Welcome to issue 89 of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which includes a look at the way campaigning is changing in the Liberal Democrats, new opportunities for members to help make party policy and the councillor who became an internet meme.
The Liberal Democrats ended 2016 with an extra MP, a run of double-digit results in the opinion polls and a party membership at 79,507. That’s the party’s highest membership since 1999 and means 2016 saw the biggest ever increase in the party’s membership. Read on to see how that progress might continue in 2017…
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In this edition:
The quiet revolution in the way Lib Dem HQ does campaigning
Amongst the list of reasons for the dramatic Liberal Democrat victory in Richmond Park is the party’s earlier lively and successful by-election campaign in Witney. That contest was not won but the big swing to the party and the strong second place generated significant political momentum, media credibility and activist motivation all of which were extremely useful just weeks later in winning Richmond Park.
Which makes the decision to fight that vigorous campaign in Witney seem the obvious one to have taken. But it was in fact a radical departure from the party’s approach for quite a few years now to such by-elections, with many key decision makers in the party over those years giving the impression that minimising the net financial cost or ‘distraction’ from held seats was all that mattered. The result? A series of dismal results which reinforced the wider media message about the party being down in the dumps and which gave party members even more to be downbeat about.
So the switch in approach for Witney was not only logical but also part of a major – and sensible – shift in the party’s campaigning strategy. As I argued in How to rebuild the Liberal Democrats, the party needs to take each election seriously in its own way. Each election is a change to add momentum, increase morale, test new tactics and build a larger core vote for the party.
Standing aside and letting the brave volunteer candidate be walloped (or worse, still, have no candidate) is not smart economisation of resources. It is a failure to understand that the battle for attention, morale and momentum needs continuous fighting.
But there’s more change to party campaigning going on that just this stepping up to the battle. There’s a second welcome shift – to seeing campaigning as being more than electioneering. That is, that campaigning includes running campaigns just as a pressure group would – finding an objective that would change the world in the direction we want and then mobilising grassroots support to help secure it. Hence the recruitment of a new Head of Campaigns post at HQ with a job description focused just on this.
As I wrote when the post was announced, we see a little of this broader approach to campaigning already with Liberal Democrat participation in events such as Pride. But it’s only a taster of what could be achieved:
- Running campaigns to change the world is part of the wider purpose of the Liberal Democrats, as captured in Community Politics. Elections are a vital part of that but not the only part.
- Running campaigns broader than simply ‘please vote for us’ is also a powerful way to communicate our values, and to build that larger Liberal Democrat core vote.
- Running campaigns which have successes outside of polling days provides an important boost to membership recruitment, morale and fundraising. You can be winning and building without a polling day near.
- Running campaigns builds bridges to other organisations, attracts new people, garners attentions and generates data – all of which directly helps election campaigns too.
Added together these two shifts make for a very different approach to campaigning than the Liberal Democrats have practised for a long time.
Liberal Democrat by-election wins come with a puzzle
The Lib Dem shift in approach to campaigning is happening against a cautiously promising uptick in the Liberal Democrat electoral fortunes.
Stripping out the statistical noise from individual polls, the party’s polling ratings have risen slowly through the second half of 2016. The volume of polls and extent of the trend means the small movement is heading towards statistical robustness, but is of course only a small political step.
In December, post-Richmond, moreover the Liberal Democrats averaged over 10%. The last time the party was averaging in double figures was September 2013. Of course, rejoicing at being in double figures says more about how low the party sunk than about how far it has bounced back.
Both Ukip and Labour have continued to slide, with the Conservatives continuing to rise (reinforcing Matt Singh’s point that the Conservatives look to experiencing more than just the usual honeymoon for a new leader).
|Council by-elections too have continued to show promising growth for the Liberal Democrats, especially since the European referendum. Since then the Liberal Democrats have made net gains from Conservatives, Labour and Ukip.
That breadth of success also demonstrates a slight puzzle about the Liberal Democrat gains: many have been coming in areas which voted for Leave in the Referendum. Vote share too has gone up most in areas which voted Leave.
|Why is this? It’s a subject short, so far, of detailed analysis but an important one for the future direction of the Liberal Democrats.
So here are some preliminary thoughts on the explanation:
- As the SNP demonstrated in 2015, a losing share in a referendum can still be a landslide-inducing share in a multi-party first past the post election. That only goes so far as an explanation given the vote shifts in the above chart, and indeed the number of Liberal Democrat wins with well over 50% of the vote in Leave areas.
- However, turnout in local elections, and all the more so in council by-elections, is far lower than it was in the European referendum. A losing share locally in the referendum can easily translate into a winning share, even one over 50%, in a lower turnout election.
- Moreover, in lower turnout council by-elections, there’s a premium on the benefits from local organisation. The Liberal Democrat organisation has been on a huge upswing courtesy of the surge in party members. For the Conservatives, the long years of decline were masked by the massive spending of central funds in the 2015 general election. A blip in Conservative membership on Theresa May’s ascension does not appear to have turned into a revival in grassroots organisation. (For Labour, meanwhile, the surge in membership has not produced a surge in people wanting to campaign in by-elections, as most notoriously illustrated by the Lib Dem gain from Labour in Sheffield on a huge swing on the same night as a Momentum phonebank elsewhere in the city was keeping Labour members busy on internal campaigning.)
- That Liberal Democrat organisational edge has been aided by a string of remarkably good local candidates, deeply rooted in the communities where they have secured large swings. This partly comes from having so many new members and also is a result of the large number of good ex-councillors there are in many areas: people who lost their seats during coalition but are now once again up for getting back on their council.
- The winning council by-election campaigns have also been able to appeal to many soft Conservatives. Both qualitative feedback from doorstep conversations and also more rigorous quantitative analysis of canvassing returns have shown in a variety of contests a good slug of Conservative Leave voters switching to the Liberal Democrats. Often these are voters who want the UK to remain in the Single Market with a soft Brexit (a third of Conservatives want a soft Brexit), and so are happy to vote for a party clearly opposed to a Hard Brexit and opposing the Hard Brexiters in the Tory leadership. The other factor appealing to such voters is a resumption of ‘normal’ politics, with the Liberal Democrats reverting to what they have long been – the natural opposition to Conservative council administrations across much of southern England.
Most of those points offer the possibility of the Liberal Democrats continuing to make council gains without having to particularly base that appeal on Remain voters.
It’s certainly helpful to be able to have a wider appeal, but it would be a mirage to think therefore that a durable, robust Liberal Democrat recovery does not have to be rooted in appealing to Remain voters – and more generally, to be based on winning over people who share the party’s values rather than those simply most attracted by Lib Dem assiduousness in addressing local potholes.
That’s because as important as the latter group are, they are susceptible to swinging away again from the party in the face of other hard-working campaigners from different parties – or in the face of the political pressures such as a hung Parliament.
Hence the case which David Howarth and I have made for building a stronger Liberal Democrat core vote. On which note, it’s time to report on my survey of party members…
Lib Dem members: we want a core votes strategy
There is huge backing in the Liberal Democrats for a core votes strategy according to the online survey run by Liberal Democrat Newswire over the last few weeks.
It was completed by over 1,000 party members although of course sample size does not necessarily equate to accuracy, especially for a self-completion survey of this kind. However, two points are in favour of it reflecting wider party opinion. First, the accuracy of the similar survey run during the leadership contest which could be judged against the actual result. It was very accurate. Second, the result of the Federal Board elections, where it’s unlikely I would have scored the result I did if there was not widespread support for my main message.
That said, the people completing the survey was almost certainly not typical of the wider party membership in being much more likely to have read words from me promoting this approach over the last year. So the striking overall result indicated in the graph above is perhaps best considered as showing that it is possible to persuade a huge proportion of members to agree with this approach, rather than that they necessarily all already do.
That point about the gap between potential and actual support amongst party members is also an important one when it comes to support for the emerging emphasis on Europe, health and education as the party’s main messages. So far, the existence of this trio, let alone the rationale for it has only had limited circulation in the party. Hence the feedback from many members in both the survey and to my previous posts on the trio along the lines of ‘what about housing / environment / civil liberties / etc.?’.
Again, expect those who completed the survey to be more aware than most members of the trio’s existence and rationale but even so the results show there’s some work to do even with this group.
|Another challenge comes with the answers members gave about what they think the Federal Board’s priorities should be. Over 60% put creating a core votes strategy in their top four priorities.
However, elements which David Howarth and I argued in our pamphlet are crucial to that often scored much lower. Only just over 30%, for example, put improving the party’s diversity in their top four – even though the potential core for the Liberal Democrats is both more female and less white than the population overall, let alone than the Liberal Democrats at present.
Growing party membership and supporting council by-elections also came in with half or more putting them in their top four.
Most popular for a top four priority slot was supporting winnable Parliamentary constituencies – a sign that some of the more controversial elements in creating a core votes strategy will sink or swim by the ability of their supporters to directly link them to securing more MPs in 2020.
Although not given as an option, a very popular answer in the ‘any other suggestions’ box was improved communications (internal and external) about what the party is up to and why, along with better digital campaigning and tools, and a repeated desire for a clear, short summary (whether a slogan, vision, message or policy) which encapsulates what the party is about and why.
Of course, those are all things the party attempts to do at the moment, which is why the survey went on to ask views on current activities. Those answers will be covered in the next edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire.
The smart Lib Dem strategy in Copeland is to be willing to put off voters
I don’t usually reproduce opinion pieces from my blog in this newsletter, but I am making an exception with this one as it so naturally follows from the core votes survey reported above and because it’s been one of the most read and most discussed pieces in the last few months.
The electoral statistics for the forthcoming Copeland Parliamentary by-election do not look that enticing for Liberal Democrats, even with the party on a mini-run of double figure opinion poll ratings.
Not only did the party only poll 3.5% in the 2015 general election, but even the party’s best ever-result back in 1983 was just 15.9%. What’s more, Chris Hanretty’s estimates of how the constituency voted in the European referendum put the Leave vote at 60%. To round it all off, the constituency is dominated economically by an industry which Liberal Democrats (nearly all the time, Ed Davey notably aside) have been consistently hostile to, for it is home to the Sellafield nuclear complex.
But in all that is an opportunity. If, that is, the Liberal Democrats do not revert to traditional instinct.
Because the traditional campaigning instinct – which is a general instinct, not a specifically Liberal Democrat one – would be to find common ground with employees at Sellafield, such as over how the council is run, and to play down the party’s view on their place of employment.
Yet there’s also an alternative strategy, hints of which were visible in the Richmond Park by-election. It’s not to play down your differences with a large chunk of the electorate, but instead to play them up.
Because that’s how you get the public to see that you believe in something. Which, for the Liberal Democrats, should be the priority for Copeland.
If the party was a tiny handful of votes off winning in 2015, a safety-first, play down the differences and point at potholes approach would have much to commend it.
But starting instead with less than a deposit-holding share of the vote, there’s the freedom to be braver and to gamble on something more substantive for the long-term: sticking clearly to the party’s guns on Europe and the environment, acknowledging that will drive some people away from the party yet at the same time benefitting from the opportunity to make it clearer to voters that the party does have beliefs and is willing to stick to them.
The failure to be more successful at that in the past has been a consistent burden for the Liberal Democrats. Time and again the serious research finds that, however much party members might disagree with this view, the public see the party as not having clear views and not being willing to stand up for what it believes in. Even in the electoral heydays early in this century, you didn’t have to go much beyond the headline figures to find the public saying, ‘you’re nice, but what are you really for?’.
Which is why the smart strategy in Copeland is not to be afraid of putting off many voters, it’s to welcome the chance. The chance to help build the core vote for the party which we so acutely need.
The councillor who became a meme
Cllr Iain Roberts is not only a councillor in Cheadle, one of the party’s best users of emails to communicate with residents and occasional contributor to Liberal Democrat Newswire (how’s that next piece coming Iain…?), he has also become an internet meme.
It all started with a resident looking for photographs of the local area. They went to Google. They searched and searched and searched. And what did they keep on finding? Photos of Iain, more photos of Iain and yet more photos of Iain.
So in frustrated homage to the ever-present Iain, photoshopped images of Iain all over local landmarks started being shared by residents.
Congratulations Iain. I think.
You’re amazing: thank you
2016 was another bumper year for readership of this newsletter and for my website, with both up over 40% year-on-year at the end of December.
As dropping out from being a reader of Lib Dem Newswire is only one unsubscribe click away, I’m always grateful for your interest and patience in wishing to continue to receive these newsletters. Please do keep the feedback and suggestions for stories coming.
Thank you too to the party members who kindly voted me on the Liberal Democrat Federal Board, topping the poll in the new all-member elections. We’ve recently had our first meeting, planning out how the Board will take on its new role in ensuring the party has a coherent and effective strategy. Expect more news on that in future editions.
Want to help make Liberal Democrat policy on immigration and power?
The Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee (FPC) is setting up two new policy working groups, one called ‘Immigration and identity’ and one called ‘Power for people and communities’ (including local government).
You can apply to be a member of the working groups here [now closed].
Here is some background on what being a member of a policy working group usually involves:
Group members usually have one or more of the following:
• Membership of the Liberal Democrats
• An interest or expertise in the relevant topic
• Willingness to make a commitment over 12-18 months, including evenings
• Experience of using policy as a campaigning tool
We particularly welcome applications from under-represented groups.
Group members will be expected to attend regular meetings, which usually take place in London outside of working hours. We try to make dial in facilities available wherever possible.
The full detailed remits of the two working groups are not yet published, but you can keep a track of these working groups – and all the other ones – via the handy Lib Dem policy group tracker.
Catch-up service: the danger the Lib Dems pose to Labour
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.
* As with my coverage of council by-elections week-by-week on my blog and social media, this covers all principal authority council by-elections, i.e. excluding town, parish and community councils. This is the usual approach for analysis of council by-elections as the latter are often a mix of uncontested and contested without party labels.
Latest news from party committees
|Their willingness to be stand in neat regimented lines gives a hint this isn’t a photograph of Liberal Democrats.
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Other Liberal Democrats in the news
Reforming the English Party
I have covered the issue of why the English Party needs reform, and the problems with some of its own attempts to come up with a reform plan, many times before. So this time it is over to former Regional Chair and member of the English Party’s Executive Paul Hienkens to give a perspective from the inside on what should be changed and why.
The message from the Federal Party Governance Review consultations was clear. The English Party needs a fundamental rethink. And a little known fact is that a pretty sizeable contingent of both English Council and the English Council Executive, including myself, agree.
That rethink requires answers to questions such as, what is it the English Party actually does, why does that need a body between the English regions and the Federal Party and do we need 11 regions in England?
All very good questions and I am pleased that the English Council Executive, after a failed attempt to railroad changes over last summer without consultation, finally agreed to set up what is now called the English Review Group (ERG).
The ERG has representatives from each region and with member’s help will seek to make changes so that from January 2018 the Regions and the English Party reflect the needs of the organisation and the wishes of the members. Twelve months to ensure members are consulted, draft the rule and constitutional changes required to implement organisational changes and getting all this passed at the relevant meetings is a big task. We have a timeline defined for that and more announcements will be made very soon.
In doing that we have to work out not only what works for England but also what will work with our colleagues in Scotland and Wales. They are an integral part of the question because one of the key reasons the English Party exists is that the other two state parties felt that they should not be seen as on a par with English regions. They had a very good point: they aren’t regions. Maybe they have an even better point now with the way devolution has worked out over the last couple of decades. Simply abolishing the English Party, giving some powers to the federal party and/or treating each region as if it were a state party, for example, would not wash – nor would it get past Article 2.7 of the federal constitution which requires Scottish and Welsh agreement to any changes in the relative powers of the English party.
So, the challenge is to find a solution which ensures that:
- the parties in Scotland and Wales remain distinct state parties, not affected by the changes in England
- the party in England has an organisation which reflects our operational and legal requirements, and
- we do so in the next 12 months so that a new organisation, based on moving to one-member one-vote, direct accountability for elected officers and with the appropriate activities happening at the appropriate levels is created.
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