How the Liberal Democrats are changing and should change: LDN#105

Liberal Democrat Newswire logoLiberal Democrat Newswire #105 came out last week, looking at how newer members are changing the Liberal Democrats and how they think the party should change.

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Last time’s edition included a pamphlet from Jim Williams and myself about the future of the Liberal Democrats. A large part of that is about how the party should change to make the best of the talents, knowledge and enthusiasm of the new members who have joined since 2015. This time, it’s a follow up to that with a bounty of newer members writing guest pieces including different takes on the pamphlet and ways the party must change.

Happy reading!


In this edition:

Reinventing the Liberal Democrats: pamphlet cover

A Choose Your Own Adventure style of political activism

Laura Sheeter is a newer party member and presenter of the new Liberal Democrat focused podcast, Liberated. Here’s her take on the pamphlet I wrote with Jim Williams:

I found the opening scenario in Mark Pack and Jim Williams’s new pamphlet Reinventing the Liberal Democrats: how to build a party for tomorrow almost uncanny. It is 2020, they imagine, and the 200,000th new member joins the party knowing exactly what its aims are, and is immediately invited to pick how she’d like to get involved, with all the necessary resources at her fingertips – a Choose Your Own Adventure approach to political activism. How did they know that this was exactly what I’d been wishing for when I joined just over a year ago, keen to ‘do something’ but unclear how to help? Sadly, it wasn’t quite my experience – for me, faced with the competing demands of work and family, joining the party was easy. Getting involved was not.

I’m not alone – with record numbers of new members joining the party, tens of thousands of us are facing exactly the same challenges. This pamphlet’s response to those challenges is a breath of fresh air. The recognition that most of us fit politics into our lives, rather than the other way round, and determination that we should nonetheless be able to contribute to the party, in whatever way best suits our time and talents, to me seem the epitome of what the Lib Dems are about.

The vision outlined in this pamphlet is of a leaner, nimbler party, with a clearly articulated, inspiring vision, using the best digital tools to connect with, enthuse and empower its members, to harness their ideas, energy and expertise. It’s a confident, humorous party – engaging those outside the membership too – to build a diverse, inventive campaigning and policy-making organisation. The vision is of a party that’s not only doing better than it did in the last two elections, but a party that’s exceeding the Lib Dems’ best ever election results. It’s exciting, and it sounds like a huge challenge.

Fortunately, the pamphlet doesn’t stop there. It cites great examples of what’s already being done, with online campaigning and grassroots initiatives like the Lib Dem Pint, to show that the party of tomorrow is starting to take shape today. But while it applauds that work, at heart this pamphlet is a call to action – as Mark and Jim say “no one else is going to do this for us” – and they end with an email address for anyone with ideas to get in touch with them. I suspect, if the other 100,000+ members find their vision for the party as exciting as I do, their inbox may soon be overwhelmed.

Frustrated Lego figure

Perhaps the source of most frustration since becoming involved as a Lib Dem is…

Al Desmier is a newer member who has got stuck right into the party’s traditional structures, becoming chair of his local party, Islington, and was the Parliamentary candidate in Islington South and Finsbury at the 2017 general election. He runs an internet technology business. What did he make of the pamphlet?

Perhaps the source of most frustration I’ve had since becoming involved as a Lib Dem activist is the institutional, bureaucratic superiority complex one has to deal with to do anything differently from campaigns we ran 10 years ago, 20 years ago and before.

To be most commended in this pamphlet is the admission that even before the last general election, our party was failing. Failing to win elections but also failing to understand that voters now engage with political information in a range of different places, most of which we are currently nowhere to be seen. That the authors feel that as strongly as I do, gives me great heart that we can change.

To change anything you have to take part and I thoroughly endorse this pamphlet as an inspirational vision for what we might be. I’ve been Chairman of my local party for less than a year and, with a very talented and committed team, we’ve ripped up much our campaign book and started again. We’ve given power to a new crop of would-be councillors who hadn’t considered politics 18 months ago and are now desperate to win the first Lib Dem seats in Islington in many years next May.

Islington’s demise is emblematic of the problem this pamphlet highlights and seeks to challenge, namely that the ‘leaflets stopped working’. From a Lib Dem controlled council in the 2000s and a Parliamentary target seat in 2010 to not a single councillor left in 2017, nowhere has felt the technological shift more than Labour dominated Islington. A London borough known for being socially liberal, it should be full of our core vote.

That’s not to say we don’t use the old methods. We have two wards teams exclusively knocking on doors this month, getting some fantastic responses to our residents’ surveys. But we are trying to do so much more – such as 10 second videos generated at street level and targeted on Facebook directly to residents via their postcode, giving us live interactions with local people that we’ve never had before.

The way we treat local volunteers, new members and existing activists is picked up in this pamphlet. In my view, at the most recent general election we treated enthusiastic new members like counters in the board game Risk. Political generals sat in a far distant landed ordered new members into supposedly winnable seas at the expense of genuinely trying to build a local movement where the member had signed up and are now surprised why so many members feel let down by our result. Not enough was done to build a single message, a sense of cohesion and we have failed to really capture the ability and work of so many enthusiastic supporters, mainly through ignorance and a stark lack of emotional intelligence.

There is no truer sentence in the whole pamphlet than, “No saviour is going to emerge to solve all these problems”. We need to get more people involved, respectfully reject the old ways of doing things and create a clear offering to our voters and our members, and most of all, we need to change.

An additional comment from me on Al’s piece: he regularly led teams to help in target seats during the campaign, setting a shining example of the way candidates in non-target seats can show leadership and involve members in ways that maximise the number of MPs we return for any given vote share. What Al highlights above is the cost which that can – and often has – come with if the overall process of targeting relies too much on barking orders and not enough on dialogue, explanation and imagination.

Far too rarely, for example, in the 2017 election campaign did we support candidates in non-target seats with smart ideas about how they could both build up their local teams for long term success and at the same time help target seats elsewhere win in the short term.

An easy way to do this, for example, is telephone canvassing training sessions for new members, held in non-target seats but making calls to target seats. That both respects new members and targets resources effectively – as was my own experience doing several such sessions during the campaign.

Liberate UK logo

Liberate UK: a new Lib Dem initiative

The biggest and most successful online engagement ever run with party members is the Lib Dem Newbies group on Facebook: run by volunteers and mostly by newer members too. There’s a lesson in that for party old lags like myself to learn from, which is something discussed further in the pamphlet reviewed above. To complement those reviews, I’ve also asked Ross Shipman from the Newbies group to write about their new project: Liberate UK.

Since its as birth as a group of new members meeting in a local pub in 2015, the Lib Dem Newbies UK group has grown in strength and purpose to welcome thousands of people to the party and help new members learn new skills, connect with their local parties and meet fellow activists from around the country.

By providing a welcoming and supportive network for new members, we have been able to help encourage hundreds of people to become voices for their community. Ranging from local community champions to hard-working new councillors, from national campaigners to even an MP, we are proud that we can support as many people as we can to change Britain’s future.

From such strong foundations, we want to reach out to those liberals across the political spectrum – those who share our liberal values – so we are launching Liberate UK, an outward-facing liberal group designed to engage with Lib Dem members as well as those who aren’t necessarily politically active, but champion liberal values in their day to day lives. It is our hope that we will also be able to attract those who are liberals at heart, but might not yet know it.

While many groups have tried to achieve the same; we believe that the same inclusive, supportive and engaging methods that have made Lib Dem Newbies such a success will allow Liberate UK to grow from strength to strength and bring liberals from across British politics back under the central Liberal banner that our country desperately needs.

This movement is driven by its members and for its members. There will be content from campaigners, elected representatives, commentators, opinion pieces, events and, most importantly, a touch of humour.

We hope that you will join us on our journey by liking and sharing our regular content; as we continue to fight for a truly Liberal government in the UK.

If you have any content you wish to share, please email it to with as much information attached to it as possible.

Vision logo

Vision: another new member initiative

Mel Gordon, Julia Ogiehor, Gareth Bell, Nick Da Costa, Emily Hirst and Chris Hudson are the founding members of Vision, another initiative that has come out of the enthusiasm from newer members for the party to do better. Chris Hudson explains what it’s about.

Vision will be the radical, energetic and exciting new group to drive forward liberal pro-European ideas, campaigning and mobilisation to support the Liberal Democrats. Vision plans to take member engagement in a different direction by introducing radical and progressive ideas to communities that have thus far evaded Liberal Democrat messages, and to engage members beyond the day-to-day operations of local parties.

Vision was born earlier this year after months of collective soul-searching. A group of young and passionate members were feeling all too aware of the glass ceiling the Liberal Democrats cannot break through. We have come close and not for lack of trying or lack of progressive, meaningful policies.

There was once a point when the Liberal Parliamentary Party could all fit inside a black cab. We do not think it wrong to draw comparisons with our current time. What helped the Liberal Party recover then was a group like Vision – of young, radical liberals who set the national political agenda and got the party back in the news, reversing its fortunes. We wish to replicate the spirit which drove this change over 50 years ago.

Recently both major parties have moved toward the extremes, leaving a gap for aggressive expansion. Vince Cable has identified his strategy, but he and the party cannot do this fightback themselves. We must have more complementary ways to engage members of the party and the public to drive forward the Liberal Democrats.

There are limits to what the official political party can do, which limits its appeal and reach simply by the nature of being a political party. By existing outside of this straightjacket, this new group will be freed to enter environments and appeal to people and communities which the Liberal Democrat Party has found difficult to reach, and therefore be able to have a political conversation with them in a unique way.

Education, standing for difference, and pitching the benefits of liberalism to people will be the backbone of Vision’s membership work. Giving people a space to increase their activism, develop their politics, and engage with our identified core voters who currently do not vote for the Lib Dems.

Vision are looking to grow exponentially over the next few months, so watch this space to hear about our developments.

A homeless person - CC0 Public Domain

Five ways to tackle inequality

And now to a returning member and his views: Tom Burgess is Executive Director of the Progressive Policy Unit and author of From Here to Prosperity. He was a founding member of the SDP and is now a Lib Dem member. Here’s his plan for following up on Vince Cable’s talk of tackling inequality.

A rejuvenated Liberal Democrat party not only needs to be firmly committed to Europe but also dedicated to sharing the wealth we all help create. We need to be the party that will tackle head on the fundamental issue of our time, namely the extreme economic inequality and the resultant financial hardship suffered by millions every day as they struggle to make ends meet. This means that all our core policies must relate back to this issue and prove that they contribute to these goals.

The status quo is not an option, people want change, and they told us that with the referendum vote, they told us that with this year’s election. The party needs to set of practical policies that will deliver on a clear vision for Britain. This new agenda should focus on making life better for millions of people, creating more opportunity, more jobs and growing our economy for the benefit of all, not just the few.

I believe there are five core policies that would radically shift the balance of inequality within a five year Parliament mainly by taking funds out of “storage” by the super wealthy and putting them into circulation for the benefit of all, helped by shifting the tax base away from taxes based on income to taxes based on wealth. We all help create the wealth but currently it is only accumulated by the few and needs to be shared more equitably. I call these five policies an Agenda for Progressive Prosperity:

  1. Give five million people a vital boost by implementing a Real Living Wage (as determined by Living Wage Foundation).
  2. Abolish income taxes for 25 million payers, it will give up to a 15% income boost, inject £60 billion into economy and only reduce government revenue by 8%.
  3. Ramp up infrastructure investment by abolishing council tax and business rates and replacing with a Land Value Tax which as the name implies is directly related to the value of the land, a small number of owners of highly valuable land will pay a lot more where as most people will pay the same or less.
  4. Invest significantly more in health and education by a small tax on personal assets for those with over £2million (excluding primary residence). This would also cover the income tax cuts.
  5. Encourage business to be more socially responsible by offering incentives rather than more regulation. So those “good” companies that pay a real living wage, have realistic pay scales, profit sharing schemes, allow employee participation, use renewables and sign up to a fair tax agreement, and more, would benefit from certain tax breaks off their corporation tax bill.

All these policies reduce inequality, increase opportunity and cause no hardship. They are truly distinctive from both Labour and Conservatives as they demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats are the party of all the people, the party of inclusivity and the party truly committed to moving us all from here to prosperity.

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Building site - CC0 Public Domain

At last, everyone is talking about housing.

Finally, a piece from a longer-standing member, Laura Coyle who, as Laura Edge back in 2004, was my favourite council by-election candidate I managed a campaign for.

At last, everyone is talking about housing.

As a housing legal aid lawyer, it has long been my belief that access to decent quality secure housing should be given as much priority as access to quality healthcare and education. Without a decent secure home access to quality education is undermined and health is compromised.

For too long all of the main political parties, including the Lib Dems, have failed to develop radical policies to deal with a growing crisis in housing in the UK which is feeding a relentless growth in inequality, between rich and the poor and between old and young.

According to the most recent available data from the Department of Communities and Local Government, in 2014 the proportion of people in the UK owning their own home had fallen to 63.5% (its lowest rate since 1987) and the proportion of households living in social housing had fallen to 18% (from 33% in 1980). Meanwhile, the proportion of households living in private sector rented accommodation rose to 19% in 2014 (from a low of 9% in 1984).

The statistics only tell half of the story. The other half is that the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 introduced sweeping changes to the private rental sector by doing away with protected tenancies and rent control. Private sector tenants today have no security of tenure beyond an initial statutory six month fixed term, beyond which the landlord can choose to repossess and/or increase the rent.

Vince Cable said in his speech to party conference last month that, “homes are to live in; they’re not pieces on a Monopoly board”. He rightly talked about taxing foreigners who acquire residential property for investment purposes and protecting rural communities from absentee second home ownership. But we also need to talk about the buy to let market. Every time a homeowner decides to buy another property to rent out they deprive another household of the opportunity to buy their own home.

If we believe that houses should be homes and not investment vehicles then we need to disincentivise the purchase of residential property to let rather than encourage it. Since April 2017, mortgage interest deductions have been limited to the basic rate, but the Liberal Democrats should be calling for all mortgage interest tax relief to be scrapped and to encourage private landlords to provide properties to let at more affordable rents and for longer periods we should explore the possibility of linking other deductible expenses from taxable rental income to the level of rent charged and the security of tenure offered.

Of course, we also need to build more homes, and in particular social homes. But achieving a massive increase in the social housing stock will require funding. Allowing local authorities to borrow to build new homes is one part of the answer. But we should explore others. For example, the increase in land value from the grant of planning permission is huge but current taxation rates are low. It is the state that grants planning permission and yet in doing so it often prices itself out of the market for buying land for building new homes. We should look into the possibility of introducing a new, higher tax on the capital gain deriving from the grant of planning permission which is payable direct to the local authority to fund the acquisition of land for building new social homes.

These are just a few ideas. The main purpose of this article is to say that we need to urgently start the debate on how to tackle one of the biggest drivers of inequality of our time. We have a proud tradition in our party of developing radical liberal policies to address social ills and we should be at the forefront of doing so now.

Lib Dem poster - photo courtesy of Lib Dems CC BY-ND 2.0

Contest is on for new Welsh leader

A round-up of the most pertinent news from elsewhere:

101 Ways To Win An Election: Tip #26

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

Why Nick Clegg is wrong

In case you missed them first time round, here’s a reminder of some of my pieces since last time:

As for the party’s overall electoral progress, Vince Cable’s poll ratings have been looking more and more promising. Here’s how the opinion polls have been looking along with council by-election results:

2017 Q3 opinion poll results

You can get the full council by-election results each week by email if you sign up to my blog post digests.


Liberal Democrats PPB - Strong and Cable

The last Lib Dem Party Political Broadcast (PPB) was the most talked about in a long time. Here it is in case you missed it, want to love it again or want to hate it again.

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