Liberal Democrat Newswire #13 is out: silent dogs, battling ministers and more

Lucky for some, you can now read in full below Liberal Democrat Newswire #13, featuring the dog that isn’t barking, battling ministers, Paddy Ashdown on Libya, why Polly Toynbee is wrong and more.

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Mark Pack

Silent dogs, battling ministers and more

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Dear Friend

Following the pre and post party conference special editions, November sees the return of the normal newsletter format, with a new regular “Campaign Corner” feature as requested by readers in my survey earlier this year. Whether or not you took part in that survey, if there are topics you would like to see more or less of, please do let me know.

If you like this newsletter, the chances are other people you know would like it too, so please share it with them – either by forwarding it on or via social networks.

Thanks for reading,


The dog which isn’t barking

The dog that did not bark in the night-time was a key clue in the Sherlock Holmes’s story Silver Blaze, and in penning those lines of dialogue Arthur Conan Doyle gave the English language a much used turn of phrase to describe the significance of things that don’t happen. Because they don’t happen, it is often easy to miss their significance – such as the absence of no confidence motions being put down in the government.

Consider the world through Labour eyes: day after day they tell us how awful the Tories are and how decent Liberal Democrats should really see themselves as colleagues of the Labour movement. Moreover there is no Conservative majority in Parliament.

And yet… despite votes of no confidence having been the means for bringing down governments without a majority in the past, and even often used in the face of a clear one-party majority, the idea that Parliament might be about to vote Cameron out and force the creation of a new government is not on anyone’s list of predictions.

The reason for its absence tells us something about British politics in general and something about Labour in particular. For British politics the lesson is a simple one: decades of talk about how hung Parliaments bring instability have turned to dust very quickly. The widespread expectation is that a coalition can instead last a full five years. As for Labour, despite the vehemence of much of the party’s rhetoric about the government, it is not champing at the bit to get back into power before Christmas. That shows a shrewd understanding of the party’s current state and the lessons of history, for working out what the party is for, which policies from the last government to keep and which to ditch, are all tasks which usually take years to get right.

Nick Clegg on tackling world hunger

Writing to mark World Food Day, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

We need to do more, stopping hunger reaching disastrous levels and helping countries cope better when drought and famine strike.

In the short term, the international community needs to act fast and intervene early. Collective action has been too slow.

That’s why, as well as leading by example, we are helping develop new ways to accelerate funding in times of emergency.

In the longer term, we must help poor countries build up their ability to cope with crises and withstand the shock of natural disasters. This takes time, but it pays off.

(Read the full article here.)

Nick Clegg biography published

Nick Clegg by Chris BowersThe only full length biography of Nick Clegg (so far) has been published by Chris Bowers.

For a one sentence summary of the book: “Fascinating on his early life, good on the sources and forms of Nick Clegg’s liberalism, but little new about recent events”.

For a longer version, read my review of the Chris Bowers book.

You can buy Nick Clegg: The Biography here.

All the best political news – in one place

I have launched a new political news and blogs aggregator, which brings together the best news headlines and political blog posts from across the ideological spectrum all on one convenient page.


Mark Pack's Political News Aggregator

Paddy Ashdown: Libya’s path to democracy

Writing for The Guardian, Paddy Ashdown said:

What happens next in Libya is unlikely to be tidy or elegant to watch. Get used to it. The country is tribal by nature and the war has been tribal in its conduct.

Finding a constitution – probably a highly devolved one – that can provide a framework to contain these pressures is not going to be easy – especially with such oil revenues to be distributed, so much religion to infect minds, and so many arms in the peoples’ hands.

But there are strengths to build on. There are some very able individuals who are more than capable of efficiently running their country, given a chance.

With the world waiting at Tripoli’s door for its precious high-quality crude, Libya will not be poor. There is real international goodwill.

And, it seems, a desire among Libya’s people for genuine democracy, though – note please London, Paris and Washington – one which will more likely see Turkey’s Islamic democracy as its model, than our secular ones.

(Read the full piece here.)

This month’s local liberal hero: Ruth Dombey

In my experience, the Liberal Democrats are little different from most other organisations in one respect: we don’t say thank you often enough to people who make key contributions. So I have been writing a series of profiles of local liberal heroes, both to thank and praise them and also, I hope, to encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

Ruth Dombey, deputy leader of Sutton Council, is one of my recent profiles:

She puts her own success as a campaign manager down to the candidates and teams she has worked with, and to learning from what others did well. Before her first winning council by-election campaign she simply decided, “Let’s see if we follow the Chris Rennard method what happens”.

Victory is what happened.

Teamwork is a consistent theme mentioned by Sutton’s leading Liberal Democrats, and in Ruth’s case being a councillor who had worked for one of the MPs means she personally was able to bridge those gaps that can open up and undermine trust.

The sales and marketing experience in the wine industry also informs an approach very target driven and with a big emphasis on getting volunteers involved via a mix of charm and bossiness.

The bigger purpose for Ruth is that campaigning “has got to be all about community politics” – “it’s about what is happening outside people’s front doors”. Sutton’s Liberal Democrats made much in the mid-1980s of trying to restore a sense of pride in the local community, and it is an approach she still relishes, seeing a job for local politicians in helping to nourish and support local communities.

Her time in Italy gave her a strong belief that life is not just about the individual and the state; faced with a failing state people made good use of other networks, especially those of family and neighbours.

You can read the full piece about Ruth here and you can read all the local liberal hero profiles here.

Electoral registration controversies

The government’s plans to introduce individual electoral registration, originally legislated for by Labour, have generated a fair amount of controversy in specialist political news coverage over the last few weeks.

Having taken part in many of the talks with government and the Electoral Commission about this topic during the last 10 years, it has been rather depressing to see just how poor quality the media coverage of the story has been. In fairness to the journalists involved, it has mostly been a question of no-one having the necessary specialist knowledge and budget pressures meaning no-one can spend much time getting up to speed on the topic.

The primary motivations for introducing individual electoral registration, as already used in Northern Ireland, are ones of principle – it is old-fashioned paternalism to have registration depending on the ‘head of the household’ filling in forms – and pragmatism – it is a way to tackle electoral fraud. (Read more here on the reasons for individual registration.)

However, there were some problems with the government’s original proposals (which I outlined in my response to the official consultation), particularly around making it too easy for people to opt out from the electoral register completely. The most controversial part aspect of that has now been dropped though questions remain over other important details.

How are further and higher education numbers panning out?

With the high profiles rows over tuition fees and EMA (education maintenance allowance), more attention than usual has been paid recently to higher and further education statistics to see the impact of these policies.

However, attention does not always  trigger accurate commentary…

Polly Toynbee has repeated the often made claim that further education is in a bad state with half of FE colleges reporting a fall in admissions. Which is true… except that many of the others have seen an increase and the overall figure (completely unmentioned in her piece) is actually only down by 0.1%.

The situation with university application figures is more complicated, but can briefly be summarised as showing that amongst ordinary (non-mature) students, applications have fallen in line with the declining population of that age group. Mature student applications have dropped markedly, but not in a way that suggests the tuition fee changes are the cause. But these are all early figures. (For a more detailed analysis see here.)

Liberal Democrats vs Conservatives in government

The environment: Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has criticised “climate sceptics” and others who he argues are decrying the UK’s potential for renewable power … His comments are being interpreted by some as a riposte to Chancellor George Osborne. (BBC)

Business reform: Vince Cable rejects proposal to abolish unfair dismissal laws … [He] said plan devised by strategist Steve Hilton was unnecessary and unlikely to improve labour market flexibility. (The Guardian)

Maternity leave: [Lynne Featherstone] made her feelings clear over a recent “blue sky” proposal from Steve Hilton, the prime minister’s director of strategy, suggesting that the government could scrap maternity pay altogether. Featherstone said: “Well, I might talk about scrapping Steve Hilton.” (The Observer)

The health service: Liberal Democrat peers are putting forward amendments which require the secretary of state to remain responsible for health services being provided across England. In coming weeks we will seek to ensure that the NHS continues to develop cutting-edge research and that any income from private patients is used solely for the benefit of NHS patients. (Letter from Lib Dem peers in The Guardian)

Total Politics: top Liberal Democrat blogs and bloggers

Total Politics blog awards logoIn the top 50 blogs list, Lib Dem Voice is in at number 12 (up from 27 last year), Caron Lindsay at 25, Jonathan Calder at 38 and the late Andrew Reeves at 44. In the top 50 bloggers list, I’m the highest placed Lib Dem, in at number 20, with Caron at 29, Andrew Reeves at 43 and Jonathan at 49.

Thank you to everyone for your votes – and to everyone who has contributed to Lib Dem Voice over the last year.

Lib Dems pass up on fighting police commissioner elections (mostly)

The introduction of directly elected police commissioners is one of the measures that Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians have voted for most reluctantly – voted for them, because it is in the Coalition Agreement, and reluctantly, because many are deeply opposed to the measure. However, the Conservatives have been adamant on the question, even opposing such reasonable suggestions as first carrying out limited trials of the idea.

At the end of October the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive decided that the party should (mostly) not fight the elections: deciding not to provide funding for any contests and saying that party members could support independent candidates. There was one concession – that local parties can decide to put up a candidate if there is no “appropriate” independent candidate.

This decision followed a lively debate at the FE and in a form that watered down somewhat the original proposal which was even more opposed to the party contesting the elections. It is at odds with the Lib Dem Voice survey of party members, which found 2:1 support for contesting the elections.

For more details see here.

My latest books

Go on, your know you want to do thisCampaigning In Your Community – co-written with Shaun Roberts, it is a guide for both the new and the experienced to making the most of genuinely local campaigning, building an effective team to help give residents more power over their own lives.

Just £4 from ALDC.

Peace, Reform and Liberation – a one-volume history of the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors since 1679, I’ve co-authored the first chapter.

Available from Amazon
– and if you like it, please do post up a review.

Campaign Corner: Should you still target during a PR election?

From my new weekly Campaign Corner series, in which three tips are providing to answer common campaign questions:
Should you still target during PR list elections, such as for the London Assembly or the European Parliament?

A very good question – and one that I could easily write more than three tips about! But here are three:

  1. Repetition is what persuades people to change their votes: so it is much better to campaign repeatedly over a small area than to stretch thin over a large area, as it is the former that gets the levels of repetition which starts to win votes.
  2. Each election should be a building block towards the next: winning, say, 50 new supporters in a ward that you will fight seriously at the next local elections (or constituency at the next Scottish / Welsh / Westminster elections) is more useful in the long-run than 50 new supporters in an area which won’t be fought seriously at the next election – so when choosing where to go for repetition, think ahead.
  3. Use campaign tactics which reach people in wider areas at no extra effort: whether it is effective photo stunts for the local newspaper, letter writing to the letters pages of regional newspapers or running an effective Facebook page with news from across a council area, there are many campaign steps which both support the repetition in those concentrated areas by reaching people in them and also – at no extra effort – reach people in other areas too. For example, if you get coverage in the local newspaper, that gets read not only by voters in the areas you are concentrating on but also by people elsewhere in its catchment area. These sorts of campaign tactics are gold dust.

You can read the other Campaign Corners here – and let me know if there are any particular questions you would like to see answered in future weeks.

In other Liberal Democrat news…

Thank you for reading

I hope you’re found this newsletter interesting, informative, useful – or all three!

If you have enjoyed reading it, why not share it with others?

Best wishes,


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