The Perils of Losing Voters’ Trust

Knowing my interest in all things electoral, my father-in-law gave me a book about social influences on voting behaviour at Christmas. Called Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, it has a series of short chapters touching on specific aspects. While in Ireland last weekend I read the chapter on how emotions are tied up with voting decisions.

The Lib Dems did badly in the General Election. I am convinced that part of it was a flawed election strategy of telling people that they wouldn’t be as nasty as the other guys, but part of it was the destruction of trust over university tuition fees. While we may have ended up with a better system (and I’m not entirely convinced about the argument of having to pay for university education at all), the fact that Lib Dems pledged not to increase fees then most of them trooped through the lobby to vote against that pledge proved toxic – a “massive political error” acknowledged by both Tim Farron and Norman Lamb in their recent London leadership hustings. Once trust is betrayed, it doesn’t really matter what policies you then try to push through.

The upshot of breaking the pledge was anger. People felt duped into voting Lib Dem in 2010 on the promise of that, in contrast with the other parties, they would be principled. People accept you have to make compromises, but not on core principles and signed pledges. To those who defend the Lib Dem actions on the basis of compromises – this was the wrong one to compromise on. I suspect it was a sign of the naivety that the Lib Dems displayed when going into coalition with the Conservatives, who knew full well what the impact of driving through certain policies would be.

The tie-in to Ireland? Well, I had been speaking the previous weekend at a conference run by the Irish Labour Party, who are the minor party in coalition government. After the first evening’s events, Michael Farrell and I were discussing the electoral situation in Ireland. He said that the Labour Party’s polling figures had fallen through the floor since they were elected to government in 2011. They’re currently polling at 10% (sounds familiar?) and their strategy seemed to be similar to that of the Lib Dems – in a state of some denial about what was happening whilst saying “look what we’ve stopped Fine Gael from doing”. Well, neither of those saved the Lib Dems.

Anger is an emotion that triggers action and which generally allows blame to be apportioned. The action was to actively not vote Lib Dem (or Labour in Ireland) by finding someone else to vote for. As the book puts it, “anger makes us want to remove the source of harm”. But anger is also transient.

It’s not guaranteed, but I think the Lib Dems will bounce back – and there are signs they are already doing so. As Tim Farron pointed out, the Liberals have been there before, particularly in the 1950s and the late 1980s. But in order to do so, they must reconnect with their political hearts, and find principles they can stand up for. The complaint about the Lib Dems locally is that they’re always against stuff – and I think that’s the wrong angle to take.

Listening to both candidates on Wednesday evening, I was heartened that the policies espoused by both (on issues like climate change, poverty, housing, energy, health and human rights) were policies I fundamentally agree with. There really wasn’t very much to choose between them. I’ve met Norman Lamb in March, while he was health minister, and I liked him. I’m trying to arrange to meet with Tim Farron – we have corresponded (mainly by Twitter) – and I admire his integrity and passion.

It’s important that a party leader can not only appeal to his party but appeal to and engage with a wider audience. While I think both Tim and Norman could do this, I think Tim has the edge because he wears his heart on his sleeve, and uses more humour. He’s like Charlie Kennedy in that way, and I think he would engage with a wider audience.

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