Excellent news as party votes to give new members more power: LDN #88

On Saturday, the English Council voted to abandon the ban on new members voting in party selection contests, something I’ve long argued for. The controversial ban had been suspended temporarily in the face of the huge surge of new members since the May 2015 general election. But only temporarily – until yesterday.

The background to all this – and why yesterday’s decision is such good news – was explained last week in Liberal Democrat Newswire which you can now read in full below, including also an exclusive piece from Tim Farron on the party’s future direction.

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Dear Friend,

Welcome to issue 88 of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which includes an exclusive piece from Tim Farron on the future for the Liberal Democrats and a look at the lessons the party can learn from the last time a London by-election heavily featuring foreign policy produced a shock Liberal Democrat victory.

I’ve held off including the results of my survey of party members on what they think the Liberal Democrat strategy should be as new results are still coming in. If you’re a member and haven’t yet taken the survey you can do so here. I’ll report back on the results next time.

If you enjoy reading this edition, you can help cover the costs of running this newsletter by signing up to make a small regular donation here (includes details for one-off donation or payment by cheque too). Thank you!

Best wishes,


In this edition:

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Charles Kennedy and Sarah Teather

Lib Dems must learn lesson of Iraq when it comes to Brexit campaigning

Liberal Democrats pull off shock by-election victory on a massive swing in a London Parliamentary by-election dominated by foreign policy issues. All sounds rather familiar… for what was Sarah Olney, Richmond Park and Brexit in 2016 has echoes of Sarah Teather, Brent and Iraq in 2003.

In that parallel are some important lessons for the Liberal Democrats, because taking the long view back over the first decade of this century it is hard to see what the eventual electoral benefit was to the party of its distinctive and popular position on Iraq.

Plot the graph of Liberal Democrat party membership totals, and you don’t see a sustained Iraq boost. At best you can argue that a decline was halted for a couple of years. Same too for the strength of the party’s local government base. Plot the proportion of councillors who were Liberal Democrat and you see a slight twitch upwards but no sustained Iraq boost, and the twitch then untwitched. Iraq occurred during a decade of flatlining in the party’s local government base, with the party in 2000 having 20.07% of all councillors and in 2009 19.72%, with the peak at 21.52% in 2005. Even the 2005 general election – the party’s best result in terms of seats – was followed by a widespread sense of disappointment across all parts of the party that the gains (+11) were only just in double figures.

What then can the Liberal Democrats learn from this so that this time a foreign policy issue (Brexit) does turn into a sustained and significant boost for the party?

First, if you want a stronger party you have to give real priority to growing membership and integrating this into all your plans. On that, signs are much more promising this time round, with recruitment plans closely integrated with wider party work – and indeed over 1,200 people joining the party since Sarah Olney’s victory (many, judging by comments online, from Labour).

Second, national issues should lead to national campaigning. Such campaigning increases the chances of the party securing its policy objectives – and also provides the opportunity to accumulate data and email addresses about a huge extra number of people who can then be won over as regular supporters for future elections.

But when it came to Iraq even as simple a campaigning idea as running an online petition was vetoed from on high (I know – I was the HQ staffer suggesting one). National campaigning then was taken to mean get the party leader on the TV, have banners at one march and really not very much else.

During the last Parliament, things were not much better with very little campaigning involving members to achieve national objectives in the sense that a pressure group or NGO would recognise. The jury is still out on whether the party will get that right this time – though the new Director of Campaigns is a promising sign.

Third, national campaigning leads to attracting the support of a very disparate group of people who are massively motivated by one issue but may well not share that much with the party on other issues. In particular, Iraq led to an infusion of support which came from people who were many things but were not liberals. As I wrote in the Liberal Democrat Newswire #86, that produced a very brittle coalition of support which was bound to come unstuck at some point.

The lesson? You need a clear sense of what the party stands for beyond ‘we disagree with the government on the big foreign policy issue of the day’. And then you need to consistently promote that to win over those who have been attracted to the party to get them to buy-in to the wider party vision too. The risk is that the party cheers the election of a Sarah, banks the goodwill, speculates about the next possible winnable by-election and thinks it just needs to continue as before.

Success requires a different approach. Which of course is where my favourite core votes topic comes up… as set out in the newly updated version of the How to rebuild the Liberal Democrats pamphlet.

Tim Farron on Europe

“Our liberal values embody the best values of the United Kingdom” – Tim Farron

In my piece above I’ve focused on the need for the Liberal Democrats to have a clear vision about how to build a durable liberal voice in British politics. Here Tim Farron gives his take on the current situation and how the party should respond to it..

2016 has been a year that has confounded conventional political expectations. Any idea of a liberal consensus has been turned on its head. Brexit and Trump are its biggest headlines. Elsewhere in the world there is the rise of Marine le Pen, the Alternative für Deutschland and Rodrigo Duterte. They each advocate nationalistic, right-wing populism, claiming falsely it is possible to provide easy solutions to complex problems.

These populist movements and politicians have gained traction by tapping into people’s genuine anger at feeling let down and dispossessed by the mainstream political classes. They have also created a simple and emotive story that explains how people feel and makes it feel okay to vote for things that they would never have considered voting for, even a few years ago.

For us, here in Britain, Brexit presents the biggest challenge to us since the Second World War. Its handling will define our place in the world for generations. It will also determine our economic, social and political direction for many, many years.

All of this makes Sarah Olney’s victory in Richmond Park all the more satisfying – and my most rewarding experience so far as leader. Building on Liz Leffman’s fantastic result in Witney, and our continued astonishing success in local government, we have demonstrated that it is possible to challenge this new Brexit establishment.

I still believe that leaving the European Union is perilous for our country and I am absolutely certain that Theresa May is mismanaging the process. That is why I am determined the Liberal Democrats will continue to hold her government to account – a government which has no popular mandate beyond a referendum that charted no destination for the United Kingdom in its relationship with Europe and the rest of the world.

But there is another challenge for our party.

In 2017, populist ideologues from the right and the left will continue to stoke racism, hatred and division. They will continue to look for simple, authoritarian solutions, trading civil liberties for so-called security and seeing diversity and multiculturalism as a threat, not a strength. I believe our liberal values embody the best values of the United Kingdom. We must give those values a passionate voice and a story that people can identify with.

We must demonstrate that Conservative elites are pursuing Brexit at the expense of rising inequalities in health and education. We must point out the huge damage being done to our culture of entrepreneurship. And we must highlight how their short-termism is jeopardising our commitment to fighting climate change and ensuring a sustainable future for future generations.

Do so successfully and we have the potential to build a core of support behind our party. We can speak to those who are internationalist, concerned about the environment, suspicious of an over-bearing state, concerned that politicians in Westminster are out of touch with Britain’s diverse communities, and those who believe in both free enterprise and fairness.

Our victory in Richmond Park is an important first step in speaking up for a different kind of Britain. It is a first step at reclaiming the character of our country as one that is open, tolerant and united.

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Liz Leffman with Paul Walter and Sal Brinton

English Lib Dems vote for new Chair, face key vote on party reform

In a rare occurrence, the incumbent chair of the English Liberal Democrats lost his re-election bid, being replaced by challenger (and recent Witney by-election candidate) Liz Leffman:

Liz Leffman: 77
Steve Jarvis: 39
Total votes cast: 116

That low number of votes cast reflects the current indirect method of election. Members in England don’t get to elect the English Chair. Rather members in England elect Regional Conference reps, who in turn elect English Council reps, who in turn elect the Chair. That is all due to be replaced with a one-member one-vote system of direct election, although earlier attempts to do this have stumbled.

Liz Leffman’s election would appear to be a sign of support for this and wider reforms given she made comments in her campaign messages such as: “The new Federal Party structure makes us fitter and leaner, and the English Party must follow suit. We must become a campaigning powerhouse, ready to propel the Liberal Democrats back into a position where we can influence the direction of the country from a strong local and national base” and “there has been an extensive review of Federal Party operations recently, and it is now time for the English party to change too”. She also particularly singled out the need to improve the party’s diversity.

She was, however, involved in the post-election English Party strategy review which was a very mixed bag of recommendations. An immediate sign of how reformist, or not, the English Party will be under her leadership is the imminent vote on whether or not to allow new members to vote in selections.

For a long time, the English Party banned people who had not been a member for at least a year from voting in various selections, such as for Parliamentary candidates. The surge in members post-May 2015 resulted in a temporary suspension of the ban and now a decision will be made on whether or not to reintroduce it. Amongst those backing the move to ensure new members can vote in selections is the aforementioned Steve Jarvis, who has been key to pushing this reform.

As I’ve written before when criticising the ban:

The sensible way to treat a new member of a political party is to welcome them warmly. Yet often the rules of the Liberal Democrats treat new members as second class citizens, automatically lumping them all together into the ‘suspicious’ category to be deprived of voting rights in internal party contests with the all too frequent provision that you can’t vote unless you’ve been a member for a year.

No assessment of individual cases or evaluation of risks in different scenarios; instead for many of the contests everyone new is labelled second-rate and deprived of the vote in a way that if, say, Ukip suggested new citizens should be treated – banned from voting in elections for 12 months – party members would be outraged about.

The party has had problems with suspicious mass membership applications at the last moment before a very small number of selections in the past, and some selective, carefully targeted safeguards against that are wise (such as in the case of a very large growth in membership in one area).

But instead we have the crude blunderbuss of blanket bans – even if it’s a case of someone who was a member for decades, lapsed a couple of years back and now rejoins.

Tim Bale

What the Lib Dems can learn from political failure

Professor Tim Bale specialises in political failure, the study of it that is – such as with his books on Ed Miliband and on the Conservatives in opposition to Tony Blair. Now for Lib Dem Newswire he applies those lessons from failure to the Liberal Democrats.

We all fear failure, but we don’t want to think about it too much. It’s less uplifting and less inspiring than success, and worrying about it can stop us even trying to do stuff.

That’s a pity. Because, paradoxically, thinking about failure – trying to understand and even empathise with it – can help us succeed. Unless we work out the don’ts how can we really know what the do’s are?

Here I declare an interest – an interest in failure.  I’ve spent the last decade not just writing about political parties (first the Tories and then Labour) but focusing on their darkest hours and dumbest moves.

The Lib Dems, of course, played a part in both those stories – first by winning by-election victories so stunning they scared their rivals half to death, then by doing a counter-intuitive coalition deal that saved David Cameron’s bacon, sealed Labour’s fate but turned out to be electorally suicidal.

Now, after winning just eight seats and eight per cent of the vote in 2015, what can Lib Dems learn from the mistakes made by both Labour and the Tories in the wake of their shattering defeats in 1997 and 2010?

Here – in reverse order – are my top five tips.

5. Don’t jump on every passing bandwagon simply to get some airtime: you’ll find it hard to jump off again and, anyway, voters can smell opportunism a mile off.

4. By-election and local election success helps build momentum but don’t let it fool you into assuming you’re on the way to repeating it at national level.

3. After you’ve inevitably rushed into a leadership contest, be prepared to ditch the winner if they’re clearly getting nowhere.

2. Don’t bargain on being able to fight elections on the issues that favour you: make sure you’ve also got something sensible – and centrist – to say on those issues that traditionally play well for your opponents.

1. Never presume a big defeat is simply a swing of the pendulum: spend as much time and money as you can – and soon – on research in order to properly understand what went wrong, then do everything you can to show you’ve got the message and signal that you’re changing.

Some of this should be obvious. But parties aren’t textbook ‘rational actors’; they know what they like and like what they know. Thinking about failure provides an antidote to complacency. And complacency, in politics anyway, can be the biggest killer.

Your Liberal Britain banner featuring Tim Farron

The Tower Hamlets route to rebuilding the party

I’ve covered before how Elaine Bagshaw and team are rebuilding the Liberal Democrats across a swathe of East London which has long been a very weak area for the party. Here Elaine writes about how they have been doing it.

In the 18 months since the 2015 General Election, Tower Hamlets has gone from a stalled membership of 170 and labelled as a black hole, to a membership over 450; great membership retention and one of our parliamentary seats (Poplar & Limehouse) being added to the snap election key seat list. It has been a whirlwind journey and a lot of our success has been due to always working on building our team.

We’ve focused on:

  • Giving people a clear vision: We have an ambitious plan to become the official opposition on the council and to elect the first Liberal MP in the East End since 1945. We include this on all of our communications and talk about it at events. Our campaign plan is available to all members and we talk them through it, rather than it being the reserve of the Exec and/or Campaigns Committee. In January we’ll be holding an event so members can review and develop the campaign plan for the next 18 months with us.
  • Training goes hand-in-hand with campaigning: We’ve run three full days of training, with support from ALDC. This has helped people understand why they’ll be asked to deliver leaflets; what “knocking up” is and the different ways we group voters. We give people a buddy the first time they campaign until they feel comfortable out on their own.
  • Keeping it fun and welcoming: We make sure we have socials at the end of a campaign session and let members know how many doors they knocked and how many pieces of data we collected, as well as thanking them. We make welcome calls to new members so we know how they want to be involved and why they joined.
  • Know that you will make mistakes and it’s the only way to learn: Events will have less people turn up than you hoped; a member will react negatively to something and there’ll be a scramble to find a venue for an event because everyone got busy. When you’re growing as a team and, as we are, going through a massive transition you will get things wrong. Sometimes massively wrong. The key thing is to learn from it. Have the difficult conversation as a team about why someone feels overwhelmed; why your event had a low turnout and talk about how your good events could be even better. No-one gets it right first time (not even Mark!) so take it on the chin and improve it next time.

It has been an incredible journey in Tower Hamlets in the last 18 months, and something I’m so proud to have been part of. I look forward to the next 18 months with huge hope and excitement!

Radix banner

Radix: a new think tank for radical ideas

David Boyle is a former member of the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee (FPC) and policy director of Radix. Here he writes about why a new think tank is needed and why Radix is deliberately not closely aligned with the party.

Political parties need to think if they are going to succeed. If they don’t, their slogans get stale, their policies get increasingly symbolic and they begin to lack conviction. They find they are going through the motions and wonder why the whole business is so thankless. I don’t get it, they say. Why don’t people understand? Why don’t they see?

The answer is because they are now campaigning on empty. It is thankless because people sense it. None of the main political parties are exempt from this rule of thumb.

The Conservative Party seems peculiarly wedded to worn out doctrines, which may be – though it isn’t clear yet – practically a return to mercantilism. The Labour Party under Corbyn seems to prefer a return to the days of nationalisation, for example as a solution to the collapse of Southern Rail.

The fate of Centre Forum, the last Liberal think tank, rather exemplified the problem. It was too closely aligned with the party to raise the kind of funding it needed, and therefore found itself trying to appear safe and not particularly Liberal.

That is the problem with setting up think tanks now: they can no longer afford to be party-aligned. IPPR has been struggling to escape their Labour links for decades. Yet some kind of core beliefs are important. Look at what happens to think tanks without them (I mention no names…).

So, when Joe Zammit-Lucia, Nick Silver and I started talking about a new think tank, we needed a strategy to overcome this paradox. As a result, when Radix was born this summer – with Nick Tyrone as director – we agreed that any new think tank must be resolutely all-party. Radix has Nick Clegg, Stephen Kinnock and Andrew Lansley on the board, and a number of others from outside the political world.

But we are also resolutely committed to what they call in the USA the Radical Middle. The idea is to help political parties see the world clearly, as it really is – and to do that, politics needs urgent reinvention.

We are therefore moving towards the sound of political gunfire. We held events at the three main party conferences (and I don’t mean Ukip). We have produced reports criticising the way quantitative easing has been designed (and appear to have kickstarted a debate about low interest rates).We have produced reports on the future of trade unions and on older women in the workforce. We have also published a book about the future of liberalism, The Death of Liberal Democracy? (note the question mark).

We are cross-party but aware that, if radicalism is going to emerge anywhere near the centre ground of politics, we urgently need to do some more thinking.

1910 Liberal Party election poster

A concise history of the Liberals, SDP and Liberal Democrats

Duncan Brack, of the Liberal Democrat History Group, writes about the very popular new pamphlet about the party’s history. (By very popular, I mean that more copies of it were sold than of my books from a joint stall we did at a recent London Region event…).

The Liberal Democrat History Group’s booklet, Liberal History: A concise history of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats, has been revised and updated to include the Coalition, its impact and the 2015 election and its aftermath.

Starting with the earliest stirrings of Liberal thought during the civil wars of the seventeenth century, the booklet takes the reader through the emergence of the Whigs; the growth of radical thought; the coming together of Whigs, radicals and free-trade Peelites in 1859 to form the Liberal Party; the ascendancy of the Victorian Liberals under Gladstone; the New Liberalism of Asquith and Lloyd George and the party’s landslide election victory in 1906; dissension during the First World War and the party’s eclipse by Labour afterwards; the long decades of decline until nadir in the 1950s; successive waves of Liberal revival under Grimond, Thorpe and Steel; the alliance with the SDP and merger in 1988; and the roller-coaster ride of the Liberal Democrats, from near-obliteration in 1989 to entry into government in 2010 to electoral disaster in 2015 and, now, the first signs of recovery.

It is available for just £3 (with a 20% discount for Journal of Liberal History subscribers) and, if you order by 31 December, free post and packaging. You can order it online here and Journal readers can find their discount code on page 3 of the latest issue.

Liberal History also makes an ideal gift for new party members, and a number of local parties have already ordered bulk copies for that purpose. A 50% discount (on the full price) is available on orders of 40 copies or more, plus postage. To take advantage of this offer, please contact Duncan Brack on journal@liberalhistory.org.uk.

Post-it note - "In case you missed it"

Catch-up service: another headache for Theresa May

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.

Liberal Democrat constitution

Latest news from party committees

Party members are currently taking part in a ballot to elect members of the main party committees. Here are some thoughts from myself on excellent candidates to support, along with more about what each body does:

A worried potato looks at some chips

Now that I have your attention… Are you reading a forwarded copy of Liberal Democrat Newswire? Or perhaps the web-based version? If so, then why not join thousands of others and sign up now to receive direct to your email inbox future editions of what Tim Farron calls, “a must read for all Lib Dems or people who want to understand the Lib Dems”.

Other Liberal Democrats in the news

Calculator, pen and paper

Reforming our tax system

Jay Dias joined the party after the European referendum. He has an MBA from the London Business School and an MPA from the London School of Economics. He is Managing Director of Leela Capital and writes here about how the party’s tax policies should develop. 

I believe it is crucial for the success of our party that Liberal Democrat policies truly resonate with our electorate. It was in that spirit that I recently attended Vince Cable’s Tax Roundtable which highlighted three key challenges:

  1. The widespread avoidance of corporation tax;
  2. The inadequacies of business rates;
  3. The problems with existing incentives to promote entrepreneurship.

A number of investors and entrepreneurs attended and between us it became apparent that to lead the battle of ideas we need to both review our longstanding policies and progress the party’s thinking across all three of these areas.

Interestingly, entrepreneurs see the ability to pay corporate tax as a mark of success of achieving scale and profitability. Therefore, they don’t focus on the structure of the tax until later down the line. However, a key flaw to the system is the tax avoidance of many non-UK domiciled companies who don’t pay tax on revenue generated in the UK. To address this, we need a framework which taxes the revenue of these non-UK parent companies in addition to the VAT system they already pay into (such as a withholding tax scheme).

Business rates should relate to the type of tenants occupying the property rather than the type of property. Business rates are structured similar to council tax; a hedge fund occupying a floor of a building will pay the same as a social enterprise and the tax reliefs available typically only benefit landlords. Other reliefs relate to charities, agriculture and the 38 Enterprise Zone locations based across the country. However, many other businesses and industries we try to grow miss out. The answer might lie with our long-standing policy of Land Value Taxation, a tax on unimproved land which could be combined with Business Rates reforms to provide a holistic structure.

Current incentive schemes successfully encourage investment in young companies. However, upon sale of the business this results in the investor paying a significantly lower tax rate than the entrepreneur who has dedicated significant time and often taken huge risks to making the business a success. We require further reform to ensure entrepreneurs and their teams are appropriately incentivised.

Only time will tell if these ideas will turn into policy. However I am confident we are progressing in the right direction, and I hope that other groups are being set up to address different fields in a similarly positive way.

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Best wishes and thank you for reading,


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