A warning from the end of the 2005 general election for #LibDemFightback
It’s a few days before polling day in the 2005 general election. After an early stumble, Charles Kennedy has recovered and is scoring high personal ratings. The Iraq war has opened up a huge opportunity to eat into Labour’s vote. But the opinion polls are showing his party up only a couple of points up on its 2001 result. What could move the figures?
As one of its final attempts to grab the national news headlines before polling day and eat into the Labour vote, the party unveils a high profile defector from Labour: sitting MP (though not restanding) Brian Sedgemore.
All that has since faded into historical obscurity. So save for those interested in the details of political history, why does the defection still matter? It’s because there is a lesson for the party’s future in its decision at the time to have as a high profile centrepiece of its campaign the acceptance of the defection Brian Sedgemore.
He had been firmly on the left of the Labour Party, a cheerleader for Tony Benn during his most left-wing years, a key Hard Left organiser in the Labour Party, a long-running opponent of MPs registering their interests – had only a very limited track record of supporting Liberal Democrat causes.
Yet there he was, being welcomed by Charles Kennedy and presented to any and all media the party could interest. The reason? Iraq. He fell out so badly with Tony Blair over Iraq that he joined the Liberal Democrats in protest.
Perhaps all parties should be grateful for just about any high profile support offered shortly before polling day. But in accepting and highlighting his switch, the Liberal Democrats also highlighted how much the party’s appeal was being built not on converting people to liberalism but on accumulating a very diverse coalition of people who didn’t like Tony Blair or the military intervention in Iraq. Being liberal was not required to be showcased as a supporter.
Labour’s victory in the 2005 general election meant that the highly diverse nature of that Iraq-coalition was not put to the test in a hung Parliament. But just as the diverse coalition that made up the Liberal Democrat support in 2010 could not then stick together in a hung Parliament, so too would Charles Kennedy and the party have run into the same problem in 2005. Simply being against a decision made in the past to intervene in Iraq would not have been enough to hold the party’s support together across the huge range of different issues that come up during a hung Parliament.
The lesson? To hold together, and to prosper, in tough times you need a stronger glue to hold the party together. Coherence that comes from a larger core vote based on the party’s values, with, yes, local coalitions built on top of that to help win specific seats. But those coalitions being on top of a large core vote that positively supports the party’s values, rather than a substitute in its absence.
Hence one of the criticisms of Kennedy’s time as leader, as expressed at the time including in places such as the ‘leader columns’ in Liberator (hardly a right-wing publication), was that the Kennedy leadership was too reluctant to self-confidently argue for a liberal party, based on liberal values. Instead at different times it simply went chasing after whatever disillusioned Labour or unhappy Tory support was on offer. In that Sedgemore epitomised the problem. It wasn’t a case of “here’s a new liberal, hooray!” It was a case of “here’s a left-winger unhappy with Labour, hooray!” and no need to modulate those cheers if they were not liberal.
The idea that the Liberal Democrats should simply be a nicer form of the Labour Party appeals to some (and I suspect is what Polly Toynbee, for example, was hoping for in 2010). But that’s not what the Liberal Democrats are about. We weren’t just a Labour Party without illegal wars and nor are we now just a Labour Party with a leader who likes Europe and is liked by his MPs. We’re Liberal Democrats. That needs to be the foundation of the party’s strategy and messages.
Why I’m running
As I mentioned in the previous Liberal Democrat Newswire, I am standing for the Federal Board in the party elections coming up. No surprise that my main reason is to want to put lessons about the party’s strategy such as the one from 2005 into practice (more on that in the core votes pamphlet). You can read my manifesto below and I’m also carrying out a survey into what members think the right strategy and priorities for the Federal Board are. Take part in that survey here.
Up for election will be the member-elected places on the Federal Board, the Federal Conference Committee, the Federal Policy Committee, the International Relations Committee and the party’s delegation to the umbrella organisation for our sister liberal parties in Europe, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE). These are done via a ballot of all party members, with voting information due to go out 21st-23rd November.
I write “member-elected places” as these bodies also include slots for others, such as the party leader, staff representatives and people from the party’s local government base.
No Witney boost for Lib Dems in polls
The very strong result in the Witney by-election produced a round of positive press coverage and raised spirits for the Liberal Democrats, with an increasing number of political commentators opining that the party has a promising future. But the national voting intention opinion polls have not so far budged post-Witney.
Overall in October the Tories edged up, Labour and Ukip edged further down and the Lib Dems stayed the same, before and after Witney:
Council by-election results, however, along with the party’s membership performance continue to provide promising signs for the future. Indeed, despite the huge surge in membership, the party managed to exceed an 85% retention rate in the third quarter of this year. That compares very favourably to past experiences after a surge in new members.
To get the latest polling analysis from a range of Britain’s top pollsters in handy email digest form, sign up for Polling UnPacked.
Your Liberal Britain: 6,902 have their say
Previous Liberal Democrat Newswires have covered the work of the grassroots group Your Liberal Britain and its excellent work involving members in coming up with a clear idea of what a liberal Britain would look like. Here one of its founders, Jim Williams, writes about what it has achieved so far – and plans for the future.
Your Liberal Britain is a new social movement within the Lib Dems, run by myself – Jim Williams – and four other new members, all volunteers.
We launched after the Referendum and so far 6,902 people have taken part online, and perhaps a thousand more have attended our discussion events up and down the country. It’s been a whirlwind few months!
So what are we up to? We’re inviting every member to help us explain what the Lib Dems stand for.
We want you to help us write a simple, inspirational description of what would be different about this country if we Liberal Democrats had our way.
As a party we struggle at times to explain what makes us different: our values mean the world to us, but they can be hard to communicate. We all know that as a party we strive to “create and safeguard a fair, free and open society.” We call it Liberal Britain for short. We fight for it, giving our money and time, pouring in our hearts and souls.
But what would it actually look like? How would a single mother’s life be different? Or a pensioner’s? How would our towns, cities and countryside look different? How would our communities, jobs, economy, schools and hospitals be different?
In short, we want to write a party vision statement that answers these questions – and we think our 80,000 members are the best people to write it.
So what have we done so far?
As a first step, we invited every member to complete the sentence ‘Liberal Britain is a country where…’ That’s where those 6,902 people come in: that’s how many answers we received.
Here’s the report we sent back to everyone who took part, telling them what we learned.
Most importantly, it was clear to us that the party is incredibly united. Looking across our nearly 7,000 contributors, it didn’t matter how long they’d been in the party, where they lived, what their ethnicity or gender – they all shared a clear sense of the society we’re fighting for.
My team and I boiled those 6,902 descriptions of Liberal Britain to five really big picture statements, and presented them back to the contributors like this:
So that’s our starting point: the big picture.
Now for the difficult bit! We need to turn those abstract principles into a distinctive, exciting, realistic, and memorable description of the country we want to build – and we think you’ll have some brilliant ideas for how to do that.
Together with the Federal Party, we’ll soon be inviting you to send in your suggested party vision statement, explaining what life will look like in Liberal Britain. Or if you prefer, you can send in an animation, a video, a photograph, a slogan – whatever you think would work to best describe Liberal Britain.
We’re figuring out the schedule now. If you’d like to be updated, join the 5,500 members on our low-volume mailing list here.
What’s it like being a Lib Dem candidate?
Over the summer Helen Belcher was selected to be the Liberal Democrat candidate in Chippenham, where Duncan Hames had been the Lib Dem MP until May 2015. Helen is one of the founders of Trans Media Watch and currently secretary of the Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity. Helen transitioned in 2004 and runs a smallish but growing software company, as well as being a parent and school governor.
In July I suddenly found myself selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Chippenham. We held the seat until 2015, so the implicit expectation is that I will regain it and be Wiltshire’s third non-Conservative MP in 100 years. No pressure then!
It may sound obvious, but there is no manual or job description on how to be a candidate. While it may seem, as Nick Clegg thought, that I’ve been around for ages, I only joined the party a couple of weeks after we’d lost Chippenham. It’s been a very steep learning curve indeed.
Any candidate will know they’re just the focal point of a team, so team-building is key. Those in a new area find themselves having to work hard to build a team from people they don’t know well. Some areas are more blessed than others. I consider myself blessed indeed. I’ve described feeling like a large battery which is powering a machine to keep it running well. Wiltshire has all-out elections for the county council next May, so my strategy is to get as many Lib Dem councillors elected as possible – concentrating on the election we know is happening.
Another aspect of being a parliamentary candidate is that your experiences of party conference change. Last September I was wide-eyed, enjoying being in the same space as well-known public figures. This September, conference for me was a series of meetings, some formal, others informal. It meant that, apart from Tim Farron’s speech at the end, I spent a mere 15 minutes in the auditorium.
I was perhaps best known for campaigning on trans and intersex issues, and I’ve written elsewhere about not simply being “the trans MP” should I be elected. However, being part of a minority and marginalised group creates its own problems – including feeling as though I have to work harder to prove my electability. I referenced this in my speech to conference in March.
To find myself with a small opportunity to help shape the debate and the future of our country is a huge privilege. It can feel quite daunting at times, especially as the stakes seem so high. But it’s an opportunity I’ve grasped with both hands, especially as I never thought I’d have it.
If you are interested in becoming a Liberal Democrat candidate, take a read of another new member’s account of going through the approval process from Liberal Democrat Newswire #81.
Five reasons Lib Dems should focus more on education
I’ve talked previously about the varying role of education when it comes to the Liberal Democrats prioritising issues. It is now back at the top of Tim Farron’s list. Writing exclusively for Liberal Democrat Newswire David Weston, Vice Chair of the Education Policy Working Group and founder / CEO of a national education charity, argues that keeping education at the forefront of the party’s messaging makes political sense.
Political wisdom suggests that political ground is won on economy, the NHS, the EU and immigration. However, Tony Blair was being smart when he made ‘education, education, education’ his central theme. Here are five reasons why talking about education is politically smart.
Education is rising up in the polls. The September Ipsos MORI Issues Index suggests that concern around schools is at its highest level for over a year. The rise in importance coincides with a big public debate about grammar schools. Just talking about schools reminds some people how concerned they are about them.
The public puts education in the top three priorities for government. A Deloitte/Ipsos MORI poll from the summer put education and schools firmly in the top three priorities, ahead of the economy, jobs and immigration.
There’s a lot of controversial policy to discuss. School selection is a hot potato. Schools are having to cope with some of the first real terms cuts to school spending for many years. Schools are reporting difficulties recruiting teachers. Parents, employers and teachers are coping with some of the biggest, fastest changes in policy, curriculum, structures and exams for decades.
Education speaks to the head and to the heart
This is not just a technical policy area but one that evokes strong feeling – the perfect political choice! Every parent, grandparent, uncle and aunt is concerned about their young family’s experience at school and concerned for their future. Education speaks to a desire for every citizen to have a fair opportunity in life to develop and use their talents to help the community. It evokes a sense of unlocking potential, of optimism, of inheriting the best of the past and using it to create an even better future.
There are a lot of voters in it…
There’s around 1.5 million voters who work directly in education. There’s around 8 million families living with dependent children who will be highly concerned about it, and that’s before you count the extended family of those children.
The party has traditionally been strong in this area and it’s time to re-establish ourselves. The policy working group is exploring funding, curriculum design and stability, teachers’ working conditions, vocational and adult education, as well as many other important areas. It’s time to put education back in the top priority list.
Catch-up service: a major campaign success, the Lib Dem reshuffle and more
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.
Latest news from party committees
To expand on one point which Anders mentions, a new review of the Liberal Democrats in England is being carried out by the English Review Group (ERG), chaired by Sally Symington (a local party chair from the East of England). Its terms of reference are to engage with members and other relevant groups to review the structure of the Liberal Democrats in England, and make proposals with the aim of maximising democracy, inclusivity, communication and effectiveness.
The review group has one member from each of the English regions and is aiming for any agreed changes to be in place from January 2018. This means that they must be approved by English Council in June/July 2017, and that if any amendments to the Federal Constitution are required these can be considered in September 2017.
All members in England for whom the party has an opted-in email address will receive an email featuring a consultation survey; hard copies will also be available. This initial consultation period will end on 31st January, and the working group will then collate and consider all the replies, drafting a (small) number of emerging options to be considered at the York Spring Conference in March. That will result in further work before a proposal is put to English Council for discussion and approval in July.
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Other Liberal Democrats in the news
Prime Minister Corbyn and Other Things That Never Happened
I have recently contributed to a new edition of counter-factuals, looking at one of the key moments in the party’s history. Duncan Brack, vice-chair of the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) and one of the editors of the volume, Prime Minister Corbyn and Other Things That Never Happened, writes about the book…
Counterfactual history has an abiding fascination. It’s always fun to speculate on what might have happened had someone made a different choice, or lived instead of died, or won a battle they only just lost. For us politicos, counterfactual political history is just as gripping – what would have happened if people had voted differently, if the Prime Minister had called an election instead of soldiering on, if a party leader hadn’t made that mistake at a crucial time …? And quite apart from being fun to read, counterfactuals have analytical value, helping us to think about what determines how and why politicians acted in the particular circumstances in which they found themselves.
So party conference saw the publication of the fourth in a series of books of political counterfactuals published by Biteback and edited by me and Iain Dale. The twenty chapters include six by Liberal Democrat authors. They include Tony Little speculating on what might have happened if W. E. Gladstone had fallen overboard on his yachting trip to Norway in 1885 (a trip he actually took), allowing Joseph Chamberlain the chance to implement his radical social policies twenty years before the New Liberalism.
Topically, three chapters have European themes. David Boyle examines what would have happened if the French cabinet had voted to accept Winston Churchill’s offer of unification with Britain in June 1940; Churchill himself thought that they might have done had French Prime Minister Reynaud held on to his post for one day longer. Tim Oliver looks at a different outcome of the first referendum on Europe, to see what would have happened if the British had voted to leave in 1975. And in an economic counterfactual, Chris Huhne argues that if the UK had joined the euro at its launch in 2000 the outcome would have been good both for the UK and for the euro system.
This being a book of political counterfactuals, several chapters deal with different outcomes of elections, both general and party leadership. In one of my favourite chapters (and I’m not saying that just because he’s the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire!), Mark Pack considers what would have happened if Chris Huhne, not Nick Clegg, had won the Liberal Democrat leadership in 2007. Julian Huppert and Tony King examine the outcome of the Conservatives winning outright in the 2010 general election; they only needed 10,000 voters – just one in every 3,000 of those who cast their ballots in May 2010 – to have voted differently to win.
And of course there are plenty of other chapters too – including Lyndon Johnson being shot down over the Pacific in 1942, Britain losing the Falklands War in 1983, Tony Blair sacking Gordon Brown as Chancellor in 2004, the Scottish people voting ‘yes’ in the independence referendum of 2014 – and three chapters on things that haven’t happened yet.
Biteback seems happy to carry on publishing books of counterfactuals, so if anyone has ideas for topics, or authors, for a potential further volume, I’d be very pleased to hear them; email me at email@example.com. In the meantime, I hope you are stimulated, provoked and entertained by Prime Minister Corbyn and Other Things That Never Happened – but could have.
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