Lib Dem local party makes formal deal with Greens
A Conservative government often leads to talk of anti-Conservative tactical voting, political realignment, progressive alliances or even reshaping of the political party system. All those approaches and more have been back in this Parliament with a gradually growing tempo and volume.
Norman Lamb has been active in seeking cross-party cooperation on issues, following up his contribution to the cross-party book The Alternative by launching a cross-party NHS campaign and using a rare opportunity to speak at Prime Minister’s Questions to highlight it. Alistair Carmichael, meanwhile, has been openly calling for Labour moderates either to break away or work with the Liberal Democrats.
At the grassroots, there is move movement too. Most notably, a formal political pact has been made between Greens and Liberal Democrats in Broxtowe for this May’s county council elections – although neither the Stoke nor Copeland by-elections have seen any tactical withdrawal of a candidate by a party in the way that the Greens did in Richmond.
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A major complication when it comes to Liberal Democrats thinking about cooperation with Labour, of course, is Europe. As Tom Brake forcefully argued when defending the Liberal Democrat decision to stand in Copeland, the Labour Party’s continued dalliance with Brexit and unwillingness to oppose strongly Theresa May over Article 50 is a major obstacle to cooperation between the parties. Moreover, the most pro-European Labour MPs are also often those with the the strongest record of support for New Labour, authoritarian streak on civil liberties and all. Finding common ground is much harder than it was for Labour rebels when first the SDP was formed and then the Alliance struck with the Liberals in the early 1980s.
Yet Europe, both the issue itself and the wider set of values behind Brexit and Remain viewpoints, is the most likely fulcrum we have had for a very long time around which British politics could be restructured.
The Liberal Democrats are not quite united on Europe, with both Greg Mulholland and Norman Lamb deciding to buck the party’s official hard line against Hard Brexit. It is notable, though, how few Lib Dems members outside their two constituencies were supportive of their decisions in the widespread online discussions that followed.
Party members rightly understand the important of the party have a simple, clear position on what will be the defining issue of this political generation and one which may yet, for all the complications already mentioned, trigger a significant political realignment.
In reacting to, or even helping trigger, such a realignment, it’s worth remembering the key lesson from the past. Deals over candidates take the most effort and attract the most attention. But the evidence is that more informal methods of cross-party cooperation are usually more effective as Duncan Brack set out in his excellent recent chapter for The Alternative:
What lessons can we draw for the future from the experience of the Project? There are (at least) six.
First, don’t talk about coalition, even if that’s what you have in mind. The target seat polling from 1997 showed that those who had voted Tory in 1992 would be frightened back to their original party if they thought Labour and the Liberal Democrats were ganging up in advance of the election. This is strongly reinforced by the experience of the 2015 election, when the prospect of a Labour government in coalition with, or supported by, the SNP proved deeply unpopular (though not quite as unpopular as the Liberal Democrats’ apparent willingness to join a coalition with almost anyone).
Second, it is nevertheless worth exploring the potential for pre-election cooperation over specific areas of policy. The most obvious is constitutional reform, along the lines of the Cook–Maclennan agreement or, more ambitiously, the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1989–95. The gross distortions of the 2015 election result, where it took 34,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP, 302,000 to elect a Liberal Democrat and 3.9 million to elect a Ukip MP, makes a strong case for electoral reform in particular. Voters do not tend to get excited about these kind of issues, however, so the state of public services, particularly the NHS, could be another possible topic – the evidence suggests that voters like the idea of politicians setting aside party differences to work together (though the fact that that’s what coalitions do seems to have eluded them).
Third, do everything you can to maximise tactical voting, which is a rational response to the distortions of the first-past-the-post electoral system. This will probably be more effective if it is promoted from outside the parties, as in the Mirror piece in 1997. In 2020 there should be extensive potential for arranging vote swapping via social media. Parties’ campaigning resources – which, with the much greater use of telephone canvassing, are now more centralised than in 1997 – can also be deployed to avoid attacking each other, at least up to a point.
Fourth, either keep it all as quiet as you can – or be as open as you can. Some party activists are open to cooperation – and it is of course widespread in local government – but many are not. Journalists often like to look down on party members as ‘tribal’, but another way to put this is that they are loyal, to their beliefs and their colleagues. Most party activists will spend their entire political careers delivering leaflets, raising money and knocking on doors without ever being elected to anything, and without realising any personal financial benefit. Belief in the cause is what keeps them going, and naturally they will not be well disposed to giving up their efforts to see another party’s candidate elected. So, either don’t tell them, or as be as open as you can, explaining what’s going on and what the benefits are. The Blair–Ashdown Project is an example of the former approach; in retrospect it is remarkable how little of what was going on leaked to the outside world. The overwhelming vote at the Liberal Democrat special conference in May 2010 to enter coalition with the Conservatives is an example of the latter, showing that reasoned argument can convince activists to work with other parties in the national interest.
Fifth, none of this will work unless the personal relationships between the key individuals involved are very good – they have to trust each other to work together and stick to their side of the deal. The Project would never have happened without the rapport that Ashdown and Blair built up over several years of dinners and discussions.
Finally, be clear what you want the outcome to be: a coalition, a confidence and supply arrangement, an agreement to reform the voting system and then call another election, or something else. And despite all the difficulties, never forget the reason: to avoid the 21st century seeing another succession of Tory victories on ever-diminishing shares of the vote.
HQ Membership team tops survey
In Lib Dem Newswire #89 I reported the bulk of the findings from my survey of party members on party strategy. Short version: members want a core vote strategy. Long version: read here.
The survey also asked what people thought of the operation at the party’s Great George Street HQ, and whether there was any team that particularly impresses. The membership team came out top by a sizeable margin, with strong showings also for the press and campaigns teams.
When it came to any parts of the Great George Street HQ which members think particularly need help to improve, the party’s communications operation came out top – although many of the comments pointed towards this being a frustration at the level of media coverage the party secures, which members acknowledge isn’t simply a factor of how well or how hard the party’s press team works. A desire for better internal communication also featured very strongly as did a fair numbers of mentions of membership (again).
In terms of members being supportive of HQ – whether that’s the tone taken towards staff, the willingness to donate or the assistance with tasks – it’s that internal communication point which is key, as shown by the answers to what people would like to see change in the party. Better internal communication in one form or another dominated the replies.
It may sound obvious to say ‘we need better internal communication’, but it’s not something that has come through clearly enough in previous party strategies or lists of HQ priorities. Something which I hope we can put right this time round.
Encouraging more women to run for political office
The Parliament Project exists to inspire, empower and encourage women to run for political office in the UK. Vicky Booth and Lee Chalmers write for Lib Dem Newswire about its work:
Most people involved in politics agree that we need more women in elected positions at all levels, national and local. And most political parties have support available for women members but over many years of talking to women who are interested in standing for office, one thing became very clear to us – there was no-one specifically talking to women outside political parties.
So we set up The Parliament Project. The Project exists to inspire and encourage women of all parties and none to run for political office in the UK. We launched in summer 2016 in London and Edinburgh, and have run 6 events so far across the UK. These events combine information about the practicalities of standing for election, discussion about some of the barriers and fears that hold people back. Sarah Olney attended our last event to share her fascinating journey from joining the party in 2015 to becoming the newest MP in Parliament in 2016! Many of our events have been over-subscribed (both London events had over 80 on the waiting list) which shows that the demand is out there, and we’ve had fantastic feedback from the events so far. Most attendees have said that the workshop has really helped to build their confidence to take the next step towards election.
We have a cross-party advisory group which help us to maintain connections and build links across all political parties, academic research and non-party groups. We are also delighted to have formed some partnerships with great organisations such as Inclusion Scotland, The Sikh Network, Women 50:50 in Scotland, 50:50 Parliament in England, DivaManc. This helps to ensure that we are reaching out across not only political divides, but also, crucially, across other forms of barriers which can exist for particular groups of women.
So what’s next for the Project in 2017? We are very excited to be running a workshop as part of the Women of the World Festival this March in London, and we have several further workshops already planned around the country, including Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle. Following the success of the events in 2016, we are also hoping to get some additional funding to expand the work of the Project and reach out to as many diverse women as possible across all political persuasions and backgrounds.
So please do spread the word! If you know any women who you think would make great MP or councillor (whether they are a Lib Dem or not!), we would love to meet them. We have e-postcards on the website which you can send them to let them know and tell them about the Parliament Project. Or perhaps you might like to run a workshop in your local area – we are open to suggestions so please do let us know if you’d like to help.
What do Lib Dems offer the ‘left behind’?
Liberal Democrat peer William Wallace is leading a group looking at what the Liberal Democrats can do for the most disadvantaged in society. He writes for Liberal Democrat Newswire about the work and how party members can contribute.
What do Lib Dems offer the ‘left behind’? This term is now used by Theresa May herself, while Donald Trump refers to them as ‘the forgotten people’: something of a change from right-wing portrayals of them as a degenerate ‘underclass’ living off over-generous benefits. We have a lot to offer them, without pandering to populist campaigns to blame all of their troubles on immigrants, and Lib Dem councillors already practice community politics in some of the areas in which such people live. But we also need a national approach in policy terms, to persuade the media that we have a coherent alternative to voting for Ukip in despair, to coordinate our local campaigns, and to support attacks on the Tory government for making their situation worse through spending cuts.
Out of a discussion among Liberal Democrat peers about how we pull together different strands of policy on this has come a working group, which I chair, with a number of peers with local and parliamentary experience participating. We’ve already discovered a lot of useful material, mostly ignored by the mainstream media, in think tank and official reports, and some academic studies; we will be briefed at our next meeting on a detailed study of north Manchester, sponsored by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. We’re also hoping to draw on the knowledge and experience of Lib Dem councillors and campaigners familiar with the former council estates, mining and mill villages, and coastal towns where discontent, depression and deprivation are clustered. We will be holding a consultation session at the Spring conference in York, in the Novotel on Friday from 20:15.
Our aim, if we can, is to produce an interim paper in time for the local elections, to support local campaigning, and to publish a spokesman’s paper before the September conference in Bournemouth. We’re cooperating with the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) and relevant policy working groups, while pulling together themes from different policy portfolios.
Grievances about social housing – not always justified, but deeply felt – are a common theme in reports of political alienation among ‘the white working class’. Lack of job opportunities, above all of regular jobs at decent wages, is almost as deep a complaint: often blamed on immigrant competition, but linked to lack of skills, inadequate education, and poor transport links, as well as what employers portray as poor motivation for work. Cuts and tighter conditions on benefits have depressed people already struggling to cope.
Housing, early years education, targeted local services, provision of quality apprenticeships and training, local industrial regeneration and help in reviving local communities and local democracy all look like being parts of our package. Most of them will require more spending on England’s poorer areas than the Conservative government seems willing to consider.
Liberal Democrat activists with direct experience of the communities in which the ‘bottom 10%’ of British citizens live will want to add to or amend this preliminary list. The consultation session at the York conference is intended to encourage the exchange of information and ideas in developing the coherent policies that can support our campaigning approach.
Catch-up service: Lib Dem membership up as Ukip hit serious legal trouble
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, continuing the trend discussed in Lib Dem Newswire #89 of doing well in areas which voted Leave:
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, and there’s a danger in cherry picking only some of those results to report.
Latest news from party committees
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The Liberal Pitch: a new idea for generating new policy
Have an idea to make people’s lives better? Want to influence Liberal Democrat policy? Pitch your ideas and get your voice heard! That’s the idea behind the Liberal Pitch initiative put together by two new Liberal Democrat members, Christopher Adams and Chris Hudson. Here they explain their plan in more detail.
The Liberal Pitch is an event where members directly and immediately get involved in creating policy ideas. Anyone can propose – in under 30 seconds – a policy that would make people’s lives better, have it debated and refined by the wider group, before moving to a vote.
We believe that Liberal Democrat members hold the key to making us widely electable – that the difficulties that people face in their daily lives and the opportunities they see to solve them are the most efficient and persuasive way of showing that Liberal Democrat policies are relevant, powerful and realistic.
We’re talking about creating policy that’s practical, pithy, and punchy. We are moving away from idealism – we already believe in and understand Liberalism as the ideal political approach for our local and global societies. It’s all very well to discuss what we’d like to see happen – but how are we going to go about it? We need to move away from the textbook and onto the doorstep.
A local Liberal Pitch event could ask members to present policy ideas that directly helps that community. A regional event could ask about how to empower local government with ideas that will practically and realistically make people’s lives better. Members can pitch in on the bigger ideas too: health, defence or education, for example. We can couple this with speeches in these areas to inform and educate members from experts – we still think they’re pretty useful.
We hope it will become a training method to strengthen our pool of candidates so that we are fully prepared to become the democratically elected party of opposition – and might we look to a future where the Liberals once again govern a free and fair country?
It will give people the chance to speak publicly and politically in a friendly environment. We’re all part of the same party and we should support each other – but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t push each other to be better: to think more critically, to consider more deeply, to speak more persuasively and concisely. In the absence of a credible Labour opposition, the UK desperately needs the Liberal Democrats to get tough.
At its heart, The Liberal Pitch is a democratic vehicle for people to get involved, have their voice heard, and to meet others in a social and practical setting.
Interested? You can contact them via email here and they’ve got their Facebook page here.
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