Liberal Democrat Newswire #59 is out: what new polling says about the party’s strategy

Edition #59 of Liberal Democrat Newswire came out earlier in the week, looking at the party’s evolving tax and spend plans for the next Parliament, what new polling says about the party’s strategy, record fundraising by the Lib Dems and more.

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Welcome to the 59th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire which looks at the party’s evolving tax and spend plans for the next Parliament, what new polling says about the party’s strategy, record fundraising by the Lib Dems and more.

As ever I hope you enjoy reading Liberal Democrat Newswire, and do let me know what you think.

Best wishes,


P.S. You don’t have to wait for the next edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire to keep up with news. My site is regularly updated with stories such as 19 extreme Tory policies the Lib Dems have blocked.

In this edition:

Lib Dems set a very different tax and spend course from the Tories

Just ahead of George Osborne’s final budget, the Liberal Democrats will be debating the outlines of their own fiscal plans for the next Parliament in the centrepiece pre-manifesto debate at spring conference in Liverpool this weekend.

After extensive internal debate, including an intervention by Vince Cable, the party’s plans – overseen by manifesto group chair David Laws – to complete the final stages of removing the deficit will use a much more equal split between tax rises and spending cuts than the 80 spending : 20 tax ratio deal made with George Osborne in 2010, and an even more equal split than his new, extreme position of finishing the job with 100% spending cuts.

The Liberal Democrat plans have now moved from the old 80:20 via 60:40 to something more close to 50:50, though not quite all the way there – and subject to final revisions after the Budget.

As a result, the 50:50 amendment I talked about proposing in the last edition has been replaced by a new amendment which captures the extensive internal negotiations over this with a different form of wording – including recognising the need to end year on year real terms cuts in welfare rates. This should both achieve most of what those wanting 50:50 are after but also be accepted by those in the party more hawkish on cutting spending.

Another important factor has been the combination of Norman Lamb’s experience at Health and David Laws’s at Education during this Parliament. As a result two of the senior Lib Dems who might otherwise have been keenest on bringing down spending have seen

The plans haven’t found favour with the ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dem ginger group Liberal Reform who have claimed the party’s sums don’t add up, but on that their maths is erroneous, getting it looks like all the key elements of the sums wrong – how much needs to found in total, how much the Lib Dems have identified in spending savings and how much the Lib Dem tax rises – such as curbing pension tax breaks for the richest – will bring in.

Curiously, with the Liberal Democrat tax plans tightly focused on the richest, on tax evasion and avoidance, and on pollution, and with Labour’s own hesitancy about taxes thanks to its fragile economic reputation, the result is that the final Liberal Democrat package is likely to see more tax rises on the richest than Labour.

Labour’s 50p top rate does well at tapping the political headlines but, rather like their recent pledge to cut the level of tuition fees, when you delve into the details, neither do the job.

The evidence so far is that a 50p rate will raise very little extra revenue from the richest – and much less so than the alternative Lib Dem plans. Similarly, Labour’s tuition fee pledge will help rich students, not those most in need – again making for a good headline but not actually doing the job of making society fairer when you judge the policy by its impact and not by its packaging.

All this means that, somewhat unexpectedly perhaps, for all the talk about Orange Books and the political views of Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws, the Lib Dems look set to be going into the general election with a much more progressive set of fiscal policies than Labour.

Internet speeds up the killing off of expense controls in marginal seats

In April 2005 thousands of voters living in marginal seats around the UK found letters from Michael Howard about the political situation in their constituency hitting their doormats. To the untrained eye, these were just another round of standard political direct mailshots. But they also signaled the next steps in the death of constituency expense limits after Parliament changed the law in 2000 and didn’t realise what it was doing.

The major reforms to the regulation of political finance introduced by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 were much needed and secured cross-party support. However, they also contained a deep flaw that has been eating away at one of the traditional centrepieces, along with the ban on TV advertising, of British electoral financial control – tight constituency spending limits at general elections.

The problem was the introduction of national election expense limits. Logical in themselves given the previous absence of any national limits, the problem they came with was that parties can spend their ‘national’ limits on activities targeting specific constituencies. Moreover, the legal definition of what counted as ‘national’ expenditure emboldened campaigners to start treating activity that would previously have been considered as covered by constituency limits as, instead, falling within the national limits.

With national limits in the millions and constituency limits in the tens of thousands this was no minor matter.

The Tories were the first to really push this – perfectly legal – feature of the rules in 2001, not only carrying out national activity that happened to be geographically concentrated but also making the national activity look darn local, with local references peppered in the expensive direct mail. The one key omission were their names of their constituency candidates. Previously such local-heavy letters were avoided on the basis that they would count against constituency limits. With the new 2000 system, those hesitancies ended.

Since then the competitive pressures of elections have pushed all the parties towards more and more concentration of national activities in marginal areas, increasingly undermining the impact of local limits and with almost no-one noticing. (David Heath MP, to his credit, did try to reform the law to remedy this – partly at my prompting – but without success.)

Now in 2015 we’re seeing the next stage in that death of the constituency limits: the new (since 2010) range of geo-targeting options available for online advertising that provide another fruitful source of ‘national’ activity which can be targeted on swing voters in marginal seats – and often at much greater cost-effectiveness than postage or phone calls.

The question isn’t whether constituency limits are dying off. It’s whether at some point the regulators and politicians will grasp the scale of what has followed the 2000 reforms and take action.

Which MPs should get dissolution honours?

Past form suggests that five or so departing Liberal Democrat MPs will get appointed to the House of Lords in the dissolution honours.

One day an enterprising anti-establishment leader will challenge the convention that dissolution honours are a bit of patronage for departing MPs, even those just voted out of office by the voters. But it’s unlikely Nick Clegg will pick this topic as a top priority for a political fight this May, which raises the question… which five?

My two tests are simple:

  1. Have they been a team player up until their departure, maximising the chances of a Liberal Democrat successor in their seat, or have they instead neglected their seat or used their expiring period of more media interest as an MP to attack the party? Previous party leaders have sometimes been extremely generous with peerages to MPs who have just helped the party lose their seat. Clegg should be tougher than that.
  2. Will their appointment assist or hinder having a more representative group of peers? With five or so appointments, not every single one has to aid with diversity but the overall pattern should be clear. Selecting a group of peers is about selecting a team, not just disparate individuals, and the make-up of a team matters.


New polling highlights need to emphasis Lib Dem beliefs

Polling carried out by YouGov for The Times points towards the most fruitful election message for the Liberal Democrats being focusing on the party’s beliefs and policies, rather than majoring on its record in government or differences from the Conservatives.

All those different approaches, in their own way and on their own occasion, are important, but the polling suggests the focus on beliefs and signature policies is more important than many of the party’s campaigners appreciate:

Imagine at the general election the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg campaigned on a message of distancing themselves from their record in government, saying they now regretted many of the damaging Conservative policies they supported at the time, such as tuition fees and the bedroom tax.
20% said this would make them feel “more positive” about voting Lib Dem vs 32% “more negative”, for a net minus 12 although plus 5 amongst 2010 Lib Dem voters.

Imagine at the general election the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg campaigned on a message of how they were proud that they had been a responsible party of government, helped get the economy back on track and got Liberal Democrat policies put into action.
18% said this would make them feel “more positive” about voting Lib Dem vs 26% “more negative”, for a net minus 8 with a net zero amongst 2010 Lib Dem voters.

Imagine at the general election the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg campaigned on a message of supporting a more positive attitude towards the European Union and immigration, protecting human rights and people’s freedoms.

25% said this would make them feel “more positive” about voting Lib Dem vs 27% “more negative”, for a net minus 2 and, moreover, plus 22 amongst the 2010 Lib Dem voters – the best pair of scores by some margin of these three options.

As ever some caution needs applying to any polling that asks voters to predict how they would react to something, as voters don’t have a record of being great self-predictors. Moreover, only one of the three options – the first one – mentions negative policies, which may have skewed the results.

Even so, the overall point is clear – that voters need to have a sense of the party not being in power for the sake of it, but being in power in order to turn its beliefs into action.

Lists of policies achieved have their place (hence my newly updated What The Hell Have The Lib Dems Done?) but are not nearly enough on their own.

This is backed up by research published by Professor Phil Cowley recently, which found that voting as a way of sending a message about your beliefs is as popular as voting as a way of selecting coherent policies:

YouGov ran a simple question for me, asking people to choose between two statements that described possible motivations and expectations when voting. It asked:

Which of these two statements comes closest to describing you:

When I vote in the general election, the party I choose must have coherent policies which they could implement in government.

When I vote in the general election, the party I choose will be about sending a message about the sort of society I want to live in.

The first is the more conventional policy motivation for voting, the second is more symbolic. Of course, many people will want both to be true – to be voting for a coherent set of policies which also sent a message about the sort of society they want – but the question format allows us to see which of these matters more to them.

Broadly speaking, the public split evenly between the two descriptions. Some 45% chose the policy motivation, 44% picked the symbolic, and the rest were unsure. In other words, people overall were just as likely to see their vote primarily as a symbolic act as one which was about wanting a coherent set of policies.

There is however a significant gap between the supporters of different parties:

Net party policy vs symbolism scores

That helps explain why the repeated junking of policies by Ukip (including Farage’s repudiation of his party’s 2010 manifesto) and the Green Party’s repeated struggles in media interviews to explain how its policies would be paid for have had some, but only some, impact of their poll standings. The real damage will come if such policy blunders end up being seen not simply as technocratic problems but as representing a problematic underlying value of disregard for reality.

In other polling news: new poll shows Lynne Featherstone in dead heat with Labour in Hornsey & Wood Green.

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Not all electioneering is as high-tech as the stories suggest

With the general election nearing, there are plenty of stories about the technological developments being used by all the parties. However, there is still plenty of very old-fashioned campaigning going on, as with the case of the Conservative MP caught canvassing in the wrong constituency.

As I wrote at the time:

You can laugh a little at David Burrowes going door knocking on the wrong side of his constituency boundary with his team, resulting in the wife of the neighbouring Labour MP getting wrongly called on as a result.

Once you’ve got that out of the way, the more serious point to ponder is ‘how did this happen?’ Not the details of whether Burrowes’s claim to have taken a wrong turn in a maze of flats but simply this. You can only knock on completely the wrong doors if you don’t have any canvass cards with you. Nothing on paper, nor anything more modern on smartphone. Instead, Burrowes and his team can only have been out campaigning blind, in the dark with no lists of names and addresses with them.

For all the talk of big data, clever targeting and smart technology, the reality on the ground is often of campaigns whose organisational approach and valuing of data would have been antiquated in the 19th century let alone the 21 century.

That’s not to say that technology isn’t being used or isn’t important – and indeed the way the Liberal Democrat have embraced American voter-modelling technology through the party’s Data Plus system is a key part of why the party continues to have high hopes about its ability to buck the national trend in a large swathe of target seats.

Door and phone canvassing can never reach all the voters on its own. Modelling such as Data Plus lets campaigners make a good guess – not perfect in each case but good enough overall – about the views of those they haven’t yet spoken to.

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Lamb and Carmichael still worth a flutter

In Liberal Democrat Newswire #57 I took a look at the best bets for next Liberal Democrat leader.

Two of the people I highlighted as having much better chances than the odds on offer implied – and so making for good value bets – were Norman Lamb and Alistair Carmichael.

Both have been in the news since regarding any future leadership contest. First, Norman Lamb for whom the best odds currently available (8 to 1) are way out of line which his actual chances.

In a piece in which he was admirably frank about his views on the party leadership – “I’m fiercely loyal to Nick … [but] if people think well of the job that I’ve done and people then, as a result, conclude they want me to have a go for the top job, then I will consider it” – he also floated support for positive action to tackle the gender imbalance in the Parliamentary Party:

“We have failed ultimately to get a good balance into Parliament and we have to think of other things to pump- prime the change,” said Mr Lamb. “The current imbalance, the likely continued imbalance and the potential for the situation to be less good make me believe that something more is required and that’s why I argue for some form of positive action.”

The party needs to focus on regional groups of about 10 to 20 constituencies, rather than have all-women shortlists for the party’s few safe seats, he said. “You may get a cluster of seats, and you say within that cluster of seats there has to be 50:50 [candidates] between men and women. You then avoid imposing a particular shortlist on a particular seat, but within that they will have to work together to get a balance of men and women.”

Meanwhile, Alistair Carmichael – still available at 20:1 – has “ruled out” standing for leader in terms that both leave the door open and show the human touch that makes him so popular with many party activists:

When asked whether he would like to lead the party, Mr Carmichael said: “No. There’s no vacancy and I have the constituency that is furthest away from London.

“I have got a family that still includes school age children. And the commitment that it takes to be party leader in modern politics is enormous.

“My family already miss out on a lot just by virtue of the fact that I’m an MP and I’m a minister and I’m away from home every week.

“At least I feel that they miss out on a lot, they might feel differently.”

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OMOV consultation launched as President promises more changes

The party’s spring conference in Liverpool sees the launch of a consultation on how to get right the move to one-member, one-vote (OMOV) for the party’s national committees and federal conference. Currently local parties elect voting representatives who then are able to vote at conference and in the biennial committee elections.

The move to OMOV has been controversial, less so over the principle – which has been widely, if not universally, supported – but more over the many problems with the first attempt to do this last year. That culminated in a major list of changes to the plans being demanded at the autumn party conference.

To its credit the Federal Executive has since involved critics such as myself and Duncan Brack in radically overhauling its plans. A consultation session on the new plans is being held at Liverpool conference, and a consultation paper setting out in detail proposed changes to the party’s rules has also been published, along with a marked up copy of the constitution showing how they would work.

Meanwhile, new party president Sal Brinton is putting in place a more general governance review for after the general election. She seems very determined to introduce significant changes, especially as even after the Chris Rennard controversy, the party’s complaints process still struggles to run promptly and fairly.

It is hard to see how the current role of the English Party at the heart of a complicated structure based on several levels of indirect democracy will come out of this review intact.

Party raises over £3m in 2014 Q4

Continuing the good news reported in Liberal Democrat Newswire #57 about Liberal Democrat finances and membership, the donations data published for the last quarter of 2014 showed the party raising £3,038,500* (excluding public funds) – making 2014 the party’s best fundraising year so far.

The party has also finally cleared its long running accumulated deficit, ending 2014 with an accumulated surplus of around £750,000.

Labour raised £7,163,988, the Conservatives £8,345,687, Ukip £1,505,055 and the Greens £248,520 in the same period.

The Scottish National Party failed to meet its legal requirement to file a donation report.

* The actual total was higher. This is the total declared to the Electoral Commission and therefore excludes some donations which were under the relevant legal thresholds. For comparison with the past, this is a solid figure to use but it’s worth noting that rather too often journalists and political scientists who should know better slip from talking about ‘donations required to be declared’ to ‘total money’ as if they are the same. They’re not.

AdLib switches to all-member, 4 times a year

Previously a monthly magazine sent only to subscribers, the official Liberal Democrat magazine Ad Lib is changing format to four times a year, sent to all members.

There’s a certain logic to that as Ad Lib never managed to build up a large base of paying subscribers (and had a lower circulation than Liberal Democrat Newswire). Moreover, something going to all members several times a year regardless of how strong or weak their local party is makes sense.

What makes rather less sense is the way the change has been (not) communicated, with many paying monthly subscribers first facing an unexplained gap of several months in its appearance, and then when the latest version appeared it contains no explanation of the gap or the future plans.

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