Sunday: decision time on Liberal Democrat strategy (LDN #110)

Liberal Democrat Newswire #110 came out a couple of days ago and as a good chunk of it was about Lib Dem conference this weekend, here it is up earlier than usual on the web too.

If you’d like the convenience of getting it direct by email – and ahead of this website – in future just sign up for it here.

Thank you so much to everyone who responded to my last email, a financial appeal to help cover the growing costs of Liberal Democrat Newswire. Readership is up 85% in the last year alone and that, plus my new plans, has upped the costs. Thank you for helping cover them. They’re not quite all covered yet, so if you haven’t yet had time to read or respond to it, please do take a look here.

Before we get stuck into this latest edition, a mention for a survey I’m helping run. Because I’m often an organiser, participant or attendee at meetings in the party, I’m interested in how we make them work at their best. Jokes about unfruitful meetings are a staple of just about every workplace or organisation, of course. I’ve also been intrigued to learn recently about the research that shows what a difference it can make to the gender balance of questions if the first question the chair picks is one from a woman rather than a man. Just the sort of detail we need to think about – and act on – much more in the party. If you’re a Lib Dem member or supporter, please do take the survey here.

Best wishes,


In this edition:

Strategy graphics - CC0 Photo by Kaboompics

The 6 steps to Lib Dem success

On Sunday morning at the Liberal Democrat federal spring conference in Southport (agenda and directory here), the party will be debating a new strategy (full text here).

I’d summarise it as a six step route to success:

  1. Build a durable, long-term basis of support by creating a much larger core vote for the party – one that can sustain our success and gives us a strong starting position in first-past-the-post elections (breaking away from our previous reluctance to prioritise any part of the electorate and instead to try to build long-term success on different short-term local coalitions of support in different places);
  2. Achieve this with a consistent focus on communicating our values and demonstrating our commitment to them (rather than our previous approach of viewing political messaging as being about simply present a collection of policies);
  3. Create a broad liberal campaigning movement, working where appropriate with those outside the party, both to directly achieve our political aims (such as securing legislative change here and now) as well as making the political environment for our electoral campaigns more favourable (in contrast with our previous approach of pretty much only viewing national campaigning as electioneering, where the only objective ever is a short-term one of votes);
  4. Take elections at all levels seriously, not only for their own political importance but also for the way in which success at each helps build the momentum and infrastructure for success at the others (rather than the previous over-dominance of general elections to the extent even of party HQ counting down days to ‘polling day’ even though there were other non-general election polling days coming first);
  5. Creating our own political momentum and re-establishing our relevance as a party by achieving tangible successes in these campaigns – both political and electoral; (as opposed to seeing measures such as membership totals or council by-election gains as largely irrelevant to the party’s overall prospects) and
  6. Help achieve all this by getting our organisational act together to build a campaigning movement that can successfully challenge the big parties (unlike our previous approach of usually having no overall coherent organisational plan for the party).

To the untrained eye some of this – such as taking elections at all levels seriously – may seem unexceptional. Hence my additional text in italics to highlight how every step, however obvious it may seem, is also a major step away from how the party used to do things. Some of the reasons for our past behaviour should be viewed sympathetically – it’s hard to blame staff for over-focusing on general elections when they are working in an environment without a clear long-term strategy, for example.

But for all that we do need major change. The party is still small and weak. Only four Parliamentary constituencies were won by the party in both 2015 and 2017. Our polling ratings have not consistently reached double figures for over seven years now. Our local government base has not undergone a significant recovery since 2015. And so on.

What is more, even at our very best in the past, we were still doing no more than securing 1 in 10 MPs in Westminster or being very much the smaller party in coalitions in Wales and Scotland. Even our best before was far short of our long-term hopes.

Some change is already happening. The creation of a new campaigns role at HQ, for example. Or the changes in job descriptions for party posts since Nick Harvey took over as Chief Executive. They now regularly give high priority to working with volunteers and helping build up bigger, more effective teams of volunteers. That’s a very welcome move away from the approach that was often encountered of ‘if it’s important, you either have to employ more staff or give up’. For an organisation such as the Liberal Democrats, building up volunteer teams is not only another option, it’s often the only option.

But there’s an awful lot more to do. The proposed strategy sets out the right direction. We need not only agree on it, we then need to get on turning that into tangible progress at all levels in the party. What is proposed is not just a motion for debate on a Sunday morning; it’s a roadmap for us all to then take and use.

Baby in a hospital - CC0 photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Expert health panel calls for ringfenced health and social care tax to replace National Insurance

A new tax earmarked solely for the NHS and social care is among the recommendations in a report on healthcare funding in England. The report comes from a panel of ten health experts set up by the Liberal Democrats in autumn 2016.

As Norman Lamb said when they previously published their interim findings:

The Government is dragging its heels on offering anything resembling a vision for the future of health and social care in Britain. We are a wealthy country, we have to do right by our sick and elderly. Excuses and promises of fixes tomorrow simply are not good enough.

The panel, which includes former chief executives of NHS England, the Royal College of Nursing, and the Patients Association, concluded that the NHS in England needs a real terms funding increase of £4bn in 2018-19 and further real terms increases of £2.5bn in each of the following two years.

Their report, Health and Social Care: Delivering a Secure Funding Future, can be read in full online. It points out that in the short-term, the NHS funding gap could be bridged by an income tax increase of the sort the Liberal Democrats have been calling for.

Longer-term, the panel recommends, health and care funding should be brought together in a single ringfenced tax to replace National Insurance.

Other recommendations include:

  • Creating an Office for Budget Responsibility for Health
  • Introducing incentives to encourage people to save more towards adult social care
  • Additional revenue for local authorities to invest in public health
  • Reinstating the cap on the costs of adult social care

The panel also argued that consideration should be given to scrapping the total exemption from National Insurance Contributions for people who work beyond the age of 65. Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is considering this proposal for higher earners.

Vince Cable said:

This specialist report provides some convincing answers on arguably the greatest domestic crisis facing the country: how to deal with the severe pressures on health and social care services. We must never again be in a position whereby funding is so short that more than 50,000 operations have had to be postponed over the course of a single month.

The health and care budget should be financed by an earmarked tax, which could replace national insurance. Many of those previously strongly opposed now accept that, in the case of the NHS, there is a strong argument for a form of ringfenced tax.

Panel member Professor Clare Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners and a party member since 2016, said:

At a time when the NHS and social care face such immense pressures, policy makers must be willing to look at bold solutions in order to safeguard vital services for generations to come.

Developing this report has been a welcome opportunity to explore ideas including the creation of a dedicated health and social care tax, which could help deliver the long-term funding that services desperately need. I hope policy makers of all parties will consider these recommendations seriously.

Norman Lamb, former health minister and campaigner for a cross-party approach on these issues, added:

This report is an important contribution to the debate on the future of the NHS and social care. I have long argued for a hypothecated tax and that is now gaining support across the political spectrum.

However, it is clearer than ever that we also need to establish a cross-party NHS and Care Convention – a time-limited process that would engage with staff, patients and the public to come up with a plan for securing the long-term sustainability of these treasured services.

Although this report is not formally party policy, its genesis and reception so far makes it pretty clear which way party policy is likely to go on this issue.

The panel’s members are:

  • Sir David Nicholson, former chief executive of NHS England
  • Dr Peter Carter, former chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing
  • Katherine Murphy, former chief executive of the Patients Association
  • Professor Clare Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners
  • Professor Dinesh Bhugara, emeritus professor of mental health and cultural diversity and president of the World Psychiatric Association
  • Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Charity Futures and former chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations
  • Amna Ahmad, health campaigner and NHS policy expert
  • Professor Paul McCrone, health economist
  • Cllr Richard Kemp, leader of Liverpool Liberal Democrats and deputy chair of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board
  • Professor Nick Bosanquet, professor of healthcare policy at Imperial College

Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics

Why haven’t the Lib Dems risen in the polls?

Lib Dem membership and council seats may be up since the general election, but the party’s poll ratings are not. Independent polling expert Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics, who rose to fame for correctly predicting the 2015 general election, takes a look at why.

A major talking point in recent months has been the stability of the opinion polls for all parties. The average of the nine polls with fieldwork in February (and published at the time of writing) has a Lib Dem vote share of 7.7 per cent. That’s within 0.1 points of the party’s 2017 general election result (excluding Northern Ireland). Why the stalemate?

The conundrum looks slightly different for the Lib Dems than for the larger parties, because apart from a brief period in the 1950s, the liberal vote share has never been much lower than it is now.

The question then becomes “why it isn’t higher?” But it’s also important to consider the circumstances under which we’d expect it to be higher. Big increases in Lib Dem or Liberal support have historically tended to coincide with one of two things – Parliamentary by-election successes and popular positioning cutting through – and both of these have become harder.

Parliamentary by-elections have become less frequent than in the past, particularly in Conservative seats, given that many of that party’s MPs were first elected relatively recently and parties have got wise to the risk of losing seats in such contests. These seats are the low-hanging fruit, particularly in by-elections, since the Tories in government. And whereas in the past, a by-election success like Richmond Park might have led to a poll surge, which in turn might have driven news coverage and perhaps become self-reinforcing, modern polls are less volatile for technical reasons. In the event, Richmond Park was followed by a 2-3 point polling gain, which lasted until the general election campaign.

Gaining traction through positioning has become harder because of reduced visibility. Brexit may or may not turn out to be an “Iraq” for the Lib Dems, but not being the official third party means no guaranteed slot at Prime Minister’s Questions and generally less airtime. That, compounded by the by-election drought and the big two hogging 80-85 per cent of the vote, makes it harder to get the message out. That’s reflected in polling – a September YouGov poll found that only 6 per cent (and only 16 per cent of Lib Dem voters) were very clear what the party stood for, and around half answered “don’t know” on four separate questions about Vince Cable.

Ultimately, one of the things required might simply be patience. Big vote share increases are rare – even 2005 was less than four points. But the potential is there – the same poll found that 23 per cent would either vote or consider voting Lib Dem, with only 35 per cent saying “never” and only 22 per cent saying both that they objected to the coalition and that they hadn’t forgiven the Lib Dems.

How to tap that potential with Matt highlights? Part of it is about changing the way the party operates, part of it is about deliberately setting out to use council by-elections as another way to generate momentum, part of it is about campaigning on Brexit in a way that builds bridges with those outside the party and part of it is about building our own digital channels to create the sort of direct audience with voters that the Focus newsletter was also invented to provide.

A microphone - CC0 Public Domain

Core vote strategy: good, bad or indifferent?

The Labour podcast Not Enough Champagne is always on my list of recommendations for political podcasts, even for Lib Dem activists. Not only does it provide a good insight into Labour politics, it also provides a thoughtful critique of the Liberal Democrats when the party hits their radar. Not a critique I always agree with, but the sort of critique that makes you think rather than just dismiss the messenger as being hostile.

Whether or not I’ll still think that after the latest edition is to be seen… as it, um, mentions me: “On our podcast this week we talk about their chances of breaking back into the 2-party system and the work @markpack has been doing to try and make that happen.”

Grab the podcast on iTunes or on Libsyn; it is episode #99 to look out for.

Advert for Nick Clegg's book, "How to stop Brexit"

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

New policy ideas, new tax, new statue: Lib Dems in the news

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

Preamble to Liberal Democrat constitution on the office wall in Great George Street

Liberal Democrat philosophy: free 14 week email series

Having people understand what the Liberal Democrats stand for and why is a continuing challenge for the party. More recently, it’s come with a new twist – because approaching two-thirds of the party’s members have joined since 10pm on general election day 2015.

So to help address part of that issue, I’ve spun up a new and free 14-part weekly email series about the roots of liberal, Liberal and Liberal Democrat beliefs. Each email is quite chunky, which is why they are spaced out weekly.

You can sign up for the free 14-week course here.

It’s about where the party’s beliefs come from and why, rather than a current survey of party policy. If that’s more your thing, you may find my party poster or the 2017 manifesto useful.

Many thanks to Duncan Brack and his colleagues at the Liberal Democrat History Group, especially the contributors to the now sadly out of print Dictionary of Liberal Thought, whose work I’ve used heavily.

Candy Piercy with the Lib Dem Agents Manual she edits

An interview with… Candy Piercy

Welcome to a new occasional series of interviews with key members of the Liberal Democrats, the sort of people who are crucial to our success, make a huge difference to what the party is like but haven’t yet landed the four-page interview in a Sunday newspaper magazine. Last time it was Caron Lindsay. This time it’s Candy Piercy, who for the last few general elections I’ve worked with on editing the party’s manual for election agents.

Q. What made you support the Liberal Democrats?
A. I was a founder member of the Lib Dems. I first got angry about politics when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. I realised I needed to get involved and do something rather than complaining from the sidelines. I watched all the party leaders on TV and realised that David Steel was expressing my values most closely. I wanted a party that stood for social justice, with an optimistic, outward-looking view of the world. So I joined the old Liberal Party and worked on the Alliance general election campaign in 1983. I was then the election agent for my home seat of Aylesbury in 1987.

Q. What is the main focus of your party activism at the moment?
A. My main focus is getting more women and people from other under-represented groups elected as Liberal Democrat MPs. As Chair of CGB (the Campaign for Gender Balance, which is a sub-committee of the Federal  Board) I work closely with women all over the UK to help them get selected as candidates. I am very proud that all four of our women MPs came on CGB training, including our super-successful flagship workshop, the Future Women MPs Weekends. I also run Unconscious Bias training workshops and adapt the successful CGB training to help BAME candidates develop their political careers. In addition, I it on the Federal Board and on the Federal People Development Committee.

When there is a big by-election I am a member of the team that runs our amazing Front of House operation, welcoming Lib Dem helpers from across the country to the by-election campaigns. It was particularly interesting meeting so many talented newbies on the Witney and Richmond Park campaigns.

Q. What is the most exciting or optimistic thing you’ve seen in the party in the past year?
A. Seeing 76 high-quality applications pour in for the 17 places we had available on the Future Women MPs Weekend last month! And the quality of the women who attended was mind-blowing. They were all so committed and exciting to work with. It will be great to see them fighting in target seats and joining the Lib Dem team in Westminster, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly in the next few years.

Q. What is the best political advice you have received?
A. The next campaign starts the day after polling day! Seriously, you cannot win a seat as a Lib Dem in just four weeks unless you have the whole by-election team on board. It is the work months and years ahead of polling day that is vital. You need lots of regular campaigning, with strong organisation and a powerful message that will ultimately pay off.

Q. What political issue or viewpoint have you changed your mind on and why?
A. There are two linked issues here. I have become more radical about the need to intervene to support people from ethnic minorities and those with disabilities in business and in politics. I thought our society was becoming more tolerant, open and civilised. Since the Brexit vote, it is clear it has not. For example, I want to see the law changed to allow all-BAME political shortlists – and I want the party to implement this without waiting for a change in the law. If we have to fight this through the courts so be it.

And I believe the Brexit vote and the election of Trump have revealed the alienation of a part of the population that feels let down and disenfranchised. So I want to see government intervention to engage and support these sections of society. 

Q. If you could change one thing about the party overnight, what would it be?
A. Introduce the new disciplinary system recommended by the Macdonald Report. I hear rumblings of moves to block it from senior levels of the English Party, particularly some regions. Are the new recommendations perfect? No way. They need amending in several respects. But even as they stand, the Macdonald proposals are light years better than the existing old, unfair and long-winded disciplinary system. Some cases meander on for two or even three years. Some even are never resolved.

I find it hard to believe that we should keep using a system that is clearly not fit for purpose. A system that let everyone down during the Chris Rennard saga, has failed to manage racism allegations effectively and shows little sign of responding to the needs of wishes of the majority of Lib Dem members. Why should this broken system be kept in place?

Q. Where can people find you online?
A. Best place to find me is via Facebook as Candy Piercy. And do join the CGB –The Lib Dem Campaign for Gender Balance page on Facebook to find out about how we help women candidates and what forthcoming training is in the diary. Our new website is due to go live any day now and will be announced on Facebook.

Please Like Lib Dem Newswire on Facebook

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

Gina Miller tells EU citizens: vote Lib Dem in May

In case you missed them first time round, here’s are the highlights from my pieces since last time:

Here’s how council by-election results have been looking since last time, with February overall seeing Liberal Democrat gains and generally more candidates than before:

Since the general election, the Lib Dem vote share is up across all types of seats. Two parts of the pattern are particularly notable. First, the Lib Dem vote is going up more than Labour’s in Conservative held-seats – suggesting that the party is managing to hold on to, and even improve, its status as the main challenger to the Conservatives in many places. Second, the Lib Dem vote is particularly benefiting from the collapse of Ukip’s vote in former Ukip seats, suggesting at least some of the Lib Dem recovery is based on a ‘we want someone who isn’t the current establishment around here’.

There was also a Welsh Assembly by-election, with a promising outcome: Lib Dems move up from fifth to third in Welsh Assembly by-election. That finishing a long way behind in third is progress illustrates both how far the party has fallen in Wales, but also that the party is back on the up.

To get the full council by-election results every week, sign up for my blog posts digest.

Online campaign tips #1: the Follow setting for Facebook pages
Find out how to use one of the most important settings on Facebook in this video from my digital campaigning tips series.

Southwark Lib Dem postcard by Election Workshop

How one local party is freeing up activist time for canvassing – and getting great literature as a result

A regular theme of my writings about how the Liberal Democrats should change is that we need to be more efficient. Why, for example, do so many people spend so much time designing similar leaflets from scratch when instead they could use the great set of ready-to-go templates available from ALDC? Similarly, good use of trusted suppliers is often the best option; done well, spending a bit of money brings in expertise, economies of scale and reliable quality. Here, one such supplier – Election Workshop – writes about their work with the Liberal Democrats:

Southwark Liberal Democrats have decided to make voter contact their priority until the election. They have a very strong message about creating a ‘Liberal London that works for everyone’. As Leader of Southwark Liberal Democrats, Anood Al-Samerai explains:

We decided that addressed literature was the only way to reach residents behind gates already being flooded with junk mail. We thought it would be more efficient to fundraise for targeted mailings so activists could spend time door knocking. We could also be more strategic about who we sent literature to with different messages.

Having decided to outsource their addressed mail Southwark needed to choose a direct mail partner. They chose Election Workshop. Its Charles Glover explains:

Chris and I set up Election Workshop to help Liberal Democrats win. Having thirty years of campaigning experience means we can spot and help fix imprints, messaging errors and design issues before they impact campaigning.

Anood came to us armed with quotes from other suppliers that we promised to beat. But our added value was our understanding what Southwark Liberal Democrats wanted to achieve, and how Liberal Democrats campaign. We offered advice on saving money without compromising their impact.

We had three telephone meetings to discuss Southwark’s goals and which groups they wanted to influence. Chris and I are experienced Connect users. We helped Southwark choose the groups most likely to vote Liberal Democrat, be persuaded – and turn out to vote.

Southwark is facing boundary changes, so Connect searches were complex because it doesn’t hold the new wards. Chris created Connect searches and exported the data for each mailing.

Election Workshop offers a wide range of formats for such mailings including, Southwark’s pick, oversize postcards which are bigger than the standard A5 (see cover illustration above), giving the space to deliver their full message. They also saved Southwark money by intelligent use of shared inserts with varying letters and vice-versa.

Anood said,

We have been hugely impressed with the professionalism and efficiency of Election Workshop. They have taken on all the Connect data, mail merging, printing and posting for us and been clear about deadlines and requirements, responding quickly and helpfully. They have also been very patient as they understand the pressures of campaigns and campaign teams. Outsourcing has hugely helped keep us focused on talking to voters and winning on 3rd May!

If Election Workshop can help your campaign with addressed mail contact them on 0161 272 6216 or enquiries@electionworkshop.co.uk.

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