Do the Lib Dems have a core vote, and can we grow it?

by Stephen Tall on July 18, 2012

Is it possible to build a bigger Lib Dem core vote? Mark Pack has previously written here on the need for the party to adopt a ‘core vote’ strategy to protect the party from the adverse headwinds of the next election. I don’t disagree with the aim, I’m just not sure of its realism. Here’s why.

What do we mean by a ‘core vote’?

First, let’s define what’s meant by a ‘core vote’: voters who identify with the party and stick with it through the bad times as well as the good. Traditionally this identification has tended to be class-based: working-class Labour, upper-middle-class Conservative, with elections decided by who most effectively wins over voters inbetween. That class-based voting bloc has diminished since the end of the war (as I pointed out most recently here), but it does still exist.

The Liberal core vote has never been class-based under the mass franchise. The closest we’ve come to a core vote is a regional one (the ‘Celtic fringe’ of parts of Scotland, Wales and the South-west), together with a ‘type of voter’, usually stereotyped, not wholly inaccurately, as middle-class graduates rooted in the public sector. What’s tended over the years to unite them, keep them voting liberal, is an instinctive preference for a party viewed as ‘centrist’ — what Mark Pack terms the ‘David Owen strategy’ of economic competence plus social concern.

3 reasons I think we lack a ‘core vote’

Unfortunately for the party, though, none of this really adds up to much of a ‘core vote’. When Mark and I discussed this a few weeks ago, I came up with three reasons why this has historically been the case — and, indeed, why I’m not convinced that it’ll change much:

    1) liberalism tends towards rational scepticism which rarely equates to core votes, which tend to be any or all of the following: class-based / ideological / tribal;

    2) liberalism, at least in the UK, is generally centrist in terms of the key issue for most voters, the economy. As a result, our party’s ‘Venn diagram’ overlap with the Conservatives/Labour means liberal voters are less oppositional by nature, and more likely to move between us and one of our two opponents;

    3) liberalism’s disdain for vested interests means it’s harder to coalesce an interest group. We don’t do favours for trade unions or big business: that’s fundamental to who we are. But it means we don’t have powerful lobbies campaigning on our behalf — still less the news media — persuading the public their future will be rosier under the Lib Dems.

Ultimately, I think there’s a genuine Catch 22 for the Lib Dems… That until we’re a powerful parliamentary force (ie, above 100 seats) we won’t get the real traction needed to deliver long-term policies which connect with voters. But until then, we’re asking voters to trust the Lib Dems based on hope not experience, and that makes it much, much harder to build your core vote.

A ‘core vote’? It’s the economy, stupid

Crucially, there has never been a Lib Dem voter consensus around an economic model in the same way Tories (free enterprise) and Labour (worker rights) have a clearly defined USP. The closest we come to distinctiveness is belief in mutualism/co-operatives, ideas which are shared with Labour (and a few Tories) anyway.

Mostly Lib Dem voters are value-based around issues which for many voters are either non-key, or where the liberal view is a minority one. We’re pro-European and pro-immigration, we defend civil liberties, we advance constitutional reform, etc. These are fundamental tenets to liberals, but are either unpopular with, or irrelevant to, large chunks of the population.

Where does this leave us? I have no simple, pat conclusion to offer. I am sceptical of the notion the Lib Dems can build a ‘core vote’: the Coalition has, of course, made it harder, principally because it’s forced a party which voters locate in the centre to choose between right or left.

I am more optimistic that we can build a ‘core mission’, one which wouldn’t actually be a million miles from the ‘David Owen strategy’ — more responsible than Labour, nicer than the Tories — but which will still need Lib Dems pounding the streets to win every vote the hard way.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.