The dangers of Premature Stakhanovite Optimism: LDN #80 on the elections

Liberal Democrat Newswire #80 carried out a post-mortem on the Liberal Democrat performance in the 2016 elections.

You can now read it in full below, but if you’d like the convenience of getting it direct by email in future just sign up for it here.

Welcome to issue 80 of what Tim Farron himself calls a “must read”. So let’s get on with the latest stories with only a brief pause to mention the Lib Dem Newswire page on Facebook, which is (ahem) a great source of news about the party in-between these newsletters.

Best wishes,


In this edition:

The optimistic take

The very ease with which one can put together a positive version of Thursday’s election results shows how welcomingly different they were from previous years. So here’s a dose of optimism for you:

  • The Lib Dem vote share in council elections was up 4 points on 2015. (This is the BBC’s Projected National Share which adjusts for the different rounds of seats up each year.)
  • Moreover, the Lib Dems moved back up into third, ahead of Ukip.
  • The Lib Dems make net seat gains in council elections for first time since 2008. At +44 gains at time of writing, the Lib Dem result is not only better than the Tories (down 46) and Labour (down 23) but also better than Ukip (up 26) and the Greens (no net change).
  • The Liberal Democrats also gained control of an extra council – Watford.

There’s also plenty of good news in the details. One is the renewed ability of the Liberal Democrats to target successfully first past the post constituencies at a level higher than councils. Not only the two dramatic constituency gains in Scotland and big swings to the party in its two previously held Scottish Parliament constituencies, but also amongst the wreckage in Wales the was a huge swing to Kirsty Williams in her constituency.

And then there’s more. The party’s past history has typically seen a defeat at Westminster level leading to the collapse of the party’s organisation and electoral prospects in that seat. This time, however, another three former MPs who lost seats in 2015 returned to the council by winning a seat (John Leech, Mark Hunter and David Ward*, as did Lisa Smart who was the candidate to succeed Andrew Stunell in the then Lib Dem held seat of Hazel Grove in 2015). That’s a promising sign that the party can rebound in such areas, especially when added to the strong council results in areas of 2015 Parliamentary disappointment such as Cheltenham, Eastleigh, Watford and Winchester.

So is all good and rosy? Well, read on…

* A fourth ex-MP also won. Mike Thornton was re-elected as a parish councillor in Eastleigh too.

Lib Dems lose in Wales

The pessimistic take

But there’s rather more to it than that Panglossian round-up. For all the very real sense of happiness – and relief – amongst Liberal Democrats that there was solid good news, there was also plenty of grim news.

A word first for those who are hit by defeats but rarely get a mention: the staff who lose their jobs because their bosses didn’t get re-elected. Some brilliant and talented people are now job hunting and deserve thanks for all they have done.

In Wales the bad news story is painfully straightforward: four seats lost and only one held with Kirsty Williams re-elected but standing down as Welsh leader. Moreover, the party slipped to fifth behind Ukip, with even a fall in the vote since 2011, pulling in fewer votes than when the party was in coalition.

Nor was that an aberration in Wales. In Scotland the party may have gained the headlines with two constituency gains, but its overall constituency vote share was further down on the 2011 result in coalition (albeit by just 0.1%) and the Greens have overtaken the Lib Dems in seat numbers.

Same too in the council elections in England. The vote share may have been up on 2015, but over the four year cycle the Lib Dem vote was down again. In 2012 the Lib Dems got 16% when in coalition. Four years on, out of coalition, the Lib Dem vote share was 15% – down, just as it was down in Scotland and Wales. Leaving coalition has not seen the Lib Dem vote share go up. Nor was London an exception, for there too the past lost ground, losing one of its two GLA members and being overtaken in seats by Ukip.

Across the country, then, the Lib Dems moved even further away from being the third party of British politics and lost votes compared to the previous comparable round of elections. Being out of coalition didn’t increase the party’s popularity.

Nor were the two Parliamentary by-elections much better. Ogmore saw the Lib Dem vote down fractionally (0.02%) on the general election, in fifth once again, whilst Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough saw the Lib Dem vote up, but only by 1.6% – although that was enough to take the party back into third place from fourth in 2015.

One final pessimistic statistic to chew: at the rate of progress shown in 2016, it would take until 2044 for the Liberal Democrat council base to return to where it was before that run of seven years of seat loses (and that’s allowing for the fact that more seats are up in some years and so the headline seat gains would be higher in those).

Optimist or pessimist; which is right? Read on for my take…


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Lib Dems gain Edinburgh Western in Scottish Parliament elections
Alex Cole-Hamilton appears to be happy.

How the ‘places to watch’ did

The question of what really to make of those two contrasting ways of looking at the election results is neatly captured by the four places I featured as ones to watch in Liberal Democrat Newswire in the run-up to the elections:

  • Edinburgh Western Scottish Parliament constituency (LDN #74): Alex Cole-Hamilton did indeed win the seat. As I wrote when featuring the seat: “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.” So on this showing, yes strong grassroots organisation can lead to revival.
  • Cardiff Central Welsh Assembly constituency (LDN #76): Eluned Parrot fell just 817 votes short of regaining this former Lib Dem stronghold. I wrote before the election that the seat “is an important test of whether the party can stop the slide in places where it has lost the MP yet still retains local government strength. With all-up council elections next year, will 2016 see the Lib Dems start to recover or will the signs be of further local election losses to come?” On this showing, the jury is out because the Lib Dem vote fell a little this time, so the slide has not yet been averted even if the party is still by a mile the main challenger to Labour. Recovery may not have started but the raw materials for it are still available.
  • City and East London Assembly constituency (LDN #75): only one London Assembly constituency saw the party’s vote rise across the board – for Mayor, constituency and London-wide list. That was City and East where Elaine Bagshaw and the team also secured the biggest increase in a constituency vote for the Lib Dems in London.As I wrote when featuring the seat: “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 verdict this time? Moderately promising, as the number of new people I met out campaigning across the seat on polling day demonstrated. But the increase in the Lib Dem vote shares was modest – 1% at best – and to really make progress the party will need to start putting on 10 or 20 points in specific wards rather than a handful of points overall.
  • Sheffield City Council elections (LDN #77): when featuring this contest, I asked: “Sheffield Council used to be run by the Liberal Democrats and covers a city where the party had hoped to go up to two MPs. But in the last few years instead the Lib Dems have been focused in heavily on Nick Clegg’s constituency and the council wards within it. How far can the party now start recovering, and in particular move back to being a major political force across a larger part of the city?”A modest positive verdict here as the party gained two seats from Labour and saw its vote up 5% on 2015. One step on what is still a long road to recovery but it was a good sized step.

The mixed pattern across those contests gives a hint as to how the overall picture really should be seen, as I return to below.

Catch-up service: the new Lib Dem peer and more

In case you missed these stories from the last month first time round:

Video thumbnail showing how people don't backup data properly
Backup all your valuable data automatically in the background with Backblaze. It keeps your data safe without the hassle and I’m a huge fan. You can sign up for a free 15 day trial – no credit card required – here.
Calm water but a thunderstorm is coming
What does the future hold for the Liberal Democrats?

What the results tell us about the Lib Dem future

Military and nautical metaphors abound in the world of political prognostication, so try this nautical one to capture the state of play for the Liberal Democrats after Thursday. Ship massively damaged by huge storm makes it through to calm seas. Boat still very leaky, limping along miles from safety but the bailing out of water is now a smidgen ahead of the incoming leaks. If calm weather holds, may be time to make enough repairs to survive the next batch of bad weather (did anyone mention Parliamentary boundary changes?). Touch and go still whether boat can be made seaworthy enough to actually get anywhere beyond floating around frantically bailing.

No-one before Thursday expected the Liberal Democrats would recover in one bound, and the party did take some steps towards recovery. The question is not so much the extent of the recovery so far but whether the party – and the leadership in particular – really grasp just how much more needs to be done to give recovery a fair chance of working out.

The reason for my raising that question is two-fold. One is simply that in many places and ways the party slipped further away from being the third party of British politics. Its challengers for that role are different in different parts of the country, but one or other of them gained on the party in many places.

The second is the frequent silence in the party, especially from those in senior leadership roles, about the need for the party to change except when talking about constitutional amendments. Many of them are necessary and will help recovery, but they are only one small part of what is needed and, aside from the brief period of attention on the diversity motion passed at York, wider talk of change is more often absent than present.

Notable, for example, was the lack of anything beyond cheery optimism in Tim Farron’s emails to party members about the election results in the last few days. He does cheery optimism well, and that is a key part of successful for leadership. But there were no buts in his messages about what else the party has to do, just as there have not been in his speeches in recent months.

During the leadership campaign he frequently talked about how much the party needs to change to recover. Now, however, that seems to be replaced by premature Stakhanovite optimism. Where we work we can win once again, so get to work.

Improving the party’s diversity. Growing the party’s membership. Modernising our campaign techniques. Reforming our internal process. Introducing a culture of testing and learning. Properly integrating digital throughout the party’s operations. Finding a new compelling narrative. Those are all major challenges. None of them came after the cheery optimism. The message wasn’t ‘well done, now let’s get stuck into the hard work of change’ it was just ‘well done’ and silence.

There are some signs of a more hard headed approach to the future than simply ‘get to work in your patch again’, especially in the appointment of Shaun Roberts at party HQ – a man with a long record of wanting to change the way the party does things.

But only some and there are some big gaps at present, such as on the party’s message. David Axelrod caricatured – with a bite of honesty – the Labour general election campaign message as ‘Vote Labour and win a microwave’. In many ways the Lib Dem message at these elections was ‘Vote Lib Dem, win a street crossing and a bar chart’.

Admirable things, street crossings, but any party can campaign for them. Better political weather means the Lib Dems can do better with the street crossing and bar chart combo than in recent years, but it still leaves a very soft Lib Dem vote. One which is not built on long term loyalty to a liberal cause – a point which I explored in more detail of course with David Howarth in our core votes pamphlet. In particular, we highlighted why the reliance on such a soft Lib Dem vote caused so many problems even in the party’s heyday. That’s why the party’s local government base had stopped growing years before going into coalition. We need to rebuild a different, and better, party.

So that’s my verdict: the modest nature of the party’s recovery shows how much it needs to change to really recover – and that if it does, it will work. But the reactions so far raise serious questions about how many people in the party are up for that change.

Front cover of a printed copy of the Lib Dem constitution
On paper, the Liberal Democrats are a very democratic party. But that only means much in practice if members know what is being done in their name by party officers and committees.

What have the policy and conference committees been up to?

  • Geoff Payne’s update from the 23rd March meeting of the Federal Policy Committee (FPC), including social security and civil liberties.
  • Geoff Payne’s update from the 7th April meeting of the Federal Conference Committee (FCC), including a conference debrief and plans for future party conferences.

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

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Speaking of parties up for major change…

Fresh from a major election victory, the Canadian Liberals are pushing on with major reforms to modernise the party. This includes a complete overhaul of the party’s constitution with the new one being, compared to the Liberal Democrat one, remarkably short at only 13 pages.

In a move that echoes the intentions of the current Lib Dem governance review, it proposes greatly simplifying the party’s structures, introducing also in the Canadian case greater uniformity between the ways the party is run in different provinces. It scraps party membership in favour of a free registered supporter scheme, with all such supporters able to vote for the party’s leader and candidates. Likewise they would all be able to come to Canadian Liberal party conferences in future.

Given Labour’s recent experience with opening up its electorate, such ideas are likely to have less favour with Liberal Democrats than other aspects of what drove the Liberal Party to success. Interesting to see nonetheless for the way they illustrate how the Canadian Liberals view themselves as, even post-victory, facing a huge task of modernisation.

There’s a video to watch here.


Other Liberal Democrats in the news

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 forward it on to others who may also enjoy reading it. Thank you!

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