Liberal Democrat Newswire #117 came out last week, with a special survey on the party reform proposals, a book offer for readers and Jo Swinson’s views on the Coalition, amongst other stories.
You can now read it in full below, but if you’d like the convenience of getting it direct by email in future just sign up for it here.
It was great to meet so many readers at the Brighton conference (and even some fellow BlackBerry fans). One of the big topics of conversation was the proposed party reforms. I’ve covered these in detail before (see in particular LDN #113 on why a registered supporters scheme is a good idea and LDN #116 on Vince Cable’s proposals specifically). So this time instead I’m covering two pieces of new academic research which shed light on how the reforms might work, Jo Swinson’s views on coalition and I’ve also got a special half-price book offer for you.
But first – as those discussions at conference have highlighted, there are some aspects of the proposed party reforms which are worth digging into in a way that the official consultation survey, necessarily written earlier of course, does not. For example, I’ve found that for many people there answers to different parts of the package are inter-related – e.g. they support X if also Y happens, but only if Y also happens. I’ve therefore put together an additional survey to dig into such issues. Please do take part:
It’ll be interesting to see how these results compare with the email feedback last time round. There was a persistent pattern in that, which can be summarised by the following two quotes:
A ex-member: “Having left the party late last year, in despair at our direction politically and organisationally, I was pleased to see Vince talk up a registered supporters scheme.”
A current member and long-standing activist: “There must be some meaningful powers reserved to those who pay their sub and commit to join the party.”
In other words, the longer someone has been a member and the more active in the party they are, the more likely they are to have reservations about the proposals. Whether that’s your view or not, please do take part in the LDN survey and let’s see how typical that email feedback was.
Members and committed supporters: two different tribes
Members of political parties vary in significant ways from committed supporters of parties who have decided not to join. That’s one of the conclusions from new research shortly to appear in Western European Politics, based on extensive survey research and titled, “Why do only some people who support parties actually join them? Evidence from Britain “.
Here is the summary of how members and committed supporters differ, before unpacking what it means for the Liberal Democrats:
The factors that clearly distinguish members from supporters, and may go furthest in explaining why they bother to join up, are being male, better educated and coming from higher up the social hierarchy (i.e. having more resources), being socially liberal and ideologically more radical (for parties on the left), having a strong sense of personal and collective political efficacy, strong expressive belief in a particular party and altruistic belief in the wider importance of political participation, a perception of the value of selective process and outcome benefits, involvement in other civil society organisations, and not being overly deterred by the time commitment of being a member.
There are three key implications from this for the Liberal Democrats.
First, there is something about party membership that ends up appealing more to those who already benefit the most from how our society and economy work. Members are more likely to be male, well-educated and higher up the social hierarchy than the committed supporters of a party. Membership is exclusive in a way that liberals should chafe about and want to fix.
Second, those who join parties have a stronger belief in the power of individual and collective action than those who don’t. That suggests that the way to win over committed supporters to activism on behalf of a party is to show them ways in which their individual and collective voice can be powerful – running effective campaigns which involve them and show the power of working together. That makes having a scheme of some sort which brings people together short of membership potentially very effective – provided that it is a scheme which leads to campaigning and not simply being a marketing list.
Third, there is the perception of how time-consuming being a member is. To expand on the finding quoted above, “it is supporters who perceive the cost of party activism (in terms of the time they presume it takes up) to be higher than members, who know how much time it involves “. This illustrates the potential benefit of having a scheme that allows people to feel they are signing up to something less time consuming than being a member of a party. (Fellow party members may think ‘but they’re wrong, plenty of members spend no time on being a member’. You’d be right, but knowing people have a mistaken view is not enough; we also need to find ways to change that.)
The research finds also that the committed supporters think members have different motives for joining parties than members themselves have – again pointing to a mismatch in perspectives which a registered supporters scheme can help with by providing an alternative to the view non-members have of party membership.
Thank you to Tim Bale for providing a pre-publication (but post-peer review) copy of the research carried out with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb.
How should parties involve non-members?
If the research above points to gaps that a registered supporters scheme could fill, other research from Kate Dommett points to what sort of supporters scheme may or may not work.
A national survey into the public’s attitudes towards political parties found support for parties making it easier for people to get involved (45%-31%). As to what people should be able to do, the survey found support for involving those who are not party members in political discussion, campaigning and, to a lesser degree, selecting candidates and leaders – but not for setting party policy.
People were asked who should be able to take part in these activities, with the options of saying that it should be anyone at all, only people who at least sign up in some way, people who at least register as a supporter, people who at least are a party member or that this task should only be done by party leaders. Grouping the first three together (allowing non-members in some form) against the last two (reserving the activity for members or only leaders), we find:
66% – 13% in favour of non-members taking part in political discussions and debate
67% – 12% in favour of non-members taking part in campaigning on specific issues
59% – 20% in favour of non-members taking part in election campaigning
44% – 35% in favour of non-members taking part in selecting party leaders, MPs and other representatives
34% – 45% against non-members taking part in making party policy
A couple of caveats are worth adding. On policy-making, I suspect a question asking if parties should consult non-members before deciding on policy would have got a strong yes response. It is likely that this response is about the final formal decision making rather than all the steps which lead up to it. As for the selecting leaders and candidates question, because several options are bundled together this does not give a clear steer for the particular proposal being put to Liberal Democrat members at the moment.
This all adds up to an apparently positive backdrop for the party reforms, but Kate Dommett cautions about the numbers in the survey who pick registered supporters specifically as their preferred option and that, “only 15% of people said theyâ€™d be interested in becoming a supporter in order to take part in a leadership election. More people (28%) felt selecting a leader should be up to party members.”
To me, however, 15% is a large figure as, for example, 15% of the people who voted Liberal Democrat at the 2017 general election is just over 355,000. With party membership currently around 100,000 that looks a very decent sized number.
Her research also looked at what activity people said they would not do and the answers to this suggest that people are only a little less likely not to become a registered supporter than not to become a member. That could be an important finding, but I think it is fair to say it comes with a big caveat – the other answers do not tally up with what happens. For example, people say they are less likely to donate to a party than they are to become a member, yet in practice the Liberal Democrats have more donors than members as members donate too by paying more than the minimum for their membership and giving money at other times too. Although the question looks a good solid one, there is something about it that doesn’t capture what we know about variations between different types of activity.
In particular, there is the experience of de-facto supporters schemes that Liberal Democrat local parties have run, such as in Oxford West and Abingdon, where a significant number of extra people beyond the party membership have been engaged. Nor is that particularly new – in the 2005-2010 Parliament, I helped draw up the new activity targets for would-be target seats. This included have two non-member helpers (donors, poster sites etc.) for every one member.
Her research, therefore, is a good caution that success is not guaranteed and millions are unlikely to sign up to a supporters scheme. It does though also point to ways in which the odds of success can be raised.
Lib Dems must “own failures” of coalition, says Jo Swinson
So far, there has been surprisingly little debate within the Liberal Democrats about what mix of defending the party’s record in coalition, apologising for mistakes and just trying to move on from it should be deployed.
In the 2015 leadership contest you might have expected this issue to dominate – especially as the contest was between someone who had been in government as a minister, Norman Lamb, and someone, the eventual winner Tim Farron, who had not been. Yet the huge surge of pro-Nick Clegg members in the wake of the result meant that, whatever Tim Farron might have done in other circumstances, it was clear that political room to do anything other than defend what had happened was fairly limited. Hence Farron’s statements in the campaign abut coalition having been the right thing to do and that he would do it again.
The debate about how to tackle the legacy of coalition is therefore still unfinished business in the party – even if its electoral impact on the party is massively over-hyped. (Conventional wisdom amongst political pundits and left-wing activists is not the same as the evidence.)
The issue may well arise again (and should arise again) in the next party leadership contest, likely to be next year, especially if the contest again features someone who has been a minister and someone who hasn’t. One possible runner, and a former minister, Jo Swinson, used her speech at party conference to raise this very issue:
Swinson, a former business minister tipped as a future leader, said the party had inflicted too high a price on the poorest in society in an attempt to cut the deficit. “I’m proud of what we achieved, but I’m not naive or blinkered about it,” she told the Lib Dem conference in Brighton on Sunday.
“If we are to claim the successes of our time in government, we need to own the failures of it too. We lost too many arguments. When they fought dirty, we were too nice.”…
She was particularly proud of some of the coalition’s achievements, adding that she had fought the Tories “in budget after budget to raise the personal allowance, and take the lowest paid out of income tax completely”.
However, she said it was clear the Lib Dems should have done more to push back against some coalition policies. “Negotiating with the Conservatives meant compromise. And some of those compromises sucked,” she said.
“We should have done more. More to stop Theresa May’s hostile environment, more to block Andrew Lansley’s disruptive NHS reforms, more to prevent Iain Duncan Smith’s punishing bedroom tax. We were right to cut the deficit, but those who were already struggling paid too high a price.”
Swinson’s comments caused some discomfort among her colleagues. Speaking to reporters after her speech, the party’s home affairs spokesman, Ed Davey, a cabinet minister during the coalition, bristled at some of the criticism.
“I’m not one of those who think we should deny all the amazing things we did in the coalition,” he said. “One of the reasons I’m loving the Brighton conference is those offshore wind turbines out there. I signed the contract for that. Because Liberal Democrats were in government, those offshore wind turbines have been built.
“Do you think I’m gonna deny that? I’m deeply proud of that. You’ve got to remember in coalition we were fighting some of their immigration policies, we stopped a lot, we weren’t going to stop everything.” [The Guardian]
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Outside of elections, the upswing in councillors switching to the Liberal Democrats has continued, with a switch from Labour in Liverpool, from the Conservatives in Canterbury and also in Essex, and from independents in Portsmouth. No switches away from the party.
Alongside this generally promising news from councillor switches and by-elections, the Liberal Democrats are continuing to edge up in the polls. The Lib Dems now regularly features in double figures and to find the last time polling firms had the party higher than their current ratings you have to go back to spring last year or earlier.
Fourth to First: a must-read guide on how to win a council election
If you judge a book review by how many sales it generates, this review from a year ago is the stand out star amongst all the ones I’ve ever done. As it’s the time of the year when the football season is well under way, conferences are over and done with and plans being drawn up for the next May local elections (a crucial test for the Liberal Democrats), now is a good time to run it again.
Fourth to First: How to win a local election in under six months by Freya Aquarone and Steffan Aquarone is a short but highly informative and entertaining guide to what really happens in local council elections. It follows the attempts of Steffan, aided by his sister and campaign manager Freya, to become a councillor in Norfolk.
Told with genuine affection for the weirdness that local political campaigning can be, Fourth to First is an excellent guide for anyone wanting to become a councillor, help someone become a councillor or thinking about doing either. It should become a must read for new (and not so new) political activists. It is stuffed full of practical tips about leaflet logistics, community campaigning and planning toilet breaks.
Through the book they both also show a canny judgement in what traditional ways of Liberal Democrat campaigning to not only stick with but to up the intensity of and also what things to try to change.
The campaign choices they made are particular to a short-ish campaign (only six months) and to fighting a rural area. However, potentially eyebrow-raising decisions such as their low key use of social media are always explained, allowing readers to work out whether that decision might be applicable in their own circumstances or not.