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Friday, 3 July 2020

The Single Transferable Vote has arrived. What does this mean for the Labour Left?

Earlier this week, the Labour Party's National Executive Committee (NEC) voted in favour of changing the way in which Constituency Labour Party (CLP) reps on the NEC are elected. In this summer's elections, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) will be used for the first time to elect the 9 CLP reps on the NEC.

In this article I'll look at what STV is, what it means for the election, and discuss what the Labour Left's strategy should be.

In short:

  • STV does not mean that vote splitting no longer matters
  • STV does not mean that everyone will just transfer their vote to other Left candidates

We should not be relaxed or complacent about these elections, because if we fail to adjust our strategy to account for the new electoral system, there is a serious chance of us winning no seats on the NEC whatsoever.

What system have we been using?

Prior to 2020, the CLP reps on the Labour Party NEC were elected using a system known as the "Bloc Vote". Under this system, which is used to elect many local councillors in England and Wales, voters have as many votes as there are positions to be filled: so in the case of the NEC, members would cast 9 votes for 9 different candidates. The 9 candidates who recieve the most votes would then win.

So, what is STV?

The Single Transferable Vote is an electoral system that is very similar to the Alternative Vote (AV), the system that Labour uses to elect its Leader. With AV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. Under AV, if no-one wins over 50% of 'first preferences', losing candidates are eliminated, and their voters' preferences redistributed, until one candidate wins over 50% of the vote.

However, whilst AV is used to elect individual positions (like a Leader) STV is instead used to elect multiple positions at once - in this instance, to elect 9 NEC members at the same time.

Instead of needing over 50% of the votes to win, like with AV, candidates in an STV election must win a minimum number of votes in order to be elected - this is known as the 'quota' . In most cases, this quota is calculated by looking at the total number of first preference votes, then dividing it by the number of available seats, plus 1.

So, for example, if 304,332 members voted in the NEC election, the minimum number of votes needed to be elected would be 30,433.2 votes:

304,332 / (9+1) = 30,433.2

If 9 candidates all win the minimum number of votes solely from first preferences (in this case, 30,433) then they are all elected. However, if this does not happen, then voters preferences are redistributed until 9 people do win the necessary number of votes. This is done through redistributing the votes of candidates who came last in each round of counting, and also through redistributing the votes of candidates who have already won - though votes for candidates who have already won are weighted at a smaller value to ensure that their vote does not count twice.

If this seems complicated, that's because it absolutely is. There are countless ways to count STV. For more information check out the Electoral Reform Society's briefing.

STV is used to elect local councillors in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as to elect the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Republic of Ireland also uses it for local, general and European elections.

What does this mean for the NEC elections?

The immediate, definite outcome of STV being introduced is that no faction will be able to win all (or even a majority of) the 9 CLP seats that are up for election. For comparison, in the 2016 elections, the 2017 by-elections and the 2018 elections, the Labour Left won all of the available seats; in the 2020 by-elections, the Labour Right won both available seats.

In short, switching to STV means that a faction won't be able to win all of the seats simply by winning 31% of the popular vote (as the Labour Right did in the 2020 by-elections).

However, this does not mean that the Labour Left doesn't have to worry about splitting the vote.

What does this mean for the Labour Left?

Splitting the vote

In the 2020 NEC by-elections, there were at least three different leftwing slates standing 5 different candidates. This meant that there were 5 leftwing candidates running for just 2 places on the NEC, and the Left vote was split.

As a result, although 46% of voters supported leftwing candidates and just 31% supported the Labour Right, the Labour Right won both seats. Why? Simple: only two candidates from the Labour Right stood, and they both won 15.6% of the vote. Meanwhile, because the Left vote was split five ways, no leftwing candidate managed to win more than 15.5% of the vote - and the Labour Right won both seats.

Lots of leftwingers have been arguing that this is no longer a problem, as STV allows members to transfer their vote to another leftwing candidate if their preferred candidate doesn't win. Lots of leftists now seem relaxed about the possibility that multiple leftwing factions could all run 9 candidates of their own for the 9 positions. But this would be an absolutely catastrophic mistake.

Contrary to popular belief, STV does not prevent vote splitting - it simply makes it more complicated. Let's say that 40 candidates stand for the 9 CLP places on the NEC:

-> 20 leftwing candidates from various factions
-> 11 independents
-> 6 candidates from the Labour Right
-> 3 candidates from the Soft Left

With 9 seats up for election, the quota would be around 10% of votes cast.

Even assuming that the levels of support for each faction are the same as in the by-election, this would mean that the Labour Right's 6 candidates would win around 5% of first preferences each - because their 31% share of first preferences would only be split six ways. The Labour Left's 46% share of first preferences, however, would be split twenty ways.

Why does this matter, you ask? After all, won't most of the leftwing members have given their 2nd preference to other leftists? Well, maybe. But even if they did, the sheer number of leftwing candidates splitting the vote would mean that most (if not all) would poll fewer first preferences than the dozens of independents, soft left candidates and other candidates that we can expect to stand.

As a result, those leftwing candidates would be among the first to be eliminated when preferences from more unpopular candidates start to be redistributed. And so they won't benefit from any second or third preferences later on - because they'll already have lost.

Here's an example that helps to illustrate this. As stated above, Ireland uses STV in general elections. In the 2011 Irish general election, the results in the 5-seat constituency of Wicklow were:


Fine Gael 40%, Labour 17%, Fianna Fail 11%, Sinn Fein 10%, Independent 9%, Others 14%

As you can see in the linked results, despite Fianna Fail (11%) winning more first preference votes than Sinn Fein (10%) and the most popular independent (9%), both Fianna Fail candidates were eliminated before they had the chance to win any seats, and the final seat came down to a contest between the Independent candidate and the Sinn Fein candidate (with the Independent winning by 112 votes).


How did this happen? Arguably, it was because Fianna Fail stood too many candidates. A single Fianna Fail candidate would have been in fourth place on first preferences (just behind the three winning Fine Gael candidates), and would have been far better placed to win second and third preferences from independent candidates.

Transfers

Ah, but you might say - would this happen to the left? Wouldn't any Left voters just transfer their votes to other leftwing candidates? Well... maybe. Maybe not. And that "maybe" can make all the difference.

In the 2011 Irish general election, the results in the 3-seat constituency of Cork South-West were:


Fine Gael 49%, Fianna Fail 24%, Labour 14%, Sinn Fein 7%, Others 6%

Proportionally speaking, you'd expect Fine Gael to win 2 of the 3 seats (which they did) and Fianna Fail to win the remaining seat. But instead, Labour won the third seat, and despite winning 24% of the popular vote in that constituency, Fianna Fail won no seats at all.

Why did this happen? It happened because Fianna Fail stood two candidates who won 13% and 11% of the vote respectively, as opposed to Labour who stood only one (winning 14%). This meant that, although most Fianna Fail voters transferred their vote to the other Fianna Fail candidate, not all of them did - so despite polling a joint 10,787 votes on first preferences, the most popular Fianna Fail candidate won just 10,155 votes in the final round, losing to Labour by a very small margin.


Had Fianna Fail only stood one candidate, that candidate would have won 24% of the vote in their own right, topping the poll and almost certainly reaching the quota of 25% before anybody else. And, most importantly, that candidate - even if they had attracted no 2nd preferences - would have had more votes in the final round (10,787) than the Labour candidate (10,754).

So in the event, despite Ireland being very used to STV, enough voters failed to transfer their vote to another candidate from the same party to cost that party a seat.

Are we really confident that Labour members, who have never used STV to elect the NEC before, will be even more consistent at transferring their votes between dozens and dozens of leftwing candidates than an Irish electorate who have been using STV for 99 years?

I'm not.

Conclusion

The Labour Right have immediately recognised the differences in using STV for these elections. Having stood a full slate of candidates in every election under Corbyn (with the exception of some by-elections in 2017), they are only standing 6 candidates for the 9 places in 2020. They clearly understand that in a somewhat-proportional election, they cannot expect to win 9 out of 9 seats with the support of just 30-35% of voters.

The Left has to understand this too. Charlie Mansell estimates that the Left can rely on the support of around 40% of voters in these NEC elections, which would proportionally entitle us to 3-4 seats out of 9.

If that 40% vote share is split between 20-25 leftwing candidates, then the overwhelming majority of leftwing candidates will be eliminated very early after winning less than 1% of first preferences. We would then have to rely on this sizeable and diverse group of voters to rally their preferences behind 3-4 candidates without being told who they are in advance or being asked to do so. That is a difficult task for an electorate that has been using STV for decades, as in Ireland - for an electorate that is using it for the first time, it's nearly impossible.

So what should we do?

My preference is simple: the Labour Left should only stand a united, 5-candidate slate for the 9 places. In the most friendly circumstances, we could only hope to win 5 of the 9 seats (55%) - anything more is simply out of our reach.

At the same time, the Left should make it clear when campaigning for this slate that voters need to preference ALL of the Left's candidates. It doesn't particularly matter what order they preference them in - but they do need to rank ALL of them from 1 to 5.

There are three reasons for why we should do this:
1) Having just 5 candidates would make it clear who leftwing members should vote for, especially given that members will have an enormous number of candidates to choose from

2) Having just 5 candidates will minimise the chance of Left candidates being eliminated in the first few rounds of counting, and give them more of a chance to benefit from second and third preferences

3) Standing multiple slates with lots of different leftwing candidates will discourage voters from giving their 2nd/3rd/4th preference to other leftwing candidates, which they absolutely need to do if we are to win seats on the NEC

This may not be what happens. But I hope that this article contributes to the debate and informs folks about the nature of the Single Transferable Vote.

Monday, 29 June 2020

How Starmer has improved Labour's poll results

This article was made possible by our Patreon supporters! Special thanks in particular go to our amazing $5 supporters: Ville Forsman, Bert Rothkugel, Alan Spence, sn, Stephen Kaar, Chloe Hopkins, Alex Wilson, Josuke Higashikata, Harry Jackson, Scott Folan

To support Stats for Lefties on Patreon, visit https://www.patreon.com/leftiestats


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After Keir Starmer had been Leader for a month, I examined opinion poll averages to see what effect his election had had on Labour's vote share (as well as his own personal ratings). At the time, the effect was notable but not sizeable: Labour had gained slightly in vote share, Starmer had a positive net approval rating, and he was doing better in 'Best Prime Minister' polls than Corbyn.

The overall impression was thus that he had made a promising start, but nothing too unremarkable compared to past Leaders. Yet now, three months on from Starmer's election as Leader, "unremarkable" is the last word I would use to describe the polls.

As the graph below shows, Labour's average vote share in polls and their estimated seat total has risen sizeably since Starmer won. From averaging 29% in March, Labour has risen to 38% in June - a higher share of the vote than Labour won in 2019, 2015, 2010 or 2005 and just 3pts below what the party won within Great Britain in 2017 (41%).


In this article I'll examine how the polls have improved for Labour in terms of voting intention and leadership approval ratings.

Voting intention

In Keir Starmer's first month as Leader (April), there was little-to-no overall change in the polls. The Conservatives remained 20pts ahead in the polls, with Labour averaging 31% of the vote - slightly more than in March, but still less than in the 2019 election.

This has now changed. In June 2020, the Conservatives have fallen to 43% (-8pts since April) and Labour has risen to 38% (+7pts), whilst the Liberal Democrats have risen slightly to 8% (+1pt). The SNP and Greens remain unchanged on 4% each. The Conservatives' lead has been reduced from 20pts to just 5pts in three months, a smaller lead over Labour than in 2019, 2015 or 2010.

My full poll average in June, with changes since April, is as follows:

Tories 43% (-8), Labour 38% (+7), LD 8% (+1), SNP 4% (-), Green 4% (-), BXP 1% (-)



In terms of estimated seats in Parliament, the changes are even more dramatic. In April, I estimated that the Tories' 20pt lead would have resulted in a Conservative majority of 156 seats - the party's biggest Parliamentary majority since 1935. In June, however, this estimated majority has vanished.

I would now estimate that the Tories' 5pt lead would result in a Conservative majority of just 12 seats, a substantial decline from their current overall majority of 80 seats. It is virtually identical to the 10-seat majority achieved by the Conservatives in the 2015 general election.

My full seat estimate in June, with changes since April, is as follows:

Tories 331 (-72), Labour 235 (+66), SNP 51 (+3), LD 9 (+2), Plaid 4 (+1), Green 1 (-), Other 19 (-)


There's no question, therefore, that Starmer has overseen a substantial improvement for Labour in opinion polls. Labour's poll average in June (38%) is the party's highest in a monthly average of polls since August 2018 (39%), whilst Labour's estimated seat total of 235 seats is the party's highest in a monthly seat estimate since July 2019 (251 seats).

Voting intention - Remainers and Leavers

So where is this support coming from? Plenty of Labour supporters, myself included, assumed that Starmer would struggle with Leave voters and would win back far more Remain voters than Leave voters. Yet that isn't what has happened. Let's look at Remain voters first.


Labour 54% (+6), Tories 21% (-6), LD 11% (-1), SNP 7% (+1), Greens 4% (-1)

As you can see, amongst people who voted Remain in 2016 there has been a 6pt swing from the Conservatives to Labour since April. Labour has now risen to 54% amongst Remain voters, which is higher than the 49% of the vote that Labour won amongst Remainers in 2019. It is notable that 54% is just below the 55% that the party won amongst Remain voters in the 2017 general election.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are averaging 21%, and whilst this is slightly higher than the 19% that the party won in 2019, it is lower than the 24% that they won amongst Remain voters in 2017.

The Liberal Democrats (11%) have largely collapsed amongst Remain voters, losing nearly half of their support amongst Remain voters compared to 2019 (when they won 21%) and even polling slightly below their 2017 result amongst Remainers (12%).

Let's look at Leave voters now.


Tories 67% (-10), Labour 19% (+7), LD 3% (+1), Brexit 2% (+1), SNP 2% (-), Green 2% (-1)

As the graph demonstrates, there has been a sizeable decline in support for the Conservatives amongst Leave voters since April. After averaging an impressive 77% amongst Leavers in April, the Tories have declined by 10pts and averaged 67% in June. This also represents a decline compared to their 2019 result amongst Leave voters (74%) but is still slightly higher than their 2017 result amongst Leavers (64%).

Labour, meanwhile, still has not managed to return to the level of support that it had amongst Leave voters in 2017 (24%). However, its June average of 19% amongst Leave voters is still a sizeable increase compared to April (12%) and the 2019 election (14%).

No other party averaged more than 3% amongst Leave voters in either April or June, so changes for smaller parties amongst Leave voters are not statistically significant.

As you can see, Labour has increased its support by 6pts amongst Remain voters and by 7pts amongst Leave voters - meaning that it has won back more slightly Leavers than Remainers since Starmer became Labour Leader. There has also been a bigger swing to Labour amongst Leavers (9%) than amongst Remainers (6%) since April. This very much suggests that Starmer's history of campaigning for Remain has not alienated Leave voters.

In fact, because Labour started with a smaller number of pro-Leave supporters, the 7pt increase in support amongst Leavers is arguably more significant: the party's support amongst Leavers has increased by 58%, compared to an increase of 13% amongst Remainers. All in all, Starmer is not showing any particular weakness with Leave voters in terms of voting intention.

Approval Ratings

So what about Keir Starmer's individual approval ratings?

In short: they're good.

Very good.

On average in June, 41% of voters approved of Starmer and 22% disapproved, a net approval rating of +19. This is the highest average net approval rating for any Labour Leader since 2007.


Approve 41% (+10), Disapprove 22% (+3), Don't know / neither 36% (-14)

It is difficult to emphasise just how impressive these numbers are. Starmer's 41% approval rating is itself impressive: Ed Miliband never once averaged above 40% approval during the five years that he led the party. Corbyn, meanwhile, only managed to do so in June and July 2017.

Starmer's "net" rating, meanwhile - the difference between his approval and disapproval - is even more impressive. Corbyn only ever managed a net positive rating once: in July 2017 (+4), whilst Miliband only achieved it in September and October 2010 (+12 in both months). Starmer's average net approval, meanwhile, is a stunning +19.

One stat that worried Labour supporters in April was the fact that half of voters didn't know anything about Starmer. It was unclear what these voters would think once Starmer became more widely known. Well, we now have our answer: they like Starmer. The percentage of voters without an opinion has declined from 50% to 36% (-14), but the percentage disapproving of Starmer has barely changed (+3). The percentage approving of Starmer, meanwhile, has increased substantially (+10).

But, as with voting intention, the question remains: where is Starmer's support coming from?

Approval Ratings - Remainers and Leavers

In terms of voting intention, Starmer has won back slightly more Leavers than Remainers since April. However, the same cannot be said of his approval ratings. Let's look at Remain voters first.


Approve 57% (+10), Disapprove 14% (+2), Don't know / neither 29% (-13)

Amongst Remain voters, Starmer's approval started positively (47% approve, 12% disapprove) and has only gotten better. Since April, the percentage of Remainers who approve of Starmer has risen by 10pts, with the percentage who disapprove barely changing (+2). The percentage of Remainers without an opinion has fallen from 42% to just 29% (-13), and most of these voters now have a positive opinion of Starmer.

However, amongst Leave voters, the picture is somewhat different - not bad as such, but not as good.


Approve 30% (+8), Disapprove 35% (+6), Don't know / neither 35% (-15)

Since April, the percentage of Leavers with no opinion of Starmer has fallen from 50% to 35% (-15). However, unlike with Remainers, these voters were more evenly divided in their impressions of Starmer. The percentage approving of Starmer rose by 8pts, whilst the percentage disapproving of him rose by 6pts. This did narrow the gap slightly, however - Starmer's net approval amongst Leavers rose from -7 to -5.

More notable is the fact that 30% of Leave voters have a positive opinion of Keir Starmer. Given the fact that most Leave voters support the Conservatives, and the fact that Starmer was a vocal supporter of Remain, it's impressive that a sizeable 30% of Leavers approve of the Labour Party's leader.

Best Prime Minister polling

One particular problem that Corbyn always faced in polling was that, when asked who would make the best Prime Minister, voters always said the Conservative Leader. Over the five years that he led the Labour Party, the closest that Corbyn came to outpolling the incumbent Prime Minister on this question was in October 2017, when Theresa May had an average lead of 1pt.

Starmer has not yet polled ahead of Boris Johnson on average. But since becoming Leader, he has narrowed the gap between him and the Prime Minister significantly. In April, Boris Johnson had a 24pt lead on the question of who would make the best Prime Minister; that has now fallen to 7pts. In one poll conducted at the very end of June, Starmer polled 2pts ahead of Boris Johnson.


Boris Johnson 41% (-5), Keir Starmer 33% (+11), Don't know / neither 27% (-5)

Amongst Remain voters, Starmer has a commanding lead that has only increased since April:


Boris Johnson 21% (-5), Keir Starmer 53% (+9), Don't know / neither 26% (-4)

Amongst Leavers, however, Boris Johnson has an overwhelming lead. Having said that, Starmer has gained more support amongst Leave voters (+10) since April than amongst Remain voters (+9).


Boris Johnson 61% (-9), Keir Starmer 17% (+10), Don't know / neither 20% (+2)

The net swing to Starmer since April amongst Remain voters was 7pts, whilst the net swing to Starmer amongst Leave voters was 10pts.

In short, whilst Starmer remains behind on the question of who would make the best PM, he is rapidly closing the gap and is doing so at a largely equal rate amongst Remain and Leave voters.

Conclusion

So, let's summarise the key changes since April:

  • In voting intention polls, there has been a net swing to Labour of 8pts
  • The Tories' average poll lead has fallen from 20pts to 5pts 
  • In terms of seats, the Tories' estimated majority has fallen from 156 seats to 12 seats
  • Starmer's net approval is now  +19, the highest of any Labour Leader since 2007
  • Boris Johnson's lead on the Best PM question has fallen from 24pts to 8pts

It certainly seems as if the more that people get to know Starmer, the more that they like him. Starmer has presided over a dramatic increase in Labour's poll averages and in his own approval ratings.

However, we will have to see if this continues. The trend is very, very positive but Labour still has yet to poll ahead of the Tories in any poll. We will have to see what happens in the months to come, and in the 2021 local elections, to get a better sense of how Starmer has transformed Labour's fortunes. I very much hope that we continue to see improvements.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Will Labour ever support proportional representation?

This article was made possible by our Patreon supporters! Special thanks in particular go to our amazing $5 supporters: Ville Forsman, Bert Rothkugel, Alan Spence, Vincent Calabrese, sn, Stephen Kaar, Chloe Hopkins, Alex Wilson, Josuke Higashikata, Harry Jackson, Scott Folan

To support Stats for Lefties on Patreon, visit https://www.patreon.com/leftiestats


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After several years of sitting on the sidelines following the failed Alternative Vote referendum, the issue of electoral reform has returned to relative prominence in the Labour Party. During the 2020 leadership campaign, Keir Starmer promised to hold a constitutional convention, and argued that "we’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count". A poll from YouGov, meanwhile, showed that 76% of Labour members support proportional representation.

In this article I'll explore Labour's history with electoral reform, consider the likliehood of Labour endorsing proportional representation (PR) and look at what the results of recent elections would have been if Britain used PR to elect its MPs.

Background

The Labour Party has a complicated history with electoral reform. Even when it was a minority party with less than 50 seats in the House of Commons, the party was unconvinced by PR; in January 1914, the party's annual conference rejected PR by an overwhelming margin (66% to 34%) and rejected AV by a similar margin (1).

Labour did eventually endorse AV during the 1917 debates around electoral reform and came very close to seeing it enacted - however, AV was ultimately dropped from the Representation of the People Bill in February 1918 and it was never introduced (2). Labour proposed introducing AV after the party formed a minority government in 1929; however, the Bill failed again (3). Labour lost office in 1931 and did not return to power for another fourteen years, by which time electoral reform had completely dropped off the agenda of any Labour government.

Between 1930 and the 1990s, Labour showed little to no interest in changing the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system, even though it lost office in 1951 largely as a result of the electoral system - Labour won the popular vote in 1951 by over 200,000 votes, but the Conservatives won a majority of seats!


Despite this, it was only in the 1990s that electoral reform once again became a serious consideration for Labour. After the 1997 landslide, Labour introduced PR for European elections, used PR to elect the new devolved assemblies and introduced a new preferential voting system (the Supplementary Vote) for local and regional Mayors. However, PR was never introduced for general elections, and none of Blair's successors (Brown, Miliband and Corbyn) showed any particular enthusasism for proportional representation.

AV, however, was a different question entirely. In its 2010 manifesto, Labour made its first unambigous endorsement of electoral reform since the early 1930s when it promised that it would hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote if it won a fourth term. Although the party lost, a referendum on AV was subsequently held in 2011 by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Labour officially remained neutral, but Ed Miliband campaigned for AV in the referendum. AV, however, lost in a landslide.

It has now been nearly 90 years since Labour last made a serious attempt to reform the electoral system. After losing four elections in a row, it is not surprising that electoral reform is once again being discussed by Labour. But will Labour actually support it?

Will Labour support PR?

One important thing to remember about Labour that trade unions have significant influence within the party's policy-making process. This is why the polls showing that members support PR are not as significant as one might think. Trade unions control 50% of the votes at the party's annual conference, as well as 34% of seats on the National Executive Committee (NEC), meaning that trade union support is vital if any policy is to pass. This is not a given: according to pro-PR group Make Votes Matter, GMB and Usdaw both support FPTP. These two trade unions alone hold 4 of the 38 seats on the NEC and a significant number of votes at the party conference.

In order to succeed, any electoral reform policy would need the support of:

  • a majority of NEC members (to ensure that the policy appears on the agenda at the party conference)

  • a majority of delegates at the party conference (50% of whom represent members, and 50% of whom represent trade unions) 

  • the Labour Leader (to ensure that the policy is implemented when Labour wins)

The NEC
By my estimate, of the 38 NEC members, 7 are opposed to proportional representation: CLP rep Jon Lansman, the USDAW and GMB reps who will vote in line with their union, Richard Leonard MSP and Margaret Beckett MP.

Just 2 members of the NEC are supportive (Starmer and Jonathan Reynolds MP). The remaining 28 have no clear opinion. 20 votes are needed for a majority on the NEC, so supporters of PR would need to convince 18 other NEC members to either support PR or at least allow conference to vote on the issue.

Conference

In any vote at conference, the votes of members and trade unions are tallied seperately. The two sections then make up 50% of the overall vote. This means that even if delegates from Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) overwhelmingly vote for a proposal, it can still fail if trade unions overwhelmingly vote against it.

In 2018, for example, one vote saw 89% of CLP delegates vote in favour of a proposal, but 91% of trade union votes were cast against the proposal. The overall result was thus 49% for, 51% against. Winning the support of trade unions is thus absolutely crucial to successfully passing policies at Labour Party conference.

Will it ever happen?

The probability of Labour endorsing proportional representation has risen recently, because the result of the 2019 election means that Labour will need to win 124 constituencies in 2024 that were won by other parties in 2019 (mostly by the Conservative Party). That's more-or-less impossible. Labour has gained over 100 seats just twice since the Second World War: 147 gains in 1997 and 239 gains in 1945.

It is, however, entirely possible for Labour to form a minority or coalition government in 2024. In that context, smaller parties like the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru are likely to demand PR as part of any coalition agreement. Given that many people in the Labour Party believe that a majority government is out of reach for the party for the foreseeable future, it is not inconcievable that the party could agree to introduce PR in order to prevent the Conservatives from winning a majority in the future.

What would British elections look like under PR?

It is difficult to know exactly what the results of past elections would have been if Britain had used PR. Voters would vote differently under PR, meaning that smaller parties might have won more votes than they actually did in previous elections that used FPTP. Not only that, but there are loads of different proportional voting systems: the Additional Member System (AMS), the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and party list proportional representation (List PR) have all been used just in the UK alone for different elections at some point over the past five years.

However, I'll try in this section to give you an approximation of what the results might have been.

I'll be showing you what the results would have been if Britain had used List PR, as that's the system that we used for European elections from 1999-2019. I've used the regions and nations of the UK as the multi-member constituencies, as those are the constituencies that were used in European elections.

In 2010, the seat result would have been:


In 2015, the result would have been:


In 2017, the result would have been:


In 2019, the result would have been:


These results would have allowed for the formation of Conservative/Lib Dem coalitions in 2010, 2017 and 2019. Equally, they would have allowed for the formation of Labour/Lib Dem coalitions in 2010, 2017 and 2019 - although in 2017 and 2019 the Labour/Lib Dem coalition would have also needed the support of the Greens and the SNP.

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Citations

(1) Pugh, Margin, Speak for Britain: a New History of the Labour Party. Vintage Books, London, 2010. pp 83-84

(2) Pugh, Margin, Speak for Britain: a New History of the Labour Party. Vintage Books, London, 2010. pp 121-122

(3) Pugh, Margin, Speak for Britain: a New History of the Labour Party. Vintage Books, London, 2010. pp 210-211

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Has Starmer improved Labour's poll results?

This article was made possible by our Patreon supporters! Special thanks in particular go to our amazing $5 supporters: Ville Forsman, Bert Rothkugel, Alan Spence, Vincent Calabrese, sn, Stephen Kaar, Chloe Hopkins, Alex Wilson, Josuke Higashikata, Harry Jackson, Scott Folan

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During the five years in which Jeremy Corbyn was Leader of the Labour Party, countless centrists insisted that anyone other than Corbyn would be 20pts ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls. Well, Corbyn isn't Labour Leader anymore. So how have the polls changed?

In this article, I'll analyse how the polls have or have not changed since Keir Starmer became Leader of the Labour Party. In short, Labour has made small gains since Starmer won, but it is not 20pts ahead in the polls and it is farther behind the Tories than it was in the 2019 election.

How the polls have changed since Starmer won

Keir Starmer was elected as Labour Leader on April 5th 2020, winning 56% of the popular vote in the first round. In the month since then, Labour's share of the vote in polls has risen slightly, as shown in the graph below.


In the month since Starmer won, Labour's average poll result has increased from 29% to 32% (+3). However, the Tories are still 19pts ahead of Labour on average, and Labour's average poll result of 32% is still 1pt less than the percentage that the party won in the 2019 election.

By my estimate, Labour would win 171 seats in an election based on the poll average in the month since Starmer won; this is an increase of 15 seats compared to my estimate for the poll average in the month before Starmer won. However, the Tories would win a majority of 152 seats.


The main reason for the 3pt increase in Labour's poll average is an increase in support for Labour amongst Remain voters. In the month before Starmer won, Labour was averaging 46% with Remain voters; the party is now averaging 50% (+4), with the Tories on 26% (-), the Lib Dems on 11% (-3), the SNP on 6% (-1) and the Greens on 5% (-1).

Labour's 50% poll average amongst Remainers is higher than the 49% of Remain voters that it won in the 2019 general election. However, it is still lower than the 55% of Remain voters that it won in the 2017 election.


However, amongst Leave voters, there has been no notable change in Labour's support. In the month before Starmer won, Labour was averaging 12% with Leave voters; it is now averaging 13% (+1), with the Tories on 76% (-2), the SNP on 3% (+1), the Greens on 3% (+2) and the Lib Dems on 2% (+1).


Labour's 13% poll average amongst Leavers is lower than the 14% of Leave voters that it won in the 2019 election, and much lower than the 24% of Leave voters that it won in the 2017 election.

Approval ratings

Voting intention polls are not the only polls that have been conducted since Starmer won. Multiple polls have asked voters whether they approve of Starmer's performance as Leader in the month since he became Leader. It is possible to compare these with similar polls of Corbyn's performance and see how voters have changed their perceptions of the Labour Leader.

In the month before Starmer became Leader, Jeremy Corbyn's average approval rating was 20%, with 62% disapproving - a net approval rating of -42pts.

Meanwhile, in the month since Starmer became Leader, Starmer's average approval rating was 32%, with 17% disapproving - a net approval rating of +15pts.

51% of voters either said that they neither approved nor disapproved, or that they didn't know.


Although lots of voters either don't know or neither approve nor disapprove, Starmer's approval rating (32%) is 12pts higher than Corbyn's approval rating in the month before Starmer won. The percentage of voters disapproving of Starmer, meanwhile (17%) is 45pts lower than the percentage who disapproved of Corbyn (62%).

But how do these figures compare to the initial performance of other Labour Leaders? As the graphs below show, every Labour Leader since Michael Foot in 1983 have had positive approval ratings in their first month except for Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. Starmer's average net approval rating of +15pts is the same as Ed Miliband in 2010, slightly lower than Brown in 2007 (+16pts) and Kinnock in 1983 (+20pts), and much lower than Tony Blair in 1994 (+33pts) and John Smith in 1992 (+24pts). His average net approval rating is, however, much higher than Jeremy Corbyn (-9pts) and Michael Foot (+2pts).



One noteworthy statistic is that all Labour Leaders since 1983, with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair, were initially greeted with a high "Don't know" response: 41% for Miliband, 44% for Brown, 45% for Smith, 54% for Kinnock and 56% for Foot. The high "Don't know" response to Starmer (51%) is thus not particularly unusual when seen in the context of past Leaders.

Best Prime Minister polling

One of the many things that Corbyn was criticised for was the fact that, most of the time, he polled behind David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson in polls that asked voters who they thought would be the best Prime Minister. So, is Starmer polling better than Corbyn in Best Prime Minister polls?


In short: yes, he is. In the month before Starmer won, Corbyn's average Best PM rating was 16%; in the month since Starmer won, Starmer has averaged 23% in Best PM polls (+7pts). Boris Johnson's average lead in Best PM polls, meanwhile, has fallen from 29pts to 23pts.

2021 will give us a clear answer

Starmer is certainly polling slightly better than Corbyn, but polls are just polls.

In May 2021, elections will be held for 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, 40 seats in the Welsh Parliament, 25 seats in the London Assembly, over 5,000 seats on 149 local councils, 5 local Mayors, 8 regional Mayors (including London) and 39 Police and Crime Commissioners. The 2021 local elections will thus provide us with a lot of data about Labour's performance and about Keir Starmer's popularity - and will tell us definitively whether or not Starmer has managed to increase Labour's support.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Labour leadership elections: a brief history

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Since 1922, the Labour Party's main figurehead and candidate for Prime Minister has been the person elected to be Leader of the Labour Party. There have been a total of fifteen Leaders since 1922, as well as four acting Leaders. The current Leader, Keir Starmer, was elected by Labour members, affiliated members and registered supporters in a one-person-one-vote election earlier this year; but not every Labour Leader was elected this way.

In this article I'll take a brief look at the different electoral systems used to elect the Leader of the Labour Party since the position was created in 1922:

  • Elected by MPs (1922-1980)
  • Elected by delegates and trade unions voting in an Electoral College (1983-1992)
  • Elected by members, affiliates and MPs/MEPs voting in an Electoral College (1994-2010)
  • One Person, One Vote (2015-present)

Elected by MPs (1922-1980)

Prior to 1983, only Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) could vote in leadership elections. MPs voted using the "exhaustive ballot" system, whereby if one candidate did not win a majority of votes in the first ballot, a second ballot would be held in which the lowest-polling candidate would not be able to stand. If a candidate again failed to win a majority, a third round would be held in which the lowest-polling candidate could not stand, and so on and so forth until somebody won a majority.

Of the 15 Labour Leaders, 8 were elected by Labour MPs, with two Leaders (Arthur Henderson and George Lansbury) elected unopposed. Of the 6 contested leadership elections in 1922-1980, only two elections were vaguely close:

  • 1922: Ramsay MacDonald won by a margin of 5 votes (4.2%).
  • 1980: Michael Foot won by a margin of 10 votes (3.7%)


Electoral College (1983-1992)

In 1981, Labour Party conference voted to change the system for electing the Leader. Now, instead of being elected by MPs, the Leader would be elected at Labour Party conference by Constituency Labour Party (CLP) delegates, MPs / MEPs and trade unions.

However, instead of all of the votes contributing equally to the result (as they do now), these three groups (unions, CLPs and MPs / MEPs) would make up a particular share of the overall result. Votes cast by trade unions would make up 40% of the result, votes from CLPs would make up 30%, and votes from MPs / MEPs would make up 30% of the result.

If no candidate won a majority of the overall Electoral College result in the first ballot, a second ballot would be held, and a third, and a fourth etc., until somebody won a majority.

The first Leader elected using this system was Neil Kinnock in 1983, who won 73% of the vote with trade unions, 92% of the vote with CLP delegates and 49% of the vote with MPs / MEPs. When the overall result was calculated, Kinnock thus won 71% of the Electoral College result in the first ballot.



The Electoral College system did not produce any particularly unusual results in leadership elections - Kinnock won a clear victory in all three sections of the party in 1983 and 1988, as did John Smith in 1992.

However, the system was also used to elect the Deputy Leader, and the 1981 deputy leadership election is an interesting demonstration of how the electoral system can affect the result.



As the table above shows, when Tony Benn challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981, he won an overwhelming majority amongst CLP delegates. However, the trade unions overwhelmingly backed Healey, as did the PLP. As a result, Benn narrowly lost to Healey in the second ballot in the overall Electoral College result.

Electoral College (1994-2010)

After John Smith became Labour Leader in 1992, Labour Party conference voted to make some changes to the Electoral College system. First, the Leader would no longer be elected at conference, but would instead be elected through a postal ballot of members, members of affiliated trade unions and MPs / MEPs. Second, each section's share of the Electoral College would be equal at 33.33% (instead of unions having 40% and the other two sections having 30%).

The first Leader elected using this system was Tony Blair in 1994. Gordon Brown would have been elected using this system, but as he recieved nominations from over 90% of Labour MPs / MEPs, he was elected unopposed.



The 2010 leadership election was the first time that one section of the party had voted for a different candidate than the other two sections. In this instance, members and MPs / MEPs voted for David Miliband in the final round, but members of affiliated trade unions and other affiliates voted for Ed Miliband. Ed Miliband went on to win in the overall Electoral College result by a margin of 0.7pts.

The 1994-2010 Electoral College was notable as being the first time that a major British political party had allowed individual party members, and members of affiliated trade unions and other affiliates, to vote in a leadership election. In 1994, nearly 1 million people voted in the Labour Party's leadership election, with Tony Blair winning a total of 508,148 individual votes - the most of any person to ever become Labour Leader.

One Person, One Vote (2015-present)

In 2014, a specially organised Labour conference voted to introduce a new system for electing the Labour Party Leader. There were three main changes made.

Firstly, all votes cast in the leadership election would now count equally towards the result, with no weighting. Secondly, members of affiliated unions would now need to specifically register for a vote in the leadership election, instead of being given a vote automatically. Finally, UK voters who were not party members would be able to register for a vote in the leaderhip election by paying a small amount of money and stating that they agreed with the values of the Labour Party.

The first Leader elected using this system was Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. He was succeeded in 2020 by Keir Starmer.



The number of votes cast by party members in 2020 was 401,521 - the most votes cast by party members in any leadership election in British history (although the total turnout across all sections of the party was slightly lower than in the 2016 leadership election).

The graph below shows the turnout amongst Labour party members from 1994-2020.


Tuesday, 14 April 2020

The rise and fall of the Green Party in 2019

This article was made possible by our Patreon supporters! Special thanks in particular go to our amazing $5 supporters: Alan Spence, Alex Wilson, Bert Rothkugel, Chloe Hopkins, Harry Jackson, Josuke Higashikata, Scott Folan, sn, Stephen Kaar, Ville Forsman, Vincent Calabrese

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In May 2019, the Green Party shocked the political world. After decades of gaining only a dozen or so councillors in each round of local elections (the most being +20 in 2006) the party won an astounding 265 council seats in a single night – a gain of 194 seats. This was, by any metric, their best result in a local election ever.

A burst of success followed. Within a month, the party had leaped up to an average of 8% in polls, their highest percentage in a monthly poll average in over 30 years. In the unexpected 2019 European elections, the party won 12% of the vote (+5pts) and 7 seats (+4). The pro-Remain Greens seemed to be benefitting enormously from the chaos surrounding Brexit.

Yet in the 2019 general election, the Greens’ forward progress was halted. The party increased their share of the vote, but only by 1pt, winning just 2.7% of the vote, less than in 2015. Despite forming a “Unite to Remain” alliance with the Lib Dems, in which the two parties stood aside for each other in dozens of seats, the Greens made virtually no progress in their target seats. The closest that the party came to victory outside of Brighton Pavillion was finishing 37pts behind Labour in Bristol West, and in the Isle of Wight (once a major target seat) the party finished third behind Labour once again.

In this article, I’ll discuss the rise and fall of the Greens in 2019, and ask whether the party has a future now that Brexit is complete.

Note: this article focuses solely on the Green Party of England and Wales, as the Scottish Green Party is an independent political party.

Part 1: Embracing Europe, 2016-17

It seems to have become common sense now to associate the Green Party with Remain; the Greens and Europe now go together like bacon and eggs, tea and biscuits, or the Lib Dems and Conservatives. But that wasn’t always the case.

Before the 2016 EU referendum, the Green Party was a vocal advocate for holding a public vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. This was often accompanied by criticism of the European Union and the Single Market. In the party’s 2015 election manifesto, it said:

"we prioritise local self-reliance rather than the EU’s unsustainable economics of free trade and growth. We would not adopt the Euro, which cannot work properly without much deeper political integration, and this would be contrary to our policy of subsidiarity.
"We support the proposal to have an in–out referendum so that the British people can have their say. This is because much has changed since the UK joined the Common Market in 1974. Endless debate on membership is a diversion from more important matters"

Yet just two years later, the Greens had shifted position on the question of Europe, and were demanding yet more endless debate on membership of the EU. In their 2017 manifesto, the party called for a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, despite voters having voted to Leave just 11 months previously.

Part 2: Decline, 2017-18

Initially, the Greens’ swing to the centre did not seem to bear fruit. The party collapsed in the 2017 general election, winning over 5% of the vote in just six constituencies (down from 125 in 2015). The party lost over 500,000 votes in just two years, falling from 3.6% to 1.6%. In Bristol West, which the party had nearly won in 2015, the Greens finished 53pts behind Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire, and in Norwich South (once a major target seat) the party dropped to just 3% of the vote. Overall, the Green Party’s average vote per candidate in 2017 was 2.1%, less than in the 2001 and 2005 general elections.


In local elections, the party’s results in 2017 and 2018 were also disappointing. In the May 2017 local elections, the party made a net gain of just 1 seat; in the 2018 elections they made a net gain of just 8 seats

Going into 2019, the Greens were not in a good position. They were not rising above 4% in monthly poll averages, their councillor numbers were unspectacular and the Labour Party was consistently polling at around 40%. All of that was about to change.

Part 3: Success, January-June 2019

As Brexit began to dominate the political agenda in a way that it simply hadn’t done before, the Greens’ support for a second referendum began to finally bear fruit. As the chart below shows, from January-June the Greens’ poll ratings soared – from an average of 3% in January the party rose to 8% by June, their highest vote share in a monthly average of polls since July 1989.


As the party’s poll ratings soared, election results began to reflect this. As stated in the introduction to this article, the Greens won 265 councillors in May 2019 (+194) – their best result, by an enormous margin, that the party has ever achieved. It is interesting to note that these local elections were held using first-past-the-post, the same electoral system as elections to the UK Parliament.


One month later, Britain voted in unexpected European elections, and the Greens performed exceptionally well. Their popular vote total of 1.9 million votes (12%) was second only to their 1989 result, and overall (as they won no seats in 1989) their 2019 result was their best ever result. The party’s share of seats rose from 4% (2014) to 10% (2019).


As June 2019 ended, the Greens had nearly defeated Labour in a UK-wide election (finishing just 2pts behind them in the popular vote); they were firmly established as England’s fourth party in terms of council seats; and they were polling 8% of the vote, with Labour on 22% (the smallest polling gap between the two leftist parties in British history).

But in retrospect, June 2019 was a temporary blip. Within months, the Greens had collapsed back to being a minor party once again.

Part 4: Decline, July-December 2019

After surging from 3% to 8% in just a few months, the Greens’ share of the vote in polls collapsed again in the months after June. By the time that Britain voted in December, the Greens’ average monthly poll total had fallen back to 3% once again.


The Green Party’s over-reliance upon Remain voters, in the end, turned out to be more of a weakness than a strength. Having built up a respectable share of the vote amongst Remainers – 11% by June 2019, just 3pts behind the Conservatives – the Greens’ share of the vote amongst Remainers declined rapidly until the party was polling less with Remainers (3%) than in January. Indeed, its share of the vote amongst Remainers was almost the same as its share of the vote with Leavers (2%).


Having spent three years appealing primarily to a group of voters who had shown themselves willing to switch back and forth between parties in an instant, the party found itself losing voters to Labour and the Lib Dems just as quickly as they had gained them.

All of this preceded a general election result which, once again, was disappointing for the Green Party.

Part 5: Failure

In the 2019 general election, the Greens failed to make any significant gains. They once again won Brighton Pavillion with an increased majority, and increased their share of the popular vote from 1.6% to 2.7%. But on a constituency level, the party is no closer to winning more seats in Parliament than it was in 2015.

Following the 2015 election result, the party had five clear target seats aside in addition to Brighton Pavillion:



In all of these seats, the party won over 10% of the popular vote and finished within 30pts of the winning party. Bristol West was the main target seat (the party lost by 9pts), but Norwich South saw the 3rd-highest Green vote in the entire country (13.9%), closely following by the Isle of Wight (13.4%). Norwich South also had a significant number of Green councillors at the time, with Greens holding 14 of the 29 council seats (48%) in the constituency.

Yet in 2019, despite their successes in the local and European elections, these once-promising target seats proved to be very disappointing for the Greens. The party’s vote share declined from 2015-19 in four of them and rose by just 1.9pts in the Isle of Wight, whilst in Bath the party didn’t even stand in 2019. In Norwich South, the party’s vote share declined from 14% in 2015 to 5% in 2019, and in Bristol West the party lost by a 37pt margin.



Although the party did make gains in other seats, none of them look to be promising target seats. Outside of Brighton Pavillion, the party won over 10% in four seats, but it finished within 40pts of the winner in just one (Bristol West).



The Greens’ targeting strategy proved to be a complete failure. The party fielded a high-profile candidate in Stroud in the form of then-MEP Molly Scott-Cato, and focused a lot of their time and energy on trying to win the seat. Co-Leader Caroline Lucas visited the seat to campaign for Scott-Cato, whilst Scott-Cato argued that “Labour support has collapsed” in Stroud. Scott-Cato was also part of the “Unite to Remain” alliance.

Yet on December 12th, Scott-Cato finished in a dismal third place, winning just 7.5% of the vote, which actually represented a decline of 0.5pts from the combined Green/Lib Dem vote in 2015 (8%). Despite arguing that Labour support had collapsed in Stroud, Scott-Cato received 22,788 fewer votes than the 2nd-placed Labour candidate.

Conclusion: what is the Green Party for?

In an article written in September 2018, I posed the following question:
“what is the Green Party for? In the past, its objective seemed to be to fight austerity (which the Labour leadership in 2010-15 were not doing) but its response to the election of a left-wing, anti-austerity Labour leader was to strongly oppose him and stand against Labour candidates, making a Tory government more likely. I would suggest, then, that specific policies (such as austerity) are not existential questions for the party, in the way that they were, say, for Left Unity, who dissolved after Corbyn’s election…

“If the Green Party continues to exist when faced with a major party that has adopted all of its main priorities, then it has to give an ideological justification for that; instead, it has simply embraced the EU”
Nearly two years later, we still don’t have an answer to this question. With the issue of Brexit now settled for a generation, there is no longer any significant difference between the Green Party’s political priorities and the Labour manifesto of 2019.

In September 2020 the Greens will hold a leadership election. For those of on the left who want a unified, effective left, we can only hope that the party takes this opportunity to look seriously at the failures of 2017 and 2019 and actually start to formulate a plan to work with the Labour Party instead of against it.

If, despite the election of a pro-EU Labour Leader who supports a Green New Deal, the Greens continue to strongly oppose Labour, one is simply drawn to ask the obvious questions: aside from being anti-Brexit, anti-Labour and anti-Corbyn, what is the Green Party’s reason for existing? Who does it represent? What is its ultimate goal? What sort of election result, in a broad sense, would constitute a victory for the Green Party?

These are questions that only the Green Party can answer. But for the sake of those of us who want a unified left to win in 2024, we can only hope that they figure out some answers soon.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

2019 was supposed to be the year that the Lib Dems bounced back. What happened?

This article was made possible by our Patreon supporters! Special thanks in particular go to our amazing $5 supporters: Alan Spence, Alex Wilson, Bert Rothkugel, Chloe Hopkins, Harry Jackson, Josuke Higashikata, Scott Folan, sn, Stephen Kaar, Ville Forsman, Vincent Calabrese

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I’m a genuine contender for Prime Minister”. So said Jo Swinson, who at the time was Leader of the Liberal Democrats, on 9th November 2019. Swinson’s confidence in her party’s popularity seemed to be justified: her party had come second in June’s EU elections, and the Liberal Democrats had averaged up to 21% in polls in the weeks afterward, often coming close to outpolling Labour. At one point in June, it looked as if the Lib Dems could win over 50 seats and hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.

But on 12th December, the reality was very different. The Lib Dems went backwards, winning just 11 seats (-1) with Swinson losing her own seat – the first time that a Liberal leader had lost their seat since Herbert Asquith in 1918. The party increased its share of the popular vote, but at 12% (+4pts), it was still far short of the 23% that the party won in 2010.


How did this happen? After experiencing depressing results in the 2015 and 2017 general elections, 2019 seemed to be the year that the Lib Dems would finally bounce back. After polling at 10% or less for over six years, the Lib Dems’ popularity rapidly rose in May 2019. From averaging 9% in polls in April, the Lib Dems leapt up to 20% by June (+11pts), almost entirely at the expense of Labour.


The party would have won 53 seats on a universal swing, a gain of 41 seats compared to its 2017 total – this would have been the biggest seat gain achieved by the Liberals since 1923, nearly 100 years ago.


Yet, after average 18-20% in polls for 5 months in a row, the Lib Dems’ support vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. Between September 2019 and February 2020, the Liberal Democrats’ support collapsed from 19% back to 9% - exactly what it was in April 2019.


Their estimated seat total, meanwhile, has fallen from an impressive 53 seats to just 8 seats – the same number of seats that they won in 2015. Indeed, within England and Wales, the party would win just 5 seats – fewer than in 2015.


Why did this happen? How did it all go so wrong?

Well, I would say that there were three main reasons for the Lib Dems’ failure in 2019.

Ambiguity

The primary reason was a failure to adequately articulate their main policy: being anti-Brexit. The Lib Dems’ whole campaign was structured around their pledge to revoke Article 50 if they won a majority. But this bold pledge was undermined by two facts.

First, everyone knew that the Lib Dems were never going to win a majority, so this promise was undermined from the start. In November 2019, just 6% of voters thought that a Lib Dem majority could realistically happen. As it was obvious that the Lib Dems were never going to win a majority, the party also promised to support a referendum if they did not win a majority, and to revoke Article 50 if they did win a majority (an outcome that virtually everyone agreed was impossible). So if you wanted an EU referendum, but did not want to revoke Article 50 without a referendum, you would have to vote Lib Dem… but hope that they didn’t win.

Confused yet? I don’t blame you. The Lib Dems’ EU policy thus suffered from the very thing that they had spent 6 months criticising Labour for: ambiguity, uncertainty and confusion.

Second, the Labour Party adopted a clear and unambiguous policy of holding a 2nd referendum on an improved Brexit deal. This polarised the election even further between Labour (promising a 2nd referendum) and the Conservatives (promising Brexit). At the same time, Remain voters actually preferred Labour’s Brexit policy (64% approved) to the Lib Dems’ policy (55% approved). So, since virtually everyone agreed that the Lib Dems could not win, and since Labour’s Brexit policy was slightly more popular amongst Remainers, it would seem to make logical sense for Remainers to support Labour.


And that is exactly what they did. Between September 2019 and the general election, the Lib Dems’ monthly poll average amongst Remainers fell from 34% to 21% (-13pts), with Labour rising from 36% to 49% (+13pts). This led to the Lib Dems falling from an overall poll average of 19% to 12% (-7pts) in the general election.


The Lib Dems’ strategy of winning most Remain voters was thus a complete failure, both due to their opponents’ strategic decisions and the Lib Dems’ own missteps.

Overconfidence

The second major reason was that the Lib Dems were massively overconfident. Despite only winning 12 seats and 7% of the vote in 2017, the party set their sights far too high. Even when they were polling over 20%, their estimated seat total barely exceeded 50 seats; their 2015 defeat had been absolutely devastating, and they had somehow managed to lose even more votes in 2017. They needed to rebuild the party and win back seats that they had narrowly lost. Yet at one point, Chuka Ummuna was arguing that the Lib Dems could win up to 200 seats. This would have been the largest seat gain (+112) by the Liberals since the Liberal landslide of 1906, over a century ago.

The idea that they could have made such gains in 2019 is laughable.


Yet in 2019, instead of focusing on winning seats that they had only narrowly lost in 2017, the party focused an enormous amount of time and energy on seats that they simply could not realistically win. As a result, their vote rose significantly in unwinnable seats like Kensington (+9pts), Wokingham (+22pts) and Somerset North East (+14pts) – but their vote share fell in seats that they had actually won in 2017, such as North Norfolk (-18pts), Dunbartonshire East (-4pts) and Eastbourne (-6pts) all of which the party lost.

The failure of the Lib Dems’ targeting strategy is demonstrated by two facts. Firstly, of the eight seats that the Lib Dems won in 2015, the party won just two of them in 2019. Secondly, the Lib Dems underperformed relative to their overall share of the vote. On a universal swing, the Lib Dems would have won 19 seats (+7) after increasing their vote share by 4pts, yet in the general election they only won 11 (-1). This compares to 2017, when they overperformed their overall vote share and won 12 seats (+4) instead of the 5 seats (-3) that they would have won on a universal swing.

In short, the party convinced themselves that they could win enough seats to fill the government benches, and as a result they barely ended up winning enough seats to fill a park bench.

Jo Swinson

The final reason for the Lib Dems’ election failure was the Prime Minister-in-waiting herself: Jo Swinson. Despite the assumptions made by many centrists, who thought that their love of Swinson would be shared by the whole country, the more that voters saw of Swinson, the less they liked her. The party’s decision to run a Presidential-style campaign focused on Jo Swinson, even going as far as to label the party “Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats” proved to be a very poor strategic choice. Between September and December, the percentage of voters who disapproved of her performance rose from 34% to 49% (+15pts), whilst her net approval rating fell from -7pts (September) to -27pts (December).


For comparison, even Jeremy Corbyn’s net approval rating improved between September 2019 (-45pts) and December 2019 (-37pts). But Jo Swinson’s got worse.


Conclusion

With Brexit having happened, and the Lib Dems’ sole policy having thus become redundant, it is difficult to see where the party goes next.

What is the party’s purpose now, if not to be anti-Brexit? Can it move on from the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition even as it is set to elect another Coalition Minister as its leader?

These questions are for the Lib Dems to answer. But there is one thing that we do know for sure, and that is that ultimately the Lib Dems failed in 2019 because they over-estimated their popularity. If the party wants to return to power, it should recognise a simple truth: most people simply do not like them.