Edition #56 of Liberal Democrat Newswire came out last week, covering the latest preparations for the general election and why some Lib Dem ministers should be rather embarrassed by the party’s messaging document.
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Welcome to the 56th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire and the first of the general election year. No surprise then that both the party’s record and its policies for the next Parliament feature heavily, including why some Liberal Democrat ministers should feel rather embarrassed when reading the latest document from party HQ.
As ever I hope you enjoy reading Liberal Democrat Newswire, and do let me know what you think.
Continuing the Liberal Democrat push on NHS spending which started with successfully getting extra money allocated in the Autumn Statement, the party has now published plans to find an extra £8bn for the NHS in England by 2020. The significance of that figure is that it is the sum called for by the Chief Executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens.
The extra money will come from a combination of some tax rises on the richest (such as further restricting pension tax relief) and from increasing public spending in line with the economy’s growth once the structural deficit has been cleared.
That general policy of increasing spending once the deficit has been sorted is both clear and confusing in equal measure.
Clear in making for a clear political distinction from the Tories who wish to carry on cutting even beyond that point.
But confusing – or at least tricky to communicate – because a message of first squeezing and then growing public spending requires a degree of communication subtlety given that it involves such as change of gear half way through the next Parliament.
Election team announced; no surprises here
Forget the excitable headlines about Vince Cable being ‘sacked’ as the Lib Dem economic spokesperson (an impressive piece of logical contortion given that it wasn’t a post he held; how can you be sacked when you’re not in post?). The announcement of the line-up of party spokespeople for the general election matches names with their existing government posts – and hence Danny Alexander at Treasury and Vince Cable at BIS.
That requires also the slotting in of names to cover the areas for which there isn’t a Liberal Democrat minister, of which the most notable is Tim Farron doing foreign affairs. Ex-ministers Paul Burstow (older people, ageing and care), Nick Harvey (defence) and Michael Moore (Europe) are also back in the team all covering roles that nicely suit their expertise.
Jeremy Browne, however, does not feature in the line-up. Given his increasingly acerbic tweets about the party that is perhaps not much of a surprise.
Journalists start asking the right question about May
The reality is that the maths of a hung Parliament rarely gives the leader of another party a complete free hand to choose who to put into 10 Downing Street (unless you’re in the world of a Jeffrey Archer novel). But the leader of the largest party can decide whether to offer a coalition or not.
As a result, the biggest political decision of May 2010 and one which has dominated politics since, namely David Cameron’s decision to offer coalition talks to the Liberal Democrats, was one that the political press corps had almost completely failed to speculate about, let alone predict.
The risk, once again, then is that political journalists miss what will turn out to be the dominating political decision of May 2015. It is quite conceivable that neither Cameron nor Miliband will feel that their backbenchers would stomach a coalition deal (even if they wished to strike one) and opt for minority government instead.
In a minority government where every day that Parliament is sitting there is a struggle to get the government’s business safely through, with votes needing frequently differing combinations of supporters assembled time and time again, the focus of politics will become – even more so than at present – overwhelmingly on Westminster, on the short-term and on the froth of political drama.
Coalition or minority government will massively shape British politics. Wise journalists won’t leave it until after the event to start asking Miliband or Cameron which they prefer.
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The latter features more chocolate and less Nick Clegg than the former.
The latter have been generally done well, and better than in previous elections, with customised messages from the relevant MPs or candidates, local contact details and a good balance struck between trying to direct people to help in specific seats and acknowledging that people may prefer to help elsewhere thanks to links with somewhere that isn’t the nearest seat spat out by a geolocation algorithm.
Where the mailing still struggles a little is in the top down nature of political activism it shows – a failure common through the party’s communications in this Parliament and something I’ve commented on before.
The mailing does give people a range of ways to campaign, from those online which take a few seconds through to offering up a substantial chunk of several hours a week. But it’s all about how people should slot into what the national party wants them to do rather than about empowering individuals. Some of that top down approach is necessary to make targeting at a general election effective but the party needs to be about more than just that.
But where is the accompanying online and grassroots campaigning, to strengthen his hand, to mobilise liberals and to help win votes? Nowhere to be seen.
However, the bigger issue with the mailing is what it inadvertently says about the record of some Liberal Democrat ministers. For the Message Briefing sets out a selection of the party’s achievements in government, along with the party’s policies which are most popular overall with people willing to consider voting Lib Dem. It then also gives different ‘most popular’ list for sub-groups within that, such as Labour-leaning voters or voters with children.
What’s striking across all those different lists is how only a few Liberal Democrat ministers can point to their own record in government as having produced achievements or policies that the party will be focusing on for the general election.
Having equal care and waiting times for mental health as for physical health is in there and builds on the successful work of Norman Lamb as health minister in this area. Credit deserves to be shared, both with his predecessor Paul Burstow and with the party more generally. Indeed similar policies were there back in the Alliance’s 1987 pre-election policy book as I discovered on reading it over Christmas. But Norman Lamb can justly point at his ministerial record in both delivering a liberal policy and an electorally attractive policy for the future too.
Some other ministers can do that too, such as Lynne Featherstone whose work both on same sex marriage and against Female Genital Mutilation gets a rare double score for a minister for her. Even one non-minister can claim credit for part of the Message Briefing as Julian Huppert has been central to developing the party’s policy on a Digital Bill of Rights which also makes it into the Message Briefing as a priority to publicise to certain audiences.
But for an awful lot of Liberal Democrat ministers the verdict after five years in office is: you haven’t done anything significant and popular enough to feature either in the booklet’s list of achievements or in the list of policies to be prioritised at the general election.
That’s a pretty poor show.
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A tally of 13 holds, 14 gains and 8 losses made for a net gain of 6 on the year, compared with Labour’s net gain of just 2 (yet another sign of the trouble Ed Miliband’s party is in) and the Conservative net loss of 8. Greens were up 2 and UKIP up 7.
The strong Lib Dem performance in by-elections illustrates the challenge for the 2015 general election as it shows that the party does best when the public’s focus is on a specific local contest rather than the national political picture. Hence the much better results in council by-elections than in the annual round of local elections which took place on Euro election day and were overshadowed by national politics.
Supporting Lib Dem candidates increasingly a matter of pick’n’mix
The combination of technology developments and the experience of being in government means that Liberal Democrat activists are increasingly moving away from geographic-based activism to taking a pick’n’mix approach to which general election candidates they support.
Partly this is due to coalition and heightened media coverage meaning more activists have views one way or another about the performance of Lib Dem incumbents.
But it is also the result of a largely unheralded change brought about by technology which now both makes it easier for activists to know what MPs and candidates are up to (thanks to online news and social media) and also makes it easier for activists to help those who are fighting seats which are not near where they live (thanks to online donations and virtual telephone banks for canvassing).
Two groups who have been particularly prominent in exploiting these changes are Liberal Youth and the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists (ALDES).
Liberal Youth are putting their efforts behind six candidates in particular: Lynne Featherstone, Mike Crockart, Stephen Williams, Lorely Burt, Julian Huppert and Layla Moran:
Liberal Youth are very excited to present #WinningHere, our largest ever General Election campaign. We’ll be packing our bags and travelling up and down the country to help elect Liberal Democrat MPs, as well as hitting the phones in the run up to the election. For our action weekends we will be funding accommodation, transport and food to enable young members to travel to target seats to campaign for some of our most brilliant candidates. As well as lots of campaigning, the weekends will all have Saturday night socials – giving members the chance to get to know not only each other but the lovely locations you visit!
Meanwhile, ALDES has launched #TeamScience, a bid to get more science-savvy candidates elected in the 2015 general election. They asked candidates to pitch their science credentials and explain what key science policies they would fight for – and against – if elected. As a result, six candidates were chosen to get the campaign’s backing: Dr Julian Huppert MP (Cambridge), Simon Wright MP (Norwich South), Judith Bunting (Newbury), Lucy Care (Derby North) and Dr Jenny Woods (Reading East).
Vince Cable has thrown his weight behind the scheme, saying, “In the next parliament, our MPs will need to be able to make the case for long-term support of science and engineering as a driver of growth – and better still, MPs with direct experience of the STEM sector. To that end, I unreservedly support this campaign and wish every success to the Team Science candidates.”
The success of the campaign, however, will depend on the willingness of supporters to spread the word, donate funds and volunteer. Information on how to do so are on the campaign website.
Campaigning on education
The Liberal Democrat Education Association (LDEA) has produced a handy short briefing on the party’s education policies and achievements since 2010, which you can get a copy of here.
The LDEA is also gathering examples of personal case studies to help bring the party’s education policies to life: “LDEA wants to promote Liberal Democrat values in education, and to hear about the difference these policies are making to children and young people across the country. Please tell us your story.”
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