A fair society is a resilient society: the future for the Lib Dems (LDN #136)

The latest edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire (sign up here) has a special long read from me looking at the party’s strategy and direction. Party members get to set those in our party and here’s my contribution to our debates.

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It’s time for my annual reader survey. It’d be great if you can take a few minutes to let me know your views here so I can fine-tune editions of this newsletter for the coming year.

But for this edition, coronavirus once again dominates. After looking at the short-term impact on party activities last time, now it’s time for a much longer than usual piece looking at what it means for the party’s strategy and direction. Party members get to set those in our party and here’s my contribution to our debates. Feedback very welcome.

All the very best wishes for you and your family,


P.S. Zoom is very much in fashion for Lib Dem meetings now. Here’s my take on the security questions about Zoom (llamas optional).

In this edition:

A fair society is a resilient society

Beware the temporary becoming permanent
At any previous point in our history, if the government had banned public gatherings of more than two people – ending political protests, trade union picket lines and even just sunbathing with friends – liberals would have been outraged. Indeed, often were outraged in response to similar massive curbs on our liberty.

But with coronavirus, rather than liberals being off to create placards ahead of a protest that deliberately flouted the rules, instead what criticism there has been are complaints that the ban was not introduced quickly enough.

Immediate necessity, however, should not make us permanent authoritarians. Temporary, emergency measures have a habit of sticking around for a very long time. Income tax – introduced by Pitt the Younger in his 1798 Budget as a temporary measure to pay for the Napoleonic Wars – is very much still with us. Even though it has twice been abolished, each time it has come back. Likewise, the Official Secrets Act of 1911 was rushed in as during a period of spy fever, yet hung around in a massively restrictive form until 1989. Or the ‘temporary’ solution to House of Lords reform agreed in 1911 which is still with us.

Nor should we forget the other consistent pattern of granting the state extra powers over what we can do, where we can go and who we can meet: such powers rarely get applied equally to all sections of society. With so many problems over how police stop and search powers, for example, are disproportionately deployed against ethnic minorities, should we really expect none of those problems to happen this time around?

A fair society is a more resilient society
The challenge, then, for liberals – and the Liberal Democrats in particular – is to craft the long-term liberal response to coronavirus.

One which protects both our health and our civil liberties. One which tackles the social inequality that coronavirus is so sharply illustrating. One which enhances the international cooperation and long-term planning whose necessity we are being so painfully reminded of. And one which shows that liberalism, not authoritarianism, is the right answer.

A liberalism, then, which is true to both the meanings of the word – freedom and generosity.

A liberalism which makes the case that a fair society is a more resilient society. Because a fair society is one that can best protect and nourish us in the face of the challenges of the age, immediate ones such as coronavirus, long-term ones such as climate change, and endemic ones such as social injustice.

A fair society is the one that can best give everyone the most freedom possible to live their own lives as they wish, to be who they wish to be.

Delivering the liberal vision
Our mission as party, then, should be to harness the many liberal voices in our society behind a powerful political voice that can challenge, and win out over, the authoritarians and populists.

The way to do that requires an updated version of the core votes strategy for the party that David Howarth and I set out in 2015. It is an approach that we’ve seen the potential of, such as when the party stuck to its pro-European guns in the 2019 European Parliament elections, pitching to a pro-European vote without being scared off by the thought that a distinctive pitch might also put off some voters.

But there is still much more to do.

As David and I wrote then and is still the case, the current Liberal Democrat core vote is tiny. At around just 1 in 20 of the electorate, it is so small it is barely enough to ensure the party’s survival – and nowhere near large enough to help the party through tough times with any sense of security let alone success.

However, there is a sizeable share of the electorate – around 1 in 5 voters – who share the same attitudes and values as our current core vote.

That would be a core vote large enough to make a real difference. We would still need to reach out beyond our core vote to win many elections. But a 20% core would enable far greater electoral success.

In elections with a list PR or STV element – Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament, Scottish local government and London – being able to reliably poll at least 20% would transform our electoral prospects.

In first-past-the-post elections, 20% would of course not be enough to win. But that 20% is not evenly distributed. In fact, the party’s research in the last Parliament shows that liberals are heavily skewed towards particular Parliamentary constituencies, showing strongly both in those seats that the party won in 2010 and in new territory for the party.

What’s more, starting with a larger core vote means starting far closer to the winning line in far more seats. That is both a direct advantage in itself and also an indirect one because the closer we start to the winning line the more effectively we can target swing voters to take us the last part of the way to the winning line. The sort of clever targeting of intensive activity on a small number of voters which gets widely praised as the hallmark of modern winning general election campaigns simply does not work if you start as far away from the winning line as we usually do.

Other parties – Labour and Conservatives in particular – regularly demonstrate the advantages even under first-past-the-post of having a larger core vote.

The Liberal Democrats need to seize some of that advantage for ourselves.

How to make it happen
Building a core vote requires attracting people to our values, winning over the liberals who do not see themselves as Liberal Democrats and building bridges to those who have some liberal views, drawing them towards greater liberalism.

That means putting our values front and centre of our campaigning. We need to create and promote policies that best promote our values. In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, two, in particular, will be crucial:

  1. What does a fair and modern welfare state look like – one that can sustain people in need with the full range of support they require, including as we’re painfully being reminded of at the moment, access to space for both mental and physical health?
  2. What does a fair and modern form of politics look like – one that creates the sort of cross-party working that is required for long-term sustained action of the sort needed to tackle climate change or to ensure sustained readiness against future pandemic threats?

Then to use these ideas to win support and action, we need to build a broad and welcoming movement – recognising that for many people, party membership is not a preferred route.

That’s because the evidence shows that 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 even the committed supporters of a party.

Party membership, as a concept, is exclusive in a way that liberals should chafe about and want to fix.

A two-pronged electoral plan
That movement will give us the tool to win more elections – a tool we should deploy to two tasks.

One is to take winning elections at all levels seriously. The quickest way to getting more Liberal Democrats into power is to elect more at local and devolved levels next May. We have been seeing through the coronavirus the huge difference Liberal Democrat council leaders, co-leaders and Mayors are making. Having more of them really matters. It’s also the way to put down liberal roots in communities across the country.

But Westminster also matters. Going from 11 MPs to government may not be a short-term objective. Yet even starting from eleven we can realistically aim to win enough seats to help force a Parliament in which no one party has a majority and ensure that in that Parliament, Liberal Democrat priorities – especially electoral reform – are prioritised.

In addition to the 11 seats won by the Liberal Democrats last year, there are a further 29 in which the party finished second and within a 10% swing of winning (26 of them Conservative-held). To put that in context, losing 41 seats will deprive the Conservatives of their majority and in practice losing around 50 tips them into serious problems holding on to power. That means the Liberal Democrats can do the lion’s share of depriving the Conservatives of their majority. Kier Starmer does not have to be a stunning success.

Of course, the exact target seat list for any general election is not a straight read down a spreadsheet of results sorted by majority, and there are seats held by other parties we can seek to win. It does though give a clear sense of the scale of what is plausible – and that Liberal Democrats could be influential in Parliament once again as soon as after the next general election.

Moreover, that sort of magnitude of gains will only be realistic to hope for if the party massively ups its game compared with the 2019 performance. Early steps in doing that have already happened, especially the first steps in improving how the federal party operates. There is much more to do, and the to do list should get much longer when the independent election review reports in May.

Make Hung Parliaments an opportunity, not a trap
That possibility of power in Westminster as soon as the next general election may be a good motivator for the party – power does not have to be decades away. It is also a reminder that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Hung Parliaments have not ended well for the party.

This brings us back to the importance of a core vote, based on clearly communicating our values. Because that is the way to have a durable bedrock of support that can survive the controversies of a hung Parliament and one in which Lib Dem voters believe that what the Lib Dems are doing matches the reasons they had for voting for the party in the first place.

Get that right and those Lib Dem voters will remain Lib Dem voters and Lib Dem power can be followed by progress, not disaster.

To quote the former Liberal MP, Russell Johnston:

Our liberalism is not an abstract set of principles. It is a robust and dynamic philosophy of life, of the earth and of the people … It is for these things that we walk the wet streets; it is for these things that we commit our time and treasure; and it is these things that we will one day bring to pass.

Learn online during lockdown

The Liberal Democrat HQ training team has pulled together a set of great resources to help us all during the lockdown, including webinars, such as how to work from home and make healthy lifestyle choices, and online training sessions, such as how to be a councillor.

Bad News: what the headlines don’t tell us

Bad News - quotes from Craig Oliver and others about the book

Bad News, my new book about the media, is out! It is available both in print and as an e-book. You can order it from Waterstones, Amazon, Biteback or Hive.

Polly Mackenzie
Polly Mackenzie, Chief Executive of the think tank Demos, talks about the public policy impact of coronavirus in Never Mind The Bar Charts.

Never Mind The Bar Charts podcast goes weekly

For a trial run, my podcast Never Mind The Bar Charts is going weekly, featuring a string of interviews with experts on key issues facing the Liberal Democrats and the country. Weekly shows have included talking about the data on the future for liberalism with Paula Surridge, the impact of coronavirus on public policy with Polly Mackenzie and a discussion of my new book on understanding the media Bad News.

🎧 Find all the episodes here, along with links to subscribe in your favourite podcast app.

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

Please do post a rating or a review on your favourite podcasting platform – thank you!

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:
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Screeshots of Covid-19 symptom tracker app

How Lib Dems across the country are helping

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

⭐ Three key ways to help the NHS through the coronavirus crisis.

Party leadership election and autumn federal conference plans put on hold.

How Lib Dems in Camden, Eastbourne and Hull are helping their communities through coronavirus.

Cross-party push to put clear time limits on emergency coronavirus powers.

Liberal Democrats set up Coronavirus Community Taskforce.

Tim Farron self-isolating following NHS advice.

We will work constructively with everyone who shares our progressive aims: Davey on Starmer’s election.

Welcome to Barbara Gibson, chair of the Federal People Development Committee.

Alex Cole-Hamilton re-selected for Edinburgh Western.

What the voters are saying, part 1

Latest general election voting intention opinion polls 19 April 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

Council by-elections are now on hold with the last one for quite some time held on March 20th. Turnout was under 10% as Labour held a seat in Coventry.

With council by-elections put on hold along with the postponement of the May elections, sixty-five local by-elections are currently in limbo.

Layla Moran tweet about mental health support during the coronavirus pandemic

Other Liberal Democrats in the news

Liberal Democrats call for ‘virtual Parliament’ to hold ministers to account.

Put Brexit on hold and extend transition period – Ed Davey.

Nurses trained abroad told to pay more than £1,000 if they want to register to help UK’s coronavirus fight; Munira Wilson disagrees.

Millions of British people are facing hunger – and our benefits system isn’t prepared: Vince Cable.

Learning the lessons of the Windrush scandal – Isabelle Parasram.

Wendy Chamberlain: ‘I’ve been described as the Lib Dem who picks up all the bits and pieces’.

Crisis makes universal basic income look like an increasingly good idea – Christine Jardine.

What it was like for a first-time candidate in the general election.

The lowdown on the Liberal Democrats’ low-key boss: that’s, er…, me.

Lib Dem-run Kingston Council has changed leader.

Thank you for reading

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P.S. This time’s inbox search phrase to help find this newsletter buried in your emails: Letraset Zebra.

What did you think of this edition?

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9 responses to “A fair society is a resilient society: the future for the Lib Dems (LDN #136)”

  1. Hi Mark,

    As you said feedback is welcome I thought I’d comment, rather than snipe from twitter.

    I don’t think this is really a strategy and (in no direct personal way to you) is a pretty clear demonstration of why our party fails when it comes to imagining strategy and what it is. What you outline is important but it is the beginning of an operational plan to deliver a strategy, not the beginning of a strategy.

    We have failed to make an impact, as have labour because we are currently political opportunists, jumping on issues for a quick win, without really thinking through how our opportunism will help us in our long term, multi-election, plan to not just “win” but actually create and do something. We might not like to hear it but the Conservatives are not just a vehicle to win elections, they actually have a purpose and value to their electorate.

    What the Conservatives have done well over the last decade is to set a clear objective to be the dominant party of power. They destroyed the Liberal Democrats over two elections and then destroyed the Labour party over two more. Whilst those on the liberal-left obsesess over Cummings’ supposed irrationality he has demonstrated time and time again his ability to remove thought processes from the here and now, and to outmanouevre rivals. They have effectively stolen the traditional actually liberal vote that was ours as we make niche issues core to our message, turning off large swathes of the population whilst appeal to smaller and smaller groups.

    I think there is more to say on this so you’ve inspired me to write and article on this, so I shall!

  2. For me the party needs to have a strategy that relies more on the grassroot movement of liberal democrats and those of a similar leaning to really affect and make policy and campaign from there
    Most of all the structure of the party and its decision making must come from there and not what is perceided to be top heavy
    We need conferences to be changed into experiences broaden it’s content appeal so that the creative industries help to run such events with their creativity methods to inspire and deliver real engagement and most of all enjoyment
    Film documentaries on the movement on the history with talks and workshops o n how to shape the future
    Most of all an overriding commitment to equality within the party. To every generation being represented in all aspects
    I could go on and will…

  3. I think a better way for us to win – stem then turn the right wing populist tide – is to take up Keir Starmer’s invitation to work more closely with Labour. Had we had an agreement at the last election both Labour and the Lib Dems would have had sufficient seats to keep the Conservatives out of Govt and give the UK the possibility of staying in the EU. We unfortunately blew it big time. Let’s start by living up to our ideals and trying to take some of the party out of politics, abandoning dubious marketing and data gathering techniques and gathering behind strong leadership from the top. Not complicated!


  4. and you don’t mention the elephant in the room.. in addition to the unfair FPTP electoral system, our press prefers the simplicity of a binary approach to politics. In addition to getting away from the adversarial parliament, copied by so many councils to our cost, we need a press which is not owned by non-doms with friends in the two old parties.. tackling that needs to be part of any strategy.
    The idea that we can eventually win by building our vote over time from the grass roots is laudable, but the might of the two old parties, their funding and their friends, can destroy us each time as soon as we become a threat..

  5. Mark –
    In addition to reading my suggestion of honours for NHS workers (it will only take a couple of minutes), you really ought to read my proposed book (currently being read by Chris Rennard). It may be 15,000 words, but it’s going to be published in the summer even if I have to self-publish it, and you ought to be forewarned because some of my proposals are absolute dynamite and even though I’m not pretending that it’s Lib Dem policy my party membership and commitment to the party is clear for all to see.

  6. It puzzles, surprises and disappoints me that members are more likely to be male. If anything, I would have expected it to be the other way round, marginally anyway. I think this should be investigated. Could it be just that an m/f household decides to sign up just one person and, despite all progress made in the matter, the ‘traditional’ line is followed, and it is the male who puts his name on the form?

  7. On the present, we’ve seen very clearly how the police, given vague and contradictory guidance by ministers, will make up and enforce their own rules. It should not have needed the CPS to intervene to clarify that driving a few miles to a quiet place to exercise is still within the law, that non-essentials can be bought when you visit a shop for essentials, or that someone who has had a violent row with their partner can legally move somewhere else.

    On the future, yes, I believe a strategy can be constructed around Liberal values. Michael’s criticism that we jump on short-term issues and lack consistency can be addressed if we keep banging on about our values and how these can be promoted through particular policies, national and local. How often did we say WHY we were against Brexit from our hearts as well as our pockets? Any such strategy must make the climate emergency first priority and strongly feature radical political reform and an attack on poverty. We had little to say in the last election on either, outside an unread manifesto, and that cost us Labour votes in particular.

    Yes, as Paddy Ashdown did, we must look for common ground with Labour and co-operate with them – and Greens and the Plaid – on common policies and policy campaigns; but between us and Labour lies a gulf, not so much of policy but of values and political DNA. We should co-operate, but not forget the allies of today can be the enemies of tomorrow.

    Finally, we will make little progress, whatever reorganisations or changes of faces happen, until the organisational culture of the party at the top changes. It is very basic, that lines of responsibility should be clear, that overlaps of responsibility should be small, that the people who take decisions should have the authority to do so, that people taking decisions should think about who should be consulted and who else needs to be told, that policy and guidance should be kept up to date and made available to newcomers at all levels, that the Chief Executive and the Board should effectively monitor finances, that staff management should have system or that HQ campaigns staff should understand, value and listen to local campaigners. Just for a start!

  8. How a society deal with these threats depends as much on its well-being as how many resources it has. A sense of being an equal and fair society contributes to this. Also with more to lose, there is a greater motivation to counter them.

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