Lessons from John Smith for Keir Starmer: LDN #146

Liberal Democrat Newswire #146 came out last week, this time taking a look at the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer.

You can now read it in full below, and there’s an update here on the European polling mentioned in it.

If you’d like the convenience of getting LDN direct by email in future, just sign up for it here.

After looking last time at the right and wrong ways to think about Brexit, this time we’re taking a look at Keir Starmer. His performance matters not only for the country but also more narrowly for the Liberal Democrats, as past political experience has often shown the fates of the two parties to be entwined.

That’s a topic we’ll be touching on in a special Lib Dem Pod / Lib Dem Newswire event coming up on Friday 12 February on lessons in cross-party cooperation with Kirsty Williams, Polly Mackenzie and Duncan Brack. Sign up to attend here. [This has now happened. You can watch it here.]

One snippet of intelligence that’s relevant to all this. Asked to name the worst British Prime Minister in my latest online survey, no surprise that the combination of Brexit, coronavirus and people tending to pick recent names means Boris Johnson came way out in front. Thatcher and Cameron both came well ahead of Tony Blair. Top marks to the person who was torn between Lord North and Gordon Brown.

Asked to name the best, both Blair and Attlee gave the obvious Liberal choices a very good run for their money.

As ever, not too much attention should be given to the details of such surveys (and that’s why I’m skipping given fake credibility by citing percentages to a decimal place). But it’s a little bit of qualitative type insight that matches other evidence on how Paddy Ashdown’s old mantra seems to be the one popular in the Lib Dems once more, at least when thinking of Westminster: the Conservatives are our opponents, the Labour Party our rivals.

Best wishes,


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When talking about Keir Starmer, think of John Smith

The parallels between former Labour Party leader John Smith and current leader Keir Starmer are striking.

Both took up post after four Labour general election defeats in a row (1979-1992 and then 2010-19).

Both succeeded a Labour leader whose personal ratings had a positive burst but had fallen into persistent negative territory by the end (Kinnock, then Corbyn).

Both themselves had not only been a leading member of the Shadow Cabinet prior to the last Labour defeat, they had even held the post central to the key issue seen at the heart of that defeat. Brexit for Starmer, the economy for Smith.

On becoming leader, both addressed a major internal issue that had been seen as costing Labour votes (anti-Semitism with Starmer, the union block vote and move to OMOV for Smith).

But beyond that, both also were modest in the extent to which they set out to change their party or its policies. Both looked to have an approach to winning the next general election of, ‘Let the government mess up while I’ll show that I’m not my predecessor’. One more heave rather than one big revolution.

Whether this would have worked for John Smith, tragically we will never know. The plaudits given to him after his early death from a heart attack in 1994 were of the sort any of us should be honoured to receive. If you or I receive even an echo of such fulsome words, we will have led a good life. For all Smith’s many positives, the one thing left hanging unresolved is whether or not he was a good leader of the Labour Party. Had he set the course for victory or was he going to turn out to be too timid to win? We’ll never know. With Starmer, we will.

For there are two competing stories waiting for historians to pick between them. One is of Starmer the triumphant, who wisely realised that oppositions don’t win elections but governments lose them. So he made clear he was not his highly unpopular predecessor and other than that mostly kept out of the way, doing little radical and letting the government destroy itself. The other is of Starmer the timidly defeated, who turned out to have nothing much to do or say beyond, ‘I’m not Corbyn and I’m opposed to anti-Semitism’, and who then went down to defeat as the Conservative Party pulled itself together when the general election neared.

Either could yet be true.

But which outcome we end up with depends more on the Liberal Democrats than some people realise. For the number of Conservative-held seats in which the Liberal Democrats are the strong challengers means that the route to the Conservatives losing their Westminster majority runs through the Liberal Democrats.

It’s why the current media fashion of discussing whether Starmer is succeeding or failing misses a key point. Whether modest change and entrench is a winning plan depends as much on how the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats perform as it does on Labour.

Which is good news for the Liberal Democrats as, despite the disaster of 2019, we can still be an important influence on what happens in Westminster as soon as the next election, provided we get our act together. More on how we’re doing that next time.

Building a fairer, more caring United Kingdom: latest Lib Dem PPB

Liberal Democrat Party Political Broadcast with Edward Davey

Campaign Innovation Fund launched

Really good to see plans for a new Liberal Democrat Campaign Innovation Fund take off with the fund now open for applications.

Grants of up to £500 will be given towards funding measurable experiments to generate new information about how to win elections. That might mean testing a new tactic or better understanding the impact of an old one.

Successful bids will need to show how the proposed project will provide the party with new information that can help to win elections. Applications will be expected to cover:

  • What is the purpose of the research project?
  • How will the knowledge gained help Lib Dems to win in the future? Is it something that the party does not already know?
  • Is the technique of sufficient magnitude to affect the outcome of elections? For example, if you want to look at the impact of a postal vote recruitment campaign, are you looking at more than just a single direct mail letter to individuals?
  • Is the proposed project feasible? Does the local team have the capacity to deliver it without diverting effort away from local campaign objectives?

The Fund’s panel are:

  • Cllr Kath Pinnock, Liberal Democrat life peer and chair of the panel
  • Cllr Lisa Smart, Chair of the Federal Communications and Elections Committee
  • Dr Chris Butler, former London Campaigns Officer and now an political academic at the University of Manchester
  • Steve Jolly, former Head of National Campaigns
  • Henry McMorrow, Interim Head of National Campaigns
  • James Baker, ALDC Development Officer

Find out more about the fund over on the party website.

I am really looking forward to seeing what ideas are put in, and of course hoping someone puts in a bid involving holograms.

PODCAST: How to make Parliament work better

For my first podcast of 2021, I’m so lucky to have talked with an absolute A-lister when it comes to how politics works in the UK, Professor Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit. A special adviser to Robin Cook when he was Leader of the House of Commons, Meg played a key role in the Wright Committee which led to a wave of Parliamentary procedural reform.

We talked about a new report she has co-authored, taking a look at how to improve the way Parliament works. I hope you find the episode enjoyable…

🎧 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 Mark Christie (Cumbria Police and Crime Commissioner), Caroline Gooch (Mayor of Bristol), Simon Lepori (Greater Manchester Metro Mayor), Sam North (Hertfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner), Oliver Townsend (Islwyn, Senedd) and Ted Townsend (West Central, GLA).

Best of luck to them and their teams.

Your catch-up service

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

See what’s new with the Liberal Democrat spring conference agenda.

Big negative impact on British exporters caused by exit from single market and customs union.

Digital Future Women MPs’ Weekend 2021.

🎉 Lib Dem Naimah Khatun wins Westminster Staffer of the Year award.

Former Conservative Mayor of Trowbridge joins Liberal Democrats.

Four reactions to that Handforth Parish Council video.

How political leaflets used to look: a Focus newsletter from Kendal, 1979.

What the voters are saying, part 1

Latest general election voting intention opinion polls - 6 February 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

After a year of Brexit negotiations, Brexit progress and Brexit polling, public opinion has ended up pretty much where it started:

In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union?
January 2020: 47% picked wrong
January 2021: 48% picked wrong

Of course, the longer-term trends are what matter and individual polls can be outliers. There’s a bit of a longer-term trend against Brexit, but so far it’s a modest one.

It’s a similar picture on the question of joining the European Union in the future. Even some Remainers are opposed to that now, and very few Leavers have been won over to the idea, resulting in another persistent impasse: “voters as a whole still emerge as being almost equally divided between those who would like to be back inside the EU and those who would not”.

It’s worth noting that the big shift against Brexit / in favour of rejoin that some vocal pro-Europeans on social media were very confidently stating would definitely happen has not in fact happened.

Although Brexit may be a stalemate, there is a continuing and liberal trend in attitudes towards immigration, visible even in 2019.

A gem from Twitter…

Anton Georgiou tweet with a letter encouraging people to get vaccines

Liberal Democrats in the news

Jamie Stone has managed to get positive coverage for the Liberal Democrats on Brexit in the Daily Express (yes, the Express and Brexit) by having a go at the Conservative plan to waste money on a Brexit festival.

Ming Campbell is working on federal plans for the Scottish Liberal Democrats (see the story and debate on Facebook here).

Ed Davey has set out  how the Lib Dems are the most pro-European party in British politics, along with a three year, £150 billion green economic recovery plan. He has also called for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in China in response to widespread human rights abuses.

Star of BBC’s Hospital documentary, and Liberal Democrat, Nancy Jirira has got a Covid-19 jab.

Layla Moran has been pushing for more action over human rights abuses by the Chinese government and to tackle Long Covid. Christine Jardine has been highlighting the SNP’s failures over vaccines and Wendy Chamberlain has been campaigning for a grandmother who fears she will die if deported.

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…

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