What does a successful general election look like? (LDN #183)

Liberal Democrat Newswire #183 takes a look at both lessons from the 1920s for the Liberal Democrats, and what a successful general election looks like for the party.

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.

This time I’m taking a rummage around the wild story of British politics in the 1920s to find some lessons for the next general election.

Regular readers will also notice a change in format for the ‘Lib Dems in the news’ section. Feedback very welcome.

Meanwhile, congratulations to the new Liberal Democrat councillors since last time: Stephen Page, Jim Candy and Andrew Timothy.

A reminder too that if you haven’t had a chance to read the previous edition of Lib Dem Newswire it is online here: How much trouble are the Conservatives in?

Happy reading,


P.S. For more news in-between editions, there is my new WhatsApp group for news about the Lib Dems. It’s broadcast only and people in it get about five sets of messages a week with the latest news about the party, by-election results, and the like. It’s a free service and all members and supporters are very welcome to join. You can sign up here.

What we must learn from the 1920s

It’s a shame that our collective love of American politics means we often neglect so much about our own politics. Chances are you know a thing or two about Watergate and the figures involved in, but have never heard of Joseph Ball.and his years of political dirty tricks in the UK.

It also means that the story of our political system in the 1920s doesn’t get talked about nearly enough (including by me).

They were a wild time in British politics.

Outside of the two World Wars, they were probably the most consequential decade for British politics since the battle of Waterloo. (Which thankfully showed that Wellington was a rather better general than politician.)

More wild and more consequential, yes, than even the last decade. And with even more general elections – six of them in just 13 years in fact if you go for the ‘long 1920s’ of 1918-1931.

Across those contests – 1918, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1929 and 1931 – British politics was completely remade.

1918 and 1928 were the landmark years for women’s political equality with the minority male population.

Labour replaced the Liberals as one of the big two parties in British politics.

1918 saw the last general election victory for a government headed by a Liberal. By 1931 the party was split three ways, with under a 100 MPs and not going to get back above 20% of the vote until the 1980s.

The Labour Party had its first taste of power in 10 Downing Street, and then split badly as its first Prime Minister and the rest of the party took their separate ways.

The Conservatives swung from being part of a landslide headed up by someone else in 1918 to winning a majority in 1922, losing it in 1923, winning an even bigger majority in 1924, losing it again in 1929 and then being part of landslide headed by someone else in 1931.

As I said, the 1920s were wild. That’s with even getting into perhaps the most faked document in British political history or so much else that happened.

The 1920s also also hold important lessons for the Liberal Democrats as we look to the next Westminster general election.

That is because they were also home to two things that the party collectively still loves.

One is the party’s electoral posters of the time.

A 1920s Liberal Party election poster

Wander around a Liberal Democrat federal conference, and chances are you’ll find merchandise on sale with a poster such as this on it.

We really like the message of posters such as these. So too the policies of this decade. For even with all the problems of changing times making some old policies look horribly dated, the 1920s are still one of the most idolised periods of Liberal policy-making.

The contributions of John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge and Lloyd George’s ‘Yellow Book’ (formally titled Britain’s Industrial Future) all still seen touchstones for liberals, with calls for a new Beveridge or the titling new publication in honour of the Yellow Book still common now. The 1929 Liberal general election manifesto has even been described by the (non-Liberal Democrat) historian Robert Skidelsky as the most intellectually distinguished manifesto ever put before British voters.

Awesome, hey?

But then think back to what happened politically to the Liberal Party in these years. Lovely posters, great manifesto – and a party split three ways, trounced in elections and pushed out of serious contention for decades to come.

That 1929 manifesto and approach, much like the formation of the Alliance ahead of the 1983 elections, produced a surge in votes that didn’t convert into enough seats to be a political success in a system where the number of MPs elected under first past the post to the House of Commons is the dominant measure of success or failure.

Which is why there are important lessons about how to succeed at a general election for current Liberal Democrats. It’s that the messaging we love isn’t the same as the messaging that wins votes. It’s that great policies are not sufficient to produce great election results. And that success is about seats, not votes.

On which note…

What does a successful general election look like?

Here’s my latest report for Liberal Democrat members and supporters. These reports also appear on the party website.

Seats… and capacity

We may not yet know when the date of the Westminster general election will be. But we do know what success will look like.

For older readers, please think of 1983. For younger readers, please think of 2019. Neither of these Westminster general elections are remembered as a triumph for us or our predecessors. In 1983 we got 25% of the vote… but only 23 seats. In 2019, our vote share went up by a chunky 4%… but our seat tally fell by 1.

When it comes to judging success and failure in a first-past-the-post general election, the key yardstick is seats, not votes.

That is why for the coming general election, the concentration of our collective efforts on the most winnable seats is so important.

The margin between triumph and disaster can be scarily close in such efforts. If just 34,843 people in the wrong places had switched their votes to our main rivals in 2019, we would have come out of the election with zero MPs. Extinction in Westminster was horribly close.

That is scary – but also empowering, because it shows what a big difference our individual efforts can add up to. A small number of votes makes a huge difference to the outcome – if we choose to concentrate our efforts smartly.

We have seen the benefits of effective targeting in the impressive efforts which have brought us net gains in every round of council elections in this Parliament.

It is why that for all of us who live outside our target seats, putting in help to those target seats – whether in person on the ground or remotely – will be a vital part of making the general election a success for us all. Winning those seats will be a collective effort, and one that – thanks to the greater publicity, Parliamentary opportunities and resources which more MPs brings – will then benefit us all in future elections right across the country.

If the seat tally is the main measure of success, and that will be secured in the target seats, what does this mean for what success looks like in other seats? Partly it will be about having played a role in helping those target seats but also it will also be about leaving the local parties outside target seats in a stronger position to win future elections.

What will most help with that is using the general election to build up the local campaign machine. Whether it is using the wave of interest at election time to give half a dozen people out canvassing for the first time, or using the opportunity to identify another couple of council ward target candidates, the best measure of success will be how much stronger the local campaign machine is for winning at future elections.

That is why we are rolling out our largest ever programme of support for non-target seats, with a special emphasis on how to build the local team’s capacity.

For everyone taking part in that – thank you, and good luck.

Good luck too to the candidates, agents and campaign managers in the elections that come first, and for which we do thankfully know the date – the May local elections. We already have more Lib Dem councils than when we went into government in 2010. Now we can go even further in spreading the power of Liberal Democrats in local government.

Disciplinary Sub-Group: volunteers needed

The party is currently advertising for three voluntary roles on the party body which oversees our complaints process. Full details are in the advert on the party website.

Guidance on newspapers

Last month an email from me went out to local parties today about the party’s guidance on producing tabloid newspapers. They are an important part of our campaigning mix, and so it is important that we produce them in a way that both maximises their political benefit for us and also avoids giving our opponents a legitimate cause for complaint.

You can read more about our guidance here.

Congratulations to…

Over the last month the local parties who have recruited the most members locally in Scotland, Wales and England are:

  • Aberdeenshire West

  • Swansea and Gower

  • London Borough of Sutton

Thanks and congratulations to those three teams and also to Woking Liberal Democrats who topped the table for the local party that has spoken with the highest proportion of its members in the last month.

This sort of grassroots membership engagement is crucial to successful local parties and winning election campaigns.

Speaking of Woking Lib Dems…

Our party award winners

The York conference saw our latest quartet of party award winners:

Woking Liberal Democrats – The Bertha Bowness Fischer Award

Named after a pioneering female election agent, this year’s winner has built an incredible delivery network, which as we all know is essential for success. Their network is now covering 9 in 10 doors in Woking with people delivering their own street and a modest sized average delivery round – just what is needed for keeping going as the tempo rises closer to polling day.

Already this network is fuelling an impressive run of election victories, including defeating every Conservative candidate by taking four more seats from them last May.

Ami Wyllie – The Laura Grimond award

This award recognises someone’s pivotal contributions behind-the-scenes to our party. A popular colleague at Lib Dem HQ, honoured with many nominations from fellow staff and appreciation from journalists for her Lib Dem branded baked goods, you will most likely recognise Ami’s work as the mastermind behind our stunts, photo ops and conference rallies – gaining us nationwide media attention.

Darryl Smalley – The Albert Ingham Award

Named after another great election agent, this award is given for an impressive election win. Last December in the East Midlands, Darryl led the campaign in a ward we did not even stand in before, for a council with no Lib Dems on it for more than a decade. But Darryl’s flair, enthusiasm and signature tropical outfits helped get Adrian elected as our new councillor. Congratulations to them both, and thanks for your dedication, Darryl!

Mike Martin – Leader’s Award

Recognized for exemplary dedication to canvassing, this winner is leading from the front and putting the fright into local Conservatives.

As the Tunbridge Wells PPC, Mike has spoken with an amazing 3,909 voters from last May to the end of February, significantly boosting the local party’s general election efforts and motivating us all to hit the campaign trail.

Appropriately, Mike was out canvassing during the awards ceremony, so his award was collected on his behalf by fellow PPC, Jess Brown-Fuller.

Do you have questions on any of this report, or other Lib Dem matters? Then please drop me a line on president@libdems.org.uk. Do also get in touch if you would like to invite me to do a Zoom call with your local party or party body.

PODCAST: Can Rishi Sunak save himself by doing a Jeremy Corbyn?

The latest episode of Never Mind The Bar Charts took an unexpected turn when I was discussing the track record of polls closing in previous Parliaments with Professor Will Jennings. One of the most dramatic such examples was with Jeremy Corbyn in 2017… so perhaps he should be the role model for Rishi Sunak as he looks to rescue the Conservatives?

Take a listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or the web.

🎧Find all the episodes of Never Mind The Bar Charts here. You can sign up for a dedicated email notification each time a new episode appears here.

Reaction to Iran’s act on Israel: Lib Dems in the news

We utterly condemn Iran's attack on Israel - Ed Davey

On the Middle East:

  • Daisy Cooper welcomes a UN Security Council motion calling for an immediate and sustainable ceasefire in Gaza.

  • Members of Layla Moran’s family have escaped Gaza and are now in Bahrain.

On the NHS and social care:

On water companies:

Getting housing built:

On other topics:

On the election campaign trail:

And in other news…

How political parties spend money

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

How political parties spend money.

An unusual name on Basildon ballot papers.

Yes, I can point too.

What the polls are saying

Latest general election voting intention polls

To give the latest figures some context, here’s an up-to-date poll tracker graph:

Voting intentions graph from ElectionMapsUK

Finally, here are the latest figures from Ipsos on which issues matter most to voters:

Ipsos issues index polling

The problem with opinion poll averages

Each month I include a graph of polling averages in this newsletter. But I don’t produce my own regular graph. That’s because I’m rather ambivalent about the value of polling averages. Take a read to find out why…

Council by-elections round-up

With the first Thursday in May looming, there were fewer contests than usual since the last edition. Contests which did take place included a Lib Dem win in the new Glastonbury and Somerton constituency, a successful defence in Cornwall and another one, in tricky circumstances, in Harrogate – although a big vote increase in Scotland wasn’t quite enough to hold a seat under AV that had been won under STV.

These contests bring the running tally of seat changes since the last May elections to Lib Dem +23, Green +6, Labour 0 and Conservative -23.

For more details, see my local by-elections scorecard here.

Elsewhere, a Conservative councillor has switched to the Lib Dems in Mid Devon and a Lib Dem councillor has switched to independents in Somerset.

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.

Council by-elections results: Q1 2024

Can you help?

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

Latest Parliamentary selections

Westminster Parliament selections made public since last time include Bridlington and The Wolds: Jayne Phoenix, Canterbury: Russ Timpson, Croydon East: Andrew Pelling, Croydon West: Jahir Hussain, Dartford: Kyle Marsh, Herne Bay and Sandwich: Angie Curwen, Islington South and Finsbury: Terry Stacy, Kingston upon Hull West and Haltemprice: Linda Johnson and South Shropshire: Matthew Green.

See all the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) selected and announced so far here. If you’ve spotted a selection I’ve missed and which is public, by all means hit reply and let me know.

And finally…

Well done that Lib Dem delivery team in Oswestry.

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

Thank you and best wishes,


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