Lib Dem tasks for 2016
Start winning elections again
Easier said than done, of course, yet also vital. The Liberal Democrats have had a good run of council by-elections in the second half of 2015, both winning seats and also moving back up to good third or second places in areas of weakness. That is a necessary part of reclaiming the party’s place as the third party of the British political system.
But May 2016, with elections in Scotland, Wales, London and many English local councils is the big test.
Initial omens are mixed. Many of those crunching the numbers within the party are even at their most enthusiastic very modest about what the Lib Dems might achieve in May.
However, independent predictions by the local elections duo of Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher point to a more positive picture. Based on the council by-elections since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, they predict that national equivalent vote in May 2016 to be Conservative 32%, Labour 31%, Lib Dem 16% and UKIP 12%.
Those national equivalent vote calculations are made by adjusting for the different range of seats up for election year, permitting therefore year on year comparisons to be meaningfully made. If those predictions turn out right (and the Rallings and Thrasher predictions have a pretty mixed track-record), it would make the Lib Dem vote share better than at any point in the last Parliament – where it varied between 10% and 16% – but still well down on the 20%+ plus figures the party consistently scored from 1991 to 2010.
The Thrasher and Rallings predictions have consistently over-estimated the eventual Lib Dem vote share, doing so on all seven occasions I have data for. If that happens again and by similar margins, it would be touch and go whether the Lib Dem vote ends up being back above the levels of the last Parliament.
Boost Tim Farron’s popularity
So far, the news on Tim Farron’s leadership ratings has been cautiously positive, with some measures putting him as the leader with the best (or least worst) ratings of the main party leaders. There is still a very high level of don’t knows, which for a party out of the limelight is to be expected even if still a drawback.
It is not only amongst the don’t knows that progress is needed in 2016. It is also noticeable that his ratings amongst Lib Dem voters are often not as high as those for other leaders amongst their own party’s supporters. Care needs to be taken in interpreting figures with small sample sizes which is why trends across multiple polls are the most useful – and the trend is one that shows a need for both Tim Farron and the party as a whole to entrench his reputation amongst the party’s current shrunken base of supporters.
One obvious move would to be to move away from the party’s reluctance to use its email database for direct national communications with voters and instead instigate a regular – perhaps weekly – direct communication from Tim Farron to as many voters as the party can legally reach electronically. That sort of regular direct communication would also deal with the very patchy use of such data currently by local parties, reflecting their own variable organisational strengths after five years in government.
Find a distinctive message on the economy
This has always been a problem for the Liberal Democrats, trying to find a clear and distinctive alternative to the old simple mantras for Conservatives and Labour of being the parties of bosses and workers respectively. Yet with the economy continuing to be central to what voters are concerned about, the big risk is that without an economic message, otherwise desirable and sensible talk about liberal passions such as civil liberties leaves the party sounding like a fringe concern rather than a party addressing what matters most to the public.
Those liberal passions are essential for creating a stronger sense of what the party is about but they need to be part of a wider message. It’s notable how the new sort-of-slogan slipped out in the conference paperwork is made up of individually admirable policies that add up to a political message which sounds like it is only dipping in and out of the major concerns for voters.
Starting 2016 like that is undesirable. Ending it like that would be damaging.
Set a strategy and have the whole party contribute to it
But as the Liberal Democrats found with the short-lived JEET approach during the last Parliament (see Liberal Democrat Newswire #23 if you are sensibly sane enough not to remember what JEET was), talking about mainstream concerns of the voters on its own doesn’t work either if voters don’t have a clear idea of what a party stands for. Which is where the strategy David Howarth and I set out in our pamphlet comes in – building a larger core vote and restoring the party’s reputation for competence.
That strategy is not the party’s official strategy though there are some promising signs of elements of it being adopted at different levels in the party. Yet it’s not that uptake has been hindered by a rival strategy, rather that it is there is no clear strategy set out across the party, with widespread buy-in and all the different parts of the party working together to implement it.
Even in good times such a unified approach to a strategy would be wise. Given the severity of the party’s plunge from grace it is now essential. So essential that even adopting an inferior strategy would be better than no strategy, just muddling from event to event, meeting to meeting and headline to headline.
For the party to be able to adopt and implement a strategy successfully, the party’s governance review has to deliver the goods, because at the moment there is no sensible way of the party adopting an overall strategy and then coordinating its implementation across the party. (Some may think that is the role of the Federal Executive. But consider that a coordinated strategy includes having policy development fit with it – and think how things would play out if the FE were to adopt a strategy and then attempt to order the Federal Policy Committee to change its policy making plans to fit with it. That would not be a happy and productive turn of events.)
100,000 members: in or out?
2016 is the year in which the party needs to decide if it is serious about Tim Farron’s ambition set out in the leadership election campaign for a party membership of 100,000.
It’s an ambitious target and to be reached would require all parts of the party to be cooperating fully and enthusiastically. Yet so far we’ve seen some of those close to Tim back away from 100,000 to talk about a ‘much larger’ membership and the – thankfully averted – plan to axe to the party’s most successful membership growth scheme.
The party needs either to serious embrace the target or drop it. I’m in the former camp, but the worst outcome would be to stick with the headline without willing the means to achieve it.
End the Augustine approach to improving diversity
Debates in the Liberal Democrats about how to improve the party’s diversity often resemble Augustine’s prayer, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet”, for the most popular argument over diversity is frequently, ‘let’s take radical action, but not yet’.
That final day of radical action never quite appears, and in the meantime not only is the Parliamentary Party in the Commons now uniformly straight white men and diversity at local government level is poor and has been pretty much stalled for decades. Meanwhile, diversity amongst party officers is similarly out of kilter with not only modern society but even ancient society for women have never been as small a proportion of society as they are amongst Lib Dem local party officers.
Yet the party’s membership is nearly balanced male-female and on other measures of diversity it is also much better than those figures for elected officials and party posts. Tim Farron set out radical plans for improving the party’s diversity during the leadership contest. So far, however, there has been little to show for the plans. Some of the plans certainly do have a long gestation period, so that isn’t a reason for criticism yet. It will be however if the situation is not much changed by the end of 2016.
Get the party HQ restructure right
The reputation of Liberal Democrat HQ in Great George Street has taken quite a battering in the last few years, and reactions to the major HQ restructure have been uneasy at best by many of those in the voluntary side of the party who have been involved in the details.
As with most staff restructures, when people’s own jobs are directly involved, attention naturally gravitates to the details of job descriptions and reporting lines which in practice end up not meaning that much when people’s attention returns to day to day work. So as the new structure beds down in 2016 what will matter most is making it work in practice, regardless of the theoretical details sweated over in 2015.
For me the biggest question is whether the ‘digital first’ strategy can really work without a digital member of the senior management team.
The intention to move the party to a more fulsome embrace of digital is right, but when political parties, pressure groups and companies have tried to embrace digital it has only worked successfully when there is a senior figure leading that cultural change. Without a senior digital figure in the new structure the risks of failure for the Lib Dems are high, especially as getting the balance right will be hard given that some of the keenest supporters of ‘digital first’ seem to have gone rather overboard in forgetting how elections are won with a mix of digital and non-digital.