Christmas is nearly here, so this time in Lib Dem Newswire you’ll not only find some gift suggestions but also, ready for your new year resolutions, tips on ways to get involved (further) with the Liberal Democrats. And more: including how the party did in November, why Nick Clegg wasn’t more successful, how to win the European debate and an addictive Brexit bus game.
P.S. Lots of chatter about how there might be a Parliamentary by-election in Sheffield Hallam soon. So now’s a great time to donate to Laura Gordon and the team on the ground.
In this edition:
Good news for the Lib Dems in November, but much more still to do
November has turned out to be an excellent month for the Liberal Democrats when it comes to council by-elections, with a net gain of seven seats during the month helped greatly by a dramatic final Thursday in November. That day’s gains were all in southern England, a pattern that was largely (but not completely) the case for the rest of the month’s gains too. There is still a lot of patchiness even in the party’s ability to put up candidates in contests, but progress has occurred even in areas until recently very weak.
The national voting intention opinion polls, however, have not shifted: in the six months since the general election, the average Lib Dem rating has been steadily 7%, with a slight blip one month to 8% and one month to 6%. Nothing of substance in such small movements. If this pair of trends continues – growing by-election success and flat national polls – it will all become rather reminiscent of Tim Farron’s leadership pre-Richmond Park.
The sobering broader context is that it means it’s now been seven years where the party has not managed to register above 11% in more than an occasional poll. ‘Good’ is now getting into double figures, whilst ‘good’ used to be getting into the mid-twenties and overtaking another party.
That’s one reason why I’ve often argued about how the party needs to face up to the scale of change required for major success to return. Part of that change needs to be in the party’s approach to messaging. Or, to put it a little starkly, to understand why Nick Clegg’s approach to messaging was not more successful.
The problems with his approach are illustrated in two frustrations he’s expressed about trying to persuade people during his political career. One came in a Guardian interview last year, which confirmed what I had suspected: he fundamentally didn’t get how winning over voters works:
I mistakenly assumed that if I worked hard within government, did my homework and took decisions on their merits, then, one way or another, the truth – that the coalition was acting out of reasonable motives – would become plain to see and political dividends would follow.
It is certainly desirable to prioritise getting the substance of governing right. But it is to completely misunderstand how little attention most people pay to politics to think that somehow doing the work transforms into people knowing, especially for a small party. People don’t know unless you put huge efforts into telling them, having it as a major consideration all through your efforts rather than leaving it to a bit of election planning every few years, by when it is too late.
The other illustration also came in a Guardian interview, this one published just a few days ago:
Years ago, before I became an MP, I was knocking on doors in Chesterfield, Derbyshire – this was at the height of the controversy about asylum seekers being dispersed around the country when Tony Blair was in power. The tabloid newspapers were going nuts about it every day. I remember speaking to a guy leaning on the fence outside his house and saying: “Any chance you’ll vote for the Liberal Democrats?” And he said: “No way.” And I said: “Why not?” And he said: “Because of all these asylum seekers.” And I knew for a fact that not a single asylum seeker had been dispersed to Chesterfield. So I said to him: “Oh, have you seen these asylum seekers in the supermarket or the GP’s surgery?” And he said something to me that has remained with me ever since. He said: “No, I haven’t seen any of them, but I know they’re everywhere.” You can’t dismiss the fear, but how on earth are you supposed to respond to that?
The frustration in that final question is understandable, but to pose it as an impossible question is to give up hope of being an effective political communicator.
Successful political communication has as its bread and butter reaching people who share very different views on what they think the ‘truth’ is. If you want to persuade anyone other than a pre-existing true believer to agree with you, you need to avoid been floored by someone who believes something is true which you’re convinced you have official stats to show is false. You may be right, and official stats are a good basis for your view. But it’s a common enough occurrence to find people who disagree with your view of the truth that your reaction has to be one of knowing how to set about persuading them rather than to retreat exasperated.
It’s why that final question from Nick Clegg reminds me rather of those who think the answer to fake news is to have long and detailed fact-check articles. Those aren’t a bad thing to like having, as long as you don’t believe that they’ll do that much to persuade others. They can be useful fuel for your argument, but they can’t be the totality of it.
Rather, persuasion in politics involves both evidence and emotion. Understand what’s driving that person’s different view of the truth and tackle that.
Most immediately, the lessons from this matter for how the Liberal Democrats approach winning people over on Brexit. Calling them stupid or quoting bullet-pointed lists of statistics with decimal points doesn’t work. What works is understanding the reasons people have different views and addressing those underlying causes.
With immigration, for example, it’s often the failings of public services such as the availability of housing which makes people sure that there must be lots of foreigners around the place, even if they’ve not actually seen them. Understand the need to tackle this wider perspective and then you can persuade people to change their minds. You’ll even find that when embedded in this broader approach, facts too can be persuasive.
Automating marked register entry: new service nearly ready
One of the most tedious yet useful tasks Lib Dem campaigners face is recording marked register data after an election. Now, however, volunteer coders are trying to make this task much easier. One of the team, Fred Fisher, writes about what they’ve been up to.
A team of volunteers from the Liberal Democrat Software group are developing a machine-learning system that will help the party target our resources better. It will also free up hundreds of other Lib Dem volunteers to spend time having conversations with voters, instead of filling out spreadsheets and hitting keyboards (occasionally in frustration).
The project began with a Hack Day at Liberal Democrat HQ. The goal is to automate data entry of the marked register – a key source of data which is made available to political parties after an election. Getting that data into our Connect database is necessary to make effective use of it (and to ensure the data is stored safely and securely, an important data protection consideration).
At the moment, the only way for us to get this data is for volunteers to enter the data manually from the marked register documents. Previous efforts at automating the process, via scanning and optical character recognition (OCR), have not been accurate enough due to the many different ways in which the documents record whether or not someone has voted. Sometimes a name is crossed out. Sometimes it has a tick added before. Or after. Sometimes it is marked with an X. Sometimes it is circled. There’s really no consistency at all.
However, advances in machine learning mean it is now possible to train up software to learn about all these variations and to understand them correctly. So far, the work by volunteers has got this process up to around 95% accuracy, which means we’re now looking at making this service available for people to use in good time for the next big set of marked registers that will appear after May’s elections. Watch out for more news in due course!
Christmas present ideas
For others, rather than for yourself, of course… Do share your own recommendations too up on the Facebook page.
Here are the suggestions from Amna Ahmad, the Lib Dem candidate in Sutton & Cheam earlier this year:
- Book: What Happened by Hillary Clinton – “This book offers some solace for those of us who are still wondering what happened in the US election. A great read.”
- Film: All the President’s Men – “This classic film uncovers how the Watergate scandal was brought to light by two journalists. Intrigue and drama at its very best.”
- TV series: Parks & Recreation – “This cheerful, hilarious and brilliant comedy is just the tonic after an exhausting political year. It follows the quirks of life in local government and always has me in stitches.”
Here are the suggestions from Lynne Featherstone, former Lib Dem MP for Hornsey & Wood Green and the person behind the legalisation of same-sex marriage, about which she wrote a book:
- Book: The Handmaid’s Tale – “I love this dystopian nightmare by Margaret Atwood – totally scary. It fits my belief that civilization is only skin deep – and as I currently watch our reductionist, intolerant political descent into hell, I can only hope we change before we all become handmaidens!”
- Film: “It’s a tie between Citizen Kane and All the President’s Men. Citizen Kane is just the most powerful story of news control and an early warning of its power. All the President’s Men – the story of Watergate, brilliantly told and brilliantly acted – is hideously real. And demonstrates that politicians seem never to learn that the cover-up is what does for you.”
- TV series: Game of Thrones – “It just has to be. If you haven’t seen this outrageously marvellous canvas of power, gore and brutality with production values to die for, you have to. You absolutely have to.”
And from me:
5 exciting ways to get involved in the party
Over the summer I wrote a pamphlet on reinventing the Liberal Democrats with Your Liberal Britain founder, Jim Williams. Here Jim updates readers on YLB’s recent progress at helping members get the most out of the party – and the party get the most out of offers of help from members.
Hello from the Your Liberal Britain team!
We’re a reform group helping the Liberal Democrats make the most out of you, the party’s members and supporters. You’re full of ideas, and you’ve got skills and experience the party badly needs. We’re here to help the party find you, and give you something meaningful to do.
Here’s what we’ve got planned coming up:
- Together with Paddy Ashdown, we’ll be challenging you to develop your big, dangerous idea for the Liberal Democrats. We’ve designed a super simple policy brainstorm event that any member or local party can run, where you’ll be challenged to come up with attention-grabbing, distinctive policies for our party. Our first experiments were an absolute hit: you’re going to love it. (This is starting in early December, so sign up now to make sure you don’t miss it.)
- We’re going to create two Spokespeople’s Resource Groups, as an experiment to begin with, where people just like you can help our Parliamentary Spokespeople set the agenda in politics today. We’re starting with Health, and are working to identify the second group now.These groups will start small, but as they grow they’ll give you ways to shape our party’s policies and campaigns – from simple discussion spaces online, to national consultations challenging both members and the public to find solutions to the thorniest problems facing Britain today. Join our mailing list to make sure you hear about these opportunities.
- If you’re responsible for digital campaigning in your area – or for a candidate’s digital campaigning – we want to hear from you. We’re partnering with Lib Dem HQ and ALDC to network together everyone in the party responsible for local digital campaigning. Head to liberalbritain.org/get-involved to let us know.
- Whether or not you hold a position of responsibility with digital campaigning, if you like fighting the good fight for the party online, then you need to be a member of the Online Champions. We’ll give you the digital training you want (seriously – just tell us), and connect you straight to digital campaigns happening up and down the country, so you can help out from wherever you are. (Plus we do caption contests. What’s not to like?)
- We can’t confirm any details yet, but we’re working with the Welsh, London and Sheffield Hallam parties to run events specific in their areas. Road trip time! (We can’t get everywhere in the country, but if you can help with our costs we could come to you too. Just let us know! Email firstname.lastname@example.org)
If you want to be part of any of these activities, or just want to hear how they go, head to liberalbritain.org/sign-up to join our low volume mailing list. (We mean it: we only sent one email last month.) [Ed: no comment.]
If you like what we’re doing and want to help us do it, head to liberalbritain.org/get-involved. We’re looking for all sorts of people, from bookkeepers to photographers to writers and event managers, fundraisers, graphic designers, web developers – you name it. If you want to help, we can usually find you something to do.
More from us soon!
Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Paul Dacre: new Lib Dem podcasts
The latest editions of both of the two regular podcasts dedicated to the Liberal Democrats are well worth a listen:
- Nick Clegg takes aim at Paul Dacre (Soundcloud / iTunes): latest edition of The Limehouse Podcast
- Vince Cable is joined by Simon Woolley, founder of Operation Black Vote, to discuss the party’s record on diversity (Soundcloud / iTunes): latest edition of Liberated
Want to stop Brexit? Then stop fighting like it’s 2016
Nick Barlow, sometime councillor, travel news presenter and part of an artistic display on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, is one of the best Liberal Democrat bloggers. He’s kindly given me permission to reproduce this excellent post of his about how to win – and how not to win – the Brexit argument.
Remainers, 48 percenters, proud Europhiles, gather round and listen to me when I tell you that if we’re going to stop Brexit, then we have to stop refighting the referendum.
There’s lots of people who seem to think there’s a shortcut to stopping Brexit by invalidating the referendum. There are several reasons and ways presented for doing this, but it boils down to a simple argument: Because of (spending irregularities/lies on buses/it was only advisory/Russian trolls/insert your favourite argument here) the referendum was wrong, therefore we should all pretend it didn’t happen and stop doing Brexit. Unfortunately for people putting that forward, the possibility of any of those arguments, even in combination, persuading enough people of the desirability of memory-holing the referendum is in the same region as Elvis turning out to be the Loch Ness Monster.
It’s not that I don’t understand the appeal of ‘if only’ arguments and the chance to have a do-over of something that you got wrong the first time. If we could just go back a couple of years then we could have a Remain campaign that wasn’t eye-meltingly incompetent, or develop a better way to counter bus-based propaganda, or have better weather on polling day or a million other things that would have absolutely, definitely changed the result. The problem, however, is when a political version l’esprit de l’escalier becomes a substitute for having policy that deals with the present.
The problem with a strategy of invalidating the referendum is that it looks to most people like an attempt to cheat or win on a technicality. It’s not a political win, where you persuade people by the strength of your ideas but a dirty one, where you manage to rig the system to your advantage. Unless you’ve got evidence of widespread and systematic vote fraud/tampering in the referendum (and I’m about as sure as I can be that there wasn’t) invalidation is not going to be a successful strategy. You don’t persuade someone to change their mind by telling them ‘you didn’t know what you were doing when you voted because of (insert nefarious force of your choice here)’ Even in the best circumstances, people are very unwilling to admit they might not be responsible for their own opinions (and we don’t have the budget to give everyone a detailed education in the mechanics of public opinion), so don’t expect them to be grateful someone who didn’t vote the way they did is telling them they’re thick.
Like generals, political campaigners are often only concerned with refighting the last war instead of developing the strategy and tactics they need to win the next one. If you want to stop Brexit, then you have to accept the world we’re in, which is one in which people voted for it in 2016 and aren’t going to be persuaded that something else happened then instead. This isn’t a ‘believe in Brexit and everything will be fine’ argument – I thought it was a bad idea in 2016, and I still do today – but a call to try and win the political battles of today, not the ones of eighteen months ago.
To win those arguments needs a change in the way arguments get phrased. There’s too much of a tendency to frame everything in terms of the referendum, coupled with the underlying assumption that we’re divided into political tribes of Leavers and Remainers. When news comes through it’s all too easy (and I’ve done it myself) to talk about it in terms of ‘see, this is why I was right in the referendum and you were wrong’. It makes us feel good and justified in what we’ve done, but consider how someone on the ‘other side’ might see it. For a start, you’ve drawn a line and made two sides, encouraging them to think of themselves as being on the Leave ‘side’. That means they’re now primed to deal with any news we get that’s not good for our side – we find reasons to dismiss or dispute it, to reinforce our notion of ourselves as being right and being fixed in our opinions. You’re not persuading someone to think about the future, merely to reinforce their view of themselves as someone defined by an action they took in the past.
There aren’t any time machines, memory holes or even obscure legal precedents discovered by some bloke on Facebook that are going to make it so the referendum didn’t happen. The only way to stop Brexit is through votes that are yet to take place. They might be in Parliament, in an election or even at another referendum, but if we want to win those votes then we need to be thinking now about how we persuade people to side with us when they come about. So when you’re sharing news about the Irish border, trade talks, GDP figures or whatever else, talk about what this means for the future of the UK and everyone living here. Don’t tell process stories about the referendum, instead tell meaningful stories about how we can do something different and improve people’s lives. Don’t get into fact-checking arguments on social media with hardcore keyboard warriors who aren’t going to change their minds, because all that’s doing is reinforcing the narrative of two opposing camps which just hardens opinions around the referendum. Don’t repeat their soundbites in the belief you’re correcting them – remember the old adage that if you’re explaining, you’re losing – but develop our own arguments instead. Start with ‘no deal is a bad deal’ and work from there with people who are better at coining pithy phrases than me.
Stop arguing against things and start arguing for things, and give people a reason to rally around the positive instead of just getting angry about things that can’t be changed. Those who want Brexit are happy to rehash the referendum arguments ad infinitum because they won that time. We need to move on and make the arguments that will win the next votes, not imagine we’ve got the power to change the past.
Stand up for immigration – Willie Rennie
A round-up of the most pertinent Liberal Democrat news from elsewhere:
No thank you: Vince Cable declines invite to lead another political party
In case you missed them first time round, here’s a reminder of some of my pieces since last time:
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