Former Liberal Democrat candidate launches new political party

Another day, another new party:

A new political party will be launched this week and aims to persuade residents in its first electoral battle that it can tackle poor governance at Kensington and Chelsea council.

The party, Advance, hopes to capture the spirit of the En Marche movement in France which helped to propel Emmanuel Macron to the presidency this year.

Advance plans to field candidates in all 18 wards of the borough in May’s council elections, and has recruited a dozen potential candidates.

They will be led by Annabel Mullin, a former Liberal Democrat, with the aim of agitating for greater transparency and accountability within the council.

Annabel Mullin was a new Liberal Democrat member who stood for Parliament in the 2017 general election, contesting Kensington. Her departure from the party followed a dispute over how she performed in that role, a dispute about which I’d make third observations.

First, the events at the heart of the dispute were over how much she, a candidate in a non-target seat, did or didn’t support the party’s campaign in target seats. A particular cause of friction has been activities on polling day. The exact facts of what happened, especially on polling day, are not easy to establish, with the first version of this post generating a batch of messages from party members to me with on some points conflicting versions of events.*

What seems to be consistent across those messages is that there was not the wholesale shifting of campaign efforts to target seats on polling day in the way that happened in many other non-target seats around London and the country more generally. Similarly, the emails I received during the campaign from the local party seemed to show much less interest in and enthusiasm for supporting target seat campaigns than those I received from other local parties during the election. (Quite a few different local parties have me on their general member and supporter email lists.)

This is perhaps the most straight forward element of the dispute as it’s a straight forward case of bad judgement. Focusing efforts in target seats, especially on polling day, maximises the number of seats the party wins, and is quite compatible with building up a larger core vote so that other seats become targets in future too.

However, second, part of the dispute is over how well – or rather, how badly – the party communicated to candidates and others how and why they should support targeting efforts. In particular, what seems a basic perspective for old hands – that the best candidates are team builders and with good leadership you can build a team that wants to work locally and to help win MPs in target seats – ended up being something some (not all, but some) new candidates felt was being forced on them, unexpectedly and rudely.

Similarly, deciding to stop campaigning at 7pm may make experienced campaigners apply their heads to their desks, but for a newer member or even candidate, that’s not magical knowledge you somehow imbibe. Training and communication should convey it effectively. Too often during the election that didn’t happen, and the breadth of complaints from candidates around the country that communications with them over targeting were lacking in tact shows that the party got things wrong too.

The third observation is perhaps the trickiest. It’s that the party has seen a sequence of very active new members run into a major reverse (such as being treated rudely by other members or not securing an outcome they wished for from a party decision) and then leave the party in response.

Being a successful candidate, or political leader of any sort, is inevitably going to mean facing serious reverses at times – and so to be successful it also means responding to them by finding ways to keep going rather than to exit the stage.

The sequence of people who facing their first major reverse in the party have decided to leave it suggests to me that between them and the party something is going wrong: expectations are not being properly set about the sort of personal characteristics which are required for the job of political leadership. (To emphasise, I’m not talking here about cases of sexual harassment or assault. In those cases the problem is almost the opposite: far too often the party has got it wrong by in effect expecting people to put up with it rather than by ensuring justice.)

In some cases, I’m sure, the party could and should have done better at explaining the role of leadership and supporting would be new leaders through it. In addition (and this is, of course, the most sensitive point) we should be frank with such would be new leaders that if such resilience isn’t their thing, then the role may well not be for them either.


* Hence I’ve removed the references to specific events as the point of this post is about some more general points rather than a forensic attempt to document one particular moment in the campaign.

17 responses to “Former Liberal Democrat candidate launches new political party”

  1. This is a very depressing tale. I spent longer than I should this morning reading a FB thread about this story and have the following observations.

    Firstly it appears that the 7pm social referred to was not proposed by the PPC but by another volunteer and that it was never held.

    Secondly, it appears that three months after a complaint was made against her, the PPC was still in the dark as to what the charges against her comprised.

    Thirdly, there is I am afraid a culture in the party that is quick to criticise and slow to support. I’ve probably been guilty myself in the past and I think it is endemic in volunteer organisations where the level of commitment varies, the demands on people are extreme and ill-defined, and where people are not clear about what is and is not expected of them.

    It is a sad reflection on our party that this has resulted in the loss of Annabel and others, and one we should be taking care to learn from.

  2. In Kensington Annabel Mullin was seen as a good candidate (better than the winning Labour one or the losing Tory one). Her departure will probably be followed by others.
    The local party had an infusion of new young members, and the momentum created by candidates such as Annabel and inspiring leadership by Tim Farron (despite one or two errors) risks now being lost. There need to be changes higher up in the party and among its officials.

  3. I think there will always be risk involved in selecting as candidates very recent recruits to the party – especially at parliamentary level. It stands to reason that such candidates will not have had time to develop a depth of loyalty to the party and acceptance of the (sometimes annoying, let’s face it) norms and expectations the party demands. However this should not stop us from taking that risk where appropriate – able new recruits can often bring new and much less hackneyed ideas and approaches.

    As to targeting, I agree with Mark that there was a great lack of clear leadership on this. For example I was amazed to find that outside effort was put into Vauxhall (did someone really think Kate Hoey’s position was vulnerable?) while not a great distance away we were losing Richmond Park by 45 votes. We must do better next time.

  4. Working in a target seat we were grateful for all the help we received but it causes me great pain to hear of the illiberal behaviour of the party at the centre. Democracy requires that we give people a choice and we treat people willing to stand fairly and equitably even if we know they have an enormous uphill challenge. We even had an excellent candidate in Norfolk sanctioned and treated very badly and our MP and executive have had to defend this person against unfounded reports. Having returned to the party after many years away I fear Head Office never learns.

  5. I think the party has a problem with long-standing members being dismissive or patronising towards newcomers. There’s a lot of “that’s not how it works in local elections/this constituency/the Liberal Democrats”. I’m not a new member but only became active recently and have seen a lot of this.

    It’s off putting for various reasons: first it assumes that the new members bring no personal skills or insights that might be valuable; secondly the track record of the party at winning anything at all in recent years is pretty moderate, so being told “that’s not how we do things” isn’t always convincing. Finally, politics appears to be changing rapidly. The methods that got Liberal Democrats elected 10 years ago may genuinely no longer be relevant.

  6. Many of the points of contention should have been covered in the assessment process prior to a candidate being approved to be a PPC.
    If not at that point then certainly in the Constituency selection process.
    If these processes were followed it should have come out during the complaints procedure.

  7. Having been in the former Liberal Party and now Lib Dems …. i have suffered personal set backs in the past ….. BUT …. that is NOT a reason to throw in the towel. A great pity that this person could not see the bigger picture, take a deep breath, learn and carry on. I do wonder if some newer members joined just on the basis of our anti brexit stance without the wider holding of liberal values. I do not know this person, BUT when Richmond was lost by 45 votes ….

  8. We have to remember that the general election campaign this year was very unusual compared to all other campaigns in living memory, in the way in which things changed mid-campaign. That was certainly true of my own campaign as the PPC for Middlesbrough. We actually started off with genuine optimism that we could make some inroads in the seat, as all the evidence prior to the May local elections suggested this. However, those results raised the first alarm bells that all was not as it should have been, and very shortly afterwards the wheels started to fall off the national campaign. Now I don’t want to go into the reasons for this here, but it was obvious probably 3-4 weeks out that the emphasis had to change to a defensive rather than an offensive approach. In the circumstances I found it completely appropriate for us to all be called ‘off patch’ as it would have been madness to devote any more unnecessary time to the Middlesbrough campaign. As the party gained my local target seat of Edinburgh West, it is almost impossible to argue that these tactics were wrong. Personally I cannot understand how any PPC could have taken issue with the new instructions, unless they were not a team player but only interested in their own self promotion, the type of person whom I would hope could never be selected as a Liberal Democrat PPC.

  9. New candidates almost always under-estimate the amount of work needed to win and how well friendly reactions on the doorstep translate into votes when the final push hits, than experience indicates is reality. And that means they under-estimate the need to target and the likelihod that resources in their area are well-spent. The need to obey targetting decisions needs to be made very very clear up front on approval, but I think sanctions need to be moderate. But in our area we found ourselves being encouraged to go in two directions in polling week, where we couldn’t find out the status of one of the seats. Communication was very confused.

  10. It’s important to register that a great number of LibDems worked incredibly hard in the GE 2017, especially Tim Farron. However, we were at a cross-roads of the electorate where the growing crowds converging there would sweep people into one of two roads going forward – following either JC or TM. It must have been quite bewildering for new members of LibDems to experience a lack of supporters on the quieter LD street beyond.

    We were still re-building the party after the shocks of 2015, caused by Tories throwing [maybe from tax-havens] their £millions at our candidates, reducing us by almost 50 MPs. To be clear – each MP is valued as an individual but each one also adds a greater collateral to party visibility throughout the country. This year was one of little visibility for us, having just 9 MPs. Our new candidates were not used to being ignored by the media and, consequently, the voters at polling stations. Shock must have added to the experience of failing in their dream to represent their constituency.

    I know Annabel, like many other new members and candidates, was doing everything she could in RBKC to fight against the tide of the cross-roads masses. She was highly visible online and amongst my Twitter followers until we learned that the party had not made the inroads back to parliament we had expected. Now Annabel has decided to form Advance and we surely wish her well as she carries forward the LibDem principles she advocated during the GE. One thing to do now: agree with both Advance and LiDems that we don’t make a cross-roads of our own devising by fighting each other. I feel the need of an amicable relationship going forward.

  11. Kensington was by no means the only local party that failed to help where the help might be crucial. It would be good to be assured that candidates who bore some responsiblity for this were treated equally and with sensitivity irrespective of their length of service or prominence. However, it seems this candidate left partly because the party notified her that they were investigating and then failed to follow up effectively or openly. I’m not surprised. I once made a complaint through the party procedure. The matter was settled after a conversation over the phone with the officer on the other end of the complaint – but I was surprised no-one else ever checked with me that the complaint was in fact resolved and disappointed no-one asked me or him for feedback on the process. These are basic points in any good complaints procedure.

    Another issue may well be that paid party officers sometimes have little experience of local activism and local parties. They should all be seconded for two months or so (not all at the same time).

  12. As a newbie member and candidate in the snap GE, I can confirm that communication to candidates in advance about expectations was poor. But along the way the message came through loud and clear, if clumsily. I had just been approved as a candidate the day before the spring conference, before we knew there would be a snap election. This topic was not discussed in the approval process that I can remember, nor at the candidates briefing held at the conference. Once the election was called, materials provided from HQ to candidates was focused on things to do in your own seat. And with the short notice and little advance preparation, candidates were largely left to their own devices, and certainly felt enormous pressure to perform as candidates. When half-way through the message changed, it was largely poorly handled. If we expect candidates to be the leaders, then we need to treat them as the leadership team and prepare them and mentor them in that role. All that said, I’m incredibly grateful for the experience. I learned so much, and see it all as preparation for future elections. I had very realistic expectations regarding my own campaign, and used it to help build up the local party, and then I threw as much support as I could at the nearest target seat. My commitment is longer than a single election, and it’s not about me, or even about the party, it’s about the change we want to bring about. I think we need to recognise that mistakes have been made, and try to learn from them, and forgive ourselves and each other. We are human, we are (many of us) inexperienced, and we are all under-resourced and overworked. And yet, we can accomplish great things.

  13. I have been impressed by Annabel ‘s leadership qualities:firm,calm and always supportive.She and her team worked extremely hard during the campaign which was really well-organised, I think she deserved much more as a reward.The party needs to be inclusive, can’t afford to lose invaluable candidates.

  14. I am now looking back on this two years hence.

    On behalf of London Region, I checked out the spending declarations for the various candidates for GE17 and Annabel Mullins’ team outspent the Tories and Labour by an order of magnitude and were right up against the expenditure ceiling. It is worth noting that the winning Labour candidate expressly thanked the LibDems, during her acceptance speech, for running such a well resourced campaign and for pulling sufficient erstwhile votes away from the Tory so that she was able to get over the line.

    There is always likely to be some frisson between new members, flushed with enthusiasm but lacking in the bitter experience of campaigning under FPTP and the (still) significant level of tribalism (albeit declining) in people’s voting behaviour, and older hands who perhaps have a better understanding of the locality and how it votes. I fear that Ms Mullins’ enthusiasm may have lead her to ignore the advice of more experience locals who knew just what a tall order of turning over decades (a century?) of Tory dominance would be. I should add that I lived in the area for quite some time, acted as the Parliamentary Agent in 2001 and therefore know both some of the individuals concerned and the lie of the land across RBK&C. All of that said, it is regrettable that the party did not manage to hang onto someone who is clearly committed to the pro-European cause and I would hope that there might be some way towards a rapprochement at some point.

  15. I see she’s popped up in Wokingham as a GE candidate. At least that gives another option to the underwhelming Philip Lee.

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