Liberal Democrat Newswire #121 came out last week, including a special guest piece from Jo Swinson and a look at why the Lib Dems aren’t better at strategy.
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.
Why aren’t the Lib Dems better at strategy? That’s one question asked and hopefully answered in this month’s edition, but first many thanks to everyone who has contributed to the annual Liberal Democrat Newswire appeal. You are wonderful people, helping cover the growing costs of this newsletter – and don’t worry if you’re not able to afford to; I quite appreciate that the appeal isn’t for everyone. If you haven’t quite got round to it yet, then links and more information are here.
Happy reading and thank you for letting me once again send another email into your inbox,
I’ve been a supporter of a registered supporter scheme in the Liberal Democrats since long before it became fashionable. Indeed, I’ve contributed in some way to making it so fashionable that now people who oppose aspects of Vince Cable’s proposed reforms usually preface their comments with a version of ‘Of course a registered supporter scheme is a good idea, but when we introduce one we shouldn’t…’.
Those caveats – mostly around who gets to stand and vote for party leader – understandably attract much of the attention. But before getting into those, it’s worth remembering the basic case for change: we’re not doing well enough and we don’t treat existing non-member helpers and volunteers as well as we could or should.
Or in more detail:
1. The party has been stuck at high single digits or occasionally just into double figures in the opinion polls for eight years. Our local government base, although growing, is growing at a rate that will take decades to get us back to where we used to be.
2. Even before the coalition years, there were problems: our local government base was already shrinking pre-2010 (and its long-term growth had ended long before Nick Clegg became leader), our volunteer and financial resources have never matched overall the big parties we’re up against and our diversity has consistently been poor.
3. Yet there is a huge groundswell of small-l liberals, pro-Europeans who share our values yet who do not consider the Liberal Democrats a party they can fully sign up to as formal members.
4. We can learn from how to reach out to such people not only from colleagues in other countries – such as the Canadian Liberals – but also from some of our most successful local parties, such as Oxford West & Abingdon. They run de facto local supporter schemes and they work well. What’s missing is a way of rolling this out successfully across the country, and which involves, for example, party bodies who do great outreach to communities currently under-represented in the party. One scheme run across the party will make it much easier and more effective for each different part of the party to contribute to its success in their own ways.
5. There’s a bigger problem with the status quo too, as I set out in LDN #113: for every one member a local party has, party HQ on average has the email addresses for at least a further two people who have signed up to support one or more party campaigns. We have a de facto national supporters scheme, but it is one from which local parties are mostly kept isolated: they don’t get the chance to email those supporters to involve them locally and these supporters, in turn, mostly miss out on the chances to attend events near them. Changing how we do things is a chance to crack this problem and have one integrated system which benefits all parts of the party – and which focuses on what is best for recruiting, involving and energising those who are willing to campaign on our causes.
6. There is a double-urgency for change: the daily battering that liberalism is taking and, more parochially, the repeated talk of new parties and party splits. However those play out, the stronger the Lib Dems are, the more likely the outcome will be one Lib Dems are happy with – which is why we need to be stronger, sooner.
7. Organisational change is not the only thing the party needs to do to prosper, but it is important, it can generate extra resources that help bring about other changes too – and changing to be a more open and welcoming party is part of the party’s overall message too. Wanting to work collaboratively with others who share our views is part of the liberal message.
8. The party has done research which shows that a registered supporters scheme could help successfully appeal to the wider audiences we need to win over. I think there are some questions about the details of what the research shows – such as how to my reading it makes involving supporters more in our policy consultations and policy processes more important than Vince Cable’s plans set out. But the overall picture is a promising one.
9. What’s more, other independent research shows that there is something about the concept of party membership which is off-putting to many strong supporters of the party – and this disproportionately hits those from more diverse backgrounds. We need to use other structures to do better at properly reaching and involving everyone who supports us.
Whilst success is not guaranteed, the evidence from the research, from what local parties have done and from sister parties all points in the same overall direction.
Let’s be liberals: Jo Swinson
The Liberal Democrat spring conference in York will see the party debate detailed plans for a registered supporter scheme, including votes on allowing non-MPs to stand for leader and giving registered supporters a vote in party leadership contests. Deputy Leader Jo Swinson writes for Lib Dem Newswire with her take on the proposals.
Considerate, or well-behaved – if you could pick one of these qualities for a child, which would it be? Astonishingly, how people answer that question is a better predictor of how they voted in the EU referendum than their income. Assuming you are Lib Dem member and voted Remain, it’s a fair bet you opted for ‘considerate’. It conveys empathy and concern for others. Well-behaved, on the other hand, suggests a preference for authority and hierarchy.
This research on the impact of values in the EU referendum – which also holds true for the US presidential election – shows how the political faultline in society has shifted. We’ve moved from talking about left or right, socialist or capitalist to talking about liberal or authoritarian, open or closed, internationalist or nationalist.
For Liberal Democrats, the left-right frame for political debate was always frustrating. Liberal values have been taken for granted by many as they argued about how to tax and spend.
Now liberal values are under threat, and people are crying out for a vision for the future of our country that is open, outward-looking, internationalist and pluralist. This creates a huge opportunity for our movement, to reach out to people suddenly energised by the need to defend and promote our shared liberal values.
As well as fighting for that in Westminster, Holyrood, the Welsh Assembly, the GLA and countless councils around the country, we need to make sure that our party structures reflect those fundamental liberal values.
Card-carrying, Focus-delivering members, like me, will always be at the heart of our family, singing at the top of our voices from our Glee Club songbooks. We wouldn’t be the Liberal Democrats without this. But it is surely in our spirit of openness and inclusivity to reach out to others who share our values and vision, bring them in and work with them where we can to build the kind of society we want.
There is little to like about the current chaos in Parliament, but the one thing I do enjoy immensely in this fractured House of Commons, is working with those who share our values to get things done. There has never been so much cross-party activity. I am proud to work with MPs from other parties on common agendas, whether it’s joining forces to defeat the Government’s disastrous Brexit proposals, finding ways to combat extremism online, or making Parliament a more modern workplace through proxy votes for MPs who are new parents. And I shout about it from the rooftops, because when we work together, we achieve so much more. To work successfully with others, you need to show that you respect their views and offer them real choices and the opportunity to influence the movement they are joining.
We are card-carrying Liberal Democrats, but you don’t need to carry a card to be a liberal. All of us know liberals who are not yet in our party, many of whom, for various reasons, will never become members. The very nature of what we believe means we should be as inclusive as possible. And in this digital age, we see movements grow rapidly by embracing supporters and harnessing their energy, not setting a high bar requiring people to join formal structures before getting stuck in creating change.
None of this is really new. For years we have been encouraged by party training courses to treat deliverers and local supporters as if they were members anyway. If we are serious about wanting to transform our country, then we need to grow our movement and live our values in everything we do as a party. Yes, being open isn’t without its risks. But that risk is worth taking – especially now, when there is so much opportunity to advance the liberal cause.
Finally, on opening up the leadership, I understand why many people believe it is best for an MP to lead our party. But my challenge is this: would it always be best, in every circumstance, and to such an extent that it is worth us never even considering anyone for the role from outside our pool of MPs? I don’t believe so. We should have the right safeguards, but we should never be afraid of choice and competition.
I am so excited that next month at conference we will vote on opening up our party. We must seize this opportunity to expand the liberal movement in the UK. It’s high time to throw open our door and welcome all those, who like us, dream of a liberal country and are prepared to fight for one.
Together we can build a better future.
The gravitational pull of general elections
Last time, I used the example of one pdf file to show how much the party still needs to do in order to really implement its strategy, adopted last spring. There are definitely pieces of progress to point at, but here’s a simple example of the challenge: can you name, right now and off the top of your head, the party’s five organisational priorities? It’s a fair bet you can’t (and don’t forget, as an LDN reader, you have seen rather more about the party’s strategy than most). I don’t say that to criticise you – you’re a lovely reader* – but rather to highlight the challenge for the party as a whole.
Why is it that the party struggles so much with such issues? One reason is the gravitational-like pull on time, attention and finances that general elections have on the federal party HQ in Westminster. I’ve seen this play out over nearly thirty years now. It’s a consistent pattern. It’s been the case across multiple different people in all the key roles. It’s a systemic issue.
It’s also not just about HQ being in central London. I’m sure that has some impact, but I fear those who think simply moving HQ would fix the issue would be in for a massive disappointment for there are other powerful factors at work. One is that for the party leader, along with other MPs or peers in key positions, Westminster – the place where they do their day to day political role – is understandably very much at the centre of their minds. Another is that much of the funding for activity which passes through federal HQ is concentrated around Westminster general election time – and so both money and attention gets drawn to just that time too.
I’ve seen that first hand when I worked at party HQ for just under a decade. Indeed for a good chunk of that, I was on contracts that lasted until a bit after a certain polling day. The result? That’s where your attention goes and that’s what seems to be important. I know; I made that mistake a fair time or two myself when working at HQ.
Now, it’s good that part of the party is so focused on Westminster general elections. The party is still, even after the 2017 gains, only one bad result away from wipeout in the House of Commons. We need a part of the party to be really focused on Westminster general elections.
But the mistake made too often in the past is to give other tasks, which are about other elections, other tasks or other timespans, to people and teams whose focus keeps on getting pulled back to Westminster general elections (and Parliamentary by-elections – the one regular trigger for a breaking that gravitational pull, but in doing so being a rather good case of an exception helping to prove the rule).
We need to be far cannier about understanding the strengths of different parts of the party’s organisation and agreeing tasks based on who is best placed to do them, rather than the traditional ‘X is important, so federal party HQ should employ people and spend money to do X’ formula. Sometimes the answer most definitely is federal HQ. But not all the time – which is why if you leaf back through past party strategies, those parts not about the next Westminster election have usually turned out to see very little successful long-term change.
That’s a pattern we must break.
* Unless you’re the one with those ‘anonymous’ comments you posted in that survey when you forgot to pick the anonymous option. In which case, you’re a reader in need of better IT skills.
Why refugees are a gift, not a burden, to society: Alexander Betts gives a great talk of interest to all liberals.
Paddy Ashdown, Lib Dem strategy, Tim Farron’s record and overseas elections
Those were the main topics in the second pilot podcast episode from Stephen Tall and myself. With improved sound quality this time and me happily back in a suit.
The Lib Dem front bench team (listed in full here) has been reshuffled a little, with Tim Farron taking over the Communities and Local Government spokesperson role and Wera Hobhouse moving to cover Energy and Climate Change. Christine Jardine now covers issues relating to Work and Pensions, with Jamie Stone taking on the Scotland brief and Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs one.
Lib Dem run South Cambridgeshire council has set out an ambitious target of cutting local carbon emissions across the district to zero by 2050. Action to achieve this is expected to include green investments to improve environmental standards on council buildings, delivering a financial return as well as cutting emissions.
Upcoming dates include Carlisle, Shrewsbury, Kensington and Weymouth, along with a visit to the Scottish spring conference. Do say hello if you see me, and by all means get in touch if you’d like me to come and talk or do a training session in your patch.
If you want to help raise funds for future Liberal Democrat by-election campaigns, you can do so with this year’s Orpington Dinner Reception (named in memory of the party’s famous 1962 by-election victory) at the National Liberal Club, London, at 7.30pm, Wednesday 20 March.
Layla Moran will be speaking, as will the party’s candidate for London mayor, Siobhan Benita. Entertainment will be provided by Dilly Keane from Fascinating Aida.
Tickets for this year’s event cost £35, which includes a £10 donation to the Orpington Fund. You can reserve your place by contacting Louisa Pooley at the National Liberal Club (email@example.com).
The Orpington Dinner Club was set up in 2008 by Paul Hunt, a former chairman of the National Liberal Club.
Photo of the month
Another lovely demonstration of how campaign photos don’t have to be of a small number of people on their own and looking miserable. This happy crowd in Winchester secured local newspaper coverage with the photo too.
Got a photo to feature in future editions of LDN? Just hit reply and let me know. Thank you to Richard Murhpy for this month’s photo.
Liberal Democrat Newswire is provided for free. Thank you so much to all the kind readers who donate to help cover the costs of Lib Dem Newswire. It’s very quick and simple to sign up for a small regular donation with a direct debit from your bank account using GoCardless:
Spot any stories which you think I should be covering? Do drop me an email – always appreciated.
Liberal Democrat selection news
There was good news recently for anyone seeking elected publish office who has a disability or serious health condition. The dedicated fund to help with the costs of being such a candidate is back:
The EnAble Fund for Elected Office is intended to cover the additional financial costs associated with a disability or health condition that would otherwise prevent someone from seeking elected office. The Fund is provided by the Government Equalities Office and is administered by Disability Rights UK. The Fund was launched on 3 December 2018 and is supported by the LGA. The LGA Liberal Democrat Group has played an instrumental part in lobbying Government to reintroduce the fund.
(As ever tips on omissions from that list much appreciated; please let me know privately as sometimes a name isn’t yet listed because the local party hasn’t yet press released it.)
What the voters are saying
The polls continue to be close between Labour and the Conservatives although a growing number of polling outfits have recently put the Conservatives ahead. But even if Labour is just a notch in front, for an opposition party faced with a government with such very poor polling on measures like satisfaction with the government or the Prime Minister to be at best only slightly in front would still be a pretty poor showing.
The Lib Dems, meanwhile, continue to dally with being consistently in double figures, creeping up slightly and steadily so far this year but not in a way that will – as yet – catch the headlines or change the dynamics of politics. More dramatic recovery is required for that.
It has continued to be a relatively quiet period for council by-elections, due in part to us now being in the six-month purdah period in which a vacancy for a seat due for election this May doesn’t trigger a by-election.
Even so, there have been some promising signs for the Liberal Democrats, both up against the Conservatives and, something seen much less frequently last year, in urban Remain areas up against Labour:
Hefty swing from Conservatives to Liberal Democrats in Surrey.
The sensible campaigner is the campaigner with backups
The office wall in one of my former jobs had a cartoon with two drunks slumped in an alleyway bemoaning their fate. One was saying to the other, “It all started to go wrong when I realised the backups hadn’t been working…” He at least had been trying to use backups.
Sometimes people fear trusting data to computers, worried that a wrong key press may result in valuable information being lost. That is to get things wrong: data is safer on computers because it is much easier to do regular backups. Data stored any other way is difficult to backup; reams of photocopies are no match for the simplicity of a computer backup. If you want your data to be safe, give it to a computer and then do regular, proper backups.
However, even the best of computer systems can go wrong. Data disasters can and do strike highly reputable services and when the risks of hacking and human error are thrown in, not to mention the cost of losing data for a critical few days whilst someone else sorts out restoring it, it makes sense to back up your data wherever it is.
Backup here can also mean ‘make a copy of in a different place’. For example, I’m a heavy use of MailChimp and it doesn’t come with an option labelled ‘backup’. But it does come with a download option, so when my diary reminds me to, I download the data and store it safely password protection and encrypted. (For no longer than my GDPR-complaint data retention policy says, obvs.)
Likewise, creating a set of pdfs of your shuttleworths just before polling day is a good insurance against a mini-multitude of problems, including the possible loss of internet connectivity from your polling day committee room.
There’s more about the importance of backups and how to have a sensible system in Chapter 41 of 101 Ways To Win An Election. As that chapter starts: “You can’t stop things going wrong; you can stop them turning into disasters.”
What you told me…
Many thanks to everyone who took part in my annual reader survey. (Note to self: next time, include a question on whether it should be reader survey, readers survey, reader’s survey or readers’ survey.) The broad summary is: ‘please carry on as at present, Mark’ – for which thanks (and that’s a relief).
Congratulations to the four winners of the prize draw – if you’re one of them, an email is on its way to get the address to send your book or pamphlet to and to check if you’re happy for me to name you as a winner.
One particular point I’ve picked out from the survey is how many readers of these newsletters don’t read my output on other channels. That’s good to know that these are reaching an extra audience. It also means I’m going to try including a bit more from those channels in these newsletters. If you are someone who reads me in multiple places, do shout and let me know if I overdo it. I’ll try to get the balance right. Let me know if I don’t.
The three most popular topics for hearing more about are Lib Dem policy, Lib Dem strategy and research into campaigning methods. Duly noted and I’ll do my best. If you spot any great content on any of these, by all means let me know.
Best wishes until next time,
What did you think of this edition?
I really value the views of readers as it helps me decide what to include in future editions.