A longer read for the weekend: How important will incumbency be to the Lib Dems in 2015?

by Stephen Tall on March 29, 2014

Liberal Democrat badge - Some rights reserved by Paul Walter, Newbury, UKLast year I wrote a piece, So, about that Lib Dem wipeout in 2015 then…, highlighting that – though the polls are grim for the Lib Dems – the assumption of many pundits that this will automatically translate into Lib Dem annihilation at the next election is flawed.

That brief analysis was based on looking at the lists of Lib Dem-held seats that Labour and the Tories are targeting. Now Craig Johnson from Newcastle University has taken a more rigorous approach and looked at the election prospects for the Lib Dems in seats the party holds. His article, ‘The Importance of Local Parties and
Incumbency to the Electoral Prospects of the Liberal Democrats’
, is published in the latest edition of the Political Studies Association. It is available to read online here.

Here are some key findings. First, Craig Johnson looks at the context, and why wipeout is predicted by some commentators:

The Liberal Democrats have focused on building a local electoral base that forms a significant aspect of their organisational structure. Losing over 1,000 councillors post-2010 across Britain has not only damaged the electoral reputation of the Liberal Democrats, but also represents a major setback for the party and its organisational structure.

It is such bad results, along with lower national polling figures, that have led some to suggest that the Liberal Democrats will lose a substantial number of seats at the next general election. Dommett (‘A Miserable Little Compromise? Exploring Liberal Democrat Fortunes in the UK Coalition’, 2013, Political Quarterly 84(2), p. 218) goes as far as to suggest that the party could win as few as nine seats in Westminster next time around.

However, if the Liberal Democrats’ seat share is to collapse so badly, then two more expectations should be realised. First, the Liberal Democrats should be losing support in their strongest regions and in those constituencies where they have an incumbent MP.

Data collected by Lord Ashcroft (2013) suggests that the Liberal Democrats are polling relatively well in marginal seats, and the Eastleigh by-election also showed that the Liberal Democrats are capable of successfully defending seats in spite of dwindling national support. Second, since local parties are a necessary platform for national success for the Liberal Democrats, the party’s strongest local associations should be crumbling. Examining financial and membership reports to the Electoral Commission can demonstrate the extent to which this is the case. …

And that is exactly what Craig does examine. What follows below are two of the key tables, looking at the Lib Dems’ strength as reflected in the party’s finances and its membership on a region-by-region basis – but also, and crucially, looking at Lib Dem-held seats (incumbents) compared with non-Lib Dem seats (non-incumbents)…

Table 3 shows Liberal Democrat local organisation financial data post-2010 compared with post-2005 broken down into two specific categories: geographic region and incumbency.

lib dem association spending

The relative weakness of the party’s appeal nationally has often meant that Liberal Democrat MPs’ re-election has been more dependent on personal popularity and local activity than it has for Labour and the Conservatives. In 2010, Liberal Democrat incumbents saw their vote increase by 0.6 per cent, compared to a fall of 4.7 per cent for non-incumbents. Most strikingly, first time incumbent MPs for the party saw their vote rise on average by 3.1 per cent.

Such strength of incumbency for the party represents a continued trend since 1992. Therefore, it is important for the party to maintain membership and income in incumbent seats. Since income and expenditure can change annually depending on factors individual to constituencies (e.g. repayment of loans, different regional electoral cycles), the accounting years 2011 and 2012 are cumulated to give a more medium-term sum, with averages then taken of these sums across each region. This is to give as extensive a picture as possible of the Liberal Democrats’ financial and organisational strength post-2010. This is then compared with the equivalent years in the previous electoral cycle, 2006 and 2007.

If the Liberal Democrats are going to collapse electorally in 2015, then it should be expected that income and expenditure will be lower post-2010 in the Liberal Democrats’ strongest areas compared with post-2005. …

The South West, North West, South East and London are regarded as important regions for the Liberal Democrats because of the number of incumbent MPs they have in those regions. For those associations without incumbent Liberal Democrat MPs, Table 3 demonstrates a significant fall both in income and in the number of associations to report. A drop of over £18,000 in average income represents a fall of over 20 per cent post-2010 compared with post-2005.

Based on the data in Table 3, those strongest associations without incumbent Liberal Democrat MPs are financially weaker post-2010 than post-2005. However, a different pattern emerges for local associations with incumbent Liberal Democrat MPs. Although their average income and expenditure has not risen by a great deal, Table 3 shows that these associations earned and spent similar amounts post-2010 compared with post-2005. Add this to consideration of the large fall in the number of Liberal Democrat councillors since 2010, party associations with incumbent Liberal Democrat MPs appear to be coping well.

Most significantly, Table 3 also shows that the number of associations with incumbent MPs submitting successive accounts in 2011–2012 has risen by more than 20 per cent since 2006–2007. Based on the data in Table 3, those strongest associations with incumbent Liberal Democrat MPs are financially stronger post-2010 than post-2005. …

Table 4 shows average association membership data compared by region and incumbency.

lib dem association membership

In associations with incumbent Liberal Democrat MPs, the average association membership in 2008 was 349, falling to 246 in 2012. This represents a fall of just over 20 per cent. Although party membership is declining throughout Europe, on the face of it, this is concerning news. Successful party policy and strategy depends upon those who develop it, but also depends upon the foot soldiers who can communicate it on the doorstep by means of leaflets or
door-knocking.

However, a significant decline in membership need not represent a significant decline in activism. Studies of the health of political parties have largely focused on membership levels as an indicator of activism. Fisher, Fieldhouse and Cutts (2013) challenge this, echoing Scarrow’s (2000, pp. 95–99) analysis that the size of a party’s membership need not reflect the level of individual activism. They find that, of the three main parties, the Liberal Democrats were most likely to recruit non-members to campaign, with 86 per cent of responding associations doing so. This complements Whiteley, Seyd and Billinghurst’s findings (2006, pp. 98–100), who show that many Liberal Democrat members are embedded in many local community organisations, and subsequently can recruit local activists to campaign without the need for them to join.

Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats have previously relied on a strong membership in target seats to employ traditionalist campaigning techniques (Fisher and Denver, 2009). The ability of the strongest Liberal Democrat local associations to raise funds and conduct campaigns alongside a declined membership will be a determinant of how they fare at the next general election.

Here’s Craig Johnson’s conclusion:

Maintaining and strengthening their position in associations with incumbent MPs is perhaps the best chance the party has to return an electorally relevant share of seats at the next general election. Overall, the strongest Liberal Democrat associations appear to be operating from a relatively robust organisational position. Financially, the experience of Liberal Democrat associations with incumbent MPs and in the party’s strongest regions post-2010 suggests that they may do better than previously predicted. This is not to say that the Liberal Democrats will retain all 57 seats from their 2010 intake. Indeed, they are clearly under considerable pressure. However, ahead of the next general election, if they are able to maintain their local party organisation in their strongest constituencies, then the predicted Liberal Democrat collapse may be somewhat mitigated.

As I say, the whole article is well worth a read – here’s the link again.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.