Membership up, by-elections won but national polling flat: Liberal Democrat Newswire #85

Liberal Democrat Newswire #85 came out last week, kicking off with a look at what’s happening to the party’s opinion poll ratings.

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 85 of the newsletter which Tim Farron calls “a must read”.

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In this edition:


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A ruined factory
Liberal Democrats may feel like they’re campaigning hard on Europe, but the public has not really noticed.

Lib Dems stall in the polls

Surging membership and regular council by-election victories have not translated into gains in the national opinion polls for the Liberal Democrats. What’s more the party is polling lower than it did at this stage of the 2010-15 Parliament, although it is Labour whose figures are eye-wateringly bad compared with last time round:
Poll ratings 2016 vs 2011
(To get the latest polling analysis from a range of Britain’s top pollsters, just sign up for my polling news email list.)

It is also notable that the party’s rating on Europe – such as when voters are asked which party has the best policy on it – has barely changed all year. For all the apparent distinctiveness of the party’s approach to the fallout from the referendum, for the vast majority of the public nothing very much about the party’s approach to Europe has really caught their usually non-political attention so far.

The Liberal Democrats are still very much in a battle for basic attention and relevance. More on that below, but first some good news. Recovery can come very quickly. Between January and the end of August 1990, hit badly by the fallout from the merger which create the party, the Liberal Democrats polled on average only 7%. Then came a mini-surge up to 12% in September and early October before the by-election win in Eastbourne, the continuing political fallout from the poll tax and another by-election win in Ribble Valley took the party further up to an average of 15% in the second half of 1991.

This time round, the winning run of council by-elections is beginning to seep into wider media coverage about the Liberal Democrats returning to success. Witney (and, depending on what the government decides on Heathrow, perhaps Richmond too) provides a Parliamentary by-election stage on which to kick that story into a higher gear. Europe continues to provide a high profile and distinctive issue. The party’s membership figures – now their highest this century – provide the resources in terms of people and money to help the level of party campaigning kick up a gear.
Lib Dem membership graph
But it’s notable how many of the winning council by-election campaigns have been based on a message of local hard work rather than one of Liberal Democracy. Being the diligent super-councillor brings huge improvements to many people’s lives.

The risk for political rebuilding, however, is that people of any party can – and indeed do – fill that role. Success built simply on being better at fixing potholes always risks being transitory, liable to collapse when national political trends take a turn for the worse or even just a key activist moves away, changes job or falls ill.

David Axelrod famously mocked Ed Miliband’s 2015 general election campaign as being ‘Vote Labour and win a microwave‘. An alternative of ‘Vote Lib Dem – win a new street crossing – and a free bar chart’ risks being similarly vulnerable. What the Lib Dems needs instead is a more secure long term recovery based on the street crossing, the bar chart and a touch of ideology to make the package distinctive.

Firm foundations for long-term success

The solution to the ‘microwave problem’ is of course what I set out last time in my new pamphlet, How to rebuild the Liberal Democrats. As I wrote in that:

There has been a sequence of different policy, campaigning and messaging priorities in the last year, but no clear overall strategy. Or, to be fair to party leader Tim Farron, the strategy since his election in July 2015 has been not to have a strategy and instead rather rely on a nimble reaction to events. There is certainly merit in that approach, and successful third party leaders have often been noted for their willingness to focus on the short term opportunities to seize scarce media attention.

The risk, however, with that approach is that you end up going round in circles rather than progressing. Hence education was first out as a priority but is now back. Or the target for 100,000 party members was floated, quietly side-lined and then returned.

Even worse, without clear direction the natural momentum is to take the easiest, most initially appealing option at each turn, which can lead a party into a political cul-de-sac. That in part is the story of the Liberal Democrat build-up prior to May 2010. Overall that story is a positive one, but it shows the dangers of falling prey to such tempting cul-de-sacs, in this case the temptation of accumulating support in a way that brought headline triumphs but was bound to fracture horribly in the face of the pressures of a hung Parliament. If your voting support is heavily dependent on a mix of people who really dislike the Tories, people who really dislike Labour and people who really dislike all politicians, then whatever you do in a hung Parliament, disaster looms.

It requires strong self-discipline not to charge down every inviting cul-de-sac, and the way to have that self-discipline is to have a strategy which gives a different way of choosing where to head.

What is more, the absence of a strategy to do something different does not mean nothing happens. It means, rather, that the party continues as it was before. Habits, procedures and bureaucracies continue to churn on, and where they are taking the party in the wrong direction, then they take the party even further from where it should be.

You can read the pamphlet in full here to see the solution – the better path the party can take to recovery, based on building up a larger core vote for the party. (You can also join the discussion on Facebook here.)

That is also why in the new round of party committee elections coming up, rather than run again for the Federal Policy Committee, I’m going to run for the Federal Board (the successor to the Federal Executive). It has a new role in creating and coordinating the party’s strategy, including putting a proposed strategy to party conference and then, if it is adopted, coordinating its implementation across the different parts of the party.

Constitutional changes such as that are only an enabler for an effective strategy. You can’t force a good strategy via changing the wording of rules. But you can make it easier to have one – as the Governance Review has rightly done.

Now that the opportunity is there, it is crucial that the Federal Board produces a strategy which is more than simply a ‘let’s all have lots of nice things’ ragbag which accumulates everyone’s pet idea on its way through the democratic processes.

The test of the strategy will be whether there is anything substantive that it doesn’t include. Because genuine priorities and real strategies are as much about what you decide not to to do as what you do decide to do.

For the Liberal Democrats, that should mean a prioritisation on building up a larger core vote – with the honest understanding that therefore doesn’t simply mean trying to regain all the places we used to hold.

It means winning in a different mix of places, some old and some new, but which are based on a much more coherent and hence resilient appeal rather than the random lucky accumulation of where happened to have the hardest working teams appear of their own volition (see expanded explanation here).

The best time, of course, to make such as switch is now, when the number of incumbents is (sadly) at an all time low and hence there is far more flexibility to switch areas of priority.

People voting at Liberal Democrat party conference
Earlier this year both the Scottish and federal party conferences voted for major and controversial steps to improve the party’s diversity. Candy Piercy writes for Liberal Democrat Newswire on what comes next.

Voting for a motion on diversity wasn’t enough

Candy Piercy Candy Piercy has been a key figure for many years in the party’s initiatives to improve its gender balance. Here she writes about why the motions passed earlier this year, including all-women shortlists, are not enough. More needs to be done.

We all agree that our eight MPs are lovely, dedicated and talented. But the fact remains, they are all white men of a similar age. Nor are they alone in the party in being a group who is unrepresentative of our wider membership, our voters and the electorate at large.

So whilst we must commit to making the diversity measures passed earlier this year work, I passionately believe that we must do more, much more.

I have been involved in the Campaign for Gender Balance (CGB) since it was first set up as the Gender Balance Task Force 15 years ago.  We have had fantastic success helping strong and capable women prepare their winning campaigns to get selected in nearly half of target seats. Women who would have won in any general election other than the unique circumstances we faced in 2015.

We now need to use the CGB approach to help other under-represented groups in the same way.

But that is still not enough. Most Lib Dems that I meet are truly liberal. But like any large organisation, some members who show clear signs of unconscious bias when deciding how to vote in a selection, or trying to influence a selection. I have been horrified to hear comments such as, “Personally I think candidate X is lovely, but people round here would not vote for them because…  (fill in your comment of choice)”.

I want every candidate to have a fair chance when standing for selection, so we must tackle unconscious bias now – recognising the urgent need for action in the same way as many other organisations and companies around the world.

We need to open up the debate to get people to recognise that unconscious bias is real and lurks in every single one of us. And to challenge ourselves to spot it in action. To spot unconscious bias sparking prejudice and discrimination in ourselves and others. Only then can we fight effectively against all unfairness, inside the party and out.

As liberals I believe this is what we are in politics for.  Just read the wonderful preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution. For me, that says it all:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

In case you missed it...

Catch-up service: Tim Farron’s conference speech and a string of by-election wins

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

Here also is how the party has been doing in council by-elections in the last month:

To get the full set of council by-election results and analysis each week, sign up for my daily digest emails.

Cover page of the Liberal Democrat constitution booklet
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

Finally, a reminder that 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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Other Liberal Democrats in the news



Caroline Pidgeon on the River Thames

“All the potential is there for a real comeback. We just need to seize it”: Lib Dem London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon.

How to rebuild the Lib Dems in London

After May’s elections, Caroline Pidgeon is now the only Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly. Here she writes exclusively for Lib Dem Newswire on how the party can recover in London.

Going back ten years and looking at the state of the Liberal Democrats in London can be a tad depressing. Back then we had 8 London MPs. We had 5 London Assembly Members – sadly I am currently the only one. We also had dozens and dozens more councillors than at present and ran a number of London boroughs.

However, it is not just wishful thinking to say some things are beginning to change. The increasing membership of the party since 2015 and especially since 23rd June this year has been dramatic, especially in London.

Connected to this development is of course how London voted in the EU referendum. London voted by more than 59% in favour of Remain. That means there are a huge number of voters in the capital who disagree with the stance being adopted by the Conservatives and are disillusioned with the dithering and lacklustre stance adopted by Jeremy Corbyn.

However, a growing membership and our stance on Europe will not alone restore our base in London boroughs, City Hall and at Westminster. We also need to start rebuilding our campaign infrastructure and start planning seriously ahead. Some of the steps I believe that we need to start taking include:

  • Start taking every borough by-election seriously. That is not to kid ourselves into believing we can win every seat, but at the very least we need to set proper objectives at the start of each campaign and then deliver them.
  • Increase our membership significantly further. We cannot be complacent with current growth. Just as a suggestion, local parties should start doing a trawl of lapsed members over the last five years and then directly approach them.
  • Training our members. One of the most encouraging developments about the recent Brighton conference was the huge growth in member training. This must become permanent. From support for first time canvassing, through to training to write a leaflet, running a polling day or making the most of Facebook advertising. We need to build up a growing base of people who are competent and effective campaigners across London.
  • Concentrating on issues that matter to Londoners and offering real solutions. As a key priority we should remain focused on housing, especially on issues facing young people seeking to rent or buy.
  • Getting ready for 2018 London Borough elections. We need to start encouraging people to stand now to help ensure we attract the widest range of diverse and talented candidates. A full slate of candidates in each and every London borough is something we should be aiming for.

Many Londoners share our liberal values. The party membership is growing. We have recently had some encouraging by-election results in places such as Southwark, Islington and Haringey.

All the potential is there for a real comeback. We just need to seize it.

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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 each week, just sign up here.

Best wishes and thank you for reading,


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