One of the biggest, yet least talked about, risks to Lib Dem future success: LDN #140

Liberal Democrat Newswire #140 came out last week, looking at one of the biggest, yet least talked about, risks to the party’s future success.

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Ignorance, fatalism or innovation – that’s the choice facing the Liberal Democrats over what is one of the biggest, yet least talked about, risks to the party’s future success. No prizes for guessing that my preference is that we go for the innovation option.

But before we plunge into that, two quick reminders for party members:

Happy reading,


P.S. Have you voted yet in the Liberal Democrat leadership contest? Yes / No / Not a member.

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Looking at Big Ben across the Thames
Photo by Massimiliano on Unsplash.

Will it be ignorance, fatalism or innovation?

Hung Parliaments. They’ve often been the hope for the Liberal Democrats, and our predecessor parties. A hung Parliament means the opportunity for political power… and even the achievement of electoral reform for the House of Commons.

And yet… the repeated pattern is that hung Parliaments end with a bad, or worse, election result for us. Not only in 2010-15. But also 2017-19. And 1974-79 (which became hung during the Parliament). Nor were 1964-66 or February-October 1974 triumphs.

The pattern is clear. It’s not immutable. The 1992-97 Parliament became hung during its course, and the 1997 election saw the party’s haul of seats soar. But it is a clear pattern, reinforced by comparable experience from other countries too.

To make matters worse, growing Lib Dem support makes a hung Parliament more likely. It’s a horrible paradox: the better the party does, the more likely it is to trigger a sequence that usually ends badly.

So what should the party do?

One option is ignorance: just ignore the consistent pattern from history and overseas. Not a good option.

Then there’s fatalism. That is, in fact, the response I got from a very senior Liberal Democrat back before I was one myself. Pointing to the pattern and asking what their plan was to avoid a repeat of it. Their answer was they didn’t have one. Rather, we had to accept fate and hope to muddle through.

But we can do better than that. We can instead innovate. Do things differently.

Two things differently, in particular. One is about building up a Liberal Democrat core vote: getting people to vote for us because they share our values. That greater coherence in our support base gives a chance to hold together the party’s vote in the pressures of a hung Parliament. If, instead, our votes mainly come from a mix of some people who don’t like Labour, others who don’t like the Conservatives and with a topping of those who don’t like any party, then that’s a coalition that can’t hold together.

Cue one of my favourite bits of polling evidence to support this point. It comes from the 2017 general election. The preferred outcome from that election for Liberal Democrat voters was a Parliament with only 159 Lib Dem MPs, well short of a majority (!). Not even Lib Dem voters wanted a Lib Dem majority. That’s because the party hasn’t done well enough at winning over people who actually want Lib Dem outcomes to be achieved, as opposed to stopping other parties.

Then the second thing to do differently is to be clear in advance about what the party would want from a hung Parliament. What the party does the day after polling day has to be consistent with what voters hear the party saying the day before polling day. That wasn’t the case in 2010 – and is why the party’s support dropped so sharply immediately after the 2010 election, before any of those policies like tuition fees or welfare reform had happened.

Our negotiation red lines need to fit with what our prior messaging has been. In particular, if one of them is going to be electoral reform, we need to make the case for electoral reform well before the election. We need people to understand that it’s a priority of ours and why.

That’s what we need to get right with the party’s strategy in this Parliament. Our autumn conference will see a consultation session on the party’s strategy. (Register for conference here to take part in that.) You can guess what my views will be… but don’t miss out the chance to express your views too. It’s members who will be setting our strategy, not me.

Graph showing recovery in the number of strong Liberal Democrat general election constituency results

What the data says about the future for the Lib Dems

I’ll also be talking more about hung Parliaments in Never Mind The Bar Charts later this month with Duncan Brack, talking about lessons from the party leadership of David Steel. Subscribe to the podcast in your favourite podcast app to make sure you don’t miss out, or read about how to get into listening to podcasts here.

The topic also came up in our previous look at lessons from a previous leader: Saving the party from disaster: lessons from Jo Grimond for the Liberal Democrats. You can listen to that show here.

But it’s not only history which we can learn from. Data is informative too. Which makes the appearance of the research report Where next for the Liberal Democrats? very timely. I invited one of its co-authors, Professor Tim Bale, back on the podcast to talk about what the report found and the lessons for future Lib Dem strategy. Take a listen to our discussion and read the report here.

🎧 Find all the episodes of Never Mind The Bar Charts here and sign up for an email notification each time a new episode appears here.

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

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Lib Dem party constitution booklet

Federal Board gives go ahead to major changes in how we run our party

My latest Federal Board report on the party website following our July meeting has now been updated with more information as additional details have been set. Here is the latest version, with thanks to all my colleagues on the Board and the staff team for what was a very constructive set of debates and decisions. We’ve also updated and expanded the information on the Federal Board page on the party website, including membership of the Steering Group.

We’re putting the party back on track so we can achieve the sort of successes in future that we all so desperately want, and that our country needs.

Problems with the current way of doing things make it harder for us to win elections and to give members a real say in what happens. This was one of the major conclusions from the Dorothy Thornhill election review, which called for major improvements in how the party runs its own affairs.

At our meeting, the Federal Board (FB) therefore agreed three major steps forward.

First, we agreed a dozen projects to tackle specific issues highlighted by the review and other experiences. These cover everything from fixing the problems with how our general election campaigns are chaired, through to strengthening our audit function so that problems can’t be swept under the carpet.

One project is to improve the accountability of the President. For example, if I was to go off the rails and completely lose the confidence of Board members, should they have the power to trigger a recall vote by party members? (I believe so, as it’s important that those in power can be properly held to account for their performance.)

Second, the Thornhill Review says we need to define much more clearly the roles of Leader, President and CEO. We’ve agreed a draft, which also sets out who else needs to be involved in key decisions, such as any future electoral pacts or major party messaging decisions.

The draft needs more work, especially to ensure the key roles of state parties are properly reflected. It will make sense to involve our new leader in discussions before we finalise it. But progress is encouraging.

Third, we’ve agreed to pilot until at least the end of this year a new, smaller Steering Group. At 43 in size, the Board is much larger than those in many other organisations we’re all familiar with. It’s not a great size to – for example – have detailed scrutiny discussions that stretch in a supportive way our CEO and the director team.

Therefore, the new Steering Group is 14 in size, made up from Board members. You can see who is on the group& on the Board page. The Board has also agreed to delegate a significant batch of powers to the Steering Group. (These are listed at the end of this article.)

The new group will report back regularly to the full Board, who will also be able to call in any issue for its full consideration. I’ll also report back to all members on the new group’s meetings through this site.

There are lots of details to be ironed out – and refinements to make as we see what works. There are long-standing provisions in our rule book which mean we can run a pilot without needing rule changes at this stage. So we can start straight away without having to wait until a conference next spring at the earliest. We can be more flexible in that experimenting to find out what works best – before then encasing what we learn in less flexible rules.

If this new approach works, I’m sure we will want to make some formal rule changes in due course. For example, the federal party has many posts which are currently indirectly elected, some of which are on the Steering Group. There’s a good case that some could move over to direct election by party members, strengthening our democratic processes.

As we make all these changes to how your party is, we will be consulting with members, including in a session at our autumn virtual conference.

One of the other findings of the Thornhill Review was how poorly joined up the planning can be between different elements of the party. In particular, although party conference votes for a party strategy, there has then been little follow-up to use it to inform and guide our activity across the party. So, we are also going to be trying out in advance of conference a new virtual get-together for a large group of key postholders across the party. More details on that to come.

There’s also a webinar coming up in August with me and CEO Mike Dixon. We’ll be happy to take questions about this topic along with anything else that’s going on in the federal party.

Or you can send in feedback right now, by emailing me on president@libdems.org.uk.

List of powers delegated to the Steering Group
The powers delegated are those under the following Articles of the party’s constitution: 2.7 (election rules), 2.10(b) (constitutional amendments), 3.2(c) (overseas members), 3.2(d) (SAO/AO powers), 3.8 (overseas members), 3.9(a) (overseas members), 3.9(b) (data protection), 4.9-4.12 (overseas members), 9.5 (limited company, etc.), 9.6 (creating various party rules etc.), 11.1 (conference finances), 12.4 (borrowing powers), 18.4 (leadership election timetable), 20.6 (nominating officer appointment), 21.1-21.5 (party body recognition) and 23.3 (complaints process).

Stephen Williams bar chart showing number of councillors in Mayor area

Liberal Democrat selection news

Mike Hamilton selected for Newport East (Welsh Senedd)

Jo Watkins selected for Monmouth (Welsh Senedd)

Alison Simpson selected for Banffshire and Buchan Coast (Scottish Parliament)

Graham Colley selected for Kent (Police and Crime Commissioner)

Stephen Williams selected for West of England (Mayor)

Siobhan Benita stands down as Lib Dem candidate (Mayor of London; a new selection is underway)

Presamble to the Lib Dem constitution
The preamble to the Lib Dem constitution on the wall at Lib Dem HQ.

New Director of Strategy appointed

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

⭐ Liberal Democrats appoint Mimi Turner as new Director of Strategy.

Strong support from party members for Paddy Ashdown’s political strategy.

Chinese treatment of Uyghurs amounts to genocide, Lib Dem warns.

Lib Dems back calls for Magnitsky-style sanctions against Hong Kong human rights abusers.

PM must announce a full investigation into potential Russian interference of our democracy.

Recruiting and retaining party activists: what the research says.

Single Transferable Vote: here’s why it makes sense.

Former Labour MP forced to repay £3,835.32 after breaking Parliamentary rules.

Part bizarre, part brilliant: a local political advert.

What the voters are saying

Latest general election voting intention opinion polls 9 August 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.

Local government moves

Still no council by-elections to report on, but a councillor has quit the party in Cornwall, while four have departed in Malvern Hills.

The Mail takes a liberal line on letting interpreters come live in the UK

Other Liberal Democrats in the news

Campaigners slam ‘shocking‘ decision to resume UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Police forces fail to recruit more black officers despite government pledge – Christine Jardine.

Lib Dem-run Watford is leading the way with introducing pedal-assisted e-bikes for hire to make local transport options better, cheaper and greener.

Following on from the news of new jobs for former Lib Dem MPs last time, there’s more news this month. Jo Swinson is the new Director of Partners for a New Economy and Sam Gyimah has joined the board of Oxford University Innovation.

Welcome to the Liberal Lockdown podcast: Louise McElhinney and Adam Kirby discuss the trials and tribulations of living in Woking under the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

A book being read on a Kindle
Image by Pexels from Pixabay.

Get Bad News as an ebook

My guide to understanding the news, Bad News: what the headlines don’t tell us is not only available as a hardback, it’s also in ebook format too. The Kindle version is, at time of typing, on a big discount and other ebook formats are available direct from Biteback Publishing.

Happy reading!

P.S. If you prefer your books in printed form, use the code badnews10 at checkout to get the book for just £10 from the Biteback website.

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