North Shropshire: how did it happen, what does it mean? LDN #155

Liberal Democrat Newswire #155 came out at the weekend, and no prizes for guessing what it majored on..,

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.

Some numbers to enjoy from North Shropshire:

  • 34% – the swing secured by Helen Morgan
  • 1993 – the last time the Lib Dems gained two Conservative seats in Parliamentary by-elections in the same year
  • 1981 – the last time the Lib Dems came from third or worse to win a Parliamentary by-election in England off the Conservatives

Lots to learn about how that happened and what it means for the future. So read on for my first take on that…

Before we get to that, my 2021 reader survey is up and running. If you take a few moments to let me have your views, that’d really help with my planning for this newsletter and other activities for next year. Thank you!

Best wishes,


P.S. If you didn’t yet have the chance to read last time’s edition, it is also online here: North Shropshire – sleaze, sewage and Lib Dem opportunity. (There’s plenty in it still relevant even after the by-election.)

In this edition:

Tim Farron and Helen Morgan celebrating


6 lessons from North Shropshire

As well as having a great new MP in Helen Morgan, the by-election result also gives the Liberal Democrats the chance to learn about what can work to boost our fortunes in other elections to come.

So here’s my first stab at those lessons, with the proviso of course that as more data is crunched these may evolve.

1. Helen Morgan – Helen was an excellent candidate, not only in the by-election but in her work with a growing local party prior to it. She highlights the importance of candidates in non-target Parliamentary seats who are willing to work with and lead a local team over more than just one election cycle.

Our support for candidates focuses very heavily on target seats. We need them to be successful for our next general election to be a success.

But for a successful, broad-based recovery in the party’s fortunes to continue, we also need more Helens. There’s a lesson for the party, myself included, about the required breadth of our candidate support.

There is also a lesson about the need to improve the party’s diversity. We’ve concentrated very heavily on improving the diversity of our Parliamentary Party in Westminster, with significant success. But it’s because Helen was the candidate last time, in a then unwinnable seat, that we had such a great local female candidate this time. Implementing the work of our diversity review carried out over the summer will continue to be a priority for me and, I hope, for everyone else holding posts in the party.

2. The absence of a Conservative message – in a repeat of Chesham and Amersham, it was notable how the Conservatives did not have a message other than ‘vote Conservative because you always have’. For the Red Wall, they have a (contested!) message about levelling up, but for the rest of the country? There’s no positive vision of the future, post-Brexit.

Hence the repeated doorstep conversations I had with life-long Conservatives where they only had Lib Dem messages to discuss with me. Our discussions were about their political habits versus the Lib Dem messages, without Conservative messages to consider.

The lesson for the Liberal Democrats is not to repeat this mistake ourselves. We need to continue to develop those themes of a fair deal and redistributing power that Ed Davey set out in his autumn conference speech.

3. A Lib Dem message based on voters – as in Chesham and Amersham, Helen Morgan’s campaign in North Shropshire focused on the most appealing messages to win over soft Conservative voters. Focus on the voters – and the votes you need to win in particular. Find the common ground between what concerns them and what we believe, and then go to town campaigning on that. In Helen’s case, for example, that meant talking a lot about the NHS and ambulance service failures.

Focusing on what voters are concerned about may sound obvious, but it’s often not how political campaigns work. Instead – as with parts of the Lib Dem 2019 general election campaign – it’s easy to end up insular, detached from what the voters are thinking and ending up hectoring them about what they should think, rather than persuading them by engaging with what they do think.

That’s a particular risk in more democratic parties like ours as what most motivates activists often isn’t what best moves voters. I’ll happily confess to this too. What gets me out of bed early to catch a train to go campaigning is often not what’s on the leaflets we’re then campaigning with. At least in the Lib Dems it’s much less of a problem and comes in more benign forms than it does in Labour. As Rafael Behr recently wrote, “to win an election [Labour] must appeal to Conservative voters, which does not come easily to a party that struggles to imagine why anyone in their right mind would be a Tory.”

It’s a tension that is best to explicitly recognise and to manage – such as acknowledging that what gets talked about in internal newsletters for members and what goes in public leaflets for voters can play to different emphases. There must be a consistency, but they don’t have to be identical.

The wonder and flaw of a democracy is that in the end it’s the voters who get to cast the verdict. What they think is what counts. What we have to do is to be smart about how to change their minds.

4. Tactical voting worked, but… – in Chesham and Amersham, the Labour vote fell from 13% to 2% and in North Shropshire it fell from 22% to 10%. In both cases, that was an important part of the Lib Dem progress, but in both cases also it wasn’t enough on its own.

Soft Conservatives have to be won over. Every vote won over from the Conservatives counted double (one on to our total, one off the Conservative total) compared with a vote won over from Labour (one on to our total, no change to the Conservative total)

In both by-elections one of the reasons for that strong tactical voting was the speed with which the Liberal Democrat campaign got going. That’s a fast start that wouldn’t have happened in either case if the early stages of the campaign had been taken up the necessarily complicated and difficult process of trying to negotiate a seat deal in detail. Instead of spending time trying to stitch-up an election behind closed doors, we were fast out of the blocks spending time on the doorsteps.

So we should be grateful to those who voted tactically to us, and grateful too to the wiser and calmer heads in Labour who either passed up on campaigning in these by-elections or at least campaigned against the Conservatives.

Not everyone in Labour, true, as we had the bizarrely implausible antics of their local press officer, whose Twitter account was full of attacks on the Lib Dems and very light on any criticism of the Tories. He even produced figures claiming Labour was in a strong second and closing fast on the Conservatives. Though the strangest tweets were those from another Labour activist, again declaiming that it was really Labour in with a shout of winning before going on to complain that the Lib Dems had delivered 11 leaflets to a mere 3 from Labour.

But as with Chesham and Amersham, note that once again it was a case of zero visits from Keir Starmer and very few visits from his other senior colleagues. That’s a choice of where to campaign that’s to be welcomed.

5. The wonderful Lib Dem help – people came from all across the country to get Helen elected. The mobilisation of thousands of people, with many others on the phone and reaching for their wallets, was essential.

This can only happen and be sustained in future contests if we’re honest with people about our chances in an election. There’s still a lot of understandable cynicism from the over-hyping of some contests years back. Which is why such an effort has gone into being honest with members about our chances and how they’re changing – and supporters have returned that with trust that if they’re being asked to really go and help, it’s because it’s worth the punt.

And thank you therefore to those who waved the Lib Dem flag in those by-elections which we didn’t push in the same way. We should be very grateful to our colleagues who did useful things to lay the groundwork for future success, and to help remove the Conservatives from power, even while most of the party’s attention was elsewhere.

6. One thing it wasn’t – the Christmas party scandals have gone done really badly with voters in North Shropshire, as elsewhere. But remember how many people vote by postal vote these days and how early they vote. This was about much more than the parties or otherwise those postal votes would have seen the Conservatives through to a far better result. The lessons from this by-election are not about a transitory political moment but about something deeper.

That’s my take on the lessons. Do hit reply and let me know yours or join the conversation on Facebook.

What does Best for Britain’s polling say about seat deals?

I’ve been critical before of polling that purports to make the case for non-Conservative parties standing down for each other but which doesn’t stand up to close examination.

Recent polling for Best for Britain, however, has avoided many of those problems and so is worth a close look.

The polling is from Number Cruncher Politics and Focaldata who, although not the best known UK political pollsters, are respectable sources. It uses the MRP methodology about which there are many caveats (and hence there’s a long section on its strengths and weaknesses in my next book). But it seems to have been used in a way that doesn’t oversell what MRP can do.

What it shows is that if a Labour candidate pulls out, then the Labour vote would split 40% going to the Lib Dems, 25% to the Conservatives, 30% to the Greens and the rest to others. So there’s definitely a net plus for the Lib Dems in that scenario.

Caveats, however, apply. First note that it’s 40% to Lib Dems and 25% to Conservatives, so the net benefit to the Lib Dems is only 15% of the Labour vote. To show what that means, imagine a seat with the following result:

Conservative 1,000
Lib Dem 800
Labour 400

along with smaller vote shares for others.

You might look at that and think ‘Progressive Alliance now! 800 plus 400 is way more than the Conservative 1,000’. But let’s apply those Best for Britain percentages and see what happens:

Conservative 1,100 (1,000 plus 25% of 400)
Lib Dem 960 (800 plus 40% of 400)

Result? Still a Conservative win.

So the first crucial caveat is that the net effect, even on Best for Britain’s own figures, is fairly small. For a Labour candidate’s withdrawal to make the difference to the Lib Dems winning on these figures, the Labour vote has to be more than six times greater than the Conservative majority. (As the net gain to the Lib Dems is only 15% of the Labour vote, the majority needs to be equal to 15% or less of the Labour vote.)

Going back to my example figures, the correct way of looking at them isn’t to think ‘800 + 400 = more than 1,000’. Rather, it’s to think ‘The Conservative majority is 200, so the Labour vote needs to be more than 1,200 for this idea to work… and it’s only 400.’

But there’s another crucial caveat. Best for Britain’s polling does, to its credit, give a proper like for like comparison between what people say if there is and isn’t a candidate for a particular party on the ballot paper. Reality, however, is a bit different – as in practice there is tactical vote campaigning even when there are full slates of candidates from each party. A voting intention question asked well before a general election, however well it’s done, doesn’t capture what the result will be after weeks of intensive bar charting in the run up to polling day.

The net gain from candidate withdrawal in my example above was only 60 votes for the Lib Dems (Lib Dems went up 160 but Conservatives went up 100). Now look again at those 400 Labour votes. Is it plausible that an intensive tactical voting campaign could squeeze out more than 60 votes for the Lib Dems? Very much so.

What the Best for Britain polling shows is that there is a degree of common affinity among non-Conservative voters. But it’s by no means uniform, and as a result the impact on election results of candidate withdrawals is, even on their own figures, massively reduced. (There’s a similar conclusion from looking at vote preferences in elections such as for Mayor of London and elsewhere in May where, for example, Lib Dem second preferences do also skew towards Labour but also do so at a relatively modest net rate.) Reduced so far, that it’s a very weak case, at best, that this would be more effective than tactical voting campaigns.

Especially as there are two other factors that such polling cannot capture. One is the political risk of formal candidate deals and the ammunition that offers up to opponents as well as the dissent and demoralisation they can cause internally, all of which then hinder winning.

The other is the opportunity cost. Time spent trying to organise seat deals is time not spent on campaigning against the Conservatives. Time and money spent researching the impact of seat deals is time and money not spent researching how to win over Conservatives. (And remember that every vote won over from the Conservatives counts double.)

My conclusion? The way to winning is to persuade voters, not try to manoeuvre them like LEGO bricks.

The polling for Best for Britain is useful in showing the possible scale of impact of seat deals. But when you then stack that up against the possibilities of tactical voting, the risks and problems of such deals and the opportunity costs involved, along with the academic research evidence of the problems with the seat deals in the 2019 general election, tactical voting and smart choices over where to put in campaign effort come out the winner.

And for a final piece of evidence, let’s end where this newsletter started: with Parliamentary by-elections. Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire: zero withdrawals by Labour or Green candidates, two Conservative defeats.

Lib Dem Parliamentary votes on COVID-19 measures

Deputy leader Daisy Cooper has a useful thread on how and why the Liberal Democrats voted in Parliament on the latest round of government measures to tackle COVID-19. Layla Moran has been speaking out about the Uyghurs.

Welsh Senedd member Jane Dodds has been backing a tree-planting campaign. Ed Davey has been calling for a tax on sewage. He’s also self-isolating after a positive COVID-19 test – best wishes, Ed – and has referred himself to the Standards Commissioner after spotting an oversight in his paperwork.

Wendy Chamberlain is the new Deputy Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Congratulations to Scottish Lib Dem councillor Kirs Chapman for being specially commended in the Cllr Awards or his efforts in championing both people with disabilities and young people. Congratulations too to Josh Babarinde, councillor and now Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in Eastbourne, who has picked up his OBE.

A Fairer Society

Here’s my latest report for Liberal Democrat members and supporters, from the party website, omitting the lead story about North Shropshire as it’s now been overtaken by the election concluding:

A Fairer Society: new policy plans

As well as fixing internal elements of the party following the Thornhill Review into what went wrong in 2019, we also need to apply the lessons about political messaging too. We need to give voters a clear sense of what the difference is that electing Liberal Democrats makes – and to start that conversation with them by understanding what matters to them.

That is why giving people a fair deal was at the heart of Ed Davey’s conference speech this autumn. It reflects the values at the heart of liberalism and taps into public disillusionment over Boris Johnson’s ‘one rule for you, no rules for me’ attitude.

To help flesh out the ideas behind the speech, the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) has a new working group chaired by Julia Goldsworthy. There will be a consultation session at federal conference and then later a motion.

See FPC Vice Chair Jeremy Hargreaves’s latest report for more details on this and our other policy work.

Conference Live pilot this Spring

Excellent news for our Spring Federal Party Conference. Alongside the virtual event, ALDC will be piloting an in-person event, Conference Live, with a particular focus on campaign training and briefing.

It will be held in York and registrations for Conference Live will include registration for the online conference too.

It has taken a lot of behind the scenes work from Federal Conference Committee officers, party staff and the ALDC team to figure out how to make this work. Thank you to them all for working together to pilot something new.

More details of the Conference Live event are on the ALDC website and ‘traditional’ online-only registration for spring conference is now also live on the main party website.

December Board meeting

Our December Federal Board was put back until after North Shropshire polling day to free up more time for campaigning. Thank you to the many other parts of the party who also rescheduled meetings so we can concentrate on the immediate electoral opportunity.

When the Board meets, it will also take a look at first lessons from North Shropshire, plans to improve our membership engagement next year, the work our election committee (FCEC) has done examining the impact of deals with the Greens and finalising plans for Board reform to put to Spring conference. More on those in my next report.

Campaign Innovation Fund is back for 2022

Launched for the first time this year, the fund supports campaign experiments which improve our evidence for what does, and doesn’t, work in campaigning. The grants for next year will focus on digital campaigning.

Find out more, including how you can apply for a grant, here.

Improving our diversity efforts

A program of emailing around 5,000 party members a week asking them to enhance the diversity data we hold about them has started. Improving our records will enable us to better understand what efforts are needed and where so that we can improve our record on diversity and inclusion.

The Lighthouse membership system is also being updated around the turn of the year so that local parties will be able to see the diversity data for their patch and better understand how their own efforts are working.

If you get an email asking you to take part in the survey, please do take a few minutes to do so.

Andrew Mclean

One of the party’s consistently best innovators at using data for campaigning, Andrew Mclean, passed away recently. He was always a kind, conscientious and helpful colleague – finding new data and writing new code to improve our campaigning and make our data better.

Even if you’ve not heard of Andrew, the chances are you’ve benefited from his work – such as improving the addressing of direct mail that we hand-deliver or adding extra data behind the scenes to our Connect database.

Much love and sympathy to his family and friends.

Happy Christmas

Finally, as this is my last monthly report of the year, best wishes for Christmas and the new year. Thank you for all your help and support during 2021, which mean that we can look forward with confidence to growing successes in 2022.

Feedback on these or any other matters is very welcome. You can get in touch on president@libdems.org.uk.

PODCAST: Does North Shropshire signal the end for Boris Johnson?

Hot off the microphones is a North Shropshire special edition of Never Mind The Bar Charts, discussing the result with the always interesting outsider perspective of Professor Tim Bale.

Happy listening.

The last month has also seen two of my three most popular episodes since the general election – with Paula Surridge on the reasons why Boris Johnson won in 2019 (and why they might not work again for him) and with Alan Wager on the role for tactical voting in the next general election. Happy listening!

🎧 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.

Federal Conference plans for 2022

In case you missed them first time, here are a selection of posts from my websites since last time:

2022 Spring and Autumn federal conference plans announced.

Lib Dem Campaign Innovation Fund back for a second year.

🌍 A-ha, law breaking and effective green campaigning.

Conservatives fined £17,800 for breaking law over Downing Street flat.

Only 9% want an entirely appointed House of Lords.

🎉 Jamie Stone and team win press release headline of the week.

You really should look at the Mid-Norfolk Labour Party website.

What the public is saying: voting intention

National voting intention polls as of 16 December 2021

To give the latest figures some context, here’s the poll tracker from The i newspaper:

i poll trakcer 15 December 2021


What the public is saying: local by-elections

The good news in council by-elections is the number of impressive results, even in previously weak wards, where there is a Lib Dem candidate and campaign. The not so good news is the number of places where we’re still not putting up candidates. (That’s a separate issue from the debates over cross-party working, as in nearly every place where we don’t stand it isn’t due to a deal with another party that secures something in return.)

We need to stand in more council elections so that we’ll have more winners and teams making impressive progress to celebrate:

In other local government news, a Conservative councillor has joined the Lib Dems in Luton, while a councillor has switched to the Conservatives in Dorset, a Worthing councillor to Labour and two have left the party in Bristol. A councillor in Ceredigion is no longer a Lib Dem member after making comments about immigrants.

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.

Can you help?

Liberal Democrat Newswire is provided for free. Thank you so much to all the kind readers who donate to help cover its costs. It’s quick and easy to sign up for a small regular donation with your debit card using GoCardless:

Thank you! (Other donation options, including by PayPal or cheque, are here.)

And finally…

Don’t tell anyone running other Twitter accounts, but I have a new favourite Lib Dem Twitter account.

And 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,


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