Could Jo Swinson become Prime Minister? LDN #127

Liberal Democrat Newswire #127 came out last week and 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.

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Since last time, we’ve had a new Lib Dem MP (congratulations, Jane Dodds), a new leader (congratulations, Jo Swinson) and another accurate outing for the Lib Dem Newswire surveys, getting the leadership election almost spot on (congratulations, readers, for being so representative).

I’ve also got a new survey out, this one for new(-ish) members, asking about their experience of joining the party and getting involved (or not). If you’ve joined since 2015, please do take part in the survey here.

If you are a longer-standing member, perhaps you’d also encourage new members your know to take part by sharing this link with them? No surprise that the early results show many members often struggle to find out what’s going on, so it’d be great if you also share my email newsletter sign up page with them too. Thank you!

Happy reading,


In this edition:

Child holding Jo Swinson poster. Photo courtesy of the Lib Dems CC BY ND 2.0

How does Jo Swinson become Prime Minister?

During the Lib Dem leadership contest hustings, Ed Davey had a crowd-pleasing line about how the Conservative members were electing the next Prime Minister… but Liberal Democrat members were electing the one to follow. Aside from being an easy applause line, it also helped side-step the question of what the Liberal Democrats would do in a hung Parliament in which Labour and Conservatives are the largest parties.

This isn’t, however, mere fantasy because the collision of an electoral system designed for two parties (first past the post) with a four-to-five party system means a huge range of outcomes is plausible. Even as low a share of the vote as 30% could give a single party a majority in the House of Commons on its own depending on how the votes fall, and a party might only need to be in the twenties to be the largest. Or to look at it another way, the sort of constituency vote distributions implied by public polling put the number of seats theoretically in reach of the Liberal Democrats, if up at a 20% plus type vote share, in the hundreds. Yes, the hundreds.

So what can the Liberal Democrats do to make the idea of being the largest party a reality?

An important preliminary is to learn the lessons from 2010, when the dramatic first TV debate between UK-wide party leaders at a general election propelled Nick Clegg, briefly, up to Winston Churchill levels of popularity. In the general election that soon followed, however, the party lost seats.

Four particular lessons from that apply now:

  1. The party’s organisational strategy was left caught in the middle. It was designed around fighting a small number of seats, then faced with opportunities in a huge number and ended up with the worst of all worlds. Resources were spread too thinly (and volunteers dispersed themselves too thinly) to deliver on the original target seats and yet the dispersion of resources did not bring in those other seats either.
  2. The party’s digital strategy was not geared to winning under first past the post: it amplified the national buzz but did not have the tactics and infrastructure to funnel it effectively into winning more constituencies.
  3. A bit like the Tim Farron lesson from 2017, the party in 2010 was not ready for the rigour of press scrutiny (or more accurately, the eager press appetite for negative stories planted with journalists by other parties).
  4. The party was not clear enough about what in particular voting Lib Dem would get, other than not being Labour or Conservatives. The result was that faced with a hung Parliament, disaster beckoned in some form or another regardless of what the party did – becuase too much of its support was of the form ‘I voted for you because I don’t want party X’ rather than ‘I voted for you because I want you’. For lots of Lib Dem voters X was Labour. For another big group X was the Conservatives. Any choice was bound to turn out poorly.

How to fix that this time and do better than in 2010? Here’s how…

#1: Stick with the core votes strategy

Back in the summer of 2015, former MP David Howarth and I penned a pamphlet setting out a core votes strategy for the Liberal Democrats. We weren’t the first to think of such ideas, but the pamphlet did significantly change the debate in the party, putting it at the centre of the party’s approach in theory and, increasingly, in practice too.

In the leadership contest, Jo Swinson repeated her support for this approach. As she told Liberator magazine:

Jo Swinson in Liberator magazine on a core votes approach

That’s spot on: there are far more liberals than Liberal Democrats, giving the party a huge opportunity to grow by targeting them. And, crucially, doing this will give coherence to the party’s support that gives an opportunity of surviving and even prospering in a hung Parliament. If there’s a consistency to why people have voted for you, you have a chance of holding on to their support – just as hung Parliaments have proven to be beneficial for the SNP (in the Scottish Parliament) and the DUP (so far in this Westminster Parliament).As David himself said in late May: “I see the core vote strategy seems to be working. The next stage is to stick to the values and not compromise.”

You don’t have to wait a month for the next Liberal Democrat Newswire email. I run a series of other email lists, including weekly council by-election results and all the latest national media news about at the party. Take a look and pick the ones you’d like at www.libdemnewswire.com.

You can also get more with the Lib Dem Newswire Facebook account.

#2: Unleash a force of 500,000+ grassroots liberals

One of the reasons I championed the creation of a registered supporters scheme for the Liberal Democrats (something suggested in that pamphlet written with David Howarth) is that joining a political party isn’t for everyone. In fact, for decades the performance targets for would-be target seats included having more non-member helpers than members. Joining a party, valuable and wonderful as that is, is a minority pursuit.

The initial success of the party’s supporters scheme is part of the solution but there’s still much more to do. Added together, between members, registered supporters, those who have backed at least one national party campaign (e.g. signing up to the anti-Brexit campaign) and the other non-member supporters local parties have signed up, such as to deliver a regular leaflet round, and you have between 400,000 and 500,000 people. With all the political drama coming up this autumn, it’s quite feasible to aim to grow this to a force of 500,000+ grassroots liberals.

But, crucially, they also need to be mobilised, and here the party has a double problem. First, the limited resources of party HQ are, quite sensibly, concentrated on maximising income rather than activism from these people. There is, for example, a very efficient and successful program to get more people to sign the party’s anti-Brexit petition and then in turn to migrate many of those people over to being donors, registered supporters and members. The focus is on raising money rather than getting people active.

Second, the mobilisation is left mostly to local parties. Some do a brilliant job at this. By no means all, however, and of course many smaller local parties get trapped in the cycle of not having enough volunteers to do things and so not being able to get to talk to their local supporters, missing out on recruitment more volunteers, and so on, trapped as they go around that cycle. Despite the great success many local parties have had following up those national petition signers, for example, many other local parties even now have barely started to get them involved.

That is all the more a problem in the fact of the breadth of possibly winnable constituencies that a four/five party system under first past the post offers (see above). There needs to be an urgency in turning this huge potential volunteer resource into more activity.

Three steps are crucial to that:

  1. Support and resources for local parties and party bodies to make the most of such helpers: everything from an intensive internal communications program through to fixing the technical gremlins that hinder real-time access to accurate data. At the moment, if you know where to look or who to ask, there is good functional information available and enough usable data to get by. But that’s very different from inspiring hundreds of local parties to grow and to do so quickly. The party has got increasingly good at inspiring people to help in Parliamentary by-elections, rather than treating it as just a matter of communicating the contact details for the HQ. That sort of skill now needs applying here.
  2. Provide a ‘local party of last resort’ service: many charities and pressure groups mobilise supporters around the country even without a local network similar to Lib Dem local parties. They do it by providing supporters directly with the tools and opportunities to be active in their own patch. For the Lib Dems, this means things like the opportunity for any individual to buy online national leaflets that they can deliver near where they live. If a local party can organise things better, brilliant, but just because a local party organisation is weak or over-stretched shouldn’t stop people being able to become active. Even in the European elections, there was a big gap between the potential willingness of people to help and the capacity of local parties to get contact and involve them all.
  3. Central mobilisation: there are also many ways the party centrally can directly use supporters more, from the increasing and welcome use of volunteers at party HQ through to providing the encouragement and training to many more to become regular phone bankers for the party. This particular tactic is a staple of building up American Presidential campaigns, for example, but is barely promoted to new supporters. Indeed, aficionados of US political organising may notice similarities between this and the ‘big organising’ movement there. That’s no coincidence; the classic book on how to to do big organising is almost a perfect route map for Liberal Democrats but with one key difference. With the right shared systems, that activity mobilised by the centre also becomes more activists for local parties and party bodies to use too.

#3: Smart cooperation with Remainers outside the Lib Dems

As my last survey of party members showed, three-quarters want to see at least some deals over individual constituencies at the next general election. That was before the Brecon and Radnorshire result which, judging from what I’ve heard members say since, has if anything reinforced that view.

Such deals are very much part of what Jo Swinson is seeking too. Speaking just after Jane Dodds’s victory, Jo Swinson said, “I do think that working across party lines is important when there is so much at stake for the future of our country and I will continue to do that. I’ve exchanged messages this morning with the Green and Plaid leaderships and I think there will be more co-operation in future elections.”

One immediate test for what this all means comes in London, where the party has now got the unusual situation of two candidates for Mayor of London, following the decision by ace-campaigner Sue Black (of Bletchley Park fame) to join the Lib Dems. She is the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) candidate for Mayor of London but the Lib Dems had already selected the excellent Siobhan Benita as our candidate. So far, all the key people seem keen to make this work in some way. It is a reminder, though, that seeking to work with others is not as simple as expecting everyone else to make way for the Lib Dems.

Yet for all those difficulties, an autumn general election, held on Brexit and under first past the post, could make it essential to work out at least some arrangements.

However, perhaps the most common mistake in politics, made both by those who are participants and those who report on it, is to forget how little attention the public pays most of the time. Even in the midst of a general election campaign in 2017, 1 in 5 could not name the Prime Minister and less than 1 in 5 could name the governing party’s election slogan. Plenty of people still don’t know what the Liberal Democrat line is on Brexit.

The public know as much about politics as I know about contemporary music. And almost without fail anyone who says, ‘we should stop banging on about X’, has forgotten how few people yet know X.

Which is why for any talk about Remain alliances an overwhelming question, that should be worried about day after day after day – and through the night too, is ‘how the heck will voters know what we decide to do?’.

Fancy talk about pacts, deals or cross-party cooperation has to be relentlessly beaten up under that cross-examination: how on earth do we expect people to know?

One of the secrets to the success of the pre-1997 cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats was the way it prioritised winning support from the national media for it. There may have been no formal seat deals, but having national media outlets working to a consistent list of seats in which to heavily promote tactical voting amongst their readers was one way of making that jump from cosy discussions into public knowledge.

Any plan for cooperation has to have at its heart a plan for publicity. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve long argued that if anyone wants to do some sort of formal seat arrangements for the Remain cause, the crucial thing is to make sure it’s clear on the ballot paper.

If a voter can see when they go to vote ‘oh, this person is the agreed cross-party Remain candidate here’ then there’s a much bigger chance of the arrangement working. There’s nothing better than having that information right in front of the voter at the moment they vote.

The smart way to do this would be through using the same mechanism as the Co-operative Party uses. Candidates can stand for election as the joint candidate from two parties. So the Co-operative Party picks candidates it backs and they stand as joint Co-operative and Party X candidates. For them, X always equals Labour but it doesn’t have to.

Likewise, a pro-Remain umbrella organisation could endorse candidates who can then stand both under their own party label and as the official Remain party candidate in that seat.

This approach brings several advantages:

  1. Voters will know what’s happening, right there on the ballot paper.
  2. It allows different candidates and parties (along with independents and independent groupings) to preserve their own identity – they’re backing a joint cause without subsuming their identity. That’s a safeguard against the sort of problems that have often bedevilled seat talks in the past.
  3. This arrangement can work for anything from 1 to 650 seats. It could be narrowly pitched to help out a few gallant rebels and the most obvious cases for cooperation, or scaled up to something larger depending on the circumstances and what the Brexiters get up to.
  4. It can also flex to cover seats where parties just cannot agree, with either no candidate or even (improbably but as an emergency crisis compromise) more than one candidate being endorsed in a seat. The scheme doesn’t fall apart because the hardest parts could not be agreed on.
  5. There’s also a messaging point: part of the benefit of cross-party backing isn’t the exact number of votes that different parties won previously, but rather the broader message: here’s a cause that involves people working together, productively and which therefore can win. It makes turning out to vote part of something that is bigger than party politics and something that has therefore triggered an unprecedented piece of cooperation. That is just the right sort of message to help raise turnout and also to persuade people to back a party they might not naturally choose.

Whether or not such a move should be embraced by the Liberal Democrats depends on the circumstances – such as whether or not there is a Boris Johnson – Nigel Farage seat pact to try to sow things up for the Brexiters.

But it’s not hard to see the circumstances under which agreements for at least some seats will be desirable. Which means the Liberal Democrats should ensure that the best possible circumstances for such agreements to succeed are put in place. Especially as there’s a warning from the Lib Dem ballot paper description in the European elections about the risks of running out of time.

That is why the Lib Dems should welcome Heidi Allen’s moves:

Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, said she had already had a number of meetings with the Electoral Commission about how Unite to Remain would work in practical terms at the next general election.

The plan is for candidates to share a descriptor, which would appear next to the name of their party on the ballot paper. For example, “the Liberal Democrats – Unite to Remain.” They are also discussing having a shared logo. [Business Insider]

Who knows where this will go, but the better the options are prepared for cross-party cooperation amongst Remainers, the better the odds are that we’ll find we have the option we need ready to use later this year.

#4: Keep thinking ahead

One thing that has worked so well for the party so far this year has been the run of events each giving the party more momentum and leading to success at the next: the locals, Euros, leadership and Brecon elections have each fed the next. That is a sense of momentum the party needs to keep going, especially if we have one or more hung Parliaments to come in which the parties with popularity will have a key advantage of not being afraid of elections or of negotiating deals.

Two particular future dates we (probably) know. One is the possibility of a by-election in Sheffield Hallam, another former Lib Dem seat with an excellent Lib Dem candidate.

The other is next May’s local elections. They may seem a very long way away at the moment, but they will be a key political test for whatever and whoever comes out on top this side of Christmas. We saw this May just how much the local elections can change the national political story – and of course they are crucial in their own right for the difference Liberal Democrat councillors and councils can make.

Candidates are already being selected and campaigns already starting for those wards. After what may well be a prolonged winter political crisis, those local elections will provide a key opportunity for the Lib Dems.

No coincidence then that the Liberal Democrats Everywhere appeal focused on them…

Lib Dem Winning Here poster

Brilliant response to Liberal Democrats Everywhere appeal

Thank you to the fabulous response of readers who have raised enough more to give seven activists from areas without Liberal Democrat councillors a special intensive package of support from ALDC for the next May elections. We will, I’m sure, be getting Liberal Democrat councillors elected in areas currently without local representation thanks to your generosity.

You’re brilliant.

A microphone

Why did Jo Swinson win?

Episode #14 of the Never Mind The Bar Charts podcast saw Stephen Tall and I discuss why Jo Swinson won the Lib Dem leadership contest and what next for the party. You can listen to our show here.

You can also find Never Mind The Bar Charts on the web or in your favourite podcast app.

All these podcast hosts include a full back catalogue of earlier episodes, including the interview with Tim Farron on what it takes to be a successful party leader.

A 'thank yoiu' message with a small plant - CC0 Public Domain photo

Liberal Democrat Newswire is provided for free. Thank you so much to all the kind readers who donate to help cover its costs. It’s quick and easy to sign up for a small regular donation with your debit card using GoCardless:

Thank you! (Other donation options, including by PayPal or cheque, are here.)

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

Layla Moran to antisemites: clear off from the Palestinian quest

In case you missed them the first time around, here are the highlights from my blog over the last month:

Spot any stories which you think I should be covering? Do drop me an email – always appreciated.

Rhian O'Connor with Greenwich and Woolwich Liberal Democrats. Photo via https://twitter.com/GreenwichRhian/status/1147064449880219648

Liberal Democrat selection news

Selections of Westminster Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) since last time have included Rhian O’Connor (Greenwich and Woolwich), Jo Barton (South Ribble) and Sue Wixley (Putney). Also selected has been Beatrice Wishart for the Shetland Scottish Parliament by-election triggered by Tavish Scott’s resignation.

You can check on all the selections which have been made public in the prospective candidate list on my website, which includes a batch of other selections from Wales too.

Good luck to them all and if you have been recently selected yourself, this list of tips will, I hope, be useful.

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, part 1

Here’s how the opinion polls are now looking, with the Conservatives now (mostly) in the lead and the Brexit Party back down to fourth.

Opinion polls scorecard 4 August 2019

To get updates about voting intention opinion polls, sign up for Polling UnPacked and to see all the historical trends for voting intention polls back to 1943 see PollBase.

What the voters are saying, part 2

Council by-election results as of 26 July 2019

As in the national opinion polls, Labour’s performance in council by-elections continues to be bad. It’s the Liberal Democrats who are taking votes and seats from the Conservatives:

In Scotland, a Conservative councillor has joined the Liberal Democrats, part of a much wider trend of growing party membership in the last few weeks. However, a Cabinet member has left the party in Portsmouth while in Chichester a councillor has switched to the Greens and in West Sussex one has gone to the independents.

One other councillor change is the departure of a Lib Dem councillor over the party’s opposition to Brexit, according to reports. I add that caveat as it’s a little surprising that someone should only now decide that the party’s line on Brexit is not to their liking

To get the full council by-election results every week, sign up for my blog posts digest and to be prepared for a council by-election in your patch, see my 7-step guide to getting ready in advance.

Person reading a newspaper - CC0 Public Domain

Other Liberal Democrats in the news

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