Asking the wrong question about Brexit (and Trump): LDN #145

Liberal Democrat Newswire #145 came out last week, looking at the wrong, and the right, question to ask about Brexit.

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

It’s Liberal Democrat Newswire‘s 10th birthday! (Cue music.) Back in January 2011 the first edition went to under 50 people. A special hello to the sixteen of you who are still reading, 145 editions on.

Politics – for the Liberal Democrats, for our country, and even globally – have been through quite the roller coaster since then, The key purpose of this newsletter remains the same though. I want the Liberal Democrats to be a democratic party. Not just nominally, and not just for a few lucky insiders,  but in practice for all members. That means we need to get better at telling people what is happening and why, because only with an informed membership can nominal democratic mechanisms really come to life and provide a meaningful democracy.

I have no idea what the next decade will bring, or if Lib Dem Newswire will last it out. But the last edition had the best readership for three years. So let’s take the next decade one edition at a time and see how it goes…

I’m still running my latest mini-survey, with 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 our political views. 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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Asking the wrong question about Brexit (and Trump)

It is easier to see the wood for the trees if you are looking at an unfamiliar wood on a distant hilltop, rather than at familiar trees right in front of you.

A little bit of distance adds perspective. A little bit of lack of familiarity makes it easier to see the fundamentals rather than get lost in the specific details.

Which is why it can sometimes be easier to understand British politics by looking at American politics.

I have often done this in virtual meetings with Liberal Democrats to make a point about the role of policy in political messaging.

‘Do you have a strong preference between Biden and Trump?’. Yes, everyone does (and, thankfully, for Biden). ‘OK, now please tell me about Biden’s policies in detail.’ At which point people struggle. He’s in favour of action on climate change. He doesn’t want to build a wall with Mexico. And, er…,, I guess he’s more in favour of healthcare than Trump but please don’t ask me what his health care policy in any detail is. The exact answers that people give vary. But the pattern is the same. People have a strong preference for Biden to Trump despite not knowing much of Biden’s policy in detail.

The point is that political choices can be passionate, heartfelt and yet based on things other than evaluating policy detail. The lesson for the UK is, therefore, a simple one. If you are in a party that isn’t a popular as it would like it to be, don’t confuse ‘we must become more popular’ with ‘we must find the right policy detail to wow people with’. That’s not how political choice work. Which is why people can be 100% sure they want Biden instead of Trump despite limited policy knowledge.

The other question that US politics illustrates well is asking ‘why did people vote for Trump?’ is in many ways the wrong question. The better question is ‘why didn’t more people vote for the alternative to Trump?’.

This is most apparent thinking about 2016. Hillary Clinton was, objectively, a phenomenally unpopular candidate for President. Her approval ratings were awful. Yet ask most Lib Dem members their views on Clinton versus Trump, and you get a strong preference for Clinton followed by a real struggle to in any way explain why she was so unpopular beyond some bland flanneling about how some of the press must have been beastly to her. (Yet the press has been beastly to plenty of others who had much better ratings.) You don’t have to agree with the reasons for her low ratings – and I certainly don’t – but unless you understand them, you can can’t beat them. That’s why the question to ask is, ‘why didn’t people vote for Clinton?’ rather than ‘why did people vote for Trump?’

So too with Brexit. Don’t ask why people voted for Brexit. Ask why people didn’t vote for Remain.

There are two benefits of avoiding ‘why did people vote for that awful thing?’ and instead asking ‘why didn’t people vote for the liberal alternative?’. One is that the former tempts us to smug depression. Smugness that we’re better than those awful people who cast those dreadful votes, and depression that our fellow citizens are so terrible. The other is that the latter concentrates our minds on what we can change: our pitch. Don’t worry about what you can’t control; focus on what you can change. Practical humility rather than depressive smug superiority.

For the Liberal Democrats after the 2019 general election, specifically, it means focusing on why people did not vote for us. The evidence points to three key points – and so three relevant messaging priorities.

One is that the proportion of people thinking the party shares their values has collapsed, and hasn’t been recovering since the exit from the coalition. That’s why Ed Davey’s focus on caring is so relevant. In itself, it’s not an issue that people generally say is the most important politically to them. But it is a vehicle to show that we share their values.

The second is relevance: people don’t follow politics closely and don’t notice or think about the Lib Dems very much. That’s where our grassroots campaign activity is so important because that can break the national media bottleneck which comes from the media calculation of ’11 MPs equals not worth giving much time to’. It’s why standing candidates in as many elections as possible is important too – because nothing more clearly says ‘those Lib Dems don’t really matter’ than if someone looks at a ballot paper and sees we are not on it.

The third is to remember we want the world to be different. Too often, our pro-Europeanism came over as wanting the world to stay as it is. For people who do not see society or the economy working for them, that immediately made pro-Europeanism sound like their enemy, not their friend. The was most striking in the last but one European elections TV debate where Nick Clegg’s vision for the future of the European Union was to be much the same as it currently is. That was a message of contentment with the present, a message that wasn’t confined to just that TV debate or just his leadership.

Three priorities then, all brought into sharper focus by asking the right question: ‘why aren’t people voting for…?’ A good question always to have to hand.

Calling members aged under 30

The Young Liberals are the youth and student wing of the party, with the goal of reaching out to young people within the party and help them to succeed. Young Liberals provide support, training, and events specifically targeted to young Liberal Democrats under the age of 30.

They are trialing an extended membership to include those between 26-30. If you want to get involved and you are under 30, fill out this form.

Reporting back to party members

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

The chaotic incompetence of a government that declares schools safe on a Sunday, sends children back for a day and then closes them is the sort of thing that should be the domain of political fiction.

Sadly and tragically, it’s the government we suffer from in Westminster. It is a reminder about how important it is that we recover as a party, and a spur to our efforts to ensure we do our part in defeating the Conservatives at the ballot box.

The elections due in May across England, Scotland and Wales are an important part of that.

The May elections

Will the elections be delayed? The simple answer is, we don’t know. But we do know that we need to campaign to do well in them whenever they happen. Other parties can gamble on trying to win an election without much time to campaign beforehand. We can’t.

That is why we need to continue with our preparations and build-up as if the May elections will happen, and treat any extra time as a bonus. Better that than be caught out thinking something wouldn’t happen and then not having time to prepare when it does.

Of course, our work should always take into account coronavirus health risks, and always carefully follow the party’s advice, which is regularly reviewed and updated when necessary.

There is a wide range of free training available to help you hone your campaigning skills and learn how to campaign best in the face of coronavirus. Do take a look at the listings on the party website and on the ALDC site.

Election rumours

One other thing to bear in mind is that, as with previous questions about whether elections would be delayed or whether a government would call an election early, a lot of rumours circulate. They often appear to be based on credible insider information – e.g. ‘someone who spoke to a former colleague at the Electoral Commission…’ But in reality they are not nearly as credible as they may seem.

The thing to bear in mind is that the decision to delay an election can be made suddenly by the Prime Minister (in England, similar considerations for other nations). As we’ve seen with the fiasco of children going back to school in England for just one day before schools being closed, there’s no reason to think that an election decision either way will be made carefully, in good time and with all the right preparations in place.

Or for another example, when Gordon Brown was dallying over calling a general election in 2007 the news that Labour had started printing special election leaflets sounded like it was dead-cert insider information showing the election would go ahead… and then he didn’t call it. So what someone says the Electoral Commission is doing, or what Whitehall civil servants are preparing, can sound credible… but really isn’t much of a clue at all to what will happen.

Rumours can be fun to talk about. But don’t be misled by them into thinking someone has the inside track on what is going to happen. They don’t, which is why we need to keep preparing.

Party Awards

It’s award time again soon! Recognising the amazing volunteer effort across the party is something we do not do nearly enough. Which is why I’ve asked the Federal Conference to have time at our spring conference to add in a round of party awards. We always do some at autumn conference, but having awards in spring too will mean we can recognise more of the wonderful contributions made by so many.

The plan is to have three awards at spring: a new Leader’s Award to recognise those who show leadership in whatever form in the party, the Bertha Bowness Fischer Award to recognise the contribution of a newer member and a revived Albert Ingham Award to recognise our election agents and campaign managers. More information, including how to nominate someone you know, is on the party website.

Supporting party bodies

January sees the first meeting of a new ‘party bodies forum’, one of the practical steps we’re taking to implement the party bodies review into how we support and work with those parts of the party which do not fit into the standard local/regional/state party structures.

Groups such as Green Liberal Democrats and Liberal Democrat Women are an important part of the Lib Dem family. The forum should help us improve the way the party and party bodies interact, something which has often been a cause of frustration in the past.

It’s the first of many recommendations that we’ll be implementing from the review, with the chair of the Federal People Development Committee, Bess Mayhew, taking the lead in making sure they happen.

Improving the way we fill posts in the party

I mentioned last time the progress we’ve already made in improving the way roles are filled in the party. We need to get better at getting high quality, diverse teams in places rather than simply people who happen to know people.

So one item from the January Steering Group is looking at the next steps we can take, both to improve what we do in the Federal Party and also how we can support other parts of the party.

I know many members have experience of how to best fill roles in volunteer organisations, so suggestions and feedback are very welcome. In particular, for those of you reading who haven’t put yourself forward before for a role – what would motivate you?

Parliamentary Boundary Review

The official review is underway, and expected to come into force for the next general election. However, that is no reason to hold up getting on with selections in our most winnable seats. One of the consistent lessons from previous Parliaments – and one that comes through clearly in the Thornhill Report into the 2019 election – is about the need to get prospective candidates in place early. That gives them more time to get known by voters and to help build up the sort of local party infrastructure required to run a winning campaign.

The party’s response to the boundary review will be coordinated by our Director of Field Campaigns, Cllr Dave McCobb, and his team.

How are Labour and the Liberal Democrats doing?

I was joined again by Professor Tim Bale for the last episode in 2020 of Never Mind The Bar Charts. We took a look back at Tim’s five lessons for opposition parties and discussed how both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are doing on each of them.

I hope you find the episode interesting…

🎧 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 Alison Alexander (Montgomeryshire, Senedd), Chris Annous (Greenwich and Lewisham, London Assembly), Stewart Golton (West Yorkshire Mayor), William Powell (Brecon and Radnorshire, Senedd) and James Sandbach (Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner).

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:

The IKEA effect, or why we don’t use leaflet templates enough.

How the values of voters and of Liberal Democrat voters compare.

Why the Lib Dems voted against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.

The Shirley Williams Lectures launched.

👉 Less than one in ten say they know what Universal Basic Income (UBI) is.

Former Labour councillor jailed for electoral fraud in 2018 elections.

What the voters are saying, part 1

Latest general election voting intention opinion polls - 10 January 2021

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

By-elections are off again, of course, so instead a reminder of the virtues of standing as many candidates as possible in May’s elections. As that linked piece explains, increasing our number of candidates is an important part of the party’s overall recovery.

The party’s latest guidance on what campaigning you can and can’t do is on the party website here.

A gem from Twitter…

Elaine Bagshaw tweet

Liberal Democrats in the news

Ed Davey has been highlighting how Boris Johnson has been late to every lockdown. He’s also been continuing his run of good media coverage in The Sun, this time over vaccinations. (If you’re thinking, ‘The Sun! WTF?’, the answer is in my comments here.) Welsh Education Secretary Kirsty Williams has been explaining the steps being taken to keep children learning while tackling coronavirus.

Alistair Carmichael has given a fascinating interview to the Politics of Sound podcast while Tim Farron has been campaigning for the government to step up in tackling cancer and Scottish farming spokesperson Catriona Bhatia has been talking about the impact of Brexit.

Meanwhile, the party is looking for online research volunteers.

Keep your data safe with Backblaze

When I first heard about it, I thought the Backblaze online backup service was just too good to be true. An online backup service which quietly backs up all of your computer all the time, to whatever volume of data and for a mere $6 a month? But that indeed is just what it is. Read on to find out more and sign up for a free trial with my affiliate link…

Thank you for reading

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Thank you and best wishes,


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