Readers of Liberal Democrat Newswire were of course not surprised by the recent wave of media reports about the plans for major party reforms, including a registered supporters scheme, as I covered it several weeks previously in LDN #113. This edition keeps you ahead of the game again, this time with the story behind the new Liberal Democrat slogan, not yet covered in the media but being deployed for the first time for the Brighton conference coming up in September.
Hope you find it useful and do let me know your views,
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In this edition:
The new Lib Dem slogan
The slogan adorning Liberal Democrat conference paperwork and even stage sets is not always a carefully thought out, pre-planned decision. “The liberal alternative for Britain” which started appearing on conference paperwork in December 2015 was, for example, the result of those working on conference needing something to stick on stuff and, in the absence of anyone having made a decision on what it should be, scrabbling together a few words that would be better than an embarrassingly blank space. (And, ahem, this scrabbling produced a rather better outcome that some of the more considered processes have at times.)
The new slogan which first appeared on pdf files for the forthcoming Brighton conference may have been slipped out to the wider party a similarly unheralded way, but this time it is anything but the result of scrabbling around. Rather, it is the latest step in a process to overhaul the party’s messaging that Vince Cable kicked off last autumn (and in which I was involved in convening the initial group of volunteers and staff that planned out the approach).
At the heart of it is turning on its head the way the party traditionally puts together its election messages. The traditional way has been to accumulate lots of detailed policies and then, when an election nears, look for a way of drawing them together into a coherent message by trying to find themes that run through them. Instead, the smarter and more effective way to do things is to work out your overall message first and then work up a series of signature policies which best illustrate it. Some of those will definitely be the most important issues facing the country. But sometimes the policies that best illustrate the overall message are around issues of lower importance. Opposition to legalising fox hunting was a powerful example of this for Labour at the 2017 general election. This was not an issue near the top of many voters’ priority lists, but it did powerfully communicate a wider sense of Labour’s message and how they wanted to portray the Conservatives. (You can read more about this different approach of message first in Reinventing the Liberal Democrats.)
So what the party has done is work out a story about the state of the country and our solution. People are working hard – whether that is at work, in the home supporting their families or more broadly in the community – but our political and economic systems do not deliver the results they deserve. This is not just a fact of nature. Rather, there are villains in this story, those who are to blame for the breakdown of the basic social contract: tax-dodging firms, a government that does not take providing high-quality public services seriously and growing inequality. But there is a solution – the Liberal Democrats will fight to restore fairness, standing up to power and privilege by giving people more control over their own lives. The Liberal Democrats are insurgents who want to change things.
This is of course rather generalist but it gives a clear framework within which messages, policies, slogans and all the other paraphernalia of communications can be slotted. It also leads to a variety of formulations which have been carefully market-researched to check that they do what they need to do – that is to appeal to liberal-minded voters.
Hence the new slogan: Demand Better. Not only a slogan but also a first stab at a complete policy prospectus which is being put to conference (Policy Paper 134: Demand Better – Liberal Democrat priorities for a better Britain).
Things can be better. If we demand it. And work together to secure it.
Gina Miller won’t be the next Lib Dem leader, but a non-MP might be
No, Gina Miller is not going to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats. She’s even said it herself: “I am not, I might add, about to enter the political fray myself as the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as was absurdly rumoured in the media last week (ignoring the fact that I am not even an MP).” Although that bit in brackets is a little off-beam…. because it may be you no longer have to be an MP to be Liberal Democrat leader in the future.
There are two related issues here: who can vote for party leader and who can stand to be party leader. The former is part of the wider debates about introducing a registered supporters scheme: should registered supporters be able to vote or should the electorate continue to be restricted to party members?
However, in addition to this, there is the question – briefly floated by some grassroots members in 2017 in the face of an uncontested contest to succeed Tim Farron – about whether leadership contests should be restricted to MPs. What about letting, say, a Member of the Scottish Parliament stand to be leader? Or, if Brexit is delayed or cancelled, an MEP? Although given little attention in 2017, this question has now resurfaced.
It is not on the agenda for Brighton conference, as several members of the party’s Federal Conference Committee (FCC) have rightly been quick to point out in response to some of the recent media coverage. But it is an issue bubbling along – so if you are going to be at conference and have strong views one way or the other, the smart move isn’t to ignore the topic as not being on the agenda but rather to find a way to raise it, such as during the party leader Q+A.
An important detail, little remarked on, is who can nominate candidates for leader. If MPs still have the power to veto a candidate by refusing to nominate them in sufficient numbers, then that provides an important balance in an overall system that is otherwise opened-up to non-MPs.
The experiences of other parties with non-MP leaders is rather mixed. With both the Greens and Ukip, for example, you can argue both benefits and drawbacks. So what the debate may well come down to is this: should the rules ban the very idea of a non-MP being leader, or should the rules permit it and then MPs and others in the party can make their judgements in the specific circumstances of any particular contest, nominating and vote accordingly? Liberals after all generally should need rather strong arguments for thinking something should simply be forbidden outright.
The five strands to the Lib Dem strategy
There are many things I can do if I wish to get ignored in the party. One of the surest is to say that the party should communicate more regularly with its members and supporters about what its strategy is, the logic behind it and the tactics that follow from that. Brief nods of agreement followed by inaction results. There is an awful lot of, ‘yes, it’d be good if members know what is going on but let’s not tell them about it quite yet…’
There are a range of reasons for that, from – at the less glorious end – people protecting their own fiefdoms or thinking that all you need is a process which looks democratic on paper regardless of how few people take part in it, through to – at the more understandable end – people being so busy they fear communicating will result in a wave of responses they cannot cope with, or the very strong ethos behind many federal party communications that they have to be short and to ask you to do something. Not a bad rule of thumb by any means, but it means that anything which is about informing or educating gets a very low priority as not being a ‘proper’ communication.
Hence in part the existence of Liberal Democrat Newswire and hence too the recap below of the strategy that Vince Cable and the party are following. It is a strategy which (with one exception on which see below) I like and agree with. It is also I suspect (do tell me if I am right or wrong in this!) that most members will not feel they have been clearly told. Members are left to do a bit of kruschteln (a German word for rummaging through a disorganised pile of stuff) amongst different bits of information and passing pieces of media coverage to figure out what is going on.
Here is, I hope, a rather less disorganised quick guide:
- Putting the Liberal Democrats at the heart of policy debate: as Business Insider put it, “Cable insists they are now an “ideas factory,” and are talking to think tanks like the IPPR and Resolution Foundation about policies for addressing issues he believes led millions of people to vote for Brexit, like regional inequality.”
- Reforming and strengthening the Liberal Democrats, such as via a registered supporters scheme and by learning other lessons from Canada. The stronger the Lib Dems are, the better placed the party will be to make the most of them and to shape them in the way we want.
- Yes to talking to and cooperating with those outside the Liberal Democrats: as Vince Cable has put it, “[One] step is to break down tribal taboos by working with other parties. That is happening over Brexit in parliament, with dissident Labour and Conservative figures joining us in the centre to defeat the government.” What links the previous point and this one together is a drive to build a broader political movement, centred on the Liberal Democrats but which can win support more widely from small-l liberals to win key political battles.
- Yes also to allowing local parties to make electoral arrangements with others, especially the Greens, as was done on his home patch in Richmond in the May local elections. This is the strand I’m most sceptical about (because of the lessons from the past about how there are better ways of cooperating to achieve common political aims). It’s also the strand where Vince Cable is being least pushy. The other four are all ones he is working to make happen; this one is more a case of him being happy that local parties are free to decide themselves whether or not to do this.
- No to wanting a new party: Vince Cable has already turned down an offer to lead a new party and has said, “Britain already has the big, strong, liberal, centrist political force – it is called the Liberal Democrats. Thanks to our 100,000 members, we are the strongest grassroots voice in Britain speaking out against Brexit and demanding a new and better politics. As the political landscape changes, I am determined that our party should win new support from the millions of people who are political liberals, but have not yet been persuaded to vote Liberal Democrat.”
A more detailed and expansive version of this featured in the strategy motion adopted at spring conference; details of all that here.
An interview with… Sheila Ritchie
Welcome to the latest in my 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. This time it’s Sheila Ritchie, Convenor of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
What made you support the Liberal Democrats?
If you mean the Liberals [Ed: oops, I do], because they were nice to me, made me work, and taught me that they shared the values I realised I had developed (I was 23). If you mean the Liberal Democrats, I found the merger very hard, but the people with those same values mostly were still there. So it was about fighting to keep the party liberal.
What’s the main focus of your party activism at the moment?
Organising the Scottish party.
What’s the most exciting or optimistic thing you’ve seen in the party in the last year?
The focus on BAME participation.
What’s the best political advice you’ve received?
Don’t do it!
What political issue or viewpoint have you changed your mind on, and why?
Hmmmm. I used to think Scottish independence was inexorably inevitable, and probably for the greater good. I have become much more internationalist and opposed to having more borders.
If you could change one thing about the party overnight, what would it be?
I would like Liberals to be less judgemental about each other.
Where can people find you online?
On my Facebook profile.
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Recommended summer reads from Lib Dem Parliamentarians
A rather niche but hopefully useful list: great books to read written by current or former Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians. Niche range, but great books.
First up, the inside story of how a major social change can be achieved – and why electing Liberal Democrat MPs make a difference. David Cameron ended up voting for legalising same-sex marriage, but he had no plans to introduce legislation to do so and it had been left off the Conservative legislative wish list… but then a Liberal Democrat MP named Lynne Featherstone took up the cause. Read her Equal Ever After to find out what happened.
Next, the memoirs of former Liberal Democrat minister Norman Baker: Against the Grain. You might wonder why I pick those ahead of the ministerial memoirs of more prominent Lib Dems. The reason is that his book is a much broader account of what politics is really like – from the persistent local campaigning through to the roles of local councils, the powers of backbench MPs and then also in ministerial office. Authors such as Nick Clegg and David Laws capture the sort of politics that gets made into TV shows and movies. Norman Baker captures the sort of politics that is far more commonplace (and, dare I say it, rather often makes far more of a difference).
Then, another book which is light on Westminster politics and heavy on other stuff: Paddy Ashdown’s memoirs, A Fortunate Life. He did so much of interest in his life outside politics that despite ending up a party leader, Westminster is only a small part of this book. The chapter on how he won Yeovil is still an excellent guide for modern would-be MPs.
Finally, one of Paddy’s successors: Vince Cable. His memoirs Free Radical are particularly good for the section covering his early life in Africa – explaining how he learned to be both passionate about the power of the state to improve people’s lives and wary of the abuse of state power. That pair of views about the state – viewing it as necessary yet also fearful of it abusing its power – is at the heart of liberalism. It also features my favourite anecdote about the much-loved late Andrew Reeves, who died tragically young. An invisible battleship is involved.
All highly recommended even if none have a title quite as good as this.
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|Photo courtesy of Orkney Liberal Democrats. On its next outing, it gained one vote for ‘Brexit is going well’ – from Orkney’s List MSP on the Conservative stall next door. Got a good photo you’d like to see featured here? Just hit reply to this email.|
Lib Dems in the news: parental leave, housing safety, fighting extremism and more
The People’s Vote campaign for a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal is taking going on a tour around the UK, with Vince Cable one of the key speakers at its sold-out first tour stop in Bristol (update: watch Vince Cable’s speech here). To back the campaign, see my round-up of the key anti-Brexit petitions.
Deputy Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson is on maternity leave but has taken the opportunity to highlight how poorly government departments are doing when it comes to treating parents properly: “I am deeply disappointed that until recently just two Government departments published their parental leave and pay entitlements. The Civil Service should set the gold standard for employers across the UK, but on this issue it is failing. The Prime Minister must instruct all departments to put this information in the public domain at once.”
Elsewhere, Layla Moran has been highlighting the importance of reducing stress on teachers and Wera Hobhouse coordinated a cross-party letter to the government over the failure to keep a key post-Grenfell fire promise.
Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary Ed Davey has spoken out about Tommy Robinson and the rise of extremism: “There are mainstream politicians giving legitimacy and credibility to abhorrent extremists, in the hope that it will further their own personal ambitions. Their behaviour is irresponsible and dangerous – especially at a time when hate crimes are on the rise.”
Former Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes is now the Chancellor of South Bank University.
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Latest and richest new centre party surfaces
In case you missed them the first time around, here are the highlights from my blog over the last month:
The pace of Parliamentary selections has kept up in the Lib Dems over the summer, including in the last month Gloucester, South East Cornwall, Tewkesbury, Tunbridge Wells and West Dorset.
The summer dip in the volume of by-election contests has also seen a dip in Liberal Democrat fortunes:
Outside of elections, however, the Liberal Democrats have been picking up council seats, in both Peterborough and South Somerset, the latter giving the party an overall majority once again. Over in Maidstone, Richard Webb has been readmitted to the Liberal Democrat group after being acquitted of assault charges.
Moreover, in the opinion polls the party has been edging up slowly with double figure results now common. Here’s the latest opinion poll from each of the polling firms at the time of writing:
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To be prepared for a council by-election in your patch, see my 7-step guide to getting ready in advance.
Do you know how to change the sports team that someone supports?
When a version of this first appeared on my site it became a little bit of a sleeper hit. So here is an updated version with rather more on the ‘how’.
Pick your favourite sport.
Now pick your favourite team or, if it’s a sport for individuals, your favourite sports star.
Next think of their deadliest rival.
Now imagine I decide to try to persuade you to switch from your hero to their deadliest opponent. What sort of arguments are going to work?
Practical arguments could work. But only a bit. I mean who is going to switch their allegiances because the average ticket price to see that rival / enemy / nemesis is £5.38 lower?
You’ll probably also be fairly immune to personal failings of your favourite. A drink drive conviction, even if it followed the death of a pedestrian in an accident, isn’t going to move many. Something really serious might at least get you to decide to stop cheering your favourite, such as a conviction for child abuse. but it’d have to be pretty serious.
Even if I manage to wow you with just how much more tactically smart that rival / enemy / nemesis is and get you to grudgingly appreciate their brilliance, it’s still not going to get that far if your favourite is also that of your friends, neighbours or colleagues. That sense of community and identification which comes from supporting who you support is a very heavy anchor holding you back from change.
The reason for pointing all this out? This is much how political party loyalty usually works too. Yet the sort of political arguments deployed in an attempt to win people over are often of the ‘but our tickets are £5.38 cheaper’ type. They can work were loyalty is weak and choices are finely posed.
Long-term political success requires a deeper and more durable shift in loyalty and self-identity. When a party has it, it makes it remarkably resilience to bad times. Look at what happened to Labour in 1983 or the Conservatives in 1997. Completely mullered, and yet yet vote shares above what the Lib Dems and post-1945 predecessors have achieved even in our very best years. And still hundreds of MPs.
To grow, parties have to win over more of those fans. That’s why important as pointing at potholes is to Liberal Democrats (and the practical improvements which flow from pointing are substantive, practical improvements to people’s lives), it’s not enough. We also need to secure attachment to the party that isn’t just based on things we do which others can do too (yes, non-Lib Dems can point too) but also based on what we believe that others don’t.
For some people, that is a matter of simple communication – hey, we’re here and turns out we believe the same as you do. But for many others it’s also a matter of shifting their loyalty, from one team to another.
How’s that done?
- Don’t insult them. An obvious lesson many on both sides of the Brexit debate forget.
- Share their values, where possible. The successful campaigns for same-sex marriage in many countries illustrate this – framing the arguments as being about loving couples, rather than about equality, has persuaded many because it starts with shared values rather than starting with contested values. That opens up the door to changing minds.
- Push that door further open not with the points that most appeal to you but with the points that require the smallest initial shifts by others. For example, campaigners against Labour’s plans for mandatory national I.D. cards in the UK made more progress at building opposition to the scheme (successfully, in the end) by using arguments over their cost to individuals than by using arguments about liberty and its principles.
- Follow up by giving people the chance to join a new community that matches who they wish to be. Support of a sporting team, or a political party, gives people a sense of self-identity, a community to be part of and an affirmation that this is what people like them do. Gun ownership is a powerful creator of a sense of community in the US. The NHS is a great example of this in British politics. Amongst many Leave campaigners, the desire to be the sort of person who supports the NHS is very powerful, as it is for Remain campaigners. That makes arguments over Brexit’s impact on the NHS (spoiler: it’s bad) a chance for people to be part of a community that is one they feel at home with – Brits who want good health services for everyone.
- Keep on using specific arguments. The Reddit community /r/ChangeMyView is a fascinating petri dish for how persuasion works and this is one of the clear patterns from it: be specific and in particular conversations keep going for up to four responses. (Nick Clegg’s podcast with Nigel Farage shows Clegg doing pretty much the opposite of this, often briefly alluding to disagreeing with Farage in very generalised ways, not citing specifics and not following-up. Of course Farage is not the target for persuasion, but for the listener it makes for a weak presentation of the anti-Farage case.)
- Remember all through this that the aim is to make a new habit of loyalty: that requires persistence, consistency and, to be very tactical, not forcing people to break their habits by failing to put up candidates in elections.
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