How can the Liberal Democrats make a success of 2016? Is Norman Lamb right to be working on policy with a Labour MP? Was the Conservative marginal seats campaign really a success? These are just some of the issues which were covered in Liberal Democrat Newswire #75 when it hit inboxes last week.
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News about Norman Lamb’s key role in exploring cooperation with Labour and the Greens, an exclusive analysis of the 2015 election results from expert Lewis Baston, 7 things the Liberal Democrats must do in 2016, news on Lib Dems in the New Years honours list: that and more is in this, the 75th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire.
This edition also marks LDN’s 5th birthday. Thank you to everyone who has been reading over the last five years, including both to the 16 hardy souls who signed up in time for the very first edition and are still reading, and to the many new readers who have increased readership by 70% in the last year alone.
Easier said than done, of course, yet also vital. The Liberal Democrats have had a good run of council by-elections in the second half of 2015, both winning seats and also moving back up to good third or second places in areas of weakness. That is a necessary part of reclaiming the party’s place as the third party of the British political system.
But May 2016, with elections in Scotland, Wales, London and many English local councils is the big test.
Initial omens are mixed. Many of those crunching the numbers within the party are even at their most enthusiastic very modest about what the Lib Dems might achieve in May.
However, independent predictions by the local elections duo of Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher point to a more positive picture. Based on the council by-elections since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, they predict that national equivalent vote in May 2016 to be Conservative 32%, Labour 31%, Lib Dem 16% and UKIP 12%.
Those national equivalent vote calculations are made by adjusting for the different range of seats up for election year, permitting therefore year on year comparisons to be meaningfully made. If those predictions turn out right (and the Rallings and Thrasher predictions have a pretty mixed track-record), it would make the Lib Dem vote share better than at any point in the last Parliament – where it varied between 10% and 16% – but still well down on the 20%+ plus figures the party consistently scored from 1991 to 2010.
The Thrasher and Rallings predictions have consistently over-estimated the eventual Lib Dem vote share, doing so on all seven occasions I have data for. If that happens again and by similar margins, it would be touch and go whether the Lib Dem vote ends up being back above the levels of the last Parliament.
It is not only amongst the don’t knows that progress is needed in 2016. It is also noticeable that his ratings amongst Lib Dem voters are often not as high as those for other leaders amongst their own party’s supporters. Care needs to be taken in interpreting figures with small sample sizes which is why trends across multiple polls are the most useful – and the trend is one that shows a need for both Tim Farron and the party as a whole to entrench his reputation amongst the party’s current shrunken base of supporters.
One obvious move would to be to move away from the party’s reluctance to use its email database for direct national communications with voters and instead instigate a regular – perhaps weekly – direct communication from Tim Farron to as many voters as the party can legally reach electronically. That sort of regular direct communication would also deal with the very patchy use of such data currently by local parties, reflecting their own variable organisational strengths after five years in government.
Find a distinctive message on the economy
This has always been a problem for the Liberal Democrats, trying to find a clear and distinctive alternative to the old simple mantras for Conservatives and Labour of being the parties of bosses and workers respectively. Yet with the economy continuing to be central to what voters are concerned about, the big risk is that without an economic message, otherwise desirable and sensible talk about liberal passions such as civil liberties leaves the party sounding like a fringe concern rather than a party addressing what matters most to the public.
Starting 2016 like that is undesirable. Ending it like that would be damaging.
Set a strategy and have the whole party contribute to it
But as the Liberal Democrats found with the short-lived JEET approach during the last Parliament (see Liberal Democrat Newswire #23 if you are sensibly sane enough not to remember what JEET was), talking about mainstream concerns of the voters on its own doesn’t work either if voters don’t have a clear idea of what a party stands for. Which is where the strategy David Howarth and I set out in our pamphlet comes in – building a larger core vote and restoring the party’s reputation for competence.
That strategy is not the party’s official strategy though there are some promising signs of elements of it being adopted at different levels in the party. Yet it’s not that uptake has been hindered by a rival strategy, rather that it is there is no clear strategy set out across the party, with widespread buy-in and all the different parts of the party working together to implement it.
Even in good times such a unified approach to a strategy would be wise. Given the severity of the party’s plunge from grace it is now essential. So essential that even adopting an inferior strategy would be better than no strategy, just muddling from event to event, meeting to meeting and headline to headline.
For the party to be able to adopt and implement a strategy successfully, the party’s governance review has to deliver the goods, because at the moment there is no sensible way of the party adopting an overall strategy and then coordinating its implementation across the party. (Some may think that is the role of the Federal Executive. But consider that a coordinated strategy includes having policy development fit with it – and think how things would play out if the FE were to adopt a strategy and then attempt to order the Federal Policy Committee to change its policy making plans to fit with it. That would not be a happy and productive turn of events.)
100,000 members: in or out?
2016 is the year in which the party needs to decide if it is serious about Tim Farron’s ambition set out in the leadership election campaign for a party membership of 100,000.
The party needs either to serious embrace the target or drop it. I’m in the former camp, but the worst outcome would be to stick with the headline without willing the means to achieve it.
End the Augustine approach to improving diversity
Debates in the Liberal Democrats about how to improve the party’s diversity often resemble Augustine’s prayer, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet”, for the most popular argument over diversity is frequently, ‘let’s take radical action, but not yet’.
Yet the party’s membership is nearly balanced male-female and on other measures of diversity it is also much better than those figures for elected officials and party posts. Tim Farron set out radical plans for improving the party’s diversity during the leadership contest. So far, however, there has been little to show for the plans. Some of the plans certainly do have a long gestation period, so that isn’t a reason for criticism yet. It will be however if the situation is not much changed by the end of 2016.
Get the party HQ restructure right
The reputation of Liberal Democrat HQ in Great George Street has taken quite a battering in the last few years, and reactions to the major HQ restructure have been uneasy at best by many of those in the voluntary side of the party who have been involved in the details.
As with most staff restructures, when people’s own jobs are directly involved, attention naturally gravitates to the details of job descriptions and reporting lines which in practice end up not meaning that much when people’s attention returns to day to day work. So as the new structure beds down in 2016 what will matter most is making it work in practice, regardless of the theoretical details sweated over in 2015.
For me the biggest question is whether the ‘digital first’ strategy can really work without a digital member of the senior management team.
The intention to move the party to a more fulsome embrace of digital is right, but when political parties, pressure groups and companies have tried to embrace digital it has only worked successfully when there is a senior figure leading that cultural change. Without a senior digital figure in the new structure the risks of failure for the Lib Dems are high, especially as getting the balance right will be hard given that some of the keenest supporters of ‘digital first’ seem to have gone rather overboard in forgetting how elections are won with a mix of digital and non-digital.
What happened in the 2015 general election?
Elections expert Lewis Baston has been running his eye over the general election results for Liberal Democrat Newswire. One of the questions I had asked him was whether the Conservative marginal seat campaign was really all it’s been made out to be given that the overall result was pretty much in line with what you’d expect with a uniform swing. Does that mean that for all the talk of super-clever heavily funded key seat campaigning, the Tories didn’t really buck the national trend much in those seats? Here’s what Lewis made of the evidence.
Mark Pack asked me an interesting question the other day. To what extent is the British general election of 2015 really a repudiation of the Uniform National Swing (UNS) model by which votes are translated into seats? On one level, the question is absurd, given that electoral behaviour was the least uniform in recent history. How can UNS possibly still work?
And yet, it wasn’t far off in terms of the category of seats to which it has historically been most applicable, namely direct change between Conservative and Labour. Across the UK, the Conservative share of the vote was up 0.8 percentage points and Labour’s up 1.5 points, for a net swing of a bit under 0.4 per cent to Labour. Using UNS, this would predict a net Labour gain of 6 seats from the Conservatives. The 2015 outcome was a net Labour gain of 2 seats. UNS got the net direction of change right, and was in the right ballpark for its scale.
However, the relative accuracy of UNS at the UK (or Great Britain, it makes no difference) level is the product of two big deviations in opposite directions. The Labour collapse in Scotland generated a net swing of 8 per cent from Labour to Conservative there, but no Tory gains in seats. The swing to Labour in England was 1.2 per cent, which if uniform would have switched 15 seats from Conservative to Labour. However, the Conservatives over-performed in two highly significant groups of seats – the marginals they were defending and Labour’s most vulnerable constituencies. The net Labour gain in seats from Conservative in England was 4 rather than 15. In Wales, there was a small swing to the Conservatives (0.3 per cent), which should not have been enough to gain any Labour seats, but the Conservatives managed two gains.
Among the most marginal seats, there is further evidence for the success of Conservative targeting. Completely against the English trend, there was a swing of 2.2 per cent to the Conservatives among their 10 seats most vulnerable to Labour; variation around this average gave Labour two hits out of ten. Among the 10 most vulnerable Labour seats, there was a weak pro-Labour swing of 0.9 per cent, but somehow the Tories managed to win five out of ten. The Tories added one more in England and two in Wales beyond the top 10, while Labour won eight more that required relatively high swings, often because of strong localised political-demographic trends.
UNS at a Britain-wide level, therefore, was better than a swing model broken down by nation. But this was in the manner of a stopped clock being right – the Tory over-performance in the English and Welsh marginals compensated for the large but useless swing to the party in Scotland and the arithmetic came out about right.
But, in longer perspective, when UNS has ‘worked’ in recent decades it has generally been because the deviating trends at an election more or less balance out, rather than constituencies and regions marching in lockstep. The irony is that despite many of us having scorned UNS, this simple model performed better in 2015 than it had in most elections over the last 45 years. Perhaps we shouldn’t place it in a psephological museum quite yet.
So what to conclude from Lewis’s perusal of the data? My own view is that, as I wrote back in 2010, that UNS still has life in it as a basic way of predicting seat numbers if (a big if!) your vote estimations are roughly right. Further, as Lewis demonstrates, the details of the marginal seat results show that the Conservative marginal seats campaign did indeed manage to achieve something above and beyond the national trend.
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A book, titled Power to the People: Creating A New Progressive Alliance In British Politics, will be published in the summer, hoping to set the agenda for the 2016 party conference season. [Update: is has changed names and will now be called The Alternative.] Political heavyweights such as Green MP Caroline Lucas and defeated Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Norman Lamb MP have signed up to contribute to the book.
Lamb’s contribution will be of particular interest to Liberal Democrats, not only for the fact of someone often seen as an ‘Orange Booker’ being willing to mix it with talk of cooperation with Labour and the Greens, but also because his chapter will be co-authored with the Labour MP Steve Reed. Labour MP Lisa Nandy is also down to contribute to the book.
Aside from encouraging talk of cooperation, those behind the book have no set plan for what comes next beyond the belief that, in the absence of some form of cooperation, too much advantage is therefore seceded to the broad church which the Conservatives are on the right of the political spectrum.
Although reports of cross-party cooperation usually shrivel away in the face of instinctive reactions about ‘no seat pacts’, the experience of the Liberal Democrats and Labour for the decade from the mid-1990s until the Iraq war shows there are other ways of cooperating without any formal seat deal.
Back then, cross-party cooperation included public and official negotiations over a joint policy programme for constitutional reform (the Cook-Maclennan talks in particular). It also included the private and limited, but very real, cooperation between the two parties for the 1997 and 2001 general election campaigns – doubling up attacks on the Tories and not tripping over each other too much in the targeting of marginal seats.
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).
If you’ve got any questions, you can contact Geoff on email@example.com (FCC or FPC) or me on firstname.lastname@example.org (FPC). Do also let us know what you think about including these reports in Lib Dem Newswire.
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”.
Equal Ever After: how the fight for same-sex marriage was won
Later this month Equal Ever After is published, the account by former Lib Dem minister Lynne Featherstone of how she secured same-sex marriage in the last Parliament. Here she writes exclusively for Liberal Democrat Newswire about the book.
Equal Ever After is the untold, insider story of how I made same-sex marriage happen.
My story begins near the very end of the fight for equal marriage rights. I stand on the shoulder of giants who fought the long fight and bore the pain of discrimination and prejudice long before I even became an MP. Much had been achieved, but not yet same-sex marriage.
Then an electoral miracle brought Liberal Democrats into coalition and me into the position of Equalities Minister. Perhaps it was my very naivety as a newbie minister that meant I had no idea of the mountain I was about to climb in initiating and introducing one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in history – legislation which wasn’t in the coalition agreement or any manifesto – and making it law.
There were tremendous battles and obstacles all along the way and my first one was Theresa May. The story of Theresa and my relationship will surprise many.
Hellfire and damnation rained down upon me from many in the religious fraternity – but there were also many surprises with unexpected allies who came out to support same-sex marriage. The story is followed from my experiences of the abuse with which the gay community is regularly confronted, through my rebuttals against the noise and fury of my opponents, and finally to the making of history,
Equal Ever After exposes the friends and foes, the homophobes and the haters, and those who were most definitely on the side of the angels in its passage to law – and the heart-stopping moment when it nearly all ended. I expose the Tory wars, the machinations of Number 10 and the vicious and internecine war that raged – pitting Tory against Tory.
This is real, lived history. Many of us celebrated on the day the dream became reality; many of us know people whose lives were changed by the events described in the book. In this inside story, I reveal the emotional lows and the exhilarating highs involved in turning hard-won social acceptance into tangible legal reality.
And now we are all Equal Ever After.
“The inside story of the legislation of same-sex marriage by the government minister who pioneered it, with jaw-dropping revelations of how Stonewall initially tried to scupper marriage equality.” Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner:
“Lynne delivers both an insider’s perspective and a comprehensive narrative on one of the most significant and progressive social changes in a generation.” Benjamin Cohen, CEO PinkNews.
The contests to watch to judge #LibDemFightback no.2: City and East
Welcome to the second in my series of election contests to watch in May 2016 in order to judge the extent of the Liberal Democrat fightback from the depths of May 2015. This time it’s the turn of Elaine Bagshaw and the London Assembly constituency of City and East, which covers the City of London and the three boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Newham and Tower Hamlets.
Unlike last time’s Edinburgh Western this not a seat that Elaine and the party are seriously thinking of sweeping to victory in this May. After all, last time the Lib Dems were 58.7% behind the winning Labour candidate, and the party’s best-ever result in the seat was way back in 2000 at 18.5%. Indeed, in many wards the party polled less than 50 votes in the London Assembly list election last time round.
It is the very electoral desolation of the seat that makes it an important weathervane. Outside of Tower Hamlets, the party has never had much local government electoral success in the seat, and even in Tower Hamlets those days are now long ago with no Lib Dems elected in 2014.
Yet if the party is to rebuild as a party of local government and as a truly national party, it cannot leave large swathes of London such as City and London East as an electoral desert. The party needs to start winning council wards (again) in such areas, and also to build up enough support across such boroughs to generate a sufficient pool of possible members and helpers to sustain local party organisations.
That is all the more important given that two of the elections in the London cycle are by list PR – for the European Parliament and the London Assembly top-up list. For both of those votes are needed across every London borough to help Lib Dems win on the lists.
So enter stage left, City and East Lib Dem candidate Elaine Bagshaw and her team. There are already some promising signs of an organisational revival, such as the newly revived Newham local party. Indeed, I recently met a Lib Dem activist who lives in the borough and joked that a sign of the success in Newham is that there is once again a functioning local party Executive – and enough people willing to serve that a long-standing activist like him could escape being roped in. The Boleyn ward by-election in Newham also saw the party move up into second place, the sort of move ahead of Greens, Ukip and others which is important for the party to regain its place in the UK’s political system as the main challengers to Labour and the Tories.
But even that promising sign in Boleyn was secured on under 10% of the vote and had the benefit of help from many Liberal Democrats across all of London. There is also a lively discussion amongst party campaigners about how to modernise the party’s campaigning tactics, and Elaine Bagshaw’s campaign is taking quite a different tack (especially when it comes to the use of the internet) from that of Alex Cole-Hamilton’s in Edinburgh which I covered last time.
So can the revival in such an area as City and East be sustained? And how will a different approach to electoral tactics fare? That’s why the City and East GLA constituency is one to watch in May.
With the next Liberal Democrat federal conference coming up in March, I’ve put together a new little guide to some of the key information about conference and why party members should come to conference.
You can read the short guide here, which includes this video from Liberal Democrat member Daisy Benson about why party members should come to conference:
Other Liberal Democrats in the news
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie is standing for the North East Fife constituency in May’s Scottish Parliament elections. North East Fife used to be one of the party’s strongest areas in Scotland, retuning both a Lib Dem MP and MSP as well as many Lib Dem councillors. Willie is currently a member of the Scottish Parliament via the top-up lists and although previously an MP in Dunfermline and West Fife, his home village is in North East Fife.
Laura Davies is the new ‘Director of People’ at Liberal Democrat HQ. This is a new role subsuming responsibilities such as membership, volunteering, training and diversity. A note about the job title: even though it’s quite common across the charity and campaigning sectors, the use of “of” in the job title produced some lively discussion amongst Liberal Democrat members, especially from those who hadn’t heard of such a job title before. It’s likely to end up being the subtly different “for People” rather than “of People”.
Following on from the previous mentions of Buffer, Dropbox and Canva, today it is the turn of CCleaner, a free and very handy program for PC users.
It quite simply helps you keep your computer clean and tidy by searching for, and then stepping you through fixing, the sort of common problems that can slow down your computer, cause error messages or reduce your privacy.
Although it also comes with a paid-for version, simply running the free version every couple of months should be plenty for nearly every user.