Tag Archives: mark-littlewood

The Littlewood Effect… twelve months later

Mark Littlewood has articles on Liberal Vision and The Telegraph reminding us of his pamphlet The Cameron Effect last year.

That’s fair enough. It’s equally fair enough for me to point you in the direction of my rebuttal of that pamphlet.

What has changed in the previous twelve months? Mark is right to say that one thing that hasn’t, frustratingly, is the opinion polls. Nonetheless that is to ignore the fact that they went up for the local elections in June (and down for the European Elections). We have every reason to expect those figures to pick up as we head towards 2010 all else being equal. In fact, I think we have a lot of reason to be confident that things will pick up quite well during an election campaign. Clegg has finally moved on from his “calamitous” period and Vince Cable continues to get good press.

Does that mean that I am prepared to revise my prediction that the Lib Dems will finish the election with roughly the same number of MPs that it started with? No. I don’t see any evidence of a breakthrough this time around. But equally, I continue to regard Liberal Vision’s pessimism as misplaced.

Mark, it has to be said, has subtly shifted his position. Last year the focus was all on tax cuts; this year he has replaced this with more ambiguous language about “winning over those who are flirting with David Cameron’s Tories.” But the people switching to the Tories this time are not the ones clamouring for the Tories to adopt a small government, low tax agenda; indeed they are coming to the Tories precisely because they don’t think that is what Cameron is offering (they may be in for a surprise considering what the new Tory intake looks like). Ultimately, I don’t follow the argument that this is some kind of zero sum game between the Lib Dems choosing between soft Labour and soft Tory voters at all. Instead it is a mad scrabble for floating voters who are up for grabs by any party.

Mark may not have got his wish of the party adopting a position of overall tax cuts, but he should be consoled that the party is in favour of reducing taxes for low and middle income owners and that the party is united behind this position. This isn’t a policy aimed at the left or right (although the right may quibble with the tax increases we propose to impose to pay for them); it has far wider appeal than that.

Talk of tax cuts right now would almost certainly scare people right now and be scarcely economically justifiable; Mark knows this. So the question is, what buttons should we be pressing that would appeal uniquely to people currently in the welcoming arms of David Cameron? Should we be bolder in our talk about spending cuts than Vince Cable has been this week at a time when all Osborne can offer us is flummery and his characteristic whingeing? It is hard to believe that would make us especially popular.

The main thing that has changed is that the economic situation has got a lot worse. That’s bad news for those of us who would like to see greater investment in specific areas and bad news for those who would like to see overall tax cuts. I suspect the all out hostilities over the heart and soul of the Liberal Democrats will have to wait for at least another conference, something which is good news for the hedges outside the Bournemouth Conference Centre.

Lembit versus Lembit

Lembit OpikLembit is making a great deal out of the fact that he has more Facebook supporters than Ros Scott, which is fair enough. I’ve never bought into this idea that this election is a shoe-in for Ros Scott. He can also claim a mini-coup in the fact that Mark Littlewood has abandoned ship and is backing Lembit over and above his Liberal Vision colleague Chandila Fernando.

One thing that confuses me about the Lembit Facebook strategy though is how come he has two, apparently official Facebook groups? One has 516 members, the other features an official video. It’s almost as if they launched an official Facebook group but it was less successful than a disparate group of supporters who had managed to get more people to sign up in the same amount of time, so they abanoned ship. With the website change as well, it certainly does seem as if there has been a mini-coup d’etat within Team Opik. But if you have to save your candidate from himself, is he really worth saving?

The Littlewood Effect: Why wishful thinking won’t win the argument for tax cuts for the rich

The new ginger group Liberal Vision – which to all intents and purposes appear to be an entryist brand of the libertarian pressure group Progressive Vision – published a pamphlet this week called ‘The Cameron Effect’ (pdf). As regular readers of Guido Fawkes will know by now, this report makes the startling claim that two in three Lib Dem MPs ‘could’ lose their seats at the next election unless the party introduces a policy of cutting tax cuts, including cuts aimed at high-earners.

Rumour has it that the reaction of at least one MP to this report was to push its co-author Mark Littlewood into a hedge. While I don’t condone violence, I have to admit I can empathise (sp. I can’t believe I wrote emphasise last night!). But for me, the real problem with this pamphlet is not that it is unwelcome (publish and be damned) but that it is a spectacularly poor piece of research.

Let’s take the psephology for starters. Littlewood and his co-author David Preston have this pearl of wisdom about first past the post:

“Under Britain’s byzantine electoral system – it is not just absolute vote share that matters but relative vote share.”

Hmmm… not sure about that. I notice there are no footnotes. Relative vote share certainly does matter in d’Hondt elections, but where is the evidence that is the case for FPTP?

Problematically for Littlewood and Preston, the example they cite doesn’t support their argument. It IS true that if you look at the average ratio of Liberal:Conservative votes in the 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections and compare it to the average ratio of LD:Conservative votes in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, the ratio does indeed change from roughly 1:2 to 2:3. But if you compare 1992 to 1997, during which period the number of Lib Dem MPs leapt from 20 to 46, the ratio goes from a bit under 1:2 to a bit over 1:2. The 2:3 ratio cited only emerges once you factor in the 2005 General Election, when we made significantly fewer gains. If this analysis were correct, surely the ratio would be higher in the year of our great breakthrough?

But of course the difference between 1992 and 1997 was not some quasi-mystical change in relative vote share but a dramatic shift in the way the party targeted resources. This is just the first instance in which ‘The Cameron Effect’ fails to take into account the Rennard Effect.

The pamphlet goes on to examine how each constituency is likely to fare in the next election. Helpfully, it provides us with a neat little bar chart showing us what will happen in each constituency once you apply a uniform national swing based on an average of 30 opinion polls taken in the summer.

Even if we disregard the fact that the Lib Dem vote share will almost certainly be higher (and the Tory share will be lower) than the polls suggest this summer, this is a ridiculously crude mechanism to apply for three reasons:

a) It assumes that public opinion is constant across the UK with no significant variations. Yes, that probably means that in the South and East we are likely to struggle even more, but it also means that in the North and West we are likely to have an easier time gaining Labour seats.
b) Even Baxter allows you to factor in a tactical vote these days. Littlewood and Preston work on the extraordinary assumption that not a single voter will behave in this way, despite the fact that every single Lib Dem leaflet they receive will be urging them to do so.
c) In several of the seats listed as being at ‘measurable’ and ‘high’ risk (i.e. the seats which their press release lists as likely to go Tory) even the statistics they cite appear much rosier than they claim. Harrogate and Knaresborough is cited ad being at ‘measurable’ risk despite the fact that there has been a swing against the Tories locally and the uniform national swing would have us win. There’s a similar story in Kingston and Surbiton while in Solihull the massive swing locally, we are assured, counts for nothing.

While these factors appear to over-egg the claim that we are especially vulnerable to the Tories, they downplay our chances at gaining seats off Labour. They assume that not a single Tory voter in a Lib Dem/Labour constituency is squeezable. They talk about the sort of swings that we typically got in 2005 as being ‘exceptions’ to the point of being accidents – once again, the fact that in each of our target seats we are to have a campaign on the ground is completely downplayed.

In short, strip away the ‘we’re all doomed’ hyperbole and the prospect doesn’t look anything like as bad as Littlewood and Preston would have us believe. Don’t get me wrong: my prediction is that we will remain fairly static in the next election, losing some to the Tories and gaining some from Labour. And stagnation is something that I personally find extremely depressing. But the sort of wipeout predicted in this paper is simply wide of the mark.

So much for the psephology; what about the policy? Well, if the confident predictions of our demise seem unlikely, then the proposed cure-all is even harder to swallow. Let us assume for a minute that we really are in the ditch that Littlewood and Preston claim we are. Is a single change in policy really likely to make any difference? And that’s before you consider that the sort of tax cutting agenda they propose would by neccessity mean cutting several of our existing spending commitments (Littlewood and Preston decline to say which ones) and our opponents will almost certainly seek to present this in as poor a light as possible.

The entire argument for how promising tax cuts would make the party massively popular is based on a single opinion poll commissioned by the Taxpayers’ Alliance 13 months ago (before the credit crunch). Seriously. If that is really the best they can come up with, the only rational conclusion is that they must be wrong.

Their argument about cutting taxes for higher income earners is even more spurious. As a matter of fact (unrecognised in the paper) the Lib Dems don’t have a policy of clobbering the rich. Our policy is to close loopholes and exemptions only available to the rich. To argue, as they do, that what the average person in a low income really wants is special tax breaks for the rich so that, if they ever become rich, they’ll be able to get out of paying tax as well is taking the ‘aspiration’ argument beyond the point of absurdity. No-one is suggesting a return even to the 50p rate of income tax, so where did this nonsense suddenly come from?

In fact, I could probably make a better case for the popularity of tax cuts for the rich than Littlewood and Preston can. Far from being in the grip of ‘craven caution,’ when it comes to offering tax cuts, the Tories’ climb in the opinion polls began when George Osborne announced an intention to exclude all but the very richest from inheritance tax. So it is fair to say that some tax breaks for the rich are popular. But it is wrong to say that there is an opening in the tax debate. Lackadaisically calling for tax breaks for the rich won’t make us sound distinctive – they’ll make us sound indistinguishable from the Tories. And why should voters support Conservative copies when they can have the real thing?

Overall then, pretty much every single aspect of this pamphlet is poorly researched and ill-thought out. Mark Littlewood is a master of publicity and has managed to make a big splash with this pamphlet, but the fact that it is so, well, stupid, is cause for hope that Liberal Vision will prove short-sighted.

Littlewood and the Westminster Hour

Some interesting points here from Mark Littlewood regarding the Lib Dem leadership contest.

I agree with him that Chris Huhne needs to present himself more as a team player, and that Nick Clegg should be wary of relying on a campaign team that nearly lead Ming Campbell to defeat. I also – strongly – endorse the idea that the candidates need to big up their differences, something that both of them appeared to be at pains to minimise over the weekend. Then again, when you attempt to tease out a difference in the gentlest of ways, as Huhne did yesterday in the Torygraph, the media jump on it and suggest it is dirty and underhand.

On the Westminster Hour* last night I attempted to do that by presenting it as a contest between the strategist versus the communicator. Richard Grayson poured cold water on that suggestion, pointing out (correctly) that both Chris has shown he can be a terrific communicator and Nick has shown he can be a strategist in the past. It’s certainly fair that I may have over-egged the pudding, but ultimately insisting that the two are equals in every way doesn’t particularly help people make up their minds.

Bottom line: you only need to flick through the Sunday papers to realise what an effective job Nick Clegg has done to sell himself to the media. But at the same time, you only need to flick through half a dozen random policy papers to realise to what degree Chris Huhne has dominated much of our policy-making agenda. Before the leadership election there was his public services review. And he may have lost in 2006, but it was broadly his agenda, not Campbell’s, that the party followed in the subsequent months.

There’s been very coming from the Clegg camp today regarding campaign messages (sort your bloody website out!). Huhne by contrast has made two significant statements. One is that he has affirmed that PR ought to be a deal-breaker for any coalition deal. The other is that he would want Kennedy in his Shadow Cabinet.

All I can say to that is: good balance. Few people outside of the party or ERS will care particularly about the PR message, but it is important to Lib Dems (and ought to be important to the rest of you, but there you go). The Kennedy call meanwhile is very much tailored to appeal to the media and the wider public. It also makes good sense for the party to bring him back into the fold.

So a much needed good day for Huhne and an indifferent day for Clegg. On the other hand, yesterday was a terrific day for Clegg.

Still undecided…

* The piece on Winchester which immediately preceeded this interview can be found here.

Shooting the messenger

I like Mark Littlewood. I first got to know him when he was setting up NO2ID. Think he’s done a good job in the Lib Dems, and he is a good dining companion.

So, while I think his departure now may be politically expedient, I don’t delight in it. The person most responsible for last Sunday’s debacle was the one who came up with the ‘5 tests’ wheeze and in particular, these lines:

And if he meets these five tests he will have changed direction.

Coalition overtures with Labour

He will have changed direction, and embraced liberal democracy.

Coalition overtures with Labour

Are the Conservatives up to this same challenge?

Coalition overtures with Labour

Of course not.

If, reading between the lines, you can’t see coalition overtures with Labour, you must be blind, or stupid, or both.

I’m also very aware that the knives have been out for Littlewood ever since the Mark Oaten’s leadership candidacy went belly up. Littlewood was widely blamed for Ming’s disastrous ‘head teacher’ intervention at PMQs, widely believed to have been spun by the Oaten camp. In turn, Littlewood was accused of actively undermining Oaten’s campaign, something which was hotly denied at the time and, as we saw quite quickly afterwards, entirely unnecessary due to Oaten’s own limitless capacity for self destruction. There has been a quietly simmering feud going on for the past 12 months between Oatenistas and supporters of Littlewood, which seems to have now ended in a score draw (with the party stuck in the middle like some kind of bird of liberty-shaped pinata).

So, good luck Mark. And Ming: get your act together.