The big challenges ahead for the Liberal Democrats: LDN #133

Liberal Democrat Newswire #133 came out last week, looking at the big challenges ahead for the Liberal Democrats. 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.

Dr Mark Pack's Liberal Democrat Newswire - email header


Welcome to the first Liberal Democrat Newswire of 2020, and indeed the first since I’ve taken up office as Party President. That also comes with a side serving of being interim co-leader with Ed Davey until we elect a new leader later this year. (Remember my name for the answer to obscure political trivia questions in future.)

Two of the first tasks for myself and colleagues on the Federal Board (a bit like the board of directors of an NGO or company, save that there are 43 of us) have been making sure we properly review the lessons of 2019 and also that we elect a new leader. More on that below…

I’ve also taken a change in career this year, partly to free up more time for my Lib Demmery, and am concentrating on writing. One book needs writing to come out next year, but the first is due out in March: Bad News – what the headlines don’t tell us.

Happy reading,


In this edition:

The big challenges ahead

There are two versions of 2019 which future historians of the Liberal Democrats may write about. One is about a party that was on the road to recovery since 2015, took a big hit in December, but then continued upwards afterwards. It’s a story in which the successes of the first half of 2019 were the ones that pointed to the future. Or there is the version in which the Liberal Democrats were in continued decline after 2010, showed brief signs of life in early 2019 but where it was the disappointments of the general election that pointed to the future.

Either could yet turn out to be the one that’s written. Which one gets written is down to us here in the present.

That means getting our own house in order. It means learning the right lessons from last year – and acting on them, successfully electing a new leader and also making a success of the May elections.

These elections are much bigger than many people realise because, although they are the smallest in the round of English council elections, the presence of London, Mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner elections means that the elections are nationwide in England and Wales.

But it’s not only about elections. It’s also about our purpose in a period when there’s a one-party government in Westminster with a comfortable majority.

Westminster is not the only source of power in the country, and even in Westminster, the existence of that majority does not mean the government is impervious to successful campaigning. After all, how many people turned up for work at one of our many pressure groups and non-governmental organisations the day after the general election and said, ‘right, let’s pack up work for the next few years because we now can’t do anything’?

We can still campaign at all levels to turn our values into practical action, and we can still win victories at all levels. And there are many Liberal Democrats in power – including Kirsty Williams, the education minister in Wales, and 50 Liberal Democrat council leaders or co-leaders around Britain.

The big black cloud hanging over all of that is January 31st, when Britain leaves the European Union. But although we have may lost that battle, there is still a long-term struggle over Britain’s attitude towards its neighbours and how we best go about dealing with problems that cross borders.

Our values – our pro-Europeanism and our internationalism – won’t change on February 1st. We will have new political battles to fight and we need to find more effective ways of promoting what we believe.

Through all that, we’ll still be pro-European, we’ll still be internationalist and we’ll still be a vital liberal voice.

Jo Swinson signing copies of Equal Book
Jo Swinson signing copies of her book, Equal Power. Photo copyright John Russell.

Electing Jo Swinson’s successor

The Board has gone for electing our new leader after the May local elections. Nominations will open soon after them (11th May), followed by hustings and voting with the ballot closing on 15th July.

As I said to the press when this was announced:

The Liberal Democrats are the home for everyone who shares our vision of an outward-looking, caring country that celebrates diversity and benefits from high-quality public services.

With our party membership at record levels, I urge everyone else who shares our values to join us in the coming days and vote in the leadership election.

A key detail is that nominations will close on 28th May, which is therefore also the cut-off date for people to join the party or renew their membership and be able to vote in the elections. Giving a good run-up to maximise those opportunities to increase the party’s membership was one of the motivations for this timescale. I hope every local party and party body will be working on making the best of that time.

The other main reasons given in the internal debates were:

  • We should do our review into what went wrong/right in 2019 first, as that way its lessons can then be factored into both what leadership candidates and party members are then thinking about during the contest;
  • Leadership contests take up the time and attention of key activists who run the campaigns – and so better to minimise the impact of that on the local elections by having the contest after them;
  • It’ll be clearer what the new political era we’re now in is like by then, including who the Labour leader is; and
  • Various parties have had acting or interim leaders during local elections in the past without that creating a clear handicap – in other words, there’s time to get it right rather than a need to rush.

I’d also add that in the last two contested party leadership elections at least, the issues that have ended up being the hardest ones for the winner to face when they were leader were also issues that did not get very much consideration during the preceding leadership election. That suggests that giving more time to think about what will really matter in the choice of our next leader will be beneficial.

Footsoldiers - political party membership in the 21st century by Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti - front cover

What do party members get wrong about party membership?

In the latest episode of Never Mind The Bar Charts, Professor Tim Bale, one of the leading experts in political party membership, talks about who joins parties, why they join and how those who join the Liberal Democrats differ from those who join other parties.

Plus he gives his top tips on how to persuade people to join a party.

The previous episode came out over the holiday season, a discussion with Lynne Featherstone about the future of British politics.

📱 Find Never Mind The Bar Charts on Twitter, give feedback and send in questions for future shows at @barchartpodcast.

🎙️ You can find other Liberal Democrat podcasts here.

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

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.)

Dorothy Thornhill - photo courtesy of the Liberal Democrats

Dorothy Thornhill to lead elections review

Here’s what I wrote for the party’s website:

The Board has commissioned a review into both the General election and the European elections.

This review will be run independently of those who ran the elections, with a panel of experts who have a broad range of skills from knowing about grassroots election campaigns through to understanding what the very best decision-making processes in organisations look like.

The Chair is Dorothy Thornhill, who was the elected Mayor of Watford for 16 years, leading a successful turnaround of the council’s administration and quality of services, and was made a Liberal Democrat Peer in 2015.

Watch out for more news soon about how they will be consulting further and there will be many more opportunities for people at all levels to contribute to the review.

Dorothy brings three excellent benefits in particular to the role as chair – she understands campaigning, she understands improving organisations and she wasn’t involved in the running of the elections.

The second of those is particularly important as we need the review not only to look at whether particular decisions were right or not but also at the processes that led to decisions and the processes that then (tried to) implement them.

It’s a point Tim Harford makes well in his recent excellent Cautionary Tales podcast series. The series isn’t about politics, but it is about how mistakes are made. The key point is that concluding ‘oh person X was stupid’ may sometimes be true but almost always is then followed by someone else making a similar mistake. To minimise mistakes, blaming people isn’t enough. Systems need fixing.

You don’t have to wait a month for the next Liberal Democrat Newswire email for further news and resources. You can check out the other email lists I run at www.libdemnewswire.com and you can also find online my guides to canvassing and leafleting, my guide to what the Lib Dems believe and my collection of online campaigning tools and resources.

Liberal Democrat MPs and Sal Brinton - photo courtesy of the Liberal Democrats

The new Lib Dem MP spokesperson team

In case you missed them the first time around, here are highlights from my websites since last time:

The new Lib Dem team in the House of Commons.

How you can get involved in helping to run the party.

Recovering from the election: a great interview with Sheila Ritchie.

How many Lib Dems does it take to point at a pothole?

Leave campaigners fined for breaking European referendum financial controls.

An essential guide to understanding political party membership.

💾 5 things to remember if you’re looking after data for a political party.

What the voters are saying, part 1

Latest general election voting intention opinion polls 23 January 2020

To get updates about voting intention opinion polls, sign up for Polling UnPacked or follow @PollingUnPacked on Twitter.

To see all the historical trends for voting intention polls back to 1943 see PollBase.

What the voters are saying, part 2

As well as national opinion polls being up and running again after the general election, so too are council by-elections:

🗳️ Lib Dems only party to gain vote share in first council by-election of 2020.

Outside of elections, two councillors have left the Liberal Democrats, one each in Bradford (to Labour) and in Fareham (to independents).

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.

Go Knock Doors tweet from canvassing in Scotland

Other Liberal Democrats in the news

Norman Lamb appointed Chair of South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

The law on assisted dying must change – Christine Jardine.

Obituary: Lord Maclennan of Rogart, Labour minister who led the SDP and later became joint interim leader of the Liberal Democrats. He gave wonderfully funny and erudite speeches during his time as Party President and will be much missed.

Thank you for reading

If you enjoyed reading this, please do share the sign-up page with other people you know. Thank you!

Best wishes,


P.S. I get a surprising number of emails from people having difficulty finding a previous edition of LDN in their email folders. So here’s a special phrase that is unlikely to be in any other email and so which I can tell people to search for: Letraset Clipboard Kitten.

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.

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