are. We may not like the Daily Mail for the prejudice and hypocrisy that is found within it. But in a world of political strategy, this just means we need to be even more creative in our message.

Conference will be reviewing May 2011 results but is only asking 50% of questions it should be: There is more to learn if we ask the right questions

At the Lib Dem Conference next week there will be a review of the May 2011 election (see document here) which asks some interesting questions but it only goes so far in asking the right questions to get all that we could learn. The review will be asking:

1. Was your candidate in place early enough? Did he or she campaign for long enough?
2. Were the methods of campaigning varied enough?
3. Did you produce enough literature? Was it of a good enough quality?
4. Do you feel there was enough emphasis on community politics?
5. Did we target correctly in your area? What lessons can we learn for the future?
6. Was support from Party Headquarters adequate? If not, how could it be improved?
7. How did you deal on the doorstep with the Liberal Democrats being in the coalitiongovernment?
8. Did you campaign purely on local issues or also on national issues? What worked best?
9. What more can be done to recruit extra activists and keep existing ones motivated?
10. Knowing what you know now, how will you fight the next set of elections differently?
11. How did holding the referendum on the same day affect:
                                      i: Turnout?
                                      ii. Activist priorities?
                                      iii. The result?
While these questions are important there are some equally important questions that we should be asking. You can learn a lot from asking about why went wrong, what we learnt and what we are going to do differently next time. This gives us what didn’t work. However, this is only half the story. We can also ask where what we did worked well (such as question 8) and come up with ‘what worked’.
In May 2011 what worked would be any local party who scored better than the average result.
These are the results for Scotland as they are available. Any local party who did better than a -14.23% from them didn’t do too badly given the context. There is some evidence that where the Lib Dems have an MP we did better, which is a generalisation that seems to have gained traction with many including those in the Tories as advertised in ConservativeHome:

The Liberal Democrats lost 40% of the council seats they were defending but did much better in places where they had an incumbent MP

But this is not strictly true. Taking Scotland as an example we did ‘well’ in areas where we don’t have an MP and poorly in areas we do e.g. Orkney. So this is not strictly true and so there is a lot to learn about what local parties have done to attract support/keep support in their areas which goes beyond the received wisdom. If we don’t ask these questions we lose important lessons.

I have been contacting local parties where I see a good result and ask them what they thought they did which attracted the support which was bucking the national trend. The main message I am getting is that it is due to the strength of the candidate but I feel there is more to it than that. We need to be asking more specific questions about what they are doing, how do they attract support, supporters, specifically. So I would like the review to ask:

Did your party beat the average national poll for the Lib Dems? / Did you do better than expectations? If so what did you do specifically which contributed to this result? What campaigning issues worked in your area? How did you choose them? What material did you use and how much do you think this contributed? What worked on the doorstep? How did you get this result?

Opinion Poll using the scaling question: Using it to improve campaigning

The scaling question is one of the more famous Solution Focused tools which is widely used now in all walks of life. It was developed as a tool to work with people to motivate them in a particular direction, or to at least identify how important things are to them. The beginning part of the tool is the one which people are most familiar with. This question has begun to be used more and more in politics, without ever really fulfilling the tools potential as it is never used fully. However, a recent opinion poll has again used it which shows some interesting results, which in turn would give us some important campaigning options.

The 2005 General Election had a turn out of about 61% while the 2010 turn out was about 65%. We could assume that those who scored the question an 8, 9 or 10 would have made up those who would vote in a General Election. While those scoring lower are less likely to vote verging on probably not going to. So while this is interesting for pollsters who use it for weighting their opinion polls, it offers campaigners a different slant.

Put simply, as a campaigner you want to know if you are wasting your time or not on talking to someone. In campaigning in general you may not make a destinction between someone you think would vote and someone who won’t as all conversations can be important. However, in targeted campaigning you make a judgement about whether they are likely to vote or not, and if not you move on (Obama used this extensively). But using the scaling question you can guide your judgement and potentially increase people to an 8, 9 or 10.

By asking the question (as asked by Ipsos-MORI) you get a baseline for where someone is at regarding voting. Where MORI stop there, you could go on to ask some questions to see if there is anything you could do to get them to the polling booth:

Q: Have you ever been at an 8 or 9 before? If so, what was different about then?

This gives you an idea about what needs to happen for this person to go and vote and if you can do anything to help

Q: What was your highest score? Did you go to vote at this score?

This tells you their scoring. If may be that they would go to vote at a 6 and so you could ask what needs to happen to get there? and if there is anything you can do to assist.

Q: What would need to happen to move up one point?

This gets them thinking about small steps that they would want to see to start moving towards going to vote and you can see if you can assist.

These types of questions get you into a positive dialogue about going to vote and steps to make it happen – which may be practical, political, or other reason – and gets you on their side in terms of making it happen. It maybe that they say 0 or 1 and you will get a quick answer to your question about whether you are wasting your time or not. It could help and could get a few more to the polling booths?

New opinion polls ask some interesting questions for Lib Dem strategy

Opinion polls throw up more questions than they answer but sometimes the questions are very interesting. It is interesting questions where progress is made as shown by the head of Google who says that he runs his company on questions not answers. So the recent MORI results have shown up some interesting questions too about the baseline support of the main Parties, which is lower than is usually reported, and who then go on to vote for the Party. It asks whether those people who are not inclined to vote for any particular party can be persuaded to vote for the Lib Dems?

The recent Opinion  Poll from Ipsos-MORI shows the Lib Dems on 15%, consistent with the ICM poll (which has them on 17% after weighting and 15% before) but not with any others. But when people were asked who they are inclined to vote for the results were very different:

The surprise is not the Lib Dems, as there has been talk of the baseline support for the Lib Dems being about 10% for a while. It is the low levels of support for Labour and the Tories which is surprising. Usually reported of being somewhere around 30% each it has been a reason cited for the difficulty in the Lib Dems breaking through, electorally. They went on to ask who they would vote for if there were a General Election tomorrow which again showed different results:

While the Lib Dems only pick up 1%, Labour nearly double their voting intentions and the Tories get more than double. With such small sample sizes it is difficult to tell if this has any meaning and I would like to see a larger sample used to see if this is significant or not. I just found it surprising that the scores were so different than previously believed. Does it mean that there has been a change in the mindset of the public around who they are most inclined to support? Does it mean that they are reverting to ‘type’ when it comes to voting? even if they are no longer inclined to vote for that Party? Does it mean they are more susceptible to persuasion to another Party? If so then what would it take to persuade them to the Lib Dems? particularly as the Lib Dems are seen as a centrist Party more similar to the profile of the country than the other Parties.

If Google run their company on questions, then maybe the Lib Dems need to stop giving people answers and start asking some questions? Maybe it would help?

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