My ‘Super Thursday’ Lib Dem post mortem

by Stephen Tall on November 16, 2012

A bad day for the Lib Dems, but not unexpectedly so. Call it sanguine, call it resigned…

Lib Dems Corby pressed

The party expected to get squeezed in Corby, and we were. I suspect we lost some ‘none of the above’ voters to Ukip and some left-leaning liberals to Labour (and many others who just didn’t vote). To forfeit our deposit by barely more than a dozen votes added an extra ignominy (although revived an old Liberal tradition). Though there is something practical we can do to lend a hand there…

PCCs – Lib Dems draw a blank

As for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, well these were never likely to be Lib Dem success stories. According to the Police Federation there were only two areas out of 41 which the party would have won even if we had polled at the level we did at the 2010 general election: Avon & Somerset and Dyfed-Powys (where the party didn’t field a candidate). It is certainly disappointing that the party didn’t manage even a solitary second place — based on the 2010 results we would have been in second place in 20 regions. However, the extremely low turnout, combined with the presence of strong independent candidates, makes it impossible to extrapolate any useful data about a future Lib Dem general election performance.

A potential cause for optimism for liberals (not necessarily Lib Dems)

The Police Federation estimated, based on recent opinion polling, that the Tories would win 21 PCC elections, Labour 20. However, the current scores on the doors are Tories 15, Labour 13 — and 12 Independents (Devon & Cornwall has yet to declare). This truly was a day for Independents, especially when you add in the success of new Bristol mayor George Ferguson.

Now I have to say I have a general suspicion of ‘Independents’ — many of them are anything but, are often disappointed renegades who feel they’ve not had the recognition they deserved from the political parties they used to belong to. Just slapping the label ‘Independent’ on a formerly partisan person with their own value-set does not make them genuinely independent (whatever that means).

HOWEVER… I have to confess to being left just a little bit impressed by the success of so many independents in these elections. Yes, some of the public probably just put a cross next to the box marked ‘independent’ in an unthinking knee-jerk kick against the mainstream parties.

But it doesn’t seem to me that’s the best explanation for their success — rather that small proportion of the public which voted seems to have taken the time and trouble to look up the backgrounds of the candidates in order to vote for who they thought would be the best qualified candidate. We may disagree with their choice, but I’m actually quite heartened that it wasn’t a case of voters automatically picking their usual party.

What seems to have happened is that the mass franchise electorate was whittled down to a perfectly formed selectorate: a few voters taking an active interest not being drowned out by the larger number of voters with minimal interest. I’m conflicted by this development. On the one hand, depressed that so few citizens used their right to vote (even if to spoil their ballot). On the other hand, encouraged that many of those who did engage have taken their responsibility seriously.

Of course come the next general election, when voters face the choice of electing their local MP and national government, we will almost certainly see a reversion to the norm: the public will return to mainstream parties. But every election which unwinds their usual partisan certainties stretches voter allegiance a little more thinly than before. And that’s a big, big challenge to the main three political parties.

* 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.