Liberal Democrat Newswire #73 is out: Lessons from Canada for the Liberal Democrats

Liberal Democrat Newswire logoLiberal Democrat Newswire #73 came out last week, featuring what seven focus groups reveal about why the Liberal Democrats did so badly in May, lessons from Canada for the Liberal Democrats and more.

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Welcome to the 73rd edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire which returns to the usual format after last time’s D66 special edition. This time the focus is on lessons for the Liberal Democrats from the last Parliament, including what seven focus groups in seats the party held prior to 2015 reveal about why the party did so badly in May.

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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 Hello, I’m from Atos and I’m calling about your Lib Dem membership and Groundwork: the US political tech firm that everyone will be talking about.

In this edition:

What seven focus groups reveal about why the Liberal Democrats did so badly in May

Book cover for 'Pay me forty quid' by Michael Ashcroft and Kevin Culwick
The perspective of ordinary voters are curiously absent from most accounts of elections and politics more generally. Instead, the usual accounts are based on what figures at the centre get up to, even though almost all of the events recounted are barely noticed by most voters. That is why I am such a fan of Deborah Mattinson’s Talking to a Brick Wall as it tells the story of New Labour’s rise and fall not through the gossipy details of Westminster but through the voices of actual voters, captured in numerous focus groups.

Done well, and leaving aside the whimsy of ‘if a politician had to be a type of paperclip what type of paperclip would Boris Johnson be?’, focus groups are a vital tool to understanding what really makes voters come to the decisions they do. Done well, they provide a level of explanation opinion polls only rarely manage to match.

Lord Ashcroft has done us all a similar service for understanding the 2015 general election with the focus groups he ran and published, which have now been conveniently collected in Pay me forty quid and I’ll tell you: The 2015 election through the eyes of the voters (who largely ignored it). A lengthy title for a slim 119 page volume, but one which is packed full of insight – especially for Liberal Democrats with the 7 then held Lib Dem seats that feature, 6 of which were subsequently lost.

There are clues aplenty in the book as to why the Tories ending up winning, as with the pithy comment from one focus group member that, “David Cameron’s pretty good but Ed Miliband is a muppet” or from another that “Ed Miliband feels like the interim Labour leader, until the next one”.

Of course, the importance of those views is easier to spot with hindsight and had the Tories lost there is a different set of quotes that would leap out as you read the book, this time about how the Tories seemed to be heartless and for the rich, how the economic recovery was not being felt, and how weakly the ‘Miliband in the pocket of the SNP’ message went down at first.

But even so there is much in here that helps explain the election result – and how voters really make up their minds. In the focus group held the day before the 2015 Budget, none of the participants knew the Budget was due the next day, yet they were able to make pretty coherent judgements about different parties and their leaders. That mix of ignorance and sense is at the heart of how politics really works – not the details that usually fill up political coverage.

So what does this all tell us about the Lib Dem defeats? Well, what comes out very clearly is just how good the reputation of Liberal Democrat MPs were in the seats researched. Defeat for 6 out of the 7 (Nick Clegg being the sole exception) was not a result of people failing to appreciate the virtues of their own Liberal Democrat MP.

Nor was it based on hatred of the Lib Dems nationally – “As if often the case, comments about Nick Clegg were not so much critical as sympathetic… ‘He’s trying his best… he was always on a hiding to nothing’” is now one focus group was reported. Even the more critical comments were more those of a disappointed friend, as with the view that Clegg was most like “the clean-cut but somewhat ineffectual Fred Jones from Scooby-Doo” and the a feeling that the Liberal Democrats “lost their soul” along with worries over whether the Lib Dems “are … going to roll over again like they did last time?”

The picture from the focus groups is one of people seeing the party not being clear about its beliefs or tough and consistent in acting on them.

Hence even when in Sheffield Hallam the focus group recognised many of the Lib Dem achievements, such as the pupil premium, free school meals and £10,000 income tax allowance, it wasn’t enough for many to win them over to voting Lib Dem again. And all the more so in the places where recognition of such achievements – and the Lib Dem responsibility for them – was lower.

Or in other words, the old Lib Dem formula which worked so well under Chris Rennard of popular, hardworking local candidate plus pick’n’mix selection of individually popular polices wasn’t enough. That’s because when it worked it relied on two other factors.

First, public certainty about who was going to become PM. The less certain that is on polling day, the worse the Lib Dems do in election results – hence the disappointments of 1992, 2010 and above all 2015 compared with the relative successes of 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Second, when this approach worked the party overall had a national image that was not a major hindrance, and indeed was often a benefit. The nice decent people who don’t usually win was an okay national backdrop against which to buck the trend locally.

In 2015 the problem was a hugely damaged reputation for competence, consistency and standing for anything much, which a selection of individual policies plus a nice local person could not match. Valence politics won out.

Whilst the first factor is mostly beyond the reach of the Liberal Democrats to influence, the second was more in the party’s power. The mistake was to concentrate on the popular local candidate plus smorgasbord of policies approach rather than concentrating on how to rebuild the party’s reputation. For example, polling of policies and constituency candidates was done at huge detail and, on the Lib Dem scale of things, high cost, but those reputational questions? They were left un-researched.

Nor did it help that grassroots campaigning in the immediate months after the general election – when initial views about coalition were being set by the public – was mostly very quiet as exhausted campaigners finally slept, washed and met their families again. Understandable, but lethal.

Especially when combined with the ‘dog that didn’t bark’ in the Ashcroft focus groups. Successful local Liberal Democrat campaigners used to be very skilful at persuading voters in their local patch that they were on their side, fighting against common enemies (the council, Whitehall, etc.).

It is possible to continue to be seen as on your side, fighting a common enemy, when in power – such as the periods when Labour has been both in power and anti-posh, rich people. What’s notable from the focus groups, however, is that sense of being on the side of voters against common opponents was lost by Liberal Democrat MPs. Instead they had become the slightly scolding teacher explaining to people why they were wrong in their view of coalition.

What have the policy and conference committees been up to?

Fellow Federal Policy Committee (FPC) member Geoff Payne produces an excellent set of reports after not only each FPC meeting but also after each meeting of the other federal committee he sits on, the Federal Conference Committee (FCC).

Here are Geoff’s latest reports:

  • FPC 21 October 2015, including the review of the party’s policy making process and what next on Trident policy
  • FCC 22 October 2015, including dates of the 2016 conferences and changes to registration options

If you’ve got any questions, you can contact Geoff on geoff@geoffpayne.org (FCC or FPC) or me on mark.pack@gmail.com (FPC). Do also let us know what you think about including these reports in Lib Dem Newswire.

Finally, if you find the jargon about FPC, FCC and federal is confusing, take a look at A Glossary of Liberal Democrat Terms.

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Lessons from Canada for the Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Party's Justin Trudeau out campaigning
The sweeping victory from third place for Canada’s Liberal Party has raised spirits in the Liberal Democrats. As with the tale of Dutch sister party D66’s recovery from coalition disaster, the Canadian Liberals offer hope for the future of liberalism in the UK.

Here are six of the lessons Liberal Democrats should learn:

  1. Recovery isn’t inevitable. Yes, this time the Liberals recovered. But it wasn’t inevitable – as their previous failed attempts at recovery have shown.
  2. Small issues can be potent symbols. The question of what people wear at citizenship ceremonies is in many ways a minor point of detail, but it also became a hugely important political symbol – with the Canadian Conservative hard-line approach to the wearing of a niqab at citizenship ceremonies taking the Conservatives back to the hard right, opening up political space for liberals. As with Paddy Ashdown’s success in carving out a reputation for the Liberal Democrats when he was leader courtesy of the issue of UK passports for Hong Kong residents, such issues can be politically potent for what they say about your values.
  3. Economic credibility matters – and is a long-term project. The attempts by the other opposition party, the NDP, to acquire economic credibility by abhorring deficits late in the electoral cycle back-fired. As with Labour’s late moves in the UK before the 2015 general election, not only was it too little, too late but it also damaged the party more widely as it was left with the worst of both worlds, looking both weak on economics and unsure of its values. The Liberals, however, benefited from economic credibility that reflects their underlying values – a cautious move towards borrowing to invest in the face of slow economic growth but a federal budget which had just moved into surplus.
  4. Appeal to the mainstream. The Liberal policies of legalise marijuana, electoral reform and accepting more refugees are all policies to put a smile on the face of Liberal Democrats. But not the centrepiece message and tax reform – tax the very wealthiest more, but only the very wealthiest – and use the revenue to cut taxes for the middle class, not the poorest. Different politics and different social needs mean the Lib Dems shouldn’t be bound to copy the details precisely but the broad message is an important one – appealing to the mainstream voter as well as the niche voter, and doing so in a way that is presented as being the best for all of Canada, not as being a matter of class (or wealth) envy.
  5. Innovative approaches to membership are central to rebuilding. Part of the previous Conservative recovery from electoral disaster in Canada came from a leadership contest where the candidates had access to lists of ex-members, fuelling the organisational rebirth of their party. This time for the Liberals it was the creation of a new class of ‘supporter’, giving them the right to vote for party leader and communicating heavily with them digitally. For the British political context, the lesson is one about creating a ‘Friends of the Lib Dems’ scheme.
  6. Grassroots campaign tactics and techniques matter – but only so far. Both the Canadian Liberals and the British Liberal Democrats use the same election database (called Connect in the UK). The Liberals, however, are in majority government whilst the Liberal Democrats need 318 gains in May 2020 to be in the same place. Grassroots campaigning is only part of the story, as US politics also teaches us.

By the way, if anyone tells you the Liberals won by being positive, suggest they take a look at the negative campaign the Liberals ran very successfully against the NDP, as with this advert. To displace the NDP as the anti-Conservative Party in this election, the Liberals attacked the NDP.

Norman Baker’s book: read it

Norman Baker riding a bike
Norman Baker has been quick off the mark in the ex-Lib-Dem-MPs-write-books stakes, and his Against the Grain has the virtue not only of speed but also of interest and humour even if he leaves the reader hanging with a cryptic reference to ‘other reasons’ for his resignation as a minister.

From his battles to be allowed to ride a bicycle as a minister in place of a chauffeured car through to how he used the Daily Mail to promote liberalism and his views on how environmental campaigners got their approach wrong in the 2010-15 Parliament (targeting Lib Dems for not doing more rather than Tories for doing almost nothing), the pages about being a minister are packed with insight. Overall, Baker is still a strong supporter of the decision to go into coalition and has more praise for Nick Clegg than for some of his predecessors.

Read more about Norman Baker’s book in my review here and buy the book for yourself here.

Ben Williams is new Farron Chief of Staff

Much respected former head of the Liberal Democrat Whips Office, and subsequently Special Adviser, Ben Williams is taking up post as Tim Farron’s permanent Chief of Staff. He is taking over from the interim appointment, Ben Rich, who got the original operation up and running.

Ben Williams was a councillor for 14 years in Basildon, winning five elections, only standing down after the Liberal Democrats entered government and he took up a politically restricted post as a Special Adviser. On his resignation as a councillor, he was replaced in the council cabinet by his father, Geoff, also a long-standing party activist and a councillor for over thirty years.

Liz Barker named Peer of the Year

Lib Dem peer Liz Barker with the PinkNews award
Liberal Democrat peer Liz Barker scooped Pink News’s Peer of the Year award a few days ago. Her nomination read:

Baroness Barker has continued to be a strong advocate for LGBT rights within Parliament. Late in 2014, she led a debate on the health of lesbians which uncovered key areas where NHS provision should be improved. She has contributed to other debates on LGBT rights and is a frequent commentator on PinkNews.

Other Liberal Democrats in the news


Getting new members involved

Daisy Benson speaking at the 2009 Lib Dem autumn conference
Former Lib Dem councillor Daisy Benson – who Paddy Ashdown tipped at conference as one of the party’s future MPs – has been one of the leading lights in the ‘Lib Dem Newbies’ informal grouping, welcoming new members into the party. Here she writes about what the Lib Dems can learn from her experience:

For too long seasoned party activists have often viewed party members in two ways: if they move give them leaflets, if they don’t ask them for money. But for me, political involvement must primarily be about feeling inspired and inspiring others.

That is why I have been piloting new ways of engaging members using newbies as a bit of a test bed but these ideas need not be limited to new members only:

  • Being friendly and welcoming. This may sound obvious but all too often we forget to do it. Lots of our newbies joined local parties where no-one has reached out and they know no-one – so allocate a buddy for each new member and find out a bit about them, why they joined and what they would like to do.
  • Running inspiring events with inspiring speakers. Who doesn’t get a kick from hearing Jo Swinson, Lynne Featherstone, Tim Farron or Nick Clegg speak? Apart from firing up our newbies I’ve found also this a great way to remind our brilliant senior members and former MPs how much we value them – a win-win (and sadly rather easier to organise now as many of them have less crowded diaries post-May).
  • Variety is the spice of life. Try not to think about a typical Lib Dem event would be. Instead think of what a fun event with a political angle would be, and then invite Lib Dems. This is how I got the idea of organising a visit to the film Suffragette.

What did Lib Dem members think of the leadership contest?

Many thanks to the several hundred party members who have taken part in the Liberal Democrat Newswire survey into how the party’s leadership election was conducted. As responses have still been coming in, I’m holding over reporting on the results until the next edition. So if you are a party member and have not yet taken part – or if you know other party members who might like to take part – the place to visit is https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/7JZR8C5.

Essential campaigning tools: Buffer

Man and dog with laptop. CC0 Public Domain
Last time in this series I featured Dropbox. Today is the turn of Buffer.

Sending social media messages at the time you happen to be writing them rarely matches up with the best time for them to be read or engaged with. Scheduling is a much better option.

Hence, I’m a great fan of Buffer, a simple and free tool that lets you easily schedule tweets, Facebook updates or LinkedIn postings in advance – but which automatically times them for slots when they are likely to get the most response.

That is really handy when you want a message to be seen or acted on, but it isn’t too time sensitive.  You can manually schedule updates with many other tools, but Buffer takes the extra step of letting you set up a series of prime time slots and then it automatically puts each message you schedule into the next one of those slots which is free. It also lets you sort Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn all together in one go. And it lets you do all that with a generous free plan.

Very nifty.

I’ve found the service pretty reliable – occasional interruptions when lining up a tweet, but never failing to send one and never making a mess of sending one more than once. They have also been very responsive to questions I have sent their way.

If you want to try out Buffer yourself, just follow this link to sign up to Buffer.

Thanks for reading

I hope you’re found this edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire interesting, informative, useful – or all three!

Best wishes and thank you for reading,


P.S. If you enjoyed reading this edition, please do think about making a small monthly donation to help cover the costs of Liberal Democrat Newswire at www.markpack.org.uk/support-liberal-democrat-newswire – thank you! Remember, if you start a new donation before the end of October you’ll be entered in the prize draw for a free copy of the highly rated Journal of Liberal History special issue on the coalition.

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