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13,500 new members and a strategic problem

July 5, 2016 8:17 AM
By Mark Pack

Once again, an awful election result for Liberal Democrats has been followed by a huge increase in party membership. The referendum result itself only directly triggered a small boom in party membership in the immediate aftermath. Then came Tim Farron's public comments about continuing to fight the pro-European cause. It was those which which triggered the big volumes of new members.

The distribution of the new members matches that of the Remain vote around the country. That means, for example, a huge surge in membership in London and much less of one down in the south west. The surge is happening not in areas of traditional party strength but in areas with a strongly small l liberal outlook.
It is possible to overdo this distinction. It looks most likely that 6 of the 8 Lib Dem MP seats voted Remain* as did a good chunk of seats the Lib Dems won in 2010. But, there is a distinction here and it illustrates a strategic dilemma for the party. Should it look to rebuild in traditional areas of strength - an approach which would encourage caution over Europe given some of the areas which voted Leave - or should it go for the areas where there are the most people who share the party's values, the sort of new core votes approach David Howarth and I set out?

Second ReferendumThe answer lies in learning from the weakness inherent in the party's past successes at general elections. They were based on the accumulation of random chance through hard work. That is, a particular Parliamentary seat would become winnable through the combination of the right mix of personalities coming together at the local level, opposition errors, issue opportunities and helpful demography or tactical situation. Causal factors one and all, but with the accumulative appearance of random chance.

It made for a diverse set of winnable, and won, seats without nearly as much in common between them - and those who voted Lib Dem - as is the case with other parties. Hence also the problem of the Liberal Democrats never having built up a large core vote, with all the downsides in terms of vulnerability to bad times and the certainty of losing a large chunk of support in a hung Parliament regardless of what you do.

The sadness and anger at the referendum result gives an even greater chance to build a larger core vote for the Lib Dems than before. It also is an opportunity that comes as a time when such a pivot in the party's strategy is much easier to do.

For the sad fallout from the general election is that there are far fewer Lib Dem MPs. Pivoting to a core vote strategy when you have lots of MPs elected in a very diverse set of seats is much harder because of the understandable reluctance to do anything which doesn't appeal across all your held seats.

But when you have so few, it's much easier to do. Not easy, but much easier. Consider Cornwall, for example. If we had a county full of Lib Dem MPs in a Eurosceptic area, the idea of going all out to appeal to pro-Europeans would run into much more - and much more understandable - internal party resistance (and indeed did) than when we have none.

Yet the hangover from the past still rests heavily on the party. Possible candidates I talk to keep on referring back to old election results. Regions keep on thinking about supporting future target seats based on the past. The party's selection rules keep on looking backwards to work out what are the winnable seats. And the list goes on.

As a trained historian, I am of course keen on learning from the past. But to rebuild as a better and stronger party, we mustn't just look to replicate the past. We need to build something different, more durable and therefore more successful - and something which makes use of the opportunity offered by more people having signed the petition calling for a second referendum than voted Lib Dem in 2015. In fact, the figure is approaching double now and in around 150 seats held by Labour or the Tories the majority of voters - on a turnout higher than in recent general elections, no less - backed Remain. By no means all the MPs in such seats backed Remain themselves.

Which is why looking at the make-up of seats based on that core vote potential - along with how they voted in the referendum and where the petition signatures demanding a second referendum are coming from - is much more important than Lib Dem vote shares 10 or more years ago.

* Some estimates based on demographic modeling have made it 5 out of 8 but 6 out of 8 so far looks the best estimate.