Getting the Liberal Democrats back on track: LDN #137

Liberal Democrat Newswire #137 came out last week, and if you’d like the convenience and speed of getting it direct by email in future, sign up for it here.

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It’s a busy time putting the Liberal Democrats back on track: the big independent election review, a leadership timetable, plans for an online party conference that would be a first for British politics, creating a new party strategy, updating our policy and more. Read on to find out what’s going on and how you can contribute.

All that is about looking to the future. We best do that when we also learn from the past, so if you want to learn more about that, I’d recommend the Liberal Democrat History Group’s short history of the party, available as an audiobook.

All the very best wishes for you and your family,


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Please, don’t follow your instincts

Chances are, you’ve often had friends or relatives give you advice by telling you to follow your instincts.

And then we had the Prime Minister today saying the behaviour of his closest aide is all okay, because he was following his instincts.

But please, don’t.

Don’t follow your instincts to want to meet up with a group of friends.

Don’t follow your instincts to want to hug family.

Don’t follow your instincts to meet up with another family so your children can play with their best friends.

Don’t follow your instincts to want to attend a funeral.

If following our instincts was all we needed, we wouldn’t have had to introduce widespread quarantine rules.

If following our instincts was all that we needed, we wouldn’t have needed a massive publicity campaign.

If following our instincts was all that we needed, we wouldn’t have had to give the police and others sweeping new powers, unprecedented in peacetime – and even pretty rare in wartime.

It’s precisely because so many lives depend on it, that we need not to follow our instincts.

So please, be better than the Prime Minister. Be better than his top advisor.

Don’t follow your instincts.

Do follow the health advice.

And be a life-saver, not an excuse maker.

An ambitious plan for the party

At our worst, there’s a weird form of inertia in the Liberal Democrats. Whatever we’re talking about, people forcefully demand that something else is more important. Policy, strategy, organisation, leadership – whenever you talk about one of these, some people object that one of the others is more important and is the one you should be talking about instead.

It’s a bureaucratic form of Escher’s famous staircases. Every step is always preceded by another step, until you’ve gone round in a circle and ended up back where you started.

(Newswire readers being the lovely group you are, I’m banking on at least 10 replies saying, “Actually, they are Penrose stairs”.)

One way to crack that is to tackle them all at once.

Ambitious, yes. But ambitious is what any plans for the Liberal Democrats need to be.

And ambitious is what the party’s plans for the summer and autumn are.

Leadership? Our leadership election starts next month. It won’t be just another election either. We’ll be making use of the enforced change of circumstances to have our best ever and most testing campaign and hustings program. We’ll put candidates through their paces, so members can see who has what it takes.

Policy? We’ll shortly be rolling out a new mass member policy engagement platform. It will help us put together the Liberal Democrat answer to what the world should look like after coronavirus. Readers will know my take on that – how we need to show that a fair society is a resilient society. But it will be up to party members to decide. Members who will get an online conference in the autumn too, involving far more people than our big showcase event normally reaches.

Strategy? Yes, we’ll have one of those too. The leadership election is a key opportunity to debate for members to choose between different visions for the party. The party will be following up with creating the strategy to underpin the vision that members choose. We need to avoid the previous mistakes where our political strategy and organisational capacity pointed in different directions. That happened even under such otherwise successful leaders as Jo Grimond. Instead, we will have one joined-up plan.

Organisation? That most definitely needs sorting too, as the independent election review starkly shows. It makes for difficult reading. It also makes for very necessary reading.

We need to improve the way we’re organised in a way we never have before. Here’s one simple example. The review says, “The Federal Board was often a ‘rubber-stamp’ and is too large a group to be a realistic decision-making body.” That point about its size is not a new one. It’s been a regular complaint over the years and featured in previous reviews.

Yet In 1989 the Federal Executive – as the Board was then called – had 27 voting members and 2 non-voting members.

By 2020, after several large reviews, it has grown in size by 12, up to 35 voting members and 6 non-voting members.

(You may have noticed that 35 + 6 = 41 but I’ve talked before about the Board having 43 people. That’s because there are also two other members of staff who attend but are not formally members.)

So while many of the recommendations in the election review may appear obvious, we shouldn’t underestimate how much enacting them requires over-coming entrenched habits.

It’s also why my strong inclination at the moment is not to repeat our previous approaches of going for another big top down governance review. They’ve still left us with the problems documented by the review. Instead, we should instead pick off the key issues separately.

All the above will much easier if we improve the party’s technology. The Board has agreed a significant investment in our tech capability, focused first on improving the main party website. If that phase one goes well, phase two will involve expanding to look at other issues. All through, consulting with the users of our technology will be a big part of the approach.

(Prioritising the website makes sense for this new approach as it is the easier first step. Besides, a better website will mean better finances due to improvements such as with the donations process.)

The elections review puts me on the spot for delivering a major set of improvements. That’s how it should be – and one I’m expecting to be held to account for. As the review rightly sets out, people across the party need to be held to account for how they are doing their roles.

So please keep this email safe. Use it check in on progress in the months to come. Hold me and my colleagues to account for these plans to transform our party.

What do you think? Do let me know direct or join the conversation on Facebook.

Coronavirus booklet from the government
Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

The Lib Dems on coronavirus…

Questions related to what the Liberal Democrats are saying or doing on coronavirus regularly pop into my inbox. So here’s a round-up of just some of the pieces I’ve written about this in the last month.

As you’ll see, the party is saying plenty – though as a party with 11 MPs, there’s a lot we all need to do to overcome the media’s instinctive view of the party as being not that newsworthy. That includes improvements to what we do centrally (as the election review report highlights) and is also something every member can contribute to via their own digital activities.

Will you join the Lib Dem coronavirus phone calling drive?

Government putting ideology above people’s lives in refusing to extend Brexit talks.

Government backs Lib Dem calls to compensate bereaved families of NHS staff.

Another success for pressure over coronavirus: support for small businesses who pay council tax.

Lib Dems demand action on disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME groups.

Public Health England must investigate all possible causes of Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on BAME communities.

Cross-party group demand measures to prevent Covid-19 causing rise in modern slavery.

Lib Dems lead call for Covid-19 Committee to ensure scrutiny from all parties.

Foreign NHS staff must be given certainty about their right to remain.

A worrying lack of evidence about the safety of reopening schools.

Lib Dems lead cross-party call for mental health plan in response to COVID-19 crisis.

Safety mustn’t become a luxury for the better off.

Paddy Ashdown
Former Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown.

The Project: how the Conservatives were beaten last time

The most popular recent episode of Never Mind The Bar Charts is the one with Duncan Brack, the closest thing the party has to an official historian. In it, we talked about the lessons for the Liberal Democrats from the last time that a Conservative government was defeated.

A key part of that was cross-party cooperation so we dived into what then party leader Paddy Ashdown’s plans were, what worked, what didn’t work and what lessons apply to this Parliament.

You can listen to it here, while coming up fast on the rails as the most popular recent episode is the one about what the Lib Dems can learn from Donald Trump.

I’ve also guested on several other podcasts recently, including one in which I revealed my least glorious of reasons for joining the party and another in which I discussed how Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump.

🎧 Find all the episodes of Never Mind The Bar Charts here.

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

British passports.

Public continues to warm towards immigration

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

⭐ How those in politics misunderstand the way the public views politics.

British public continues to warm towards immigration.

One year on: lessons from the Lib Dem triumph last May.

2019 electoral registration surge was only half the size it looked at the time.

Lib Dems recruiting for Director of Strategy, Research and Messaging.

How political leaflets used to look: a 1960s Saturday election.

Rory Stewart is out of the race for Mayor of London.

🎉 Jenny Marr selected for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire.

What the voters are saying, part 1

Latest general election voting intention opinion polls 23 May 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

No council by-elections to report still, though two councillors have joined the party – one each in Buckinghamshire and Somerset.

Wera Hobhouse tweet opposing return to a physical Parliament

Other Liberal Democrats in the news

Any contact tracing app must respect privacy and maintain public trust.

Electronic voting system in Commons should be made permanent, say Lib Dems.

Coronavirus crisis can lead to change for the better in politics – Willie Rennie.

Daisy Cooper is not running for the Lib Dem leadership. Nor is Nor is Christine Jardine.

After the crisis, here’s how we build a fairer country – with a universal basic income: Layla Moran.

The economy needs real reform to recover from Covid-19: the government should look to green growth to tackle the gargantuan national debt – Ed Davey.

Ex-Labour and Lib Dem councillor who said she was defecting to Brexit Party joins the Conservatives.

Thank you for reading

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Best wishes,


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

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One response to “Getting the Liberal Democrats back on track: LDN #137”

  1. I have been a Liberal – Lib Dem member for 50 years and in all those years the biggest bugbear has been commentators and the media asking the question “What do you actually stand for?”. We have never seemed to provide an answer to this question that satisfies the questioner. Both Labour and the Conservatives seem to have clear aims, welfare state – low taxes et al, that we lack and this shows in how the population votes in general elections. As a group we are in general deep thinking concerned people with a wide range of ideas and views on what is right and wrong with our society. However the electorate is always looking for a degree of certainty when it casts its votes and will be inclined to vote for the party the best appears to provide policies that will meet their needs over the next 3 to 5 years. This short span is important as it is the time scale that is important to them personally. As Lord Keynes famously said “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”. If we are going to be successful in gaining real political power, without political power we a just a talking shop, we must do a number of key things:-

    1. Find out what it is that our potential voters want us to achieve in government, both national and local. (We must be able to give potential voters an answer to their question “What’s in it for ME?”. This may sound a bit mercenary but people vote for parties that best answer this question to the voters satisfaction.)

    2. Devise core public policies that will result in our potential voters putting an X against a Lib Dem candidate in the polling Booth. (At the moment the key things that our potential voters are concerned about seem to be a) Affordable housing, b) the NHS, c) good secure jobs, d) a decent education system and e) the Environment. These will probably form the basis of our core policies and are the things that we must get the media to talk about.)

    3. Ensure that we put a Lib Dem set of values into the core policies as a way of convincing those we want to vote for us that we are serious in how we want to produce a fairer more equal society.

    4. Once we has a set of agreed core policies we must set up an effective Internet and social media systems that sends out a clear consistent message to our potential voters. For local elections our message needs to be modified to take into account local issues such as airport extensions, fracking et al.

    5. As it is possible that we could be stuck with the “first past the post” for some time to come we must start building alliances now with other parties and not wait until just before the next election. Boris Johnson is faced with two problems that he is not dealing with well, Covid-19 and the end of the EU transition period. These and the new leader of the Labour party give us an opportunity to come to a working agreement on policies and actions in the event of the UK not being able to get a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020.

    We must have a key theme linking all the core policies that we have agreed, e.g. “Building a Fairer Britain”, that epitomises our distinct Lib Dem view of the world.

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