What the voters are telling the Lib Dems, and important votes at party conference: LDN #157

Liberal Democrat Newswire #157 came out last week, with a look at public opinion on Brexit, how by-elections are going, important votes at Spring Conference, 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.

One of the most popular issues last year featured a look at how public opinion had(n’t) moved on Europe. A few months and more problems with Brexit on, have views shifted much? Read on to find out, along with other stories such as the important votes coming up at Spring federal conference on implementing key parts of the party’s independent review into the 2019 election.

It’s also the time of the year for my annual appeal to help cover the costs of these newsletter. Many thanks to the 220 kind readers who donated in the past year. If you’re not yet a donor and are able to make a small donation, that would be great – especially as MailChimp’s costs have gone up sharply for me in the last few months.

Best wishes,


P.S. Last time’s edition is still very relevant. You can catch-up with it here: Labour warms to informal anti-Conservative cooperation.

In this edition:

Important votes at Spring conference

As I mention below in my latest report back to party members, this Spring federal party conference includes a debate on the latest step in implementing that lessons from the 2019 general election debacle. One of the findings of the Thornhill Review (our independent report into what went wrong) was that the way the Federal Board is structured by our constitution lets us down. At 41 in size, it is too large to be the effective, democratic decision-maker that we need at the heart of the party.

Two statistics illustrate the problem. One is that at 41 in size, there is one Federal Board member for every two Federal Party staff (!). The other is that although the size of the Board, and the Federal Executive before that, has long been a cause of complaint right from the founding of our party, its size has actually gone up over the years (!, again).

There’s a reason why local parties and party bodies choose to have executive committees far smaller than 41. Our continued failure to address the issue at federal party level means we let down all those people who put so much effort in to our party. As Dorothy Thornhill herself, who chaired that review puts it, “a Federal Board of 41 members cannot, and should not, be the clear leadership team we need to steer our party and help us all win elections. Something of that size is a talking shop, and talking shops are neither democratic nor effective.”

So that’s why a reform proposal is coming to this Spring conference, based on consultation with party members that showed strong support for reforming the Board. It would replace the 41 with a new body of 16, bringing together key decision makers from across the party and with thirteen of the sixteen elected by party members in some form. Some of the 13 would be elected by all party members, such as the Party President who is elected in an all-member ballot, and some would be elected by sub-sections of party members, such as the chair of Young Liberals, who is elected by Young Liberal members. The other three – the finance, membership engagement and elections experts who chair those three committees – would be via direct or indirect appointment.

Bringing together such different roles into one body would mean it can effectively improve the coordination across the party, and make decisions that aren’t just made on paper but then properly followed up across the party.

One argument that’s been made during the member consultations, and which may come up at conference, is that it’d be better to have a Board that’s just made up of people elected to ‘run the party’ and to remove committee chairs etc. from the new setup. That running the party is a different role from chairing a committee, for example. That’s flawed for three reasons. First, the very lack of coordination between different committees was part of the problem for 2019, and previous to that too. To run things better we need people like the chairs of finance, elections and membership engagement meeting together, regularly. Second, its flawed because if those people aren’t on the same body, they’ll still need to meet – but it’ll then happen outside our nominal structures, adding to complexity and reducing democracy. Third, its flawed because imagine what that would look like for a local party. Would your local party executive work better if the post holders were removed from it (goodbye treasurer, membership development officer, data officer, diversity officer, …) and instead the executive was just made up of other people? Of course not.

The reform motion also includes measures to strengthen accountability, such as expanding the reports back to party conference and making it easier to take action over a wayward Party President. (A reform I’m very keen on myself.) It also has a couple of options for creating additional accountability structures if people feel a Board dominated by elected people plus federal conference meeting twice a year isn’t sufficient. One would have a party council meeting in-between conference and the other would have a new overview and scrutiny type committee. Full details are in the motion in the conference agenda, starting on page 27.

The conference debate will be online from 7.55pm on the Friday night at conference, so handily outside prime campaigning time for people who are otherwise busy focusing on campaigning for the May elections.

What’s your view on the plans? Do hit reply and let me know – or to ask any questions.

You can register for conference here (and it’s only £5 for first timers). Or register for Conference Live, an in-person event being run in York alongside the online conference.

Has public opinion moved on Brexit?

Two years on from Brexit taking place, what is the state of public opinion in Britain and the EU? It’s the sort of question that can give rather different answers depending on how you take it, so let’s tackle this from several angles.

First, Europe isn’t high up most people’s agenda. The Ipsos-MORI issues tracker shows under 1 in 5 people (18%) mentioning Europe as one of the most important issues facing Britain, and only 1 in 20 (5%) saying it is the most important issue.

That’s well down on the start of last year (when it hit nearly two-thirds) and on the figures through 2019. It’s still higher than the long-run up to 2016, but lower than several other major issues as this graph shows:

Ipsos MORI Issues Index - January 2022

Second, when people do however think about Brexit, they’re not impressed with what the government has been doing. The YouGov tracker this year on how well or badly people think the government has been handling Brexit shows big leads for badly by about 60% to 30%.

Although there’s a faint trace of a recovery in the government ratings, the numbers have been consistently much worse in the last few months than in early part and the middle of last year. (The tracker has always shown badly ahead of well, but the lead fell to single digits in seven polls in that period.)

However, bad though the numbers are, and worse though they’ve got, they’re still better than the 2019 figures by a large margin. Even as late as November 2019, i.e. after Boris Johnson had took over and just before his general election win, the lead for badly was over 50 points. And we know how the 2019 general election ended up.

Third, it’s a similar picture in the YouGov tracker’s question about whether people now think the right or wrong decision was taken in the referendum. Since the middle of last year, the figures have moved in a more pro-European direction, with wrong typically about 11 points ahead of right this year, which is up from neck and neck in the middle of last year. The lead of 11 points is actually a few points higher than the run-up to the 2019 election, but not because more people now think the wrong decision was taken. In fact, that figure has fallen slightly, and it is don’t knows that are up. It’s been a small, low single digits, swing from thinking it was the right decision to don’t know.

Fourth, coming to the crunch question – should we be in or out of the EU – there’s been a clear trend through last year to greater support for Britain being in the EU. But as this tracker graph from John Curtice shows, that’s been a trend taking support back to where it was in much of 2020, and it’s still only marginally over 50%. And again we know how polls showing more promising levels of pro-EU support ended up in 2016 and in 2019.

Post-Brexit poll of polls January 2022

Overall, Curtice concludes that the details of the polls shows that, “pessimism among Remain voters about the consequences of Brexit has grown, while some of the optimism among Leave voters has dissipated … [and] confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit has declined in parallel with the trend in perception of its consequences”.

As overall the government’s and Boris Johnson’s ratings have fallen, it’s not clear that this trend is specifically about Brexit. Part of it at least is likely to be about people viewing the government and the PM less favourably, and therefore giving more negative answers about any of its policies.

This mixed picture is neatly captured by another figure that Curtice pulled out: “according to Savanta ComRes, nearly a half of voters (48%) think that there should be another referendum within ten years, while only 39% believe it should be delayed longer than that (if held at all).” Another referendum within a decade is the most popular option… and also the option that a majority of people one way or another disagree with.

The conclusion from all this? We’re still a very divided country. Being pro-EU continues to be slightly more popular than being anti-EU, but the lead is small, variable and although it is on the up recently, that is a recovery from a previous dip. There hasn’t been any seismic shift. Moreover, the EU is an issue the public overall doesn’t think is that important at the moment compared with others.

That’s why the Liberal Democrat approach in both the Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire by-elections was so successful: not hiding our support for the EU, but not making it the central issue either, and when we did talk about it, linking it directly to tangible impacts on people’s lives, talking about the practical short-term steps that should be taken rather than focusing on the long-term goal of returning to the EU. So far, the polling this year points to that continuing to be the most successful approach.

Lib Dems secure improved funding for children in care

Alex Cole-Hamilton has been pressing for better mental health provision in Scottish schools and Jane Dodds has secured improved funding for children in care in Wales.

The Lib Dem MPs have tabled a motion to allow MPs to call out Johnson’s lies in Parliament and Ed Davey features in the party’s latest party political broadcast ahead of the English council elections.

Helen Morgan has made her maiden speech in Parliament and Wera Hobhouse has highlighted how the Conservative scrapping of home energy efficiency standards has led to higher fuel bills.

Paul Scriven, formerly leader of Sheffield Council and now in the Lords, has called for the council’s chief executive to resign after her involvement in the lockdown parties scandal.

Tower Hamlets councillor Rabia Khan has been raising fire safety fears over a proposed new 51-floor tower block with just one staircase. (This story is also a powerful reminder that some housing campaigners go over the top when they automatically view any opposition to any new development as insincere Nimby-excuse mongering.)

Tim Adams, the former youngest mayor of Cromer, is now leading North Norfolk District Council and a St Albans bus shelter has a much improved greener roof following local Lib Dem efforts. A good campaign idea there to use elsewhere too.

Former MP Ronnie Fearn and activist extraordinaire Erlend Watson have both passed away.

Getting it right on Europe, how we run the party and on local candidates

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

The next steps in our European policy

There’s a lesson we should learn from Brexiters. It’s that for most of the road to the tragedy of the 2016 referendum they weren’t Brexiters but Euro-sceptics. For most of that time, they weren’t campaigning for Brexit to happen tomorrow, but against a particular aspect of the EU. That is how they built up a broad coalition of support to get Brexit through.

In turn, we need to do the same in reverse – to recognise that even many Remainers are put off by ‘let’s rejoin the EU now!’, but that even those who voted Leave can be won over by campaigning issue by issue on the merits of cooperation with our neighbours.

It’s an approach that party members overwhelmingly supported in our recent (with a record-breaking response!) consultation.

At our spring federal conference, we’ll be fleshing out the details of what this means when we debate a motion which sets out our comprehensive plan to reconnect our political and trading relationship with Europe.

Getting party reform right

Our Federal Board is currently 41, which means we have approximately one Federal Board member for every two members of Federal staff. That isn’t just a quixotic statistic, it’s also a sign of something wrong with how the party’s governance structures work.

As our independent review of the 2019 election found:

“The lack of connection between operational, political and governing parts of the party has created structures which foster a lack of collaboration and isolated decision making”;

“There is no clear ‘leadership team’ where the three pillars of the party – political, operational, federal – can make cohesive decisions, simply, quickly, and effectively. The Federal Board – 40+ members – is not, cannot, and should not be that team”; and

“The Federal Board was often a ‘rubber-stamp’ and is too large a group to be a realistic decision-making body.”

That’s why we’ve got a motion coming to this Spring conference that would instead give us a Board of 16, bringing together key decision makers across the party along with other changes made to increase accountability and scrutiny of the new Board.

For example, the changes would also introduce a new power of no-confidence in the President – so that if I go off the rails, I can be held properly to account.

Dorothy Thornhill, who led that review, has written about why we need these reforms and you can see the full details in the Spring conference agenda.

Under the proposals, over 80% of Board members will be elected by party members – either in all-member elections (such as our elections for Leader and President) or in elections by parts of the party (such as all members in Wales elected the Welsh President, who will be on the Board). But in addition, our internal democracy will also be strengthened by making the Board more effective – because the more a Board is like a talking shop, the more power seeps elsewhere in practice.

I hope you’ll come to the debate on this, which will be on the Friday night of our Spring federal conference. You can register for conference here (and it’s only £5 for first-timers). Or register here for the Conference Live event being organised alongside it by ALDC.

Why we need more council candidates

When we debate party policy, strategy or election tactics, questions about what might attract or put off voters often – and rightly – come up. But there’s one sure-fire, rock-solid way of repelling voters from us, and it’s one we use far too often. It’s not having a Liberal Democrat on the ballot paper. Zero votes for the party guaranteed.

Both Labour and the Conservatives, for example, get very close now to having a full slate of candidates in local elections. Despite improvements in recent years, we are still lagging a long way behind, and not yet back to where we used to be. So we know we can do better – because we have.

For more on why this matters, and how local parties can find more people to stand as candidates, see my piece for Ad Lib.

Welcome, Amna

Amna Ahmad has been elected our new Vice President responsible for working with ethnic minority communities. She takes over from Isabelle Parasram, and will serve out the rest of Isabelle’s term (i.e. until the end of this year).

I’m looking forward to working with her on the important task of improving our record on diversity and inclusion.

It has taken some time to get the election result declared, so in the new election regulations being proposed at the spring conference is a shorter, clearer timetable. It’s important that people have a right to appeal over election results – but also important that when members elect someone, that person can promptly take up their post.

In related news, a new demographics dashboard is now available to local parties via Lighthouse. It makes it easy to compare the diversity of our local membership with that of the local population – so local parties can better understand where they need to improve and what impact their efforts have been making.

Our HQ team is continuing to work to apply our values to how we operate as an employer, and the party has just successfully achieved Level 2 as a Disability Confident Employer. We believe we should become a Disability Confident Leader (the final level) and we will work towards that this quarter. We have also been accepted onto the Business Disability Forum, who will deliver expert guidance on disability helping us to become more inclusive and accessible. We are also now a signatory of the Business in the Community Race at Work Charter, which means taking practical steps to ensure workplaces are tackling barriers in recruitment and progression.

February also saw the first residential training weekend for members of our Stellar Programme, designed to ensure we improve the ethnic diversity of our future Parliamentarians.

Still time to make someone amazing smile

Spring conference sees the next round of party awards. It’s our chance to say thank you to some of our amazing colleagues and you have until 25 February to get nominations in.

Improving our use of data and technology

We have four major projects underway to give campaigners the best data and tools to win elections and run our grassroots organisation: improve our websites, raise the quality of our data with improved sharing and synchronisation, bring data management back in-house and make consent tracking (for GDPR compliance) easier across our different systems.

As part of this, we have just signed contracts with Prater Raines to develop a new website system, with data flows integrated to our other systems. We are also ending our contract with Data Sciences, with an enhanced in-house team taking over their work. Our electoral register updates are now running significantly faster, and there’s more progress to come.

Other Board business

Our February Board meeting will include the latest quarterly review of party performance, as well as a look at whether we’ve got the right quarterly objectives coming up. We’ll be doing our annual review of the party’s risk register and looking at how the implementation of the Party Body Review Group’s work is going. Now that the big changes and simplifications in the rules for party bodies are in place, how is the roll out of them going, and what do we need to do next to support party bodies?

As ever, if you have questions on any of this, or other party matters, do get in touch on president@libdems.org.uk. Do also get in touch if you’d like to invite me to do a Zoom call with your local party or party body. I’m always keen to do more of these as they’re a great way of hearing from the frontline what is and isn’t working.

PODCAST: Birthday cake versus demographics – which will determine the future of our politics?

It was great to welcome back Professor Rob Ford for the latest episode of Never Mind The Bar Charts and to discuss with him both the long-term trends shaping British politics and how they may or may not be seen off by short term factors, such as a birthday cake.

Which means we also got into how grim, or not, the future looks for the Conservative Party. Take a listen here to find out what we concluded or catch it on YouTube here.

You can also catch the appearance I made on the Lib Dem Pod with leader Ed Davey and CEO Mike Dixon to talk about the party’s plans for the year.

🎧 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.

Are we delivering too many leaflets?

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

Lib Dem peers move to block laundering of dirty money from Russia.

Johnson and Patel misled on crime stats, official watchdog rules.

Rishi Sunak in photo taken at Boris Johnson’s lockdown birthday party.

🏠 Q. Are we delivering too many leaflets? A. No, and here’s why…

✨ Margaret McNeill artworks her 1,000th leaflet (wow!)

The evaporating anti-gravity toaster armour of Boris Johnson.

The Five Standard Political Excuses.

Liberal Democrat Party Awards: get your nominations in.

What the public is saying: voting intention

Latest general election voting intention opinion polls 13 February 2022

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

i poll tracker graph

If you’d like to know more about how opinion polls work, when to trust them and when to doubt them, take a look at my book Polling UnPacked: the history, uses and abuses of political opinion polls.

There’s also this summary of the evidence that the polls are overall pretty accurate, along with this explainer on why 1,000 samples are enough and this on why you shouldn’t believe what you read on social media about YouGov.

What the public is saying: local by-elections

It’s been a good run for the Lib Dems in council by-elections since last time:

These results bring the net seat changes since last May to up 15 for the Lib Dems, down 12 for the Conservatives, down 6 for Labour (who are still doing strikingly poorly at taking seats off the Conservatives) and up 13 for the Greens.

The picture in vote shares is good too, with the changes in principal authority by-elections so far this year being:

  • Lib Dem: +12%
  • Green: +1%
  • Conservative: -3%
  • Labour: -5%

In other local government news, an independent councillor has joined the Liberal Democrats in Derby as has one in Redcar & Cleveland. A former Conservative councillor in Wandsworth is standing for the Lib Dems in Kingston. In addition, a former Conservative councillor in Ealing has also joined the party, as has a former Conservative Senedd member in Wales. Both are also intending to stand for the Lib Dems in this May’s council elections.

However, a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire has left the Lib Dem group (but is staying in the party) and one each in Cornwall, Maidstone, Richmond Upon Thames, South Somerset and Tunbridge Wells have switched to independent.

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.)

Selection news

And finally…

Some good news from Labour on electoral reform.

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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