Liberal Democrat Newswire #81: another change of Lib Dem ‘priorities’

Liberal Democrat Newswire #81 came out last week, looking at the latest switch arounds in the Liberal Democrat message, an inside account of getting on the Lib Dem approved candidates list, the background to the election expenses scandal and more.

Welcome to issue 81 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 that I have a new book out: Political Marketing and the 2015 UK General Election, which I have co-edited.

In this edition:

Another month, another set of “priorities”

Fictional portrayals of politics involve actors hurtling through dramatic events. Something has happened? Quick, react by doing two things – and hustle along so you get them both in before the next ad break.

What they don’t involve is tedious, obsessive repetition. Which is understandable as that would have the audience fleeing more quickly than Liberal Democrat voters given sight of a Westminster coalition.

But they also therefore obscure the banal reality of effective political communications. Most of the time most of the public barely notice anything about politics. Which is why – short of the world-wide headline grabbing moments – tedious, obsessive repetition is needed to get any message over.

The key judgement required is to understand when your would-be tenacious reiteration has not yet been going for long enough and so should be persevered with, versus when the lesson is that the message is not going to work and needs changing instead.

So what to make of the fact that, once again, the list of “priority” issues the Liberal Democrats are meant to be concentrating on has changed? The latest occasion was the Queen’s Speech, for which the Liberal Democrats produced their own alternative legislative programme.

It is a good alternative programme, which would create a very different – and more liberal – society and economy than the plans Cameron’s government set out.

Top of the list was education, which was notable for its omission from the lists of priorities early in Tim Farron’s time as party leader. That is a change of direction widely welcomed in the party. It follows the success with concentrating on education in Scotland and fits with the traditional approach of seeing education as central to giving people power over their own lives in a liberal society.

The test will be whether the top billing now given to education is really seen through. Is it still top dog come Tim Farron’s autumn conference speech? When the first post-referendum National Campaign Day comes round, will it be on education? And, at a prosaic but telling level, will the party’s Connect database be updated to allow proper storing of the sort of education detail about voters which is the best predictor of their likelihood of having liberal values (for details on which, see my pamphlet with David Howarth)?

Of course, all those things could happen. But there are warning signs elsewhere in the Lib Dem version of the Queen’s Speech that the party has not yet got to grips with setting out a small set of priority messages and then remorselessly promoting them through all it does.

Mental health, for example, has been one of the party’s most frequent issues both before and since the general election, and was top of the list in material produced for the party’s spring conference. Yet this time it was demoted to being in the ‘oh and we’d also do…’ list at the end of the main Queen’s Speech plan. Down there too in the also rans list was a housing bill, the issue which Tim Farron for many years made his signature issue.

An optimist would say those were signs of tough and major choices being made over priorities, focusing in on health, education and the economy – all major issues for voters – and looking for a liberal twist in each.

But, but, but… the noises from elsewhere in the party are that this has not been a carefully considered change of direction, and rather is more of a tactical flirtation, of just the sort that happens when you don’t have a ruthless focus through all you do.

One other warning sign in that regard: second billing in the priority list was given to a Future of the Economy Bill. Readers who know me would rightly expect me to be cheering the high profile given to Bill which prompted the party to say, “new technology is shaking up every sector of business and the skills and infrastructure we need to compete if our economy is to continue to grow.” This is certainly a welcome move on from the sort of policy-making that caused me to say of a draft general election manifesto at a Federal Policy Committee meeting that “it is written as if the internet didn’t exist”.

But, but, but… once again, for you do not have to go very far to see how frequently a rejection rather than an embrace of technological change infuses public statements by senior Liberal Democrats. They don’t like Uber, for example (and understandably so given its issues with tax, snooping on journalists and the like). But there should be a world of difference between not liking the way Uber operates and defending the status quo. However, once you get beyond the ‘we don’t like Uber’ statements from senior Lib Dems, there is almost no mention of wanting a future in which technology changes the status quo and brings cheaper, safer and more convenient travel options for everyone, rich or poor, central London or elsewhere.

So was this Lib Dem Queen’s Speech the start of a well planned change in direction that will be carried out across the party’s range of activities? Or was it simply a smartly written and tactically astute press story that was at odds with other parts of what the party is doing and saying because the party isn’t joined up?

Time will tell… but it is certainly good news that the party’s governance review will be putting proposals to autumn conference to improve the party’s strategy making.

Lib Dems lose in Wales
A heavily redacted invoice as published by the Electoral Commission from the Conservative Party’s 2015 national expense returns.

The expenses disaster that awaits in May 2017

The investigations being carried out into election expenses from the general election and three Parliamentary by-elections are primarily looking at Conservative candidates. Hence the extensive obstruction of the investigations by the Conservative Party, as documented in court papers.

Some, such as the blogger Guido Fawkes, have been super-keen to suggest that all parties were at it, although many of Guido’s allegations about the Lib Dems fall apart under the most basic of scrutiny. The police have already decided not to proceed further with investigations into two of the Lib Dem MPs he has named (news he has for some reason omitted to report…) and the Daily Telegraph pulled its follow up to another of his anti-Lib Dem stories after its flaws were pointed out.

But things could get even messier, thanks to the problems awaiting in May 2017. To understand those, a little bit of background on election expenses is useful.

At the May 2015 general election, campaigns had four different expenses pots which they could – quite legitimately – split expenditure between in order to keep within the legal limits.

There was the local Parliamentary candidate expense, with a limit for the immediate weeks running up to the election and also a separate limit for the months before that (the short and long campaigns respectively).

Then if there were council elections in the area, there were also the council candidate expense limits covering the weeks running up to the election (there is no equivalent of the long campaign for council expense controls).

Then there were the national expense limits – with the controversy at the moment over whether or not the Conservatives counted things against the national limit which should have counted against the local limit (both transport/accommodation and campaign literature in particular, although allegations have spread to online campaigning too).

Finally, the fourth pot – items which didn’t need to be declared against any limit at all, most notably staff costs for the national campaigns. That’s a weird and huge loophole, but it is quite deliberate as it is explicitly on the face of the legislation. It is also the cause of my favourite expenses curio when working at party HQ – that the salary of the then Liberal Democrat General Election Planning Manager did not count as a general election expense.

This exemption for staff costs is something that the Tories did not see fit to extend to third parties such as charities when tightening up the rules over their expenditure recently. It also has the damaging effect for our politics of encouraging parties to employ staff rather than built up teams of volunteers as the staff costs get exempted but the volunteer costs don’t.

The other main item which falls into the fourth pot is gifts in kind to a campaign that do not exceed £50 in value. This is actually quite a sensible rule. It covers, for example, a deliverer going out with a round of target letters, failing to find the location for three very rural addresses and popping some stamps on them from their wallet instead. Or a volunteer buying a bus ticket to make their own way to a campaign HQ to help out with some clerical work.

(The main significance of the £50 limit at the moment is that it’s another case where Guido Fawkes’s allegations against the Lib Dems are of the ‘I hate the Lib Dems’ rather than the ‘here’s the properly documented case’ variety. More generally, the existence of all four pots shows why it is normal that the total expenditure in the accounts for a campaign exceed the local constituency limit. Much of the expenditure can be going into the other pots instead – again, a mistake made by Guido to think that showing expenditure exceeding the constituency limit means rules were being broken. It doesn’t.)

As we are seeing for the general election, this system is a mess (and it is broken even if everyone keeps to the law). Added to which is the fairly generous way in which several rules were interpreted in the Zac Goldsmith case.

But for elections such as those awaiting us in May 2017, it is even worse.

At least there is some sort of, however flawed, national limit which both caps national expenditure and provides a potential route for regulators and investigative journalists to unearth dodgy shuffling of costs from one of the local limits to the national limit.

But in normal rounds of local elections, such as those happening next May, there are no such national limits. Yet the definitions of what counts against local candidate limits are pretty much the same in this respect as what counts against local candidate limits in general elections. So if you run a national billboard poster campaign during a local election, for example, saying ‘Vote for the Mandatory Shoelace Tying Classes Party‘ then there is no limit. What’s more, if you do the sort of questionable mailshots which are under scrutiny for May 2015 claiming them against the national limits, then there is no documentation or declaration of that on a national return required because there is no such national return. Which makes unearthing any dodgy dealing even harder.

And, as regular readers will be totally unsurprised to know, that is of course yet another problem which so far the regulator, political scientists and assorted pundits, Parliamentarians and electoral reformers have been all but completely silent on.*

Further information

* If you are wondering therefore where my knowledge comes from, I’ve been author/co-author of election law guides for the Liberal Democrats for the best part of two decades.

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Lib Dems gain Edinburgh Western in Scottish Parliament elections
Georgia Harvey (centre) with Daisy Benson and other Lib Dems at a recent #LibDemPint.

New stars in the Lib Dem firmament

In my round-up of how the Liberal Democrats did in May’s elections (The dangers of Premature Stakhanovite Optimism), I did not spend much time talking about the contribution of new members. So here is Daisy Benson to focus on that very subject.

It wasn’t just the 45 seats we gained in the local elections in May that made it notable. These elections solidified the impact our brilliant new members are having on our party:

  • Andy Nash elected in Sheffield.
  • Georgia Harvey elected in Maidstone.
  • Chris Davies elected in St Albans.

And that is to name just a few.

What these campaigners have in common is they all joined our party last May, following that General Election. Through their thrilling victories they are restoring the faith of members old and new that we can win seats from other parties and begin to rebuild.

All of these people now know what it feels like to stand for election and most importantly what it takes to win, elections – and they will never forget it. A new generation of campaigners was inducted this May. Who knows, there could be future MPs among them. Future agents and organisers? Almost certainly.

Nor should we underestimate the impact that their winning will have had on their campaign teams and their local parties. Local parties which are recovering from brutal losses in previous years.

The Lib Dem Newbies UK Facebook I help curate has encouraged new members to share stories and support each other. With party resources reduced we need to do more of this ourselves. We must also talent spot our new members and encourage them to stand for election.

“I never would have thought that I would become the Maidstone Data Officer, let alone get elected to the local council,” say Georgia. Whoever encouraged her to stand deserves a medal.

What more could the party be doing to welcome and involve new members? Join the discussion on the Lib Dem Newswire Facebook page here.

Catch-up service: what the Lib Dems can learn from the SNP and more

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

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Giles Archibald with Tim Farron
Giles Archibald with Tim Farron.

Local government spotlight: Giles Archibald

Regular reader, and Liberal Democrat councillor, Iain Roberts made the excellent suggestion that news and people from local government should feature more heavily in Liberal Democrat Newswire. He also offered to help with making that happen, so here is the latest in Iain’s new series of profiles of major Lib Dem local government figures, written exclusively for LDN.

On my office wall is a map showing the political control of councils across the UK. England is mostly blue, with blobs of red across the more urban areas. Wales and Scotland are mostly grey showing no overall control. And in the North West is a big blob of yellow – South Lakeland District Council.

At 592 square miles it’s substantially larger than Greater Manchester – and with a significantly higher sheep-to-person ratio. It mostly falls within Tim Farron’s Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency and it is run by the Lib Dems.

South Lakeland has a new leader: Giles Archibald. No palace coup though. Previous leader Peter Thornton had said he would stand down after four years and he did. (Peter remains on the Executive.)

Giles Archibald joined the SDP in 1981, following his hero Roy Jenkins. He stood for Parliament in Horsham in 1983, securing a respectable 27% of the vote, after which his work as an actuary took him to London, Brussels, New York and Manchester before coming to South Lakeland. Having become a town councillor in 2010 he joined South Lakeland District Council in 2012 by winning a by-election. He took on the Economy cabinet role in 2013 and held his seat in 2014.

Giles sees his leadership of South Lakeland as being about delivery. “It’s easy to come up with ideas,” he says, “it’s the implementation that’s important.”

Poverty is a major issue in this rural district for young and old, a problem being made worse by the current Government’s policies. The Lib Dems in South Lakeland have a plan to build more affordable housing, improve health and wellbeing and protect the Lake District environment.

Attracting investment and businesses to the area, along with promoting culture and the arts, is important. Giles is getting to work on the “Cumbria Deal” – negotiating the devolution offer for the county. “I’m ambitious for economic growth in South Lakeland,” he says. “We need more diversity of businesses, to raise the average wage, grow existing businesses, boost broadband and make more land available for development.”

He sees the relationship between the district council and Cumbria County Council (where the Lib Dems are junior partners in a Labour-Lib Dem coalition) as positive, but with room for improvement.

“2016 was a good year for the Lib Dems on South Lakeland,” he tells me. “We significantly increased our majorities and defended all our seats.”

Hopefully, the Lib Dems will be just as successful at delivering on their plan.

Cover of the Liberal Democrats 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 11th May meeting of the Federal Policy Committee, including news on the party’s new policy working groups and plans to improve the involvement of party members in the policy process.
  • Geoff Payne’s update from the 21st May meeting of the Federal Conference Committee, including plans for the party’s autumn federal conference in Brighton.

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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Ben Sims campaigning with Elaine Bagshaw and Catherine Bearder
Ben Sims gives a new member’s perspective on what it is like to go through the Lib Dem approval process for Parliamentary candidates.

Candidate approval: what it is like and why you should do it too

In May new member Ben Sims went through the party’s Parliamentary candidate approval process. Here is his account of what it is like.

Taunton has never been so terrifying. On a sunny Sunday in May, I was locked up in a school classroom for an afternoon, facing the exercises and exams of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate Approval Process.

I’m sure there are other new members who are wondering whether they should give it a go (or longer standing members thinking it’s time) so I thought I would write a few words on how it works and what to expect.

How it starts

Once you’ve been in the party a year, you can apply for assessment if you think you have the skills required (there is a questionnaire to help you decide).

The only hard part is coming up with three references who are prepared to vouch for you, one of whom must be a party officer. The rest takes about fifteen minutes.

I’ve heard people who would make excellent candidates say they need to get around to doing the forms. It’s really simple and you won’t be assessed on it. Get on with it (and learning to get on with a task you might find off putting is a good dry run for some of what being a candidate can involve!).

The assessment day

It’s like your GCSEs, crossed with a tough job interview, crossed with that time you went paintballing with the sales team to get to know each other better. But with less cleaning up needed afterwards.

You show up at an assessment centre (in my case, a very pleasant school) and meet your lovely fellow would-be candidates. After a brief introduction, it’s straight into the exercises. It’s a satisfying but intense day: designed to simulate  the pressures a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) would face during a campaign, you’ll be thinking and working hard for the next four hours.

Like your GCSE teachers, I’ll state the obvious: read the competency framework and the overview of the exercises carefully. The process is very fair and not designed to trick you, but you need to be sure you’re ready for each of the component parts.

It’s very professional and well designed: you will feel like you’ve had a tough day but if you have the skills and prepare properly you will pass.

Why you need to do it now

There will be some areas where our fantastic 2015 candidates will stand again. But in others, people will have moved on to other things. The fightback will need candidates prepared to work and fight hard to restore our party’s electoral fortunes.

At the next General Election (be it in 2020 or October of this year) we need to stand hundreds of excellent candidates.

If you’ve been thinking you’d make a good MP or candidate but you haven’t yet got round to it, there’s no reason not to apply now!

Ben was successful in Taunton and is now on the party’s approved list. Congratulation Ben! More information about the party’s candidate approval process is 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! If you would like more stories – such as my daily digests which include all the council by-election results, just sign up here.

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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