The Great Expectations Game

by Stephen Tall on June 6, 2009

Earlier this week, I blogged about the ‘expectations game’, the way in which post-election analysis can be spun, and speculated that the Lib Dems were being set up for a fall. In fact, though, the reporting of the party’s performance has been generally fair. For instance, here’s Tony Travers in today’s Guardian:

The national equivalent vote share put the Conservatives on 38%, the Liberal Dems on 28%, Labour on 23% and “others” on 11%. Compared with 2008, the Tories are down five points, Labour down one point, the Lib Dems up one point and Others up by 5 points. In short, both Labour and the Conservatives have taken a political hit compared with their position last year, while other parties, notably the Lib Dems, have generally gained.

Or Gary O’Donoghue for the BBC:

Taking Bristol is a major plus for the Lib Dems, particularly as the city has three Labour MPs and the party’s whole strategy has been aimed at hoovering up in the wake of Labour weakness. But the party will be concerned about the Tory gains in the South West, and will hope that a projected national share of 28% will bolster numbers elsewhere.

Unfortunately, though, the usually indispensable and impartial PoliticsHome.com seems resolutely determined to undermine its reputation, with a bizarrely one-sided analysis which concludes that the biggest disappointment of these elections was … the Lib Dems’ performance. Apparently it was ‘much worse than expected’, while Labour’s dismal showing qualified only as ‘worse than expected’.

Yes, you read that right: PoliticsHome reckons that Labour, who have won 23% of the vote and 176 councillors to the Lib Dems’ 28% of the vote and 473 councillors, performed less disappointingly than the Lib Dems. Go figure.

Their evidence for this dodgy conclusion? Well, the website asked its Phi100 panel of ‘influential insiders’ (declaration of interest: I’m a member) for their assessment of success criteria for the parties. The panel reckoned the Lib Dems should poll between 0% and 5% ahead of Labour, and would make net gains of 25-55 seats. The reality is the Lib Dems polled at the top end of the panel’s expectations, 5% ahead of Labour, but are currently showing a net loss of 4 councillors compared with 2005, when the seats were last contested.

Interestingly, the Tories’ 38% projected share of the vote was at the very bottom end of the panel’s expectations – a 6% drop from 2008 – though the fact the Tories made big overall gains suggests their vote is becoming much more evenly spread and better targeted than in former years, when the party was stacking up votes in safe seats.

Now, as I’ve already stated today, there were undoubted disappointments for the Lib Dems in these elections, chiefly in Devon and Cornwall, to a less extent in Somerset. But overall, measured by projected vote share, these were the most successful local election results for the Lib Dems in our history. If scoring 28% of the projected national share of the vote counts as ‘much worse than expected’, can I order the same for next year, please?

It is perhaps predictable that the usually sane Tim Mongomerie on the wholly partisan ConservativeHome.com should try and spin this as ‘the decline of the Liberal Democrats’ (they’re welcome to their delusion). But it is surprising that PoliticsHome.com – which, despite the fact that it is funded by ConservativeHome’s main investor Stephan Shakespeare, is normally an entirely impartial source of news – has allowed itself to torpedo its own reputation for balance.

Update: PoliticsHome’s managing director Freddie Sayers has emailed me with this reponse, which I’m happy to publish here:

Without doubt, Labour’s result was disastrous. But as we say above, this is not an analysis of the positions of the parties – purely how the results fared against expectations. And the only real surprise was that the Lib Dems lost rather than gained.

We prioritise the seat numbers over the vote share because the vote shares are much smaller ranges – they were individual choices for the panel, not the range between a lowball and highball prediction. In the case of both the Lib Dems and the Tories the predicted range was correct, but it is less remarkable.