Why the Lib Dems' 2015 election target is 126 seats

In 2007, Clegg pledged to double the number of Lib Dem MPs over two general elections - and hasn't gone back on his word since.

There was much chatter following last week’s publication of Labour’s 106 target seats for the 2015 general election that everyone now knew what all three main parties' election strategies were: 106 for Labour, 80 for the Tories (40 holds and 40 targets) and, um, 57  for the Lib Dems, as we fight, Heinz like, 57 varieties of by-election campaigns to hold onto our existing seats.

Well, hold the front page everyone. For the Lib Dems at least, it’s not true…

Our target wasn’t set last week. It was set on 18 December 2007, when Nick was elected leader, with a stated ambition to double the number of Lib Dem MPs over the next two general elections. That means the target for 2015 isn’t 57 seats. It’s not even 114. It’s 126 (as we had 63 MPs when Nick was elected)

Now, I know Nick said last week that it’s a "complete mug's game to start staring into the crystal ball" and predict election results two years out, and admittedly, the crystal ball probably wasn’t functioning all that well when he set that target as part of his election pitch – who knew we’d be in government after the first of those elections, with all that’s brought with it? But no one’s saying that’s not still the aim. Indeed, I’ve even asked Nick post-tuition fees and a seat of disastrous local election results if he’d like to reconsider – and he didn’t want to.

So folks. 126 seats.

And while of course we’re going to fight tooth and nail to hang on to every seat we currently hold, does anyone really think that’s the summit of our ambitions? That Nick will stand up at the leaders' debates and say ‘we’re fine as we are, thanks’. Of course not. Constituencies like Camborne and Redruth or Oxford West and Abingdon will see us doing all we can to win. That’s why a differentiation strategy and full ownership of Lib Dem triumphs (hats off this week to Steve Webb) is so important. The best form of defence is attack. And there’s going to be plenty of that.

Now, do the polls suggest we’re going to increase our total number of seats in 2015? Of course not.  Does one single pundit anywhere think that’s the case either? Nope. But does that mean we’re going to settle for the status quo at best? Of course not.

Remember that target. 126….

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg leaves LBC Radio on January 10, 2013 in London, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt