‘Low intensity blandness’ – the Lib Dem by-election problem: Liberal Democrat Newswire #82

Liberal Democrat Newswire #82 came out last week, taking a look at Paddy Ashdown’s latest push for cross-party realignment, the strategic challenges facing the Lib Dems, successful post-referendum grassroots campaigning and the problem with how the party approaches Parliamentary by-elections.


Welcome to issue 82 of what Tim Farron calls a “must read”. So let’s get on with the latest stories with just a passing mention for my poster about what the Lib Dems believe and a very warm welcome to the latest wave of new readers.

Best wishes,


P.S. To help ensure you don’t miss future updates, add Mark.Pack@libdemnewswire.com to your contacts or white list.

In this edition:

Paddy Ashdown in north west England
During his time as Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown led the party into talks with Labour with mixed success. Now he is after political re-alignment once more.

Ashdown pushes for cross-party realignment

Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown is working a new 5-point cross-party progressive platform around which to mobilise a grassroots movement to support candidates who sign up to it. The intention is to harness political forces beyond simply the Liberal Democrats, but to do so using a platform which is deeply rooted in Liberal Democrat ideas – and which pretty much any Lib Dems would be happy to sign up to. [UPDATE: More United has now been launched.]

Serious effort is being put into the idea, including initial conversations with Labour MPs. The odds of creating an effective grassroots movement are improved by Ashdown’s decision to involve Austin Rathe, the former Head of Membership at the Lib Dems, who has a strong track record of using digital to run campaigns and enthuse volunteers.

The key, however, will be how attractive the 5-point platform is to those on the centre left disillusioned or driven out by Labour’s current infighting and even those on the centre who may have voted Tory now and again but who don’t like a Tory party in which leadership candidates are outbidding each other in their enthusiasm to talk tough on immigration.

(There are very few reasons to lament Boris Johnson’s demise. One of the few, however, is that part of what did for him was his post-referendum warm words about freedom of movement for people. They went down very badly amongst Tory MPs, a sign of how those who support freedom of movement and have previously voted Tory may find that party an even more uncomfortable home in the near future.)

Ashdown’s plans are not an official initiative, but Tim Farron is aware of them and has not tried to veto them. Indeed, they fit with Farron’s own willingness to keep political options open at a time of such political uncertainty and instability.

Moreover, Ashdown’s plans are not the only such ones in town, with the Lib/Lab cooperation initiative featuring Norman Lamb covered in Lib Dem Newswire #75 going ahead and Vince Cable stoking talk of a 48 Movement to fight for a progressive agenda across traditional party lines. (A note about the use of ’48 Movement’ and ‘We Are The 48’ – I’ve been struck by how uneasy such phrases make some in Scotland given that equivalent terminology was also adopted by some of the most nasty online voices after the Scottish referendum.)

Is this all worth it? It is possible that a successful Labour coup, a new Tory leader and no early general election will make this all look like an odd passing fancy by Christmas, with normal party lines well established. But none of those is a certainty and the anger over the referendum result is widespread. This may be a moment of political realignment, and that makes it useful to remember some lessons from the past.

During the latter part of his time as Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown was the prime mover in talks and arrangements with Labour, then led by Tony Blair. Those led successfully to secret, informal and successful cooperation at election time – such as the parties both attacking the Tories on the same issues in a complementary way and limited coordination over selection of target seats.

They also led to the Cook-Maclennan talks, which resulted in a series of constitutional reforms enacted that makes the Liberal Democrat record in government look extremely paltry. But Blair kept on putting off supporting electoral reform, with the Jenkins Commission killed by Labour figures almost as soon as it was published and Blair never willing to make it an issue he would lead on.

This all fed growing disquiet in the Lib Dems about what cooperation would mean longer term for the future of the two parties – with even merger being speculated on. So once the time Paddy Ashdown stood down as leader in 1999 (and indeed part of the reason he did so), Labour-Lib Dem cooperation went into the deep freeze.

All in, that mixed record points both to the need for caution tempered with the political reality that such cooperation led to the most successful period ever at getting Lib Dem constitutional and political reforms introduced. Scottish devolution – with PR; Welsh devolution – with PR; London devolution – with PR; a powerful Freedom of Information Act; incorporating the European Human Rights Convention in UK law; removing nearly all hereditary peers from the House of Lords; controls over political donations; the list goes on – and it’s not made up of minor matters.

Even the flawed reforms to controls over constituency expenditure gave us the national expense documentation which Channel 4 has been investigating so assiduously and the Electoral Commission – the independent body that has taken the Tories to court successfully over the current scandal.

This time round, Europe is likely to have the mantle that political reform had then. The risks are even greater given the weaker situation the Lib Dems find themselves in. Having only 8 MPs means that even a small handful defections, for example, would dominate the Parliamentary Party. But if Britain’s future in Europe is one of the prizes at stake. they will be risks worth running provided that the right gamble can be assembled.

What do you make of Paddy Ashdown’s plans? Join the discussion on the Lib Dem Newswire Facebook post here.

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Tim Farron on a pro-EU march after the referendum

Tim Farron’s willingness to keep on fighting the pro-European corner has triggered an avalanche of new members for the party.

13,500 new members and a strategic problem

Once again, an awful election result for Liberal Democrats has been followed by a huge increase in party membership. The referendum result itself only directly triggered a small boom in party membership in the immediate aftermath. Then came Tim Farron’s public comments about continuing to fight the pro-European cause. It was those which which triggered the big volumes of new members.

The distribution of the new members matches that of the Remain vote around the country. That means, for example, a huge surge in membership in London and much less of one down in the south west. The surge is happening not in areas of traditional party strength but in areas with a strongly small l liberal outlook.

It is possible to overdo this distinction. It looks most likely that 6 of the 8 Lib Dem MP seats voted Remain* as did a good chunk of seats the Lib Dems won in 2010. But, there is a distinction here and it illustrates a strategic dilemma for the party. Should it look to rebuild in traditional areas of strength – an approach which would encourage caution over Europe given some of the areas which voted Leave – or should it go for the areas where there are the most people who share the party’s values, the sort of new core votes approach David Howarth and I set out?

The answer lies in learning from the weakness inherent in the party’s past successes at general elections. They were based on the accumulation of random chance through hard work. That is, a particular Parliamentary seat would become winnable through the combination of the right mix of personalities coming together at the local level, opposition errors, issue opportunities and helpful demography or tactical situation. Causal factors one and all, but with the accumulative appearance of random chance.

It made for a diverse set of winnable, and won, seats without nearly as much in common between them – and those who voted Lib Dem – as is the case with other parties. Hence also the problem of the Liberal Democrats never having built up a large core vote, with all the downsides in terms of vulnerability to bad times and the certainty of losing a large chunk of support in a hung Parliament regardless of what you do.

The sadness and anger at the referendum result gives an even greater chance to build a larger core vote for the Lib Dems than before. It also is an opportunity that comes as a time when such a pivot in the party’s strategy is much easier to do.

For the sad fallout from the general election is that there are far fewer Lib Dem MPs. Pivoting to a core vote strategy when you have lots of MPs elected in a very diverse set of seats is much harder because of the understandable reluctance to do anything which doesn’t appeal across all your held seats.

But when you have so few, it’s much easier to do. Not easy, but much easier. Consider Cornwall, for example. If we had a county full of Lib Dem MPs in a Eurosceptic area, the idea of going all out to appeal to pro-Europeans would run into much more – and much more understandable – internal party resistance (and indeed did) than when we have none.

Yet the hangover from the past still rests heavily on the party. Possible candidates I talk to keep on referring back to old election results. Regions keep on thinking about supporting future target seats based on the past. The party’s selection rules keep on looking backwards to work out what are the winnable seats. And the list goes on.

As a trained historian, I am of course keen on learning from the past. But to rebuild as a better and stronger party, we mustn’t just look to replicate the past. We need to build something different, more durable and therefore more successful – and something which makes use of the opportunity offered by more people having signed the petition calling for a second referendum than voted Lib Dem in 2015. In fact, the figure is approaching double now and in around 150 seats held by Labour or the Tories the majority of voters – on a turnout higher than in recent general elections, no less – backed Remain. By no means all the MPs in such seats backed Remain themselves.

Which is why looking at the make-up of seats based on that core vote potential – along with how they voted in the referendum and where the petition signatures demanding a second referendum are coming from – is much more important than Lib Dem vote shares 10 or more years ago.

* Some estimates based on demographic modeling have made it 5 out of 8 but 6 out of 8 so far looks the best estimate.

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Merton Lib Dems campaigning in the aftermath of the referendum

Tapping into the public mood in Merton: people were queuing up at the Lib Dem stall after the referendum.

Merton shows what to do

How to tap into that post-referendum potential in practice? Well Merton Lib Dems were out straight away with some smart campaigning, as local party member Simon McGrath explains.

In the London Borough of Merton we have around 20,000 EU nationals living in our community. One issue which kept coming up in our canvassing and street stalls during the referendum campaign was what would happen if the vote was to Leave. The concern became stronger as the polls got worse, though Wimbledon – where we did most of our canvassing – was very strong Remain.

On Brexit Friday those concerns grew and we realized we could – and should – do something to provide reassurance. A few quick calls later and a street stall was arranged for the following day, promoting a petition calling on our local councils and MPs to give reassurance to EU citizens that they could continue to work, live and study here and some simple posters printed off.

The next day we had nine members turn up to help and literally as soon as we had put up the stall in the centre of Wimbledon we had people queuing up to sign our petition, not just Remain supporters but people who voted Leave as well.

There was no doubt that people from the EU were grateful for our support but most British people wanted to see them treated properly and not subject to years of uncertainty. When people are shaking your hand to thank you and going out of their way to sign you know you have found an issue that people care about.

We have followed this up with an online petition supported by Facebook advertising. Further stalls have followed and we are now planning a mailshot to reach people through their letterboxes as well as their smartphones. It also gives us a local campaign that our 130 (and growing!) new members can identify with and support.

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Catch-up service: Lib Dems gain seat in first post-referendum election and more

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


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Houses of Parliament at night

Talk of a snap election is in the air and the Lib Dems are getting ready.

Party prepares for a snap general election

With a snap general election in the air (legally possible although politically perhaps not quite so likely), the Liberal Democrats have been rapidly putting in place arrangements for a snap general election. This includes the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) kicking off plans for drawing up a manifesto (for more on which, see Geoff Payne’s report below).

Central to any such manifesto will be the party’s willingness to seek a democratic mandate for keeping Britain in the EU. The wise combo will be both to use the issue in the general election to coalesce electoral support behind pro-Remain candidates whilst also preparing the ground for a subsequent fight over a possible second referendum when the exact terms of any Brexit deal have been negotiated. That’s the point at which the Brexit camp itself may well splinter between pro-free trade and anti-immigration camps because it is even more unlikely than me having a Christmas Number One that any actual deal can both preserve full free trade and also completely axe freedom of movement.

If there is indeed a snap election still in the air in the autumn, it will make the previous decision to shorten the party’s autumn federal conference by one day interesting – especially as significant chunks of time are due to be spent on debating and voting on the results of the big governance review led by party president Sal Brinton.

Given the importance of the issues it is trying to fix, delaying the governance review would come with a cost. Expect however political sketch writers to make a joke or two about hours of constitutional debates.

The planned autumn selections for the next European Parliament elections have meanwhile been axed. On the subject of candidates – last time I carried a piece from new member Ben Sims on what it is like going through the approval process for Parliamentary candidates. An extended version of his original piece on the Lib Dem candidate process is now also available to read.

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.

Latest news from party committees


  • Europe, social security policy and general election planning all featured heavily in the last meeting of the party’s Federal Policy Committee (FPC), as covered in Geoff Payne’s latest report.
  • The English Liberal Democrats this weekend were debating major changes in how the party in England is run as covered in Anders Hanson’s blog post. Note: at the English Council meeting it was decided to refer back the proposed reforms for further consultation and to work out issues people had raised with how the details would work in practice.
  • The dates and venue for the Liberal Democrat federal spring conference 2017 have been announced – it’s back to York.

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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Alex Glassbrook campaigning in the Tooting by-election

Liberal Democrat candidate Alex Glassbrook and the team fought an energetic campaign in Tooting on a minimal budget.

Lessons from Tooting: the perils of low-intensity blandness

Almost completely lost in all the other political news was the Liberal Democrat result in the Tooting Parliamentary by-election held on 16 June. Perhaps thankfully so given that even though the party lost its deposit in May 2015, in the by-election the Lib Dem vote share fell yet further: down 1.4% to 2.6%.

The candidate, Alex Glassbrook, fought an energetic campaign and the local party, although traditionally one of the smaller local parties in London, has a track record of activity and local campaigning.

The problem, rather, was the current Liberal Democrat approach to Parliamentary by-elections. This ‘low intensity blandness‘ regularly produces weak results despite hard working teams and good candidates.

“Low intensity”, because very few resources are put into them. The budget in Tooting, for example, was only about one third of that in real terms spent on comparable by-elections in the 1990s – and in a much tougher political environment for the party now than was the case then. Moreover, appeals for people to come and help were thin on the ground.

There is always an apparently good reason for fighting low-intensity campaigns, such as in this case the imminence of the referendum held a week later. Yet it’s also an approach based on the assumption that a string of poor Parliamentary by-elections isn’t a problem – and, conversely, that it is possible for the party to build momentum, enthuse volunteers and regain media relevance even whilst being regularly tonked in such contests.

There is an alternative – and it’s based on smart appeals for help which are not just about helping the by-election but also (mindful of those distracting, competing priorities) about helping other contests.  A training afternoon for new members in how to canvass, for example, is about building up the party for those other contests. And if it is in a seat with a by-election then it incidentally helps in that contest too. The trick is to be serious about rebuilding the party’s capacity, whilst nimble enough to reschedule such activities to help by-elections without undermining the overall program.

Returning to the second half of low intensity blandness – I coin it “blandness” because the campaign literature and other messaging was solid, competent ‘we’re nice people and campaign on the important issues’. Fine if you are starting from a strong position, with a following wind and the public already paying attention to you. Fine too if you are fighting a council by-election in a small ward with a candidate well-established in the community. But when the party is struggling for attention and relevance in contests such as Parliamentary by-elections, such messaging just doesn’t give people enough of a reason to pay attention to the party. Something more distinctive is required (and given that in many such contests even 15% would be a good result, it doesn’t even have to be that popular).

Or to put it another way, low effort and low resources produces low vote shares. Instead of a burden to be minimised and got past as quickly as possible, unwinnable by-elections should be seen as an opportunity to train people, to test messages and to experiment with new campaign tactics (as should council by-elections too). The very unwinnability of a contest makes it all the easier to take such a broader and bolder approach – and in the long run such an approach will bank more votes anyway.

Other Liberal Democrats in the news


  • The Lib Dem friendly think tank CentreForum, now headed up by David Laws, is moving away from politics and focusing in on education. It has changed its name to the Education Policy Institute.
  • Reviews from former Lib Dem employees have painted a mixed picture of what the party is like to work for [story no longer online]. It’s rather worrying that so little of the reaction in the party has picked up on the complaints about how a minority of volunteers treat staff – something that also came through in the party’s own general election review.
  • Oliver, the son of Lib Dem councillor Ed Townsend, has written a moving tribute to his father, who died earlier this year.

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