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FactCheck: do Lib Dems out poll their European counterparts?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 15 September 2008

Nick Clegg says his party's electoral success stands up to the rest of Europe. Is he right? FactCheck compares the numbers.

The claim

"A party such as ours which got, what, six million votes at the last general election - more than any other liberal party in Europe."
Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader, 14 September 2008

The background

In a question and answer session with Steve Richards, the Independent's chief political commentator, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg cited the party's electoral success as a reason they should get more coverage in the media.

Top of his list was the party's results at the last general election. His six million figure is accurate (5,985,454 votes to be precise, according to the Electoral Commission), but is the UK's third party really more electorally successful than its European counterparts?

The analysis

The first difficulty when analysing the claim is working out exactly who those European counterparts are.

The Liberal Democrats, as well as Labour and the Conservatives (although they regularly debate it), are a member of a European coalition of political parties with what they consider to be similar interests.

Their main coalition is the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party - a coalition which includes parties from countries that are not currently members of the EU.

This European party, along with the European Democratic Party, is then represented in the European Parliament by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group.

Although this does not make the parties carbon copies of each other - far from it - as the Lib Dems have elected to put themselves in the same camp these may be considered the nearest equivalents without delving into the political philosophies of each.

Even then making a direct comparison is not as simple as counting ballot papers.

Eleven of the 27 EU member states have smaller total populations than the approximate 6 million votes the Liberal Democrats polled during the 2005 election.

In addition, several member states have more political parties that can boast electoral success in national parliamentary elections than the UK. Again, 11 of the countries represented in the ALDE group have contingents made up of more than one political party.

The party's percentage share of the national vote may therefore provide a fairer comparison of the Lib Dem's electoral success, even if it does not eliminate all factors.

In 2005, the Lib Dems, then led by Charles Kennedy, gained 22 per cent of the total votes cast - its largest share since the current incarnation of the party in 1988.

Several (not all, of course) of the parties in the ALDE group can also claim to attract a similar proportion of the vote.

For example, two of Denmark's political parties are represented in the ALDE group. One of them, Venstre, gained 26 per cent of their parliamentary vote in 2007 and forms part of the governing coalition. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, also leads the party.

Estonia also has two of its political parties represented in the ALDE group. The Estonia Centre Party and the Estonia Reform Party took 26 and 27 per cent of the vote respectively in their 2007 parliamentary elections.

So while Nick Clegg may be technically correct, his statement may not give the Liberal Democrats the electoral prowess he is seeking.

The verdict

Party conferences are a leaders' prime opportunity to rally their faithful supporters with overtures designed to spur them on to action, and Nick Clegg's assessment of his party's electoral performance is no exception. His statement, at face value, does not mislead his audience.

Yet, direct comparisons with the Lib Dems European equivalents is not so clear cut as counting the number of votes cast. The Lib Dems in the UK may gain more votes, but they have a bigger electoral pool to tap into than in most other countries - and some other liberal parties in Europe score a bigger share of the vote.

FactCheck rating: 2.5

How ratings work
Every time a FactCheck article is published we'll give it a rating from zero to five.

The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largerly checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.

The sources

ALDE group website
Electoral Commission, Election 2005: constituencies, candidates and results, March 2006

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