Or “What I know now that I didn’t know two days ago”.
Before the election I went out on a limb and expressed the view that maybe, just maybe, the opinion polls were underestimating the strength of Liberal Democrat support. I was wrong. Horribly, utterly and completely wrong.
What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that this has all happened before. In 1974 Jeremy Thorpe, the charismatic then leader of the Liberals (as the Lib Dems were then), had taken his party from just 7.5% of the popular vote in the 1970 to nudging 30% in the opinion polls on the eve of the election. The 1974 election played out almost exactly the same as the one we have just had, only more so.
The Lib Dem vote collapsed, squeezed by the two bigger parties to just 19.3% (but still a huge gain on where they had been previously) and for that still significant vote share, they got a paltry 14 seats.
In 1974 one Conservative seat required 35 thousand votes, one Labour seat needed 44.5 thousand and a single Liberal seat took a whopping 433 thousand votes. Yes, you read that correctly; one Labour vote was worth 10 Liberal votes.
To put that into context, here is a graph showing the what happened this time around*:
And the numbers: Conservative seat – 35 thousand votes, Labour seat – 33 thousand votes, Liberal Democrat seat – 120 thousand votes. This time, a Labour vote is only worth ~ 4 Lib Dem votes, we’ve got it easy!
More damaging however, is that, compared to 2005 the Lib Dem vote share has actually increased by 1% and that increase has translated into a loss of 5 seats. At least in 1974 Jeremy Thorpe improved his position in the house!
All of this is interesting, and frustrating, and largely already known but what does it mean for the difficult decision being taken in Liberal Democrat HQ today?
The problem for the Lib Dems is this: FPTP only works when there are two very strong parties; in order to become one of the two very strong parties the Lib Dems must usurp one of the existing two; in order to achieve that, they must achieve around a 40% vote share; when they have between 25% and 40% of the vote share FPTP breaks down and cannot deliver a stable government. When government is unstable, the system resets itself by pushing one of the parties way down and making the other two strong again. As the smallest of the three parties, it is always the Lib Dems the electorate abandon (not because they don’t want to vote for them, but because a yellow vote is more likely to be a wasted vote). In order to achieve a significant impact while we have FPTP, the Lib Dems must achieve an overnight jump from 20% to 40% of the vote share, completely bypassing the area where FPTP is broken: Ain’t. Ever. Gonna. Happen.
Summarizing all of the above, while we still have FPTP, we will never have a powerful Liberal Democrat party and it is impossible to achieve with a continual small year on year growth of vote share.
What this means for the Liberal Democrat Executive is that they do not, however it may appear on the surface, face a choice between a risky Lib/Lab coalition that could deliver the reform they need but that could also cast them back down, vs a safe retrenching of their position followed by continued steady growth. What they in fact face is a choice between a slim hope of reform vs certain eventual demise – the only question being how long they can put it off.
Put that way, there is really only one sensible option – the executive must grab the possibility for reform, however slim, with both hands.
Polls always ask the question “if you thought they could win, who would you vote for?” and the answer is almost always that around 50% would vote Lib Dem. That’s maybe an overestimation, but it is certainly true that a large number of the British public favour a Liberal left-leaning party and feel they cannot vote for them.
This time, for the first time, there was real feeling amongst the population that a hung parliament was exactly what we needed and not something to be afraid of – that in itself is a grave indictment of the failure of FPTP as a voting system and evidence that we are finally ready to embrace a proportional representation voting system and the mature attitude to politics it requires to work.
If you agree, there is a rally in Trafalgar Square (and others in Bristol, Manchester, Oxford and Scotland) at 2pm today; if you go, will you take a cardboard representation of me? I can’t make it there from Tokyo in time: http://www.takebackparliament.com/page/s/rally
…and not one, but two petitions for you to add your name to (already totalling 25000 names a short 18 hours after the result was decided): http://labs.38degrees.org.uk/all/media/1305, http://www.takebackparliament.com/
Don’t forget to send your letter to the Executive calling for them to grasp this opportunity with everything they can muster.
This is our best opportunity to see real reform and if we don’t grab it now, it could be 35 years before we get another chance.
*Criminy, I hate the superficiality of that Conservative scribble tree. It really is an excellent metaphor for their attitude that, if they just slap a pretty sticking plaster over the top, the stupid electorate will believe whatever they tell us. Urgh. Hat tip to Chris Emerson for the graph btw.