Liberal Democrat Newswire #65: What the Liberal Democrats must do next

Liberal Democrat Newswire logoLiberal Democrat Newswire #65 came out at the weekend, taking a first look at lessons from the general election (which I’ve since supplemented with my post on the strategy that went wrong).

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Welcome to the 65th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which takes a first look at the key issues the Liberal Democrats need to get right after the general election calamity.

There’s nothing politically quite as stark as the long list of names to send messages of commiseration to after an election and there is much for the party to learn from Thursday. There is clearly still space on the political spectrum for the Liberal Democrats, but how can the party grow to fill that space?

This soon after the election, it’s wise to think about questions rather than rush to answers – but getting the questions right will be necessary for recovery. Before I go on to the questions, here’s one cheery statistic:

Statistic of the week: 3,500, and rising – the number of people who have joined the Liberal Democrats since 10pm on Thursday.

Thank you as ever to the generous readers who make a small monthly donation to help cover the costs of Liberal Democrat NewswireYou too can join them at www.patreon.com/markpack.

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 A rare piece of good news in the elections for Lib Dems.

In this edition:

Opposition and a quick change of leader isn’t enough

Paint brush
It’s tempting to think that last Thursday was caused by coalition and Clegg, so a new leader, being in opposition and a quick lick of new paint will sort all the party’s problems. Tempting, and foolish – because the lessons from other parties and from the history of the Liberal Democrats is that is not enough.

The lesson from other parties is that it’s woefully inadequate after a heavy defeat just to change a leader and do very little else beyond nodding towards the supporting chorus from some activists claiming that salvation rests with their favourite policy (one which is usually not liked by voters, seen as irrelevant by them – or quite often both).

That’s why Neil Kinnock’s celebratory ‘we’ve got our party back’ comments after Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader in 2010 are not now suitable material for the opening lines of a tribute to Miliband’s success as leader, but rather make a fitting epithet for the strategic blunder Labour made in thinking that a new face, a lick of new paint and more of what some activists always wanted would lead to success.

At the time of writing, Alistair Carmichael has ruled himself out and it’s not yet clear if we’ll have a Tim Farron coronation or a Farron vs Lamb contest, but either way the change of leader won’t be enough on its own, especially when you recall that some of the long-term trends weakening the party started before Nick Clegg became leader.

Both the decline in the party’s local government base (still continuing) and the drop in party membership (reversed for the last two years but with much more still to do) pre-date Clegg’s election in 2007. Their long-term nature – and the fact that membership finally started to be turned round under Clegg and in coalition – show how a focus on opposition and new leader would be far too narrow. Much more needs to be done.

What to do about the past?

Stop sign
The absurdly huge surge in traffic since the general election to my list of extreme Tory policies which the Lib Dems stopped in coalition shows how much mileage there apparently is in looking backwards. Each time the Conservatives now do something extreme and controversial, it’ll be very tempting to point back to 2010-15 and say, ‘see, we were right all along – look at what we stopped then compared with what’s being done now’.

Tempting (very tempting – hence my retweeting of this), but will it be the wise thing to do?

In 2010-15 Labour never resolved whether to defend its past record in government or to apologise for it – and Labour’s struggles were no unique problem. The Conservatives after Thatcher faced similar problems too, to take just one other example from political history. Will the Liberal Democrats regularly reminding people of what the party did just before its most crushing electoral defeat really be wise?

The very posing of the question reveals my doubts over a simple piece of finger pointing at history. This will be a major strategic choice for the party to get right.

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What happened to Lib Dem campaigning?

Direct mail
8 MPs, 8% of the vote. That is a result which is painfully easy to remember. It’s also a seats to votes ratio of just 1:1 which is, by the party’s previous standards, appalling.

In my history of the Liberal Democrat approach to political campaigning I looked at the history of this ratio. With 650 (or so – the number varies) seats in Parliament but only a maximum 100% of votes, a 1:1 ratio is pretty poor if you wish to be represented in Westminster. Yet from 1970 to 1992 the ratio varied in the narrow and low range of 0.7:1 to 1.1:1.

The 1997 Lib Dem breakthrough saw the party’s number of MPs leap up from 19 to 46 even though the party’s national vote share fell. This triumph of targeting under Chris Rennard saw the seats:votes ratio hit 2.7:1, going up again to 2.8 in 2001 and 2.9 in 2005. The party was both growing in support and getting increasingly good at turning votes into seats.

But in 2010 it slipped back to 2.5 and now this year has collapsed to 1.0, as if the party has lost all its acquired ability over the last 20 years to show a campaigning edge in key seats.

Some of this is other parties playing catch-up, especially the Conservatives who massively outspent the Liberal Democrats in many seats this time thanks to the de facto collapse of local expense limits

But that’s not the whole story, as for two general elections in a row now the party’s intelligence on what was happening in key seats looks to have been very faulty. The 2010 problems were epitomised by Oxford, where the party was still putting huge efforts in to winning Oxford East on polling day, yet slumped to heavy defeat there while losing the neighbouring Oxford West and Abingdon seat by a handful of votes.

This time the shock defeats of David Laws and Steve Webb in particular show that once again the party was losing in places without knowing it – and, as in 2010, matching up some of the decisions made on where to send resources on polling day compared to the results is a painful experience.

Well-intentioned mistakes, certainly, and Labour too had big problems with results not matching up to their on-the-ground evidence. Moreover, the figures published by the Lib Dems about doors knocked on, volunteers recruited, money raised and so on were all genuine and impressive.

Yet something went badly wrong with the party’s ability to campaign in Westminster elections. Changing leader and being in opposition isn’t going to fix that on its own.

(In passing, to mention constituency polling – there’s clearly a big question mark over the party’s own polling, but it’s worth mentioning that Lord Ashcroft’s seat polls were also often very badly off the final results, as Stephen Lloyd’s defeat shows horribly sharply. I’l write more about the lessons from this on another occasion.)

Diversity needs local roots

Lib Dem badge - photo by Paul Walter
With an all-male, all-white Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons, questions of diversity are very much going to be on the agenda for the party.

The work of the Leadership Programme and other initiatives brought some good, solid progress to the diversity of Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidates in 2015, as I reported in Lib Dem Newswire #61:

Across Liberal Democrat held and target seats, including restanding MPs, just over four in ten of the party’s candidates in this general election are female – a particularly impressive result given the huge historical baggage of a predominantly male Parliamentary Party. This is also a higher figure than in 2010.

It isn’t just on gender that the party’s efforts to improve diversity amongst candidates in the seats which matter the most have paid dividends: more than one in ten are from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) background and on the LGBT front, the party has also reached more than one in ten for candidates in held and target seats.

The figures across all 631 seats the party is contesting (all constituencies in Great Britain aside from the Speaker’s) are lower, but up on 2010. Just over a quarter are female (26%, up 5%); just under 1 in 10 are BAME (9%, up2%) and one in twenty are disabled (5%;up 2%). LGBT figures are not available for 2010 (as far as I have been able to ascertain).

It the end, that didn’t count for much and with a long road back for the party, diversity at the grassroots needs to be part of that – especially because of the deeply-rooted gender imbalance at local government, on which progress has now stalled for decades.

The first step on improving the party’s diversity could be one of the final acts of Nick Clegg as party leader – the nomination of Lib Dem peers in the dissolution honours. Will they all be white men? Beyond that, there is much more for the party to do to ensure that when it starts to grow again it better reflects our modern country.

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It’s not about policy; it’s about valence

Polling station in a laundrette
Political scientists crunching the evidence over how people decide who to vote for (such as in Affluence, Austerity and Electoral Change in Britain) find that policy issues matter much less than ‘valence’ issues.

That is, people don’t decide who to vote for based on looking at policies and seeing how closely a party or candidate’s policies match up to their own preferences. Rather, they lean on decisions over perceived competence on issues where different parties all have the same shared objective. For example, voting Conservative because you think they’ll be best at creating new jobs is a valence choice. All parties want more jobs, so picking the Conservatives is about perceived competence, not ideology.

Although there certainly are ideological choices and they do have an influence, it’s valence that dominates in British elections. Hence the problem for the Liberal Democrats in the general election wasn’t about having controversial policies which people didn’t like. There wasn’t even a small echo of the problems with the immigration amnesty policy of 2010 for example (good policy but burdened with the fatal combination of being both controversial and not amenable to a one-sentence defence). Asked where they put the Lib Dems and themselves on the political spectrum, voters kept on putting the party near to themselves overall.

Rather the problems were valence ones – about competence and trust in particular. Overhauling the party’s perception on those is not going to be a minor matter.

To be done seriously, the work has to infuse every corner of the party’s operations, from its disciplinary procedures through to how well the party does (or doesn’t) respond to voters getting in touch for the first time. The new leader, if they wish to be successful, needs to ensure a thorough overhaul, both internally and externally.

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