Liberal Democrat Newswire #74 is out: new Kennedy biography

Liberal Democrat Newswire 74 came out last week, featuring the newly updated biography of Charles Kennedy, Christmas book suggestions, the role of social events in political organising, a prize draw and more.

You can also read it below, but if you’d like the convenience of getting it direct by email in future, just sign up here. It’s free!

Since it came out, the Syria issue has developed further, on which see Why the Liberal Democrats are right to support air strikes in Syria and A footnote re. Charles Kennedy and military intervention.


Welcome to the 74th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire which, with Christmas in the offing, includes alongside other stories a bumper set of political book news – a new biography of Charles Kennedy, the story of same-sex marriage and more. If you’ve not yet read LDN 73, including lessons for the Lib Dems from Canada, it is online here.

SYRIA UPDATE: After this edition was written, it was confirmed how Lib Dem MPs will be voting in Parliament on extending air strikes from Iraq to Syria. You can read about the decision and Tim Farron’s detailed explanation here.

Thank you to the kind readers who signed up to make a regular small monthly donation to help cover the costs of Liberal Democrat Newswire since the last editioneither via www.patreon.com/markpack (preferred method) or via a PayPal recurring payment. Congratulations to the reader who won a free copy of the Journal of Liberal History special edition on the coalition as a result. This time I have another book to offer in a prize draw: anyone signing up for a new donation by the end of December will go into the hat to win a copy of Tim Ross’s excellent Why The Tories Won: The Inside Story Of The 2015 Election (which includes a walk-on part for me as an inadvertent entertainer to Tory HQ – sorry Lib Dem colleagues!).

If you’re an Amazon customer, you can also support LDN by using this link to go to Amazon before making your purchases.

Best wishes,


P.S. You don’t have to wait for the next edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire to keep up with news about the Liberal Democrats. My site is regularly updated with stories such as The Missing Liberal Democrat Photo.

In this edition:

A Tragic Flaw: Greg Hurst’s update Kennedy biography is out

When Greg Hurst’s biography of Charles Kennedy, A Tragic Flaw, first came out in 2006 it was rightly praised for treating a controversial and sensitive subject in an exemplary way, with very few of those involved in the contentious and emotional events it recounted having complaints over the book’s accuracy.

Newly updated since Kennedy’s death in 2015, the book maintains its excellence and rightly summarises Kennedy’s political approach: “both temperamentally and politically, Charles Kennedy was generally reluctant to commit himself to irrevocable decisions but it is noticeable that some of his best judgements [such as over Iraq] were made when he was forced to do so”.

Popular with the public and right on the big issues that tested his political judgement, Kennedy seemed to many set for even greater political success, but instead his leadership of the Liberal Democrats was ended in early 2006 by his fellow Lib Dem MPs. Greg Hurst is particularly good at explaining why this happened. When stories of Kennedy’s alcoholism and the resulting threats to his leadership first hit the mainstream media, for many people the obvious question was ‘If Charles Kennedy has a health problem, why not support him through dealing with it?’ A Tragic Flaw provides the sad answer – which is that many in the party had been trying to do that for several years already, including one occasion when Ming Campbell was on a train down from Scotland to London for an announcement that he would be taking over as interim leader whilst Kennedy sought medical help, only to be turned around at Peterborough because Kennedy had changed his mind.

What was for the public fresh news as 2005 turned into 2006 was for many of Kennedy’s colleagues a long-running issue to which they felt they had tried many solutions, failed and now only had the option of forcing him out. “Ultimately, and tragically, Charles Kennedy himself was the architect of his own downfall having been unable to act on repeated pleas and warnings from colleagues,” concludes Hurst.

The completely new chapters, covering 2005 to 2015, cover a period in which both of Kennedy’s parents died and his older brother was left quadriplegic after a slip at home. As with the earlier sections, these new sections are fair without being idolising – mentioning Kennedy’s low work-rate in the House of Commons itself after he stopped being leader, for example, but also giving explanations such as his ill relatives. These chapters are also frank about the continuing battle with alcoholism without being sensational, and make the book’s title all the more poignant.

It makes for an interesting, respectful but questioning account of Kennedy’s life, career, political successes and political limitations.

You can buy Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw by Greg Hurst here.

A new history of party leaders

Also just out is another ideal Christmas present for your favourite Liberal Democrat – and it comes with a special offer for Liberal Democrat Newswire subscribers: British Liberal Leaders: Leaders of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats since 1828.

As the governing party of peace and reform, and then as the third party striving to keep the flame of freedom alive, the Liberal Party, the SDP and the Liberal Democrats have played a crucial role in the shaping of contemporary British society.

This book is the story of those parties’ leaders, from Earl Grey who led the Whigs through the Great Reform Act of 1832 and who is my own pick for a forgotten liberal hero, to Nick Clegg, the first Liberal leader to enter government for more than sixty years.

Chapters written by experts in Liberal history cover such towering political figures as Palmerston, Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George; those, such as Sinclair, Clement Davies and Grimond, who led the party during its darkest hours; and those who led its revival, including David Steel, Roy Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown.

The book suggests a series of analytical frameworks by which leaders may be judged, and also includes exclusive interviews with David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Nick Clegg on their time as party leader.

“The leaders profiled in this book led the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats through the best of times and the worst of times. Some reformed the constitution, led the assault on privilege and laid the foundations of the modern welfare state. Others kept the flame of Liberalism burning when it was all but extinguished. I am humbled to follow in their footsteps and learn from their experiences.”
Tim Farron MP, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

“Political leaders matter. They embody a party’s present, while also shaping its future. This is particularly important in the values-based Liberal tradition. The essays in this book provide a fascinating guide to what it took to be a Liberal leader across two centuries of tumultuous change.”
Martin Kettle, Associate Editor, The Guardian

British Liberal Leaders is available at a special discounted price to Liberal Democrat Newswire readers: £20.00 instead of the normal £25.00. Copies can be purchased via the Liberal Democrat History Group’s website at http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/shop/. Use the discount code ldn1215 (expires 24 December).

For some non-Lib Demmery, I heartily recommend Following Farage: The Ultimate Political Road Trip. And of course, if you’re wanting to know more about how to win elections – whether to do so yourself or to help understand what is the logic behind the things politicians get up to – then there’s 101 Ways To Win An Election. Or if you are a fan of fiction, it is time for my annual recommendation of Karel Capek’s War with the Newts.

Meanwhile, you can also line up for yourself a little post-Christmas treat for the dreary days of winter by pre-ordering Lynne Featherstone’s account of the battle to secure same-sex marriage. It is out in January and you can pre-order Equal Ever After here.

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 is Geoff’s latest report:

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 such as FPC, FCC and federal is confusing, take a look at A Glossary of Liberal Democrat Terms.

Don’t miss out!

Are you reading a forwarded copy of Liberal Democrat Newswire? Or perhaps the web-based version? If so, then why not join thousands of others and sign up to receive direct to your email inbox future editions of what Tim Farron calls, “a must read for all Lib Dems or people who want to understand the Lib Dems”.

Deputy Leader post stays vacant

Since Malcolm Bruce stood down as an MP at the general election, the post of Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader – or more precisely, the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons – has remained vacant. During the leadership contest, both Tim Farron and Norman Lamb expressed support for opening up the post to non-MPs – in large part so that their Deputy didn’t have to be a white man like themselves.

However although there was talk over the summer of persuading someone such as the highly-rated Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams to take up the role, no suitable and willing volunteer was found.

Instead, the reform of the Deputy Leader role has been left to be chewed over by the party’s Governance Review, with the post therefore likely to remain vacant until Autumn next year.

My own view is that there should be a Deputy Leader elected by the party’s membership and with a remit covering the party’s campaigning – thereby complimenting rather than duplicating the role of the Party President and also fixing the usual wrangles at general election time of how the campaign is accountable to the wider party. For more on this, see the pamphlet David Howarth and I wrote.

The contests to watch to judge #LibDemFightback #1

There was an unfortunate double-consistency in the election contests I tipped as ‘ones to watch’ during the last Parliament as being potential signs of Liberal Democrat recovery. The Liberal Democrats didn’t storm to victory in them, and the recovery didn’t happen. I console myself that they were therefore at least useful predictors. So over the next few editions I will be showcasing a new round of contests to watch which will show how real, or otherwise, the Liberal Democrat recovery in this Parliament is.

Absent a rusty political tidal wave generator being found in the basement of party HQ, the way back for the Liberal Democrats is via well-organised and effective grassroots campaigning, building from the bottom up as during previous revivals. But can the party really rediscover its local campaigning edge and will that be enough? A great test of that is to be found in the Scottish Parliament constituency of Edinburgh Western (previously West).

The Westminster seat of Edinburgh West was a long a focus of party attention, being a targeted marginal seat that was just missed out on in 1983 (by 498 votes), in 1987 (by 1,234 votes) and 1992 (by 879 votes). However, it was then transformed into a Liberal Democrat fortress, gained in 1997 by over 7,000 votes and with a majority reaching 13,600 in 2005. Now, it has an SNP with a majority of 3,210. The Scottish Parliament seat, similarly, was safely Lib Dem from its creation in 1999 through to the SNP breakthrough to 2011, when the SNP took the seat with a majority of 2,689.

Yet a strong Liberal Democrat organisation has survived the May 2015 meltdown, and has continued being active and growing over the summer and autumn. If grassroots organisation then can lead to revival, the evidence will show here in an area where the party was strong and even in defeat did not slip that far behind.

The Liberal Democrat candidate is Alex Cole-Hamilton, who secured an appearance in Nick Clegg’s resignation speech thanks to his reaction to defeat in the Edinburgh Central constituency in 2011. Alex Cole-Hamilton linked his defeat with the price the party was paying for being in coalition – and the good that was also bringing:
Alex Cole-Hamilton's react to defeat in 2011

Alex Cole-Hamilton, who is now on Twitter as @agcolehamilton, lives locally and is a former Convenor of the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights. In 2014 took the Public Campaigner of the Year title at the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards. This was for his work to amend the Children and Young People Bill to increase the age of leaving care in Scotland from 16 to 21.

Both he and the local Liberal Democrats have been taking the contest very seriously, selecting him in early 2014 and running an effective grassroots operation that contributed to the very high 67% No vote in the seat in the Scottish referendum. The 2015 general election defeat was also one of the least bad Lib Dem defeats in Scotland. The Lib Dem vote only fell by 2.8% and the actual number of votes cast for the Lib Dems was up by 1,934 on 2010. So a defeat, but also one that sets up a decent position from which to win in 2016.

When I last checked, the local team, with its network of over 200 deliverers, was on its way to its eighth constituency-wide delivery since the May general election and has knocked on 12,000 doors since then too. I have yet to encounter another constituency which has been doing quite so much (email me your claims to fame if I am wrong!).

The incumbent SNP MSP, Colin Keir, has been deselected by the SNP. An added bonus is that the local SNP MP, Michelle Thomson, was suspended by her party following the start of police investigations into property deals involving her portfolio of buy-to-let homes.

If the Liberal Democrats are to recover, it will be candidates such as Alex Cole-Hamilton who have to start winning.

Boundaries note: psephological pedants will note that I’ve skimped over the boundary changes and mismatches relevant to the Edinburgh West(ern) seats. I’ve done that for simplicity as none of them significantly alter the story.

Why socials are vital to campaigning

The role of social events in building up a party’s election-fighting abilities is becoming a much debated issue in the Liberal Democrats following the success of the #LibDemPint meetups. Are they a great way of introducing new people to the party or do they become a distraction from what a party should be about? Robin Pettitt, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Kingston University, has been doing some very relevant research on this topic. So I invited him to write about his research findings so far for Lib Dem Newswire:

It is widely agreed that local door-to-door campaigning by volunteer activists is key to electoral success. It is clearly not a panacea, but both academic research and the day-to-day work of political parties show that it can have a significant effect.

However, there has been virtually no research on how political parties strive to recruit and retain the volunteer activists that are at the heart of local campaigning. Political party organisers have no doubt thought and written a lot on this topic, but academia has yet to examine the issue. There is a lot of research on volunteer management in other voluntary organisations, but little to nothing on political parties. My research by aims to cover this gap in our knowledge. The research is based on interviews with party organisers, candidates and local office holders from the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party.

The very early and preliminary results from the first round of interviews suggest one of the most important tools available to local organisers to keep volunteers active is the social side of campaigning – i.e. the enjoyment of spending time with like minded individuals.

As one interviewee said: “The key to our branch’s success is probably alcohol – it’s the pub”. Another said: “One thing we do a lot is to make sure to go to a nice pub with the candidate after a campaign event, and talk to the activists. So, you build that sense of team. That is hugely important.” Several other comments from other interviews echoed this view. It appears that what often gets people started on volunteering is support for a party’s policies and ideology – but what keeps people going is socialising with fellow activists.

This reliance on the social side of campaigning as a retention strategy has several consequences, chief amongst which are:

  • Reversing a decline in activism can only be achieved by people locally rather than by party HQ. A pleasant social atmosphere has to be grown naturally at the local level. Policies and procedures handed down from the centre are unlikely to achieve that.
  • Socialising as an incentive for activism relies heavily on having the right kind of people in the local party. You cannot train people to be sociable and if a local party is dominated by an insular core group of activists, growth becomes almost impossible.
  • Any loss of activists runs the risk of becoming a vicious circle very quickly. If some of my mates in the local party stop turning up for campaign sessions, then I have less of an incentive to turn up too.

This is still very early in the project and these early impressions need to be strengthened or modified in the light of further interviews. Anyone who is interested in knowing more about the project or would like to comment on any of the above are invited to contact me on r.pettitt@kingston.ac.uk.

Other Liberal Democrats in the news


Liberal Britain: can you help a pilot?

A group of Liberal Democrat members is pioneering a new way of engaging with members and supporters about what the party believes and why. Here one of their number, new member Jim Williams, explains their approach:

My Liberal Britain is a country where immigration would be celebrated and refugees welcome. What’s yours?

I’m one of eight Liberal Democrat members designing a simple event format for local party groups to get together and debate our vision for a Liberal Britain.

We want to help the #LibDemFightback by asking the entire party one question: if we could build a truly liberal society in today’s Britain, what would it look like? We know there could be as many answers as there are members of this party, and we want to hear them. If everyone tells us, then we can tell everyone.

To make sure we get the format right, we want to test it thoroughly first: we want it to be inclusive, fun, simple and useful.

We’ve got a couple of pilots planned in London, and would like to try it more broadly across the country. Can you help?

You’d simply have to find a venue, pick three speakers, print a bunch of answer cards, and let people know about the event. We’ve got a pack laying out every step, and giving you complete guidance. Simple! You’d then be able to tell us what worked and what didn’t, and how you think we can improve the event.

We want to know what you think, what members in your area think – and, just as importantly, what liberals in your area think, even if they’re not yet members of the party.

If you would like to organise one of these events in your area, please contact me at jim.williams@liberalbritain.org.

What did Lib Dem members think of the leadership contest?

Pretty happy with the rules: that’s the simple summary of the survey I ran into what Liberal Democrat members though of how the party’s leadership contest was run. Many thanks to everyone who took part in the survey, about which I wrote the following in my submission to the party’s Governance Review.

I carried out an online survey of 615 party members after the leadership contest. Caveats apply of course about such online surveys, but the earlier one during the leadership contest accurately predicted the leadership result (giving Tim Farron a 58-42 victory compared with the actual 57-44 result).

Broadly speaking it found that party members were happy with how the contest was conducted:
Leadership contest survey results - people happy with length of contest
Leadership contest survey results - people happy with information
It is worth noting just how widespread social media penetration is for party members during such a contest, even allowing for the caveat that this was an online survey. This is worth noting for the review because party rules on issues such as endorsements and advertising are still typically written for an off-line world without the ambiguities over whether a retweet is an endorsement or with the assumption that paid-for advertising is expensive and will be seen by the public (something, of course, not true about targeted social media advertising).
Leadership survey result - social media widely seen
Although the number of people who think the rules for future contests should remain unchanged is under 60%, amongst those who suggested changes there was no pattern save for 1.5% of respondents asking for online voting in future.
Lib Dem leadership survey - most think rules should not change
All these figures vary very little by gender or between those who attended at least one hustings meeting and those who did not attend any.

Essential campaigning tools: Canva

Following on from the previous mentions of Buffer and Dropbox, today is the turn of Canva.

Canva is a free web-based design tool. In that, it is one of many, many such tools, but what makes it stand out for political campaigners is that it is focused on one main task: designing graphics which are optimised for use on social media.

From picking basic templates which are the right size, to easily adding simple images and text, Canva makes producing effective graphics for Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere quick and easy. That’s all them more important given how a good graphic often makes a status update on a social network have greater impact and higher levels of engagement.

Canva is free for pretty much everything you will want to do with it, though there are options to buy extra graphics features and images if you are really keen to part with your money.

Add Canva to your list of bookmarks today.

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 December you’ll be entered in the prize draw for a free copy of Tim Ross’s Why The Tories Won.

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