Should the Lib Dems talk more about decriminalising cannabis? LDN #149

Liberal Democrat Newswire #149 came out last week, looking at the May election results, what Lib Dems have been up to in the media and what voters think of decriminalising cannabis.

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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What to make of the May election results? Before we get on to my first takes and thanks to those involved, a special thank you to our Airdrie and Shotts by-election candidate, Stephen Arrundale, and his agent, Paul Moat, who had the unenviable task of a Parliamentary by-election polling a week after the huge May elections.

Election expense returns are still being compiled for the May elections and already the next big electoral test is on the Lib Dems: the Chesham and Amersham Parliamentary by-election. The Lib Dems finished a clear second in this Remain-voting constituency in 2019, and in the local elections this year were the only party other than the Conservatives to win seats in the constituency. That includes going from zero councillor on Amersham Town Council to now controlling it.

Sarah Green is the Lib Dem candidate. Do go help her.

Best wishes,


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What happened in the local elections?

I talk about the May elections, including for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd, in my latest report to party members (see next story). As a prelude to that, here are some additional key figures from the local elections.

In the council elections, the projected Liberal Democrat vote share was 17% on the BBC’s figures and 15% on Thrasher and Rallings. (Each year both figures are produced, adjusting for which wards are up for election in any one year and so allowing like-for-like comparisons across different years.)

Above the party’s national poll ratings, those numbers are the party’s third (BBC) or fourth (Thrasher and Rallings) best in the last decade. Given the tough circumstances of the elections – incumbent governments in all three nations doing well and big restrictions on campaigning – that is a decent outcome. But it is also a reminder of the importance of continuing to implement the findings from the Thornhill Review into the 2019 election. Cllr Tim Pickstone, Chief Executive of ALDC, has a good take on what we need to improve on for future elections over on their site.

Continuing the pattern of recent years, the Lib Dem vote did better the more Remain an area was. There are notable exceptions with remarkable progress continuing this year in Leave-voting areas previously dominated by Labour, such as Barnsley, Rotherham and Sunderland. Although Lib Dem success heavily tilts towards Remain areas, elections are being won elsewhere too.

The net seats gains for the Lib Dems this year made it three years of net gains in a row, the first time the party has managed that since Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell. The cumulative seat change in May council elections since Conservatives won a majority at 2015 general election are:

Lib Dem: +804
Green: +294
Conservative: -607
Labour: -732

Again, welcome progress overall but more to do to get back to 2010 levels of local government strength.

In the Police and Crime Commissioner elections across England and Wales, there was a full slate of Liberal Democrat candidates for the first time ever, another welcome sign of the breadth of the party’s recovery. There were three second places and overall the party polled 13.2% despite the primary campaign attention being on other elections.

Alongside that spread of PCC candidates, the proportion of wards contested by the Liberal Democrats was up this year, though still short of Labour and Conservative candidate levels. To manage that despite so many seats being up is a promising sign for the future, as is one other statistic: 14 Young Liberals candidates were elected this May.

Thank you for your huge election efforts

Here’s my latest report for Liberal Democrat members and supporters, from the party website:

Once we’ve had a chance to have a rest, we must learn the lessons from our successes and misses this May.

A great team effort

We’ve had a huge set of elections in difficult circumstances. It was a massive combined effort of volunteers and staff, candidates and agents, helpers and donors, to get several hundred Liberal Democrats elected. Thank you to everyone who played their part in an impressive team effort.

Commiserations too for everyone involved in campaigns that didn’t make it this time. Many of our very best Parliamentarians, council leaders and other elected officials have lost elections on the way to their successes. I hope that when you have had a chance to rest and catch up on life outside politics, those examples encourage you to continue your commitment to our party.

A special thank you to retiring councillors who were expecting to stand down last May and had to hold on for another year. Your continued commitment over that extra year is much appreciated.

Thank you too to the many volunteer agents who haven’t quite yet been able to stop electioneering. Getting those election expense returns sorted is an important task!

Making sense of the election results

The May elections showed it was a good time to be an incumbent government in all three nations, especially thanks to the enhanced profile each government has had from its regular coronavirus press conferences. Add to that the big restrictions on campaigning for most of the year running up to polling day, and it was a tough year for us to be fighting elections.

To come out of that with a small net gain in the English council results and the London Assembly, keeping a Senedd seat in Wales but also sadly losing a list seat in Scotland was much better than it could have been.

I know that will be little consolation to colleagues involved in campaigns that didn’t quite make it. We need to make sure we learn from both our successes and our misses. We also need to make sure we learn the lessons both for our organisation and our messaging.

The huge increases in our constituency majorities in Scotland, and Molly Nolan’s strong result in finishing a close second in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, show how we can mobilise a very effective ground campaign. There will, I’m sure, be lessons from those that we can apply across the rest of the country.

It was particularly good to see the broad range of different areas that had good council results. We gained seats in many ‘Blue Wall’ areas crucial to our next Westminster general election result. There were also gains in many previously Labour voting, Brexit supporting parts of the country.

We’re starting to see the fruits of the large investment we’ve made in a network of campaign staff to support local campaigns. But it’s also true that generally the larger the electorate, the tougher we found it. So we need to learn lessons about how to scale up our campaigning over larger areas.

We also need to permanently break out of the single digit poll ratings that we’ve been stuck in for over a decade. We’ve had brief escapes before, and one consistent pattern from those and from previous decades is that success in by-elections is a big part of that. Which is why the Chesham and Amersham Parliamentary by-election is so important. Sarah Green is our candidate. Please do help her campaign.

If you’ve got thoughts on what lessons we need to learn from this May, please do let me know.

Improving our diversity

There were some great election results that not only saw fantastic individuals elected but also helped improve our diversity. In particular, before this year there had never been a Muslim woman elected to the London Assembly. Now there are three, including Lib Dem Hina Bokhari. Her win meant we doubled our number of seats.

However, the statistics available so far on our candidate numbers show we still have much to do. For example, in council elections we are still stalled at around a third of our candidates being female.

Our new diversity report, setting out how we can and must improve, and which I’ve mentioned in previous reports, is being finalised. The Federal People Development Committee (FPDC) has reviewed a draft. When the final report is ready I’ll report back on what it means for us all, and how we need to change.

Complaints process update

The number of complaints closed in the last month exceeded the number of new cases for the second month in a row and for the third month in the last four. That’s welcome progress and the long-term trend is now downwards. But we mustn’t be complacent.

We had a detailed discussion of the party’s complaints process at last month’s Steering Group meeting. The Disciplinary Subgroup set out its plans to consult across the party ahead of drawing up proposals to come to the autumn conference. We will be discussing these and how to make further improvements at the June Board meeting.

Autumn conference

After carefully digesting feedback from our spring conference and the public health situation, Federal Conference Committee (FCC) is going to run an online conference this autumn. FCC Chair Geoff Payne has given more detail and explanation here.

I’m glad that the FCC has embraced an idea I’ve been keen to promote – looking at adding on physical events alongside the online conference. Organising, for example, physical social events in several locations around the UK can be done much more flexibly and without the financial risk of booking a full conference venue. It will be a great opportunity to see how we can mix and match the benefits of different types of format.

And next time…

With elections dominating party work in the run-up to May, there’s less to report on the work of the Federal Board and Steering Group this time. The next Board meeting is in June, so I’ll return to its work in more detail next time. In the meantime, you can find all the Board members here and please don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions or suggestions.

PODCAST: How are political leaflets changing (and do they work)?

We all know about the love Liberal Democrats have of delivering leaflets. So our dream professor of politics would be one who specialises in studying leaflets. Which is why I’m delighted to say that is just who I was speaking to for the latest episode of Never Mind The Bar Charts, Professor Caitlin Milazzo of Nottingham University.

It’s already turning out to the most popular episode since the 2019 general election. We talked about how political leaflets are changing, the impact they have, how political campaigning isn’t getting more negative and the evidence that female candidates are more likely than male candidates to make an important mistake with their election literature.

Listen to find out more, including how to avoid that mistake

🎧 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

No selection news this time, but selections for the next Westminster general election are starting up once again. In related news, former MP for Eastbourne Stephen Lloyd has announced he won’t be running for selection again.

The party has an extensive range of support available for people from under-represented groups who are thinking of standing for Parliament. So if that’s you, or you know someone who it might be, please do get in touch and I’m happy to point you in the right direction.

Q+A: should the party talk more about decriminalising cannabis?

Welcome to my new Q+A column where I’ll be taking a look at questions which come up regularly in the party and where I’ve got (I hope!) some useful evidence or context to add to the usual discussions.

Got a question you’d like me to feature? Just hit reply and let me know.

Last time I highlighted recent poll findings showing public support for decriminalising cannabis:

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…

[This] poses the obvious question of why the Lib Dems don’t make more of the policy?

Certainly, it’s pretty common to hear people in the Liberal Democrats argue that if only the party was proud of its radicalism and give a high profile to its cannabis policy, the party would do better.

But what’s curious about those claims and the debate they generate is that they take place as if the party has never done that. The truth is that the party did, accidentally, and it didn’t work. Let’s unpack that and see what the lessons are.

It happened in the 2017 general election. The party wasn’t intending to make decriminalising cannabis one of its central messages. If you look through the press releases, leaflets or other official output, you would see that the party did mention it briefly, but it doesn’t look like a central message.

However… take a look at what the voters saw of the campaign and it’s a very different picture. The focus groups run by Britain Thinks found that what voters noticed about the Lib Dems was Tim Farron (leader at the time), our European policy and  legalising cannabis. The cannabis policy was so widely noticed because, although the party didn’t push the issue hard, when the party did mention it the media outside Westminster lapped it up, generating an enormous volume of local and regional media coverage.

So even while most people in the party missed it (after all, most people only look at one local newspaper, if that), and without the party intending to do so, it became one of the things the party was most known for in the election.

The election result, however, was not exactly a success. Does that mean that the policy is a vote loser? No, because what those focus groups also found is that the policy left the public confused. Being in favour of legalising cannabis can be a high profile signal of being a modern, socially liberal party. But when contrasted with the questioning in the campaign over Tim Farron’s religious beliefs, voters were left confused as to what the party stood for.

The lessons then are that yes, decriminalising cannabis can be a popular policy with voters, but only if it is part of a consistent overall package that reinforces and clarifies the party’s values rather than looking inconsistent and leaving voters confused.

Perhaps most important is the other lesson – the importance of really listening to voters to learn what they are hearing. That’s the only way to understand properly what message a party is giving out and what its impact is.

Why didn’t sleaze stories hurt the Tories more in this year’s elections?

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

Why didn’t sleaze stories hurt the Tories more in this year’s elections?

Conservative candidate blunder set to cost over £1m.

📈 The public’s spending priorities, post-pandemic.

Welsh Nude and Proud Party: great leaflet, but not on the ballot paper.

Former councillor Jonathan Davies dies.

What the public is saying: voting intention

Latest general election voting intention opinion polls 16 May 2021

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

What the public is saying: lessons for Labour from Hartlepool

Two important factors are being neglected in the instant political analysis of the Conservative victory in the Hartlepool by-election.

First, it’s not a story of something new happening. Rather, it’s retelling of a story we’ve already had.

The fact of Hartlepool having a Conservative MP is dramatic. But it’s not surprising or telling us anything new. Rather, the Conservative victory in the by-election is the final act of the 2019 general election. The Conservatives won plenty of similar seats at that contest. It was only the quirk of an unusually strong performance by the Brexit Party that meant the Conservatives didn’t win it last time.

The by-election has simply seen Hartlepool’s politics catch up with elsewhere.

Second, there’s the important first opinion poll that Survation carried out in the seat. Their final poll, showing a big Conservative lead, attracted a lot of scepticism but was right. However, it is their first poll for the by-election that is important for understanding what happened.

Combined, Conservatives and Brexit Party got 55% in 2019. Survation’s first poll put the Conservatives on 49%. Their second and final one put the party on 50% and the result saw the Conservatives secure 52%. No great drama there. But for Labour it was 38% in 2019, 42% in the first poll and then… 33% in the second poll followed by 29% in the actual result.

The story here is of Labour failure, not of Conservative surge. That’s a point reinforced by the English local elections. At 36%, the Conservative equivalent national vote share is decent but not stellar. That’s not some new era-defining level of support for Boris Johnson’s party. It’s a fragile result that has brought success this time but could very plausibly be followed by failure.

It looks like Labour badly messed up its candidate selection and campaign. Picking a candidate from elsewhere but who had been closely involved in a controversial decision to axe services at the local hospital was a deadly combination. (Given how Labour won the previous Hartlepool by-election with hospital promises it then broke, it was perhaps appropriate that the hospital would be part of Labour’s undoing this time.) I suspect that once more detailed analysis is in, this will turn out to have mattered rather more than the Labour candidate being a previous Remainer who lost his seat in 2019.

The lesson is that the Hartlepool result is both better and worse for Labour than it appears from the stories wrongly covering it as if it was a dramatic new political revelation.

Better for Labour in that this diagnosis puts the immediate cure very much in Labour’s own hands. Labour needs to sort out candidate selections and run better campaigns in the weeks before polling days.

But worse for Labour in that it also shows that the simple act of changing party leader from Jeremy Corbyn to Keir Starmer has not been enough to revive Labour. Saying Hartlepool is just the final act of the 2019 election means it doesn’t show a dramatic turn for the worse. It also means the result shows Labour isn’t yet recovering. As with the Liberal Democrat exiting coalition in 2015, Labour changing leader in 2020 is not sufficient to revive the party’s fortunes. The party needs much more change than that. That’s been an ongoing lesson for the Lib Dems, which I’ve written about and worked for consistently. It is one that applies to Labour too.

For Labour, the immediate question is: having seen the electoral disasters Jeremy Corbyn led the party to in all three types of elections in 2019, is it willing to take change further than just its leader?

What the public is saying: by-elections

No free-standing council by-elections to report on this time as there was a gap before a huge batch were held on the same day as all the other May elections. One result particularly worth highlighting in those is the Lib Dem gain from the Greens in Hampton Wick (Richmond Council). The site of a deal between Greens and Lib Dems last time, this time both contested the seat with the Lib Dems winning it.

Meanwhile, just after standing for the Lib Dems this month, a councillor has left the party for the Conservatives in Bognor Regis. A councillor has also left the party in Wrexham.

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 good end to the May council elections…

Tweet with a Lib Dem gain from Conservatives in Winchester


Liberal Democrats in the news

Ed Davey has defended the Electoral Commission against attacks from the Conservatives, while Alistair Carmichael has attacked the government’s voter ID plans and Wera Hobhouse has criticised their plans to move away from preferential voting.

Britain must now play its strongest hand and recognise the state of Palestine says Layla Moran.

Why I’m cheerful about the future for Lib Dems writes re-elected MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton after the Scottish elections. Orkney MSP Liam McArthur has been elected as a deputy presiding officer for the Scottish Parliament.

Lib Dem peer Liz Barker named in Pink News list of “19 incredible lesbians who’re loud, proud and making the world a better place”.

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…

And finally…

My favourite story of polling day.

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

Thank you and best wishes,


One response to “Should the Lib Dems talk more about decriminalising cannabis? LDN #149”

  1. Cannabis
    Encouraging poll findings Yes I believe we should continue asking people about the cannabis both for its medical reasons and recreation use. I do not see why people have to go abroad to get it It can still be paid for IN THE UK ,farmed here. When I hear of secret fields in the UK and Conservatives having investments in it I feel that ordinary people who have stress etc to cope with who have to use big Pharma (high costse NHS) .Equally if it can be purchased thru the NHS that helps with its funding.
    Addictive ? You can compare it with so called legal drugs (alcohol,cigs and the damage,cost to society they entail).Whilst we can sell the policy we must be aware of how the opposition will denigrate the policy and therefore counter the negativity that they will bring forth. Times are changing .Look at the rise in LibDem Green council seats and drop in others .Continue pushing the policy and show a positive,progressive future.

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