Sarah Green’s brilliant victory has reminded me of Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown’s wise words after the Ribble Valley by-election. The situations are similar in many ways: an enormous swing, a keystone government policy in the firing line and a huge boost to a Liberal Democrat party battling to recover from setbacks a few years earlier.
Charles said of Mike Carr’s victory in that contest, “We do not subscribe to the view that one swallow makes a summer. But we do continue with the patient process of building blocks”. Paddy’s version was, “Our step-by-step approach is confirmed and we will now move forward from a more solid and a more powerful base to winning more seats at the next general election”.
Charles and Paddy were right: milk the moment for all buzz and coverage you can, while knowing that it’s only one step – a huge, wonderful step – on the road to recovery. Getting the next steps right means understanding the lessons of Chesham and Amersham – and understanding them rather better than the defeated Conservative candidate’s claim that cutting the budget deficit is what will win back the votes he lost.
So read on to see my first take at the lessons. I reserve the right of course to add, modify or wholly disown them as more data gets crunched and wise readers like yourself reply with your own insights. But as a first draft of understanding, I hope you’ll find them useful.
P.S. If you didn’t yet have the chance to read last time’s edition, you can catch up on it here: Should the Lib Dems talk more about decriminalising cannabis?
In this edition:
New third edition out next month!
8 lessons from Chesham and Amersham
1. The Lib Dem campaign was excellent Excellent candidate, excellent campaign manager, excellent team effort right from 16 visits by Ed Davey through to the first time leaflet deliverer I hit the long, long drives with one weekend. It was lovely to hear Sarah Green call out her campaign manager’s family for thanks in her victory speech. The grinding work required for winning needs the support of family and friends.
The intensity of the campaign was essential to it being successful. Our challenge now is to continue to regrow our grassroots strength so that we can get closer to matching that intensity in multiple seats at a general election.
That’s why the party’s investment in such a large network of field campaign staff from early on in this Parliament has been so important.
2. The Conservative campaign was awful It’s likely the best Conservative by-election campaigners are hard at work in Batley and Spen. But it wasn’t their B team in Chesham and Amersham. It was more like the D team.
Two striking examples illustrate this. First, one Sunday morning I turned up around 9.30am to help in our Amersham office. Between the station and the office was the Conservative office. As I walked past, two people were at the shut door, one saying ‘perhaps if we get a coffee and come back at 10am there will be somebody here?’. When I got to the Lib Dem office it was open, and other helpers had already signed in ahead of me.
Second, the Conservatives failed to spot a mammoth switch in public opinion. Even after ballot boxes started being opened at the count, there were Conservatives telling the media that they would win. The Conservatives not only missed what voters had been saying during the election. They even missed what the ballot papers were showing at the count.
So there is a warning for the Liberal Democrats in that we can’t expect future Conservative campaigns to be so inept. But not all their problems will be so easy to fix…
3. Elections are about the future, not the past Political activists get and stay far angrier about the past than voters. When another party gets something wrong, rival activists remember it and are motivated by it for years after. But for voters, most of the time they are voting about what they want for the future rather than to reward or punish people for the past. (Yes, that’s true even with tuition fees.)
Impressions created by events linger, setting the reputation of people or parties, but the issues move on.
In 2019, the Conservatives had powerful messages about the future: get Brexit done and make sure Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t become Prime Minister. But Corbyn is gone and Brexit has happened. People aren’t going to reward the Conservatives for getting Brexit done (even if they think it’s going well). Same too with coronavirus. Just as voters are not fired up to punish the Conservatives for their deadly blunders last year, nor are they fired up to reward them for the relative success of the vaccination drive. Past, not future.
So what now is the Conservative message, post Brexit and post Corbyn? There wasn’t sight of an answer to that in the Chesham and Amersham campaign. This wasn’t just the campaign team messing up. Because the national Conservative message has something for the future… if you are in the Red Wall. But outside the Red Wall, quite what do the Conservatives want to do for you? As the by-election showed, they’ve not got a good answer.
4. Voters get to choose what an election is about It’s not only that voters tend to be more interested in the future than in the past. It’s also that voters get to choose which bits of the future matter most to them. Parties can try to persuade them, but in a democracy you can only run winning campaigns by starting with the humility of wanting to understand what voters currently think matters.
The Greens thought the election should be about scrapping HS2. Rejoin EU thought the election should be about undoing Brexit ASAP. Plenty of voters in Chesham and Amersham don’t like either HS2 or Brexit. But the Green vote fell to a deposit losing 3.9% even though the Greens a few days before were talking of getting 10% or more. And Rejoin EU came bottom with just 101 votes (0.3%).
Voters wanted the election to be about other matters. The Lib Dem campaign got this right. Listen to voters, find the things that overlap between their concerns and our values, and then campaign hard on them. An approach that the Thornhill Review into our 2019 election campaign reminds us we don’t always get right. But this by-election shows how we are getting better at remembering it.
5. Tactical voting works There was massive tactical voting. It was achieved without any candidate deals.
It was also achieved despite mixed messages from Labour, likely reflecting divisions within their party. Keir Starmer didn’t visit and Labour’s campaign budget looks to have been low. Yet deputy leader Angela Rayner turned up and on polling day at least seven Labour MPs broadcast their campaigning in the seat on social media.
Which just goes to show that the most effective mobilisation of voters to defeat the Conservatives comes from voters themselves.
6. Tactical voting was not enough Even with Labour falling to its lowest ever constituency result, Sarah Green wouldn’t have won without also winning over many former Conservatives. There’s no magic solution to be had from adding up the votes of non-Conservatives. The hard graft of winning over Conservatives is also required.
That’s a mindset many in Labour seem to struggle with in particular, more comfortable with hating Conservatives than with wooing them. Chesham and Amersham showed the virtues of taking a different approach.
7. 2019 may yet be for Lib Dems what 2017 was for Conservatives Theresa May in 2017, Jo Swinson in 2019: both went into an election with high hopes and both came out of it with those hopes smashed.
The Conservative 2017 debacle did, however, show the signs of the realignment of British politics in northern England which then played off so very well for them in 2019.
For the Lib Dems, 2019 was even more disappointing than 2017 for the Conservatives. But it too showed signs of a political realignment. Chesham and Amersham was one of those seats with a large number of Remainers and graduates where the Lib Dems moved back into a decent second in 2019.
For all the disappointments, you can see in the 2019 results the creation of a promising set of seats for the Lib Dems to win next time. There’s a liberal consistency to the party’s support in them that means 2019 may yet turn out to have been a key step in the creation of that strong Lib Dem core vote we so much need.
8. There is a big political space for the Liberal Democrats Blue Wall clichés and photo ops now abound. What is promising about the outlook for the Liberal Democrats at the next Westminster general election is that both the Conservatives and Labour have been tuning their pitches for the Red Wall – and doing so using messages that can be positively counter-productive in Blue Wall areas.
They have left a big political space for the Liberal Democrats. Chesham and Amersham is another step towards us filling the space. We shouldn’t under-estimate just how much more hard work is to come. But the opportunity is there.
What lessons do you draw from the by-election result? Do hit reply and let me know.
An amazing campaign Here’s my latest report for Liberal Democrat members and supporters, from the party website and updated slightly after Chesham and Amersham and the June Board meeting:
Chesham and Amersham What a brilliant result! We had the best candidate in Sarah Green, ran the best campaign under James Lillis’s direction and had an awesome amount of help from people all around the country.
That would all be impressive even in normal times, but coming off the back of the huge May elections and while we’re all still dealing with coronavirus and lockdowns, that’s been an amazing achievement.
It’s also an achievement that sets us up for more success in the future – as the acres of media coverage demonstrate.
Westminster selections are up and running New Parliament, new name: this time around we are ‘tiering’ our seats, so the most winnable seats (aka target seats, aka key seats) are now called Tier 1 seats. Selections have started up, with advertisements going out to people on the approved list and appearing on the members-only section of the main party website.
It’s important that we all encourage talented people we know to think about applying, and for many seats there will still be time to go through the approval process.
As a recent internal survey suggested, vanishingly few people are asked to run by fellow party members, particularly potential candidates from ethnic minority backgrounds. There is power in asking!
A lot of effort is going into ensuring we continue the very welcome improvements in the diversity of our Parliamentary Party secured at the 2019 election. We need to do that to properly live our values – and it’s a handy bonus that the evidence shows that more diverse teams make for more effective teams too.
One of the new things for this Parliament is Project Stellar: a support package for our top candidates from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Anyone selected in a Tier 1 seat from such a background can automatically qualify for this support, and depending on the numbers, we may also be able support candidates in Tier 2 seats in this way too.
The exact details of the programme are currently being developed, ready for it to be launched later in the year as the first selections start coming through.
If you are interested in playing a hands-on role in making our party overall more diverse, inclusive and equitable, please do consider volunteering for our new working group on these issues.
Learning the right lessons from the May elections There’s much we need to learn from both what went well and what didn’t in the May elections. That’s the way to continue to improve and to extend a run of what is now three years in a row of making net gains in council elections. With local elections right across Scotland and Wales next year, as well as many in England too, we really need that three years in a row to become four.
So I’m glad to report that the Federal Communications and Elections Committee (FCEC), chaired by Cllr Lisa Smart, met earlier this month and agreed a series of mini-projects to dig into particular areas of success and concern.
Part of that involves listening carefully to the wonder band of 178 people we’ve identified who did the most canvassing for the party in the May elections – speaking to an average of 1,000 people each in the six weeks up to polling day! Thank you to each and every one of those 178. That’s a group of people with invaluable collective insight into what did and didn’t work, both in terms of political messaging and organisation. Those are the sorts of grassroot voices that the Thornhill Review into the 2019 election rightly concluded we need to listen to more.
New committee chairs Federal Conference Committee has a new chair, Nick Da Costa. He was elected by FCC members following Geoff Payne standing down earlier this year.
The Federal International Relations Committee (FIRC) has a new chair too, with Phil Bennion replacing Jonathan Fryer, who sadly died earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Bess Mayhew, chair of the Federal People Development Committee (FPDC), will be taking maternity leave and so the committee has elected Mary Regnier-Wilson to fill that gap.
Congratulations to Phil, Mary Nick, and double congratulations to Bess.
One other face will be changing later this year. Isabelle Parasram has a new job which means she will need to stand down as Vice President responsible for working with ethnic minority communities. A by-election will be held later this year to fill her post.
June Federal Board Our latest meeting should have happened the Saturday before polling day, but the Board decided to postpone it until after Chesham and Amersham in order to free up more time for campaigning.
When we did meet, it was for a very full day-long agenda, including reviewing progress on the party’s strategy, discussing the party’s finances and hearing from Dorothy Thornhill on how she thinks things are going with implementing the 2019 election review which she chaired. This continued involvement of Dorothy is important to ensure we break the pattern of so many previous election reviews not getting the follow-up they needed. As part of our strategy discussion, we finalised our plans to submit a conference motion for this autumn.
We also reviewed progress on the Steering Group pilot one year on. We decided to make some changes to how the pilot works, such as improving the flow of information from the Steering Group meetings to the full Board. We agreed to ask Autumn Conference to approve a plan to consult with stakeholders about the future structure of the Federal Board and bring plans to Spring Conference next year, continuing the Steering Group pilot in the meantime.
One reason for picking spring next year is to give enough time to properly explore variations and put a considered set of plans to conference. The other is that we have a very large volume of other business to put to this conference. The items the Board agreed to go ahead with submitting include enacting the changes proposed by the Party Body Review Group, proposals to improve the complaints system, a request from Young Liberals to change their age limit and election regulations for the post of Vice President responsible for working with ethnic minority communities.
Questions are as ever very welcome via firstname.lastname@example.org and you can find all the Board members listed on the party website.
PODCAST: What Chesham and Amersham tells us about the future for the Liberal Democrats Lib Dems love by-elections. Lib Dems love winning by-elections. And Lib Dems love getting excited after by-elections.
So to help us calibrate our levels of excitement after Sarah Green’s victory in Chesham and Amersham, it was great to welcome back to Never Mind The Bar Charts, Paula Surridge, senior lecturer at Bristol University and an expert in how values are driving political choices in modern Britain.
Take a listen here.
Also available to listen is a special live show with the Lib Dem Pod: ‘Why electoral reform matters and how to get more of it’ with Paul Tyler and Wendy Chamberlain. 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 Brian Mathew has been selected for the Wiltshire Police and Crime Commissioner election triggered by the Conservatives putting up for election a candidate who won but didn’t meet the legal requirements for the post. Tom Gordon is the Lib Dem candidate for the Batley and Spen by-election.
Selections in top Lib Dem Westminster seats have started up in England for the next general election. Approved candidates should be getting regular emails and any member can check on the member-only section of the party website for the latest advertisements.
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.
Seven charged over Conservative Party donations In case you missed them first time, here are the key posts from my websites since last time:
Seven people charged over donations to Conservative local association.
Lessons for the Lib Dems from cricket and the Green Party.
Making life a little easier for new local party officers.
Camden and Lib Dem legend Flick Rea retiring from Camden Council.
What the public is saying: voting intention
What the public is saying: voting trends
|Far smarter brains than mind have turned my PollBase database of voting intention polls into a daily estimate of the actual levels of party support, plotted on the graph above. For the full methodology and the data going back over several decades, see the technical details here.|
To get updates about voting intention opinion polls, sign up for Polling UnPacked or follow @PollingUnPacked on Twitter.
What the public is saying: views on Brexit A Redfield and Wilton poll from earlier this month captured the current state of public opinion on Brexit. Its findings are similar to those from other pollsters, showing a continued polarisation with closely matched levels of support on each side:
A slight plurality (44%) of respondents believe that the UK made the right decision in leaving the EU in 2016. On the opposite end, 42% of the British public feels that it was the wrong decision, and 14% are unsure. Full details and data tables here.
Age and political leaning are strong predictors of where respondents fall on this question. Young respondents are overwhelmingly against the decision: only 17% of respondents aged 18 to 24 say it was the right choice, with 61% considering it the wrong decision. For those aged 65 and over, however, a clear majority (63%) say it was the right decision…
These findings are largely consistent with our polling from February 2021, when 43% of the British public believed that Brexit was the right decision…
With the UK completing its separation from the EU relatively recently, at the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, the meaning and significance of Brexit may still be uncertain to some. Even so, nearly half (48%) of the British public thinks that that it is not too early to tell whether Brexit was the right or wrong decision, while 42% feel it is too early. Younger and older respondents are united in their conviction that an assessment can already be made: a majority of 18-to-24-year-olds (55%) and those aged 65 and over (62%) say that it is not too early to tell whether it was the right decision…
Looking to the future, the possibility of the UK re-joining the EU is also divisive. Overall, 39% of Britons say they would oppose a campaign to re-join the EU, whereas 36% say they would support such a campaign.
Most interestingly, those who view Brexit as the right decision are more viscerally opposed to the prospect of a re-join campaign than those who view Brexit as the wrong decision are supportive. Altogether, 77% of those who view Brexit as the right decision say they would oppose a campaign to re-join the EU, including 63% who say they would ‘strong oppose.’ By comparison, 69% of those who view Brexit as the wrong decision say they would support a campaign to re-join the institution, but only 34% say they would ‘strongly support’ such a campaign.
What the public is saying: by-elections With the May elections over and lockdown restrictions partially eased, council by-elections are now starting up again: Meanwhile, a member of North Norfolk Council has quit the Lib Dems.
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.
The power of a good photo op…
Liberal Democrats in the news Amanda Hopgood has become the first Liberal Democrat, and the first female, leader of Durham County Council.
Fewer than one in 60 rape cases lead to charge in England and Wales, figures published by Wera Hobhouse shockingly reveal. Ed Davey has written movingly about the strain on unpaid carers and Munira Wilson has highlighted the mental health burden for mothers of school closures. Christine Jardine is relieved that Joe Biden is US President. Jane Dodds is campaigning to save banking services in rural market towns. The UK must be a place of sanctuary for refugees, says Lib Dem peer Sarah Ludford.
Layla Moran has penned a joint piece with Green MP Caroline Lucas and Labour MP Clive Lewis encouraging cross-party cooperation to defeat the Conservatives.
There’s a clutch of news about former MPs this month. Luciana Berger has given a moving interview to Jewish News about her experiences in politics and whether she’d ever make a political return. Lembit Öpik, has been expelled after doing a ‘how to beat the Lib Dems’ session for the Conservative Party. Former leader Vince Cable has been praising the English football team for taking the knee. Former Party President and leadership candidate, Simon Hughes, has won damages from The Sun over phone-hacking. Former leadership candidate, Norman Lamb, has left the party over our opposition to Brexit following the referendum.
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… Turns out, Daisy Cooper is a dab hand at LEGO.
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If you’ve got any suggestion for what questions I should cover in the next Q+A (none this time because of the by-election coverage), do let me know.
Thank you and best wishes,