The road to electoral reform: Lib Dem Newswire #148

Liberal Democrat Newswire #148 came out last week, looking at electoral reform, universal basic income (UBI), the decriminalisation of cannabis and more.

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.

UPDATE: For more on the road to greater electoral reform, see my live podcast with Wendy Chamberlain, Paul Tyler and Cllr John Potter.

How to achieve proportional representation for the House of Commons? That’s the main topic this time, but first good luck to all the many readers campaigning in different ways for this May’s elections – many lucky enough to be doing so under some form of PR.

In between campaigning, I’ve just finished submitting with my co-author Ed the latest version of the manuscript for the third edition of 101 Ways To Win An Election, out in June. Details below if you fancy pre-ordering a little post-election treat for yourself. Now it’s back to working on next year’s book on opinion polls…

Best wishes,


P.S. If you didn’t have time to read last month’s edition, it is up online here: How to meet the big challenges of our time – LDN #147.

In this edition:

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Order your copy of the third edition of 101 Ways To Win An Election

The road to election reform in Westminster

How does electoral reform for the House of Commons get voted through the Commons itself? That’s the key question electoral reformers and a plausible answer has to be at the heart of any electoral reform campaigning that wishes to succeed.

Saying ‘vote Lib Dem, get a Lib Dem Prime Minister and get PR’ has a neat simplicity about it. But as 2019 general election showed, there are plausibility issues of making this pitch when you start with a small number of MPs.

That’s why realistic answers to the PR question involve getting overwhelming support for PR from the MPs of at least one of the two largest parties. If the vote is on PR directly, then that’s needed to win it. But even if the vote is on holding a referendum, then unless there’s solid support from one of the two big parties, it’s really hard to go on to win that referendum. (That was the essential flaw with the 2011 AV referendum plan. Although the dynamics of a hung Parliament were enough to force Conservative MPs to vote for a referendum, the referendum campaign then was sunk by Conservative opposition and Labour apathy.)

That’s also why the news of Momentum’s support for PR is so relevant: “Momentum balloted its members last month to determine which policies it would push the leadership to adopt, with PR the second most popular suggestion after a £15 minimum wage.” This adds to the grassroots pressure in Labour for electoral reform, being skilfully supported by the cross-party Make Votes Matter alliance.

Labour has a long and sorry record of talking the talk on reform but then when it comes to the crunch deciding that hating the Conservatives matters more. Hence the apathy over AV in 2011. Hence the decision to help sink House of Lords reform too when Labour could have got it through just by agreeing to a timetable for the legislation. Causing division in the then Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was just too tempting. And 13 years of Labour government never got round to PR for the Commons either.

So a certain cynicism about this latest news from Labour is understandable. But only a certain amount, because in one important respect this support for PR in Labour ranks is very different from the past. Previously, support for PR was much more associated with those on the right or modernising wing of Labour, and viewed by suspicion by those on the left and local party activists. The strong support from Momentum members for PR shows a very different dynamic within Labour.

In fact, it’s Starmer who is currently most resistant to a cross-party vision of politics, with his bizarre recent refusal to take part in cross-party cooperation aimed at holding Boris Johnson to account over his troubles with telling the truth.

But with so many of the most vulnerable Conservative seats having the Lib Dems in second place the route to pressurising Starmer isn’t just through Labour. It’s also through Lib Dem votes in the ballot box, for the stronger the Lib Dems are, the greater the pressure on Labour to embrace a multi-party future if it doesn’t want the Conservatives to keep on winning.

John Cleese’s classic 1980s party political broadcast about proportional representation is still well worth a watch, and in fact remains one of the most watchable PPBs ever.

In the home stretch for the huge May elections

Here’s my latest monthly report back from the party website.

Good luck

We’re in the home stretch now for the mammoth set of May elections, which also means huge extra demands on everyone’s time, both volunteers and staff. Thank you to everyone who is finding ways to squeeze in extra effort in order to maximise our wins in May. Thank you also to all the relatives, colleagues and friends who have to put up with us all putting even more time into the Lib Dems over these precious weeks.

Good luck to everyone campaigning and a huge thanks to everyone who is being an agent and has safely submitted the thousands of nomination forms required. It’s great that we’re running a full slate of Police and Crime Commissioner candidates for the first time, and we’re also contesting a higher proportion of the council seats this time.

We are going into the final stretch off the back of a very successful spring federal conference. Thank you to everyone who contributed to make this happen. It’s especially impressive that the spring conference was able to make a small operating surplus. The Federal Conference Committee (FCC) will shortly be looking at plans for autumn conference, and in particular the pros and cons of doing another online conference, reverting to a physical event or trying to combine both formats.

Showcasing our liberal values

For these elections it is important not only to show voters the virtues of our hard-working local teams but also what makes us distinctive from other parties.

I hope you’ve started to notice the increasing emphasis on issues such as our plans for a green recovery, supplementing our major focus on supporting carers and improving caring.

HQ plans progressing

I mentioned last time the plans to move to a smaller, cheaper and yet also much better party HQ. The final stages are progressing smoothly so unless there is a last minute hiccup, the move will happen this summer.

Delivering on our plans

Getting the HQ decision right is an important part of the longer term planning we’ve been focusing on at Board and Steering Group meetings.

As I highlighted at party conference, technology and diversity (especially after the government’s awful recent report) are particularly important. They are both important in their own right but also important to focus on as so often in the past we’ve said they’re important but then other issues have intruded, pushing them down the agenda.

So our April steering group will be hearing the latest plans from our Chief Technology Officer, Duncan Gough, including his recommendations on what areas to prioritise. We will also be taking a first look at what reforms and improvements to the party’s rules and processes to put to autumn conference, considering options such as the recommendations from the Party Body Review Group’s work.

We’ll also be discussing the next steps to take in the development of the party’s strategy for this Westminster Parliament, and doing our quarterly review of LDHQ’s performance versus the agreed targets and priorities.

A report is due later this month from the consultants we’ve been working with to review our approaches to improving diversity. More on than in future reports.

The latest report from the Federal Communications and Elections Committee (FCEC), chaired by Cllr Lisa Smart, also sets out how we’re going to be making targeting decisions during this Westminster Parliament.

Tony Greaves and Jonathan Fryer

Many of you will have seen the news of the sad death of Tony Greaves. Among Tony’s numerous contributions to the party, he was a member of the Federal Board (then called the Federal Executive) for many years. At our last meeting we remembered his contributions. It’s quite remarkable that this year is the 50th anniversary of the first thank you leaflet Tony put out after winning an election, by a slim but precious majority of just five votes.

Sadly another of our colleagues, Jonathan Fryer, has also died in the last few days. He had been a sterling champion for the party’s internationalism and a valued colleague over many years. I’ve been particularly grateful for his wise advice and expertise as I’ve got to grips with the international elements of my role as Party President since taking up the office last year.

Our complaints process

It’s important that we have an effective and robust complaints process. The system adopted by party conference in 2019 is deliberately and rightly independent of political influence over individual cases. Who you know in the party mustn’t influence the outcome of cases.

While the Board has no involvement in – or knowledge of – complaints in the independent system, we do have a responsibility to ensure that we have the right resources and procedures for the system to be able to work well.

We have recently increased the staffing levels in the complaints team at HQ, and are also currently testing a new case management software system. This is due to go live for new cases in the next few weeks. It will automate many of the existing administrative tasks, reducing errors and speeding up the system.

While this is good news, there are ongoing issues with the system that have been exacerbated by errors made at, and in the run up to, our spring conference for which I want to apologise.

One was a constitutional amendment, which got a majority but not the two-thirds majority required to pass, and which would have made changes to the system easier to make in-between conferences. The Board will reflect carefully on the concerns expressed in the debate and how to balance the need for safeguards and the need to improve the system at speed to comply with the party’s legal obligations and protect our members and the public.

Proposed alterations in the complaints rules also did not go forward due to procedural errors. Apologies for this and for how it was communicated to conference, which mistakenly suggested the Federal Board as a whole had decided to withdraw the changes.

We’ve had a detailed discussion at a dedicated Board meeting about the lessons from this and other instances of Board business not going smoothly at conference. We will be changing how we handle business put to conference in future. Thank you to Geoff Payne, Federal Conference Committee Chair, and his colleagues on FCC for the steps they have also decided to take.

PODCAST: The record of PM Lord John Russell

After the special joint edition with the Lib Dem Pod looking at cross-party cooperation, it’s back to the normal format this time – and welcome back to Duncan Brack for one of our historical dives into a former party leader.

After having discussed Jo Grimond and David Steel, this time we’re headed into the 19th century with Lord John Russell. He served in government for at least part of every decade from the 1830s through to the 1860s, with two spells as Prime Minister, 13 years apart.

What should we make of his political career? Take a listen 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.

Liberal Democrat selection news

With the May elections so close, there’s not much extra to report on selection news this time, other than the selection of Andy Hagon in Hartlepool and the excellent news that the party is running a candidate for every Police and Crime Commissioner slot this time. That’s the first time ever the party has put up a full slate, and is a good sign of the breadth of our steps to recovery as a party. Thank you to everyone who has helped make that happen.

Assorted local election weirdness

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

There’s the ward with 13 candidates from the same party, the one with the really unusual Conservative election leaflet and the one with no candidates at all.

Building the fairer, greener, more caring country we all want to live in: Ed Davey’s spring conference speech.

Working out how to rejoin the Customs Union, Single Market and EU: Lib Dem conference motion passes.

Welcome to Tilly McAuliffe, new Lib Dem Party Treasurer.

🎉 Congratulations to Liberal Democrat peer Kate Parminter on an important new role.

New scheme to support young people who want to become councillors.

Lib Dems on Bath Council lead way with action over air pollution.

👉 Jamie Stone MP goes pointing.

Margaret Thatcher, the pop music analyst.

What the public is saying: voting intention

General election voting intention opinion polls as at 20 April 2021

To get updates about voting intention opinion polls, sign up for Polling UnPacked or follow @PollingUnPacked on Twitter.

What the public is saying: backing for UBI and cannabis decriminalisation, sort of

Earlier this year, polling showed that less than one in ten people know what the phrase ‘universal basic income’ means.

Redfield & Wilton has now tried out explaining UBI to people and seeing what they then think of it:

Universal Basic Income is a programme whereby a Government guarantees every adult citizen a certain amount of money each year. This guaranteed income would be given to all adult citizens without exception, regardless of their employment status or their wealth. To what extent, if at all, would you support or oppose the implementation of Universal Basic Income in the UK?

The result? 59% support it and 17% oppose it. Sounds promising for UBI… but there’s a big caveat. Such single question probes into the popularity of a policy are very fragile. Even when a question is worded clearly and neutrally, it can often give an answer very different from how the public ends up viewing a policy.

The 2017 dementia tax is a classic example. In Conservative Party polling, a neutrally worded question found the policy did fine with the public. In the heat of an election campaign, and with the dementia tax label attached, the policy bombed.

Going further back, the concept of replacing council tax with a local income tax often did well in Liberal Democrat market research. It then did rather less well when exposed to counter-arguments in the heat of elections.

The wording used by Redfield & Wilton is pretty good, but it doesn’t present any counter-arguments or information on where the money would come from. It’s also just the one question. So don’t read too much into that 59%. It’s a straw in the wind rather than a reliable foundation on which to make decisions.

But 59% is definitely a much more positive finding than 5% or 9% would have been.

Even more positive, however, are two recent poll findings about decriminalising cannabis, a long-standing Liberal Democrat policy. YouGov found 20% strongly supporting and a further 32% tending to support the legalisation of cannabis in the UK. With different question wording, Redfield and Wilton found 17% strongly supporting and a further 26% supporting the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use.

The difference in those totals (56% or 43%) show how much answers can very between different pollsters and question wordings, but they both show the same thing – more supporting than opposing the policy, and plenty more supporting it than the sort of vote share Lib Dems can realistically dream of at the next general election.

But, unlike the UBI policy question, this finding is also very likely to be robust. Decriminalisation has been debated for many years with arguments both ways regularly aired. Public opinion of course may shift, but there isn’t the same risk of a big shift in the heat of an election campaign as with UBI, dementia tax and local income tax – all of which didn’t have that same sort of run-up and public familiarity.

A footnote about the popularity of decriminalisation: it poses the obvious question of why the Lib Dems don’t make more of the policy? For the answer to that and what we should do in future, check back next month when I make this question the first of my new Q+A features in this newsletter.

What the public is saying: by-elections

We’ve had the last rounds of by-elections before May, with promising signs of the breadth of Liberal Democrat recovery:

Meanwhile, councillors have left the Liberal Democrats in Bolton and Watford.

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.

Consolation for anyone grappling with typos in election leaflets…

Ladybird Book typo about poison berries not being poisonous

Liberal Democrats in the news

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey says “men have got to change” to create a safer society (and here’s why I think men who respond by saying, ‘oh but not all men – it’s wrong to criticise me’ are missing the point). He’s also been highlighting what the Prime Minister got wrong on coronavirus and explaining why the Lib Dems opposed renewing the Coronavirus Act. Plans for a green wealth fund have been set out in more detail for Prospect magazine.

Layla Moran has repeated the long-term Lib Dem commitment to the European Union.

As part of the Scottish Parliament campaign, Willie Rennie has unveiled plans for sweeping constitutional reform in Scotland, including introducing STV for the Scottish Parliament itself. Alistair Carmichael has spoken out after a brick was thrown through a window at the Scottish Lib Dem HQ. (The police have made an arrest, and no staff were hurt thankfully.) Welsh leader Jane Dodds has been setting out plans on tackling the climate emergency. In London, Mayor candidate Luisa Porritt has highlighted Sadiq Khan’s failures on transport funding.

Former Lib Dem MPs Andrew George and Dan Rogerson are both running for election to Cornwall Council.

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

If you enjoyed this newsletter, why not forward to a friend and let them know they can sign-up here for future editions?

Thanks for all the tips on other newsletters. The favourite with LDN readers is Ian Leslie’s The Ruffian. Do give it a look if you’ve not yet come across it.

Thank you and best wishes,


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