When Labour and Lib Dems co-operated to beat the Conservatives: LDN #144

Liberal Democrat Newswire #144 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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In many respects, 2020 is unprecedented. In one, though, events are rather are familiar. Public services under huge pressure. A right wing Conservative government. A Labour Party that has lost four general election in a row now under a new leader. A Liberal Democrat party recovering from a disappointing general election. Emerging efforts at forming new cross-party coalitions against the Conservatives. It’s all very 1990s.

Which is why now is a good time to revisit some of the lessons from previous efforts at cross-party cooperation. There are consistent patterns from the efforts in this and previous decades. Lessons that can – and should – be applied to the new wave of efforts.

Before we get to that, I’m running my latest mini-survey at the moment. This time, I’m dipping my toe into questions about the way I report back to party members, and who people think were our best and worst Prime Ministers. I’m asking that both for a bit of fun but also for the insight about the political views of members. Do share your views here – and do pass on the survey to others. The more views the better!

Best wishes,


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In this edition:

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Five ways to make cross-party cooperation work

Attempts at cross-party cooperation at times when traditional party divisions are in flux is nothing new. We have been here before, sometimes with success for liberalism, but only sometimes. Especially if the electoral outcomes are also factored in.

Avoiding both disasters and damp squibs is not an easy task. That makes learning the lessons from history where vital. So here are five lessons from political history.

1. Negotiating formal candidate deals is difficult, painful and damaging

As the extended SDP-Liberal seat negotiations in the early 1980s demonstrated, even when the talks are between parties with a relatively narrow set of policy differences they are difficult, time consuming and can be so divisive that they generate the sort of widespread negative publicity which damages the public standing of participants. Nor do the Unite to Remain experiences of 2019 point to a happier conclusion.

Then there is the problem that just because you have made a deal, you cannot guarantee voters will transfer over obediently. Nor that you won’t shed other support. Candidate deals are not the way to proceed. Especially as…

2. Voters don’t need candidate deals to vote in a cross-party way

Hello, tactical voting. Tactical voting can, and has, reworked how first past the post works in a major way, and the long-term trend has been towards a greater willingness to consider tactical voting.

Moreover, tactical voting is not some ethereal force like the weather to be harnessed when favourable. Rather it is something that can be created and encouraged. Which leads to…

3. Voters respond to a wider culture of cross-party cooperation

From agreement on specific policy areas to multiple-author publications and talking on the same platforms at meetings, it is possible to set the mood music – we’re not the same but we can work together.

Setting the mood music is also helpful in ensuring that any post-election steps do not feel jarring discordant to the pre-polling day messages to voters. Hence the Liberal Democrats sitting in a Cabinet committee with Labour post-1997 did not repel Lib Dem voters, because it fitted with the mood music.

4. It is easiest to get started with issues where wider political consensus is seen as desirable

As the successful Cook-Maclennan talks and the even more multi-party Scottish Constitutional Convention demonstrated, the safe ground for starting to set that wider culture is policy areas which naturally fit cross-party agreement. In fact so fit cross-party agreement that it is often sought even when no political realignment is in the air. Areas, that is, such as constitutional reform, pensions policy or even – less frequently in the UK but widely in other countries and now rather pertinent in the UK – foreign affairs.

5. The best advocates for tactical voting are those outside political parties

Piers Morgan is not your obvious standard bearer for political realignment. But as editor of the Daily Mirror in the run up to the 1997 general election he played a key role by letting his paper be a major mouthpiece for anti-Conservative tactical voting. That’s why getting the Mirror on board was an early and significant part of the pre-1997 Labour-Lib Dem talks.

It wasn’t just the direct readership his newspaper reached. It was that his newspaper offered up quotes which political parties could then use intensively in their own campaigning as independent authority for their tactical voting claims.

By editorialising and commissioning constituency opinion polls, major media outlets can feed political campaigners with powerful material to make the tactical voting case. In the case of the Mirror, it published a list of 22 seats which the Lib Dems could take from the Tories if Labour voters switched. The Lib Dems ended up winning 20 of them.

Five lessons from the past then which should help guide us in the future. For more on what worked so well in the 1990s, see Duncan Brack’s excellent chapter on the lessons in cross-party cooperation from the Blair-Ashdown years. You can also listen to me and Duncan discuss how cross-party cooperation has worked on Never Mind The Bar Charts.

Reader reactions…

Sean Bamforth was not fully convinced by my piece last time on culture wars. Here’s what he had to say…

Thank you for all the great book reading recommendations. If you’re looking for a little treat for yourself or a present for others, I’ve put a selection of them together in a list on Bookshop.org (the new online bookshop for independent booksellers).*

* This list includes affiliate links which generate a commission for each sale made.

Reporting back to party members

Here is my latest monthly report for the party website. I’ve included some questions about these reports in my latest mini-survey. Be great to have your views.

In reading this report, you may notice a certain similarity with previous reports. That is deliberate and, I hope, welcome. Because a relentless focus on priorities is required to ensure our party best helps people win, taking political power to turn our policies into improvements in people’s lives. Trying to do too much means you end up doing nothing much at all.

So I hope regular themes such as the importance of our local government base, the value of investing in technology and the imperative of improving our record on diversity come through repeatedly. Starting off with the first of those…

Award-winning councillors

Many congratulations to our seven Liberal Democrat colleagues who were shortlisted in the Cllr Awards 2020, and especially to Niknam Hussain, Raj Khan and Waheed Raja who jointly won an award:

  • Niknam Hussain, Raj Khan and Waheed Raja, Buckinghamshire (collaborative working award) – winners
  • John Leech, Manchester (lifetime achievement) – highly commended
  • Bridget Smith, South Cambridgeshire (leader of the year) – highly commended
  • Mandy McNeil, St Albans (finance and economic development) – shortlisted
  • Peter Taylor, Watford (innovation and service transformation) – shortlisted

More brilliance came with Liz Barrett’s fantastic victory in the last round of by-elections for the year meant we ended on a winning note. Through the whole year, we had the best overall result of any party.

Reducing intimidation in public life

The Jo Cox Foundation and the Committee on Standards in Public Life are promoting cross-party action to reduce intimidation and bullying aimed at those in public life, such as people running for election or in elected office.

As part of this, we have agreed to a cross-party statement on standards expected of parties. It reflects the standards we have already adopted on bullying, harassment and similar behaviour, and so we have been happy to add our voice to it.

We will make sure that we continue to use and improve our new disciplinary system, introduced last year, in order to ensure that the behaviour of our party members contributes towards the improvement in political debate in this country.

A sad reminder of the importance of this comes with the news this week of the jailing of a Brexit campaign worker for threatening Jo Swinson last year.

I would like to thank the hard working volunteers and staff, especially those involved in our complaints and membership systems who dedicate themselves to ensuring that the Liberal Democrats stand, in word and deed, for a better kind of politics.

Implementing the Thornhill Review

The independent review we commissioned into the 2019 general election has given us a very large list of things to fix in the party. It was, frankly, a stark verdict on how we used to run the party, and all of us involved in running the party at whatever level need to learn the lessons.

One key element is the relationship and relative roles of the party leader, president and CEO. A new set of definitions of the roles, including clarity over where decision making power lies on key points, has now been produced after an extensive series of consultations and discussions. Thank you to all the party members who have responded.

The text to have come out from this will be reported to our spring federal conference as part of the Board report, that way rightly giving party members the chance to confirm how you wish us to run the party on your behalf.

The Board and Steering Group continue to monitor implementation of the Thornhill Review, and our December Steering Group looked at whether a form of committee self-appraisals will help committees ensure we are addressing rather than repeating the sorts of governance mistakes set out in the report.

Another element we need to fix is the role of party bodies. These should have a crucial role to play but often feel under-valued and side-lined. The final report from the Party Body Review Group is therefore also coming to the December meeting with a challenging set of recommendations on how we need to change.

It includes a change I talked about during my President election campaign – finding a way to allow party bodies to recruit new members to the party, getting a flow of income from such recruitment and an ability to contact them. I very much hope we can make that happen.

That meeting also considered the implementation of the difficult budget choices we had to take for next year. It’s vital that decisions over where to save and where to invest are driven by a properly strategic view of the party’s needs and our political opportunities. Without getting into micro-managing the work of staff, there is an important job for the Steering Group in ensuring that the spending and staffing plans match up with priorities. In particular, frontline elections support through an expanded network of field support staff, investing in improving our technology and raising our game on diversity.

On the first of those, thank you to the three state parties, regional parties and ALDC for the way we’ve all been able to take a much more coordinated approach to getting campaign support staff in place across the country. As a result, there is a much larger network of staff than we’d expect otherwise at this point in the elections cycle.

Given the importance of technology, the Steering Group heard from our new Chief Technology Officer, Duncan Gough, including on how his role fits into the party’s governance structures. Technology cuts across so much of what we do, so we agreed to have one of the Board Vice Chairs, Elaine Bagshaw, act as the technology project champion on the Board. She has significant experience of managing technology projects in her professional career.

Finally, on diversity we are employing a specialist advisor to help us put together an effective and practical plan. Due to the Black Lives Matter movement, such skills have been in unexpectedly high demand this year. That is overall a good thing, though it has delayed our own ability to get on with this work. The importance of the work remains as high as ever, however.

Improving the way we fill posts in the party

A consistent theme of my work, and that of the Board, through this year has been about improving the way we fill posts in the party. That is important so that we can run the party to the high standards that members rightly expect – and so that we properly bring to life our belief in diversity and equality.

Steps taken so far have included improving the ways we advertise posts, broadening the reach of the adverts and also, where appropriate, highlighting them to relevant external bodies and networks too.

We have also improved the filtering and checking processes so that we better protect both the party – and individuals themselves – against problems when previous behaviour or comments come to light after appointment.

But there is a long way to go, and this will be a major priority for me in 2021. Members have a right to expect quality and potential to trump connections when posts are filled.

Our new Federal Appeals Panel chair

At our autumn conference, members agreed a new batch of nominations for the Federal Appeals Panel. This process included using some of the progress mentioned above, and as a result we had a set of highly qualified names to put forward, many of whose names are relatively unfamiliar to long-time party activists.

The new panel has now elected its chair, David Graham. He is a barrister specialising in public and administrative law, practising at Francis Taylor Building chambers in London. His work mostly relates to planning, licensing, education, highways and other government functions, as well as the governance and procedures of public bodies. This includes interpretation of constitutive documents and the conduct of administrative appeals.

Good luck to David and many thanks to the outgoing chair, Alan Masters.

Changes on the Board

Alison Rouse has been elected the new chair of the English Liberal Democrats, and so will also be joining us on the Board and Steering Group from 1st January. As a result, Prue Bray’s time as the English Party’s representative on the Board will also come to an end, and so I would like to add my thanks for her contributions to our work.

Inside the mind of Boris Johnson

Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly and someone who saw Boris Johnson up close during his eight years as Mayor, joined me for the latest episode of Never Mind The Bar Charts.

We discussed how Boris Johnson behaves as a politician, his strong desire to be liked, his long track record of wasting public money and more.

I hope you enjoy the show…

Other recent episodes to enjoy include ‘The march of electoral reform in Wales‘ with Jess Blair from the Electoral Reform Society.

🎧 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.

Can you help?

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

Liberal Democrat selection news

Selection news since last time has included Jenny Wilkinson (West Midlands Mayor), Adrian May (Midlothian South, Tweeddale & Lauderdale) and Denis Rixson (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch).

Best of luck to them and their teams.

Your catch-up service

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

Layla Moran wins Politician of the Year at the Pink News awards.

Liberal Democrat spring conference registrations are open. It will be online.

Matt Hancock’s vaccine mistake.

⭐ British public supports proportional representation 42% – 33%.

The benefits of devolution and proportional representation.

The first by-election opinion poll got it right, whilst pundits got it wrong.

👉 A former Member of the European Parliament goes pointing.

New Ed Davey Lib Dem party membership card available.

What the voters are saying, part 1

Latest general election voting intention opinion polls - 14 December 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

We’ve now had the final set of by-elections for 2020 and they ended on a good note for the Liberal Democrats:

Looking over the whole year, the excellent news is that it was the Liberal Democrats who performed best, with the biggest net gain of seats.

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.

A gem from Twitter…

Paula Surridge tweet on who voted Lib Dem in 2019

Liberal Democrats in the news

“I’ve cared for my disabled son, my mother, and my Nana. I understand first-hand how hard this job is, why it’s vital, and why we need to increase monetary support for the invaluable workers who need it”. So wrote Ed Davey in a moving piece about why he is concentrating on campaigning for Britain’s carers. Unusually for a Lib Dem campaign, it has received coverage – and positive coverage no less – in places such as The Sun.

We rebuilt the Lib Dems with grassroots campaigning before, we can do it again now, argues Lib Dem peer Tony Greaves.

Lib Dem Cllr Ashley Mason from York, who has a severe visual impairment, is calling on more people with disabilities to consider standing for local elections.

The best gift the three million excluded from government financial support during coronavirus could wish for this Christmas is the promise of security, writes Munira Wilson.

Meanwhile, the party is looking for a Deputy Registered Treasurer (a new voluntary role).

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