Welcome to Liberal Democrat Newswire #91 with stories including a look at why the Liberal Democrats are not riding higher in the polls and the surprising results of a survey of party members on Brexit.
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In this edition:
Why aren’t the Lib Dems doing better in the polls?
Polling expert Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics has the very rare distinction of having predicted the 2015 general election correctly (which in turn gives me the small consolation that my polling database was used for part of that work; my data was better than my own predictions – which probably leads to a moral somewhere…). He writes for Liberal Democrat Newswire about the polling conundrum facing the Liberal Democrats: some huge local council by-election successes yet national poll ratings that have only slightly recovered since the 2015 calamity.
The strong Lib Dem performances in recent local by-elections at a time when the party’s poll ratings have been relatively stable is one of the most interesting puzzles in British politics at the moment. While there is always a danger of reporting bias (paying more attention to “interesting” or satisfying results), there is clearly a significant divergence between the two.
There are three possibilities. Firstly that local by-elections have become an unreliable predictor of scheduled local elections. The weekly ballots to fill council vacancies have tended to be regarded as useful indicators of changes in public opinion. That’s because they have historically been unlike Westminster by-elections, which tend to see intensive campaigning and national media attention, giving voters in normally uncompetitive seats the chance to “send a message” to Westminster.
If that has started to change, with activists celebrating results on social media, increased media attention and politicians on all sides using them to spin, their reliability may have changed too – a political version of Goodhart’s law – which in turn would be amplified by the low turnouts at these elections.
The second possibility is that the relationship between local and national election results is changing. There wasn’t much sign of that in May 2016, when the national equivalent vote in the local elections was 5 to 6 points higher than in the polls, which is about the sort of gap that was in evidence during the coalition years (except when local elections coincided with national elections). But it may have changed since the EU referendum.
The third possibility – and the one that Lib Dems will be hoping for – is that opinion polls are underestimating their support. Polls have, of course, had a number of problems in recent years and switchers between Labour and the Lib Dems have often been mismeasured (in both directions). If supporters of other parties are too partisan, it could conceivably cause polls to be “sticky” and understate genuine moves.
So which is it? The short answer is that all of them are possible. Many Lib Dems (including the editor of this Newswire) are sceptical of the “Goodhart” theory, while supporters of other parties have suggested unprompted. We’ll see who’s right in May. The local-versus-national divergence is possible, but Lib Dems have always done slightly (rather than massively) better locally than nationally, so something would have to have changed. And as for the polls being wrong, that is of course possible, but I’d want to see a lot more evidence before drawing that conclusion.
Lib Dem members back cooperation with other parties to oppose Brexit
For the last few weeks, I’ve been running an online survey for Liberal Democrat members into what the party’s line should be on Brexit and whether the party should cooperate with other parties to oppose it, even up to the stage of formal election pacts.
Before giving you more details than in the headline, it’s worth adding the usual notes of caution about such surveys. Although the sample was large (1,656 after removing attempted entries that failed the security checks), it was self-selecting. The combination of careful security checks and weighting made my 2015 survey on the Lib Dem leadership contest almost spot on and more accurate than other predictions. This time round, thanks to the huge membership growth making it hard to ascertain what the correct weighting targets would be, I have not done similar weighting although the results look to be solid across the obvious possible distortions. Consider it more, however, a collection of large-scale qualitative feedback, such as judging how party conference reacts to a controversial statement in a leader’s speech, than a fully-fledged opinion poll.
So with those caveats out the way, here are the key results:
- party members are very happy with the direction the party is headed in (92% say it is headed in the right direction),
- they’re strongly opposed to Brexit (only 4% say the party should not oppose Brexit going ahead at all), and
- the plurality of party members (43%) support going as far as election deals on candidates with other parties in order to oppose Brexit.
Whether such support for election deals about specific seats and candidates would survive the actual likely heated controversy of a concrete proposal is open to question, of course, especially as support for deals dropped sharply the more long-standing and active members are.
Over 50% of those who said they do very little other than pay their membership subscriptions back deals on candidates with other parties, whilst only 29% of those who described themselves as “very active” do. Similarly, the overall 43% of support falls to 35% amongst those who have been members of the party since before the 2015 general election.
But the results certainly add to the current noise of cross-party deals being discussed seriously in several Liberal Democrat local parties around the country, usually for local elections as in Broxtowe but sometimes also covering possible Westminster general election deals.
It is also worth noting that the comments made by responders who back deals over candidates with other parties didn’t restrict that support only to deals with parties other than Labour. Those who picked this option generally are willing to consider deals with at least some Labour MPs or candidates.
(Thank you by the way to everyone who left comments, often detailed and thoughtful. I read them all and if you asked a specific question you should have had a reply by now – let me know if I missed anything.)
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How do we take back control of our democracy?
Alexandra Runswick, Director of Unlock Democracy, writes for Liberal Democrat Newswire about a topic dear to many Lib Dems’ hearts – political reform.
The process that has played out since the Brexit vote last June has been imbued with confusion and political promises that too often seem to be based on fantasy not reality. For Unlock Democracy, a critical concern is that without the codified checks and balances on government that come with a written constitution, we are at serious risk of seeing a significant transfer of power to an already over-powerful executive – one which has demonstrated in recent months that it is all too willing to flex its muscles and challenge the sovereignty of Parliament. What would a democratic Brexit that put power in the hands of people and Parliament look like?
The Brexit battle was won off the back of a crystal clear promise: to take back control. And yet so far, the outcome of the referendum seems to have been taken as a blank cheque by the government to implement its own agenda. Whether Parliament will have a role to play, and whether the public will be meaningfully engaged, is yet to be seen.
There is now a multitude of questions that we as a society need to answer – about both policy and process – and yet it is unclear how this will be done. What should we do with food safety regulations? Do we want to keep in place clean air standards? What powers will be devolved from the EU to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland? How we make these decisions matters.
Once the UK has formally exited the EU, decisions will have to be taken about whether to keep, amend or repeal the EU-influenced laws on our statute book. The government is still to set out a clear or convincing plan as to how these important policy decisions will be made in a manner that befits a modern democracy. There is a very real danger that these decisions will be taken behind closed doors, with little if any scrutiny from Parliament and no meaningful engagement with the public. David Davis is fond of pointing out that the people have spoken, but the binary question on the referendum ballot did not allow for an expression of the wide range of preferences voters hold.
Brexit has brought into focus fault lines within our existing constitutional arrangement, and it is clear that this will be put to the test in greater ways than in Gina Miller’s Article 50 court case as we navigate leaving the EU. Whether our existing democratic structures are sufficient to tackle the complex legal, constitutional and political processes that lie ahead remains to be seen.
Without a codified constitution that clearly defines the rights and freedoms of people, and the checks and balances on government, at every turn in Brexit we risk a substantial transfer of power to the executive: when legislating to trigger Article 50; implementing the Great Repeal Bill; agreeing the ‘divorce bill’; and negotiating treaties when new foreign partners. A Brexit void of parliamentary scrutiny or public engagement will put further pressure on our fragile uncodified constitution, further damage public trust in politics, threaten the devolution project and potentially undermine our democracy.
If ‘taking back control’ is to mean anything, then it must be the people first and foremost that are empowered by Brexit, and not the executive in Westminster. What we need, now more than ever, is scrutiny, transparency, accountability and public engagement.
Unlock Democracy will soon publish our answer to Brexit, in the ‘Democratic Brexit’ report. You can support the Democratic Brexit project, and sign up to our mailing list to hear details of the report publication and launch in Parliament later this year.
Lib Dems don’t have time for a long, slow rebuilding
Shaun Roberts, Director of Campaigns & Elections at Liberal Democrat HQ, has been spearheading a major change in the way the party campaigns. Here he writes exclusively for Liberal Democrat Newswire about the Liberal Democrat road to recovery.
Less than a year ago, our party had one immediate goal – survival. While there were signs of improvement and we were on our way to making council gains for the first time in a decade, it was clear we had a long road back to relevance.
First it was the referendum. Then it was Trump. And now it’s Labour abandoning the pro-European cause (and most of their voters) by joining Ukip and the Tories as enthusiastic backers of Hard Brexit.
We are living in a time of extraordinary change and wild unpredictability. The brutal truth is that the forces of hard conservativism are currently reigning supreme in both the US and the UK. There’s going to be some vital battles in Europe this year too that could also have scary implications for our country and the world.
But I want to talk about the UK and our future. While I enjoy greatly watching Ukip lose election after election and turn on each other, the sad fact is it looks they’ve won. Today’s Conservative Party is adopting Ukip positions. It looks like their strategy is to recapture the anti-immigration, Britain was better 50 years ago, type voter.
The campaign that Labour just fought in Stoke was effectively Ukip-lite and at one point claimed to be tougher than Ukip on Brexit.
Ukip might be losing elections, but they’re still making Britain a more conservative place by dragging the Tories and Labour onto their ground.
I firmly believe (and research backs me up) that there’s a silent majority against a hard Brexit and Britain leaving the Single Market. There’s a silent majority against the crippling of our NHS. There’s a silent majority against a Britain that becomes closed off from our neighbours and becomes Donald Trump’s most trusted ally.
That brings me back to the Liberal Democrats. The fact is that we don’t have the time for a long, slow rebuild that we planned to do a year ago. The silent majority need a voice now. They need hope now. They need us now.
This is a crucial time for our party – we’ve shown what we can do in local and national by-elections. We now need to build on that success and win more seats in more places in May’s elections.
If we are to change the direction of our country, we need to show strength and offer a better way for our country. This is our moment – let’s seize it.
Towards a world free of nuclear weapons
Neil Stockley has been chairing the party’s policy working group looking at nuclear weapons. Here he writes about the proposals the group is putting to the party’s conference in York.
At Spring Conference in York, Liberal Democrats will debate a new policy paper, Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons.
This is an important debate for Liberal Democrats, because we understand all too well the catastrophic consequences of detonating nuclear weapons. The ethical questions they raise go to the heart of our party’s values: we believe that any nuclear war is morally unacceptable and must never be fought. We appreciate that as a founding signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation on Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the UK has a legal responsibility to reinvigorate international nuclear disarmament initiatives. And we have always recognised the Government’s duty to protect the British people from attack and to play a full part in protecting the UK’s NATO allies.
We are reviewing our nuclear weapons policies because the international security situation has changed, and not for the better, since 2013 when they were last updated. With Russia’s growing military adventurism, increased instability in the Middle East and a changing balance of power in Asia, the world is a more dangerous place than it has been for many years. In this challenging environment, strengthening NATO solidarity, military capability, and coherence should be the highest priority for the UK’s defence policy, especially if we leave the EU. The policy paper concludes that this is not the right time to renounce our nuclear weapons. The UK should maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent.
We also contend that, given the current international security situation, the nuclear weapons states must get back to the negotiating table and make progress on disarmament measures and strengthening the framework for the long-term elimination of nuclear weapons. Progress has slowed in recent years. Still, the UK’s continued role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and as a recognised nuclear weapon state under the NPT present an opportunity for this country to reinvigorate international diplomacy to achieve nuclear disarmament.
The UK can seek to regain momentum in the disarmament and control of nuclear weapons primarily through its role in the ‘P5 process’. There are three specific areas for action: a concerted effort to build a regime for de-alerting nuclear weapons; strengthening the legal framework for arms control and disarmament, including pressing for the final ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); and developing new verification and transparency measures.
We must also consider the future shape of the UK’s minimum nuclear deterrent. The Trident successor programme (now called Dreadnought) has also moved on since 2013. The paper is clear that the current threats to the United Kingdom do not warrant maintaining a nuclear weapons system held in a Cold War posture. Nor is the ‘like-for-like’ replacement of the Vanguard-Trident fleet required to maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent. With the UK facing no active hostilities with a nuclear power and no immediate territorial threat, the current continuous at-sea deterrent (CASD) posture could be discontinued without threatening the UK’s current or future security.
We propose that the UK should, working with its NATO partners, adopt a medium-readiness responsive deterrent posture. This would see the UK maintaining armed patrols but abandoning CASD and employing new measures, such as gaps in patrols and irregular patrolling patterns. The UK’s adversaries would not know with any certainty when its boats were on patrol, meaning that a credible deterrent would be maintained. Under our proposals, Dreadnought would continue, but we currently envision that three boats instead of four would need to be built.
This way, Liberal Democrats would take a step down the nuclear ladder, in a way that contributes to the UK’s commitments under the NPT and provides others with an incentive to do so as well. Our change of posture away from continuous patrols could be made in return for similar pledges from other P5 states, under the international nuclear disarmament process. The UK could call for a reduction in nuclear weapons stockpiles, or persuade other states to move away from their current ‘hair-trigger’ postures.
Finally, we would use the next Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2020/21 to consider how the UK can best deliver a medium-readiness responsive posture. The SDSR would look again at the cost of Dreadnought, about which Liberal Democrats have expressed concerns.
The new policy paper sets out a viable strategy to put all nuclear weapons beyond use. The proposals are consistent with our internationalist values and our long-standing commitments to working actively and constructively through alliances, partnerships and international institutions, within a framework of international law.
Catch-up service: Lib Dem donations soar as Tories face jail
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 of the party almost never finishing near the winning post. Rather, the Lib Dems are almost always either romping home by huge margins or ending up a long way off winning:
To get the full set of council by-election results and analysis direct to your email inbox 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
- The Federal Board has kicked off a new process for creating a strategy for the party
- Let the trumpets sound, the banners fly: Mark Valladares reports on the workings of the party’s Federal International Relations Committee
- Alisdair Calder McGregor reports on the latest meeting of the Federal Policy Committee
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Mental health education must be compulsory in schools says new campaign
The mental health charity The Shaw Mind Foundation has recently started a petition calling for mental health education to be made compulsory in primary and secondary schools, and is launching with others the Headucationuk campaign to follow up on it. Here it explains more about the campaign for Lib Dem Newswire.
Back in March 2016, Nick Clegg addressed the need for teachers to have better training in response to the mental health problems facing their pupils and highlighted an urgent requirement for a new funding model and nationwide awareness of the issue. One year later, it’s still a hot topic.
Theresa May’s speech in January raised the issue again, but her suggestions were nothing short of a sticking plaster. To echo Nick Clegg’s words, “we still have a long way to go”.
Leading a debate on mental health in schools, Norman Lamb recently challenged the PM to respond to the escalating crisis in children’s mental health by improving the support for emotional well-being in the educational setting. Lamb harked back to the Future in Mind (2015) vision of early intervention and preventative measures by implementing a strategy of building children’s emotional resilience via mental health support in schools. However, according to an independent commission set up by the Education Policy Institute, this strategy isn’t being implemented across many parts of the UK.
Lamb debated this shortfall in Parliament and demanded that the Government keep its promise to see through the changes outlined in the strategy for improving children and young people’s mental health services (published when he was Care Minister in the Coalition Government). He also highlighted that the extra funding was secured by the coalition government isn’t being utilised for preventative measures, but instead being invested into acute mental health services.
Lamb advocates that “mental health must be built into the school curriculum so that every teenager learns about their mental health, and about how they can become more robust in coping with the challenges they face.”
Early intervention is key, with the onus on learning. If mental health support in schools is currently delivered with varying degrees of success, and counselling services aren’t a statutory requirement, then it is time to make mental health education mandatory.
Compulsory mental health education, delivered within both primary and secondary schools, will not only be a preventative measure; it will be an economically viable one. The overstretched and under-funded Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) is failing to give the required level of support, resulting in too many young people falling off the radar, instead of receiving the help they need. The long-term positive effects that compulsory mental health education can bring will benefit the whole of society. It will take enormous pressure off the NHS and be good for the economy. Why not allow the UK to be a world leader in creating a society that has a positive approach to mental health?
Alarmingly, one in five children who experiences a mental health difficulty does so before the age of 11. In the UK, 850,000 children aged 5-16 have mental health problems – that’s around three children in every UK classroom. And the number of reported cases of self-harm in 10-14 year olds has increased by a staggering 70%.
In view of these statistics and the non-mandatory, reactive, rather than preventative, measures currently in place, it is essential that mental health education be made a compulsory subject, delivered in an age-appropriate manner to both primary and secondary school children.
The Shaw Mind Foundation and YoungMinds have collaborated to deliver two separate, but complementary, campaigns. Headucationuk, led by The Shaw Mind Foundation, and YoungMinds’ Wise-Up campaign, will each call on the Government to support schools in delivering compulsory mental health education, with an overarching objective of improved wellbeing in schools so that pupil wellbeing is given the same value as academic achievement. Both campaigns offer preventative measures to reduce the ever-increasing numbers of children and young people suffering from mental health issues and seek to establish a mentally healthier and economically prosperous Britain.
Adam Shaw (CEO of The Shaw Mind Foundation) suffered from debilitating OCD, anxiety and depression from the age of five, so knows only too well the importance of early intervention: “Mental health problems are happening right now in our schools and to our children. Mental health is an absolute life skill, it should be the first thing on the school curriculum, along with reading, writing and physical education. We must go back to the very beginning by implementing compulsory mental health education into all schools in the UK. The Shaw Mind Foundation will fund the Headucationuk crusade until this objective is achieved.”
To find out more about Headucationuk visit www.headucationuk.org.
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