Liberal Democrat Newswire #19 is out: fallout from the Budget, lessons from Bradford and more

Liberal Democrat Newswire #19 came out earlier this week, and you now can also read it in full below.

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Mark Pack

Fallout from the Budget and a new infographic

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Dear Friend

Welcome to the latest edition of my monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats, including how the Budget is going down with the public and how the party is reacting to the Government’s plans for more online monitoring.

Thanks for reading,


Budget blues

Good for Liberal Democrat policies, indifferent for Liberal Democrat poll ratings: that’s the policy and the politics of the 2012 Budget.

On the policy front, the Budget contained significant Liberal Democrat wins – a bigger and faster move towards the £10,000 income tax allowance, higher taxes on expensive property, a limit to the tax breaks the richest can claim and overall £5 in extra taxes on the richest for every £1 in tax cuts they received.

The party’s poll ratings have, however, not reflected this. Why? Two reasons. First, although the richest are paying more as a result of the Budget, that £5 up and £1 down message has not got through. The media headlines were dominated by the cut to the 50p rate and post-Budget polling showed 47% thinking that “the richest people” gained the most from the Budget. Another 19% said “people on higher incomes” and only 14% said “people on average incomes” or “poor people”.

Second, the public does not take to divided parties and, particularly off the back of the NHS disputes, the Liberal Democrats currently score very poorly on this measure. Other post-Budget polling from Populus shows 46% of people saying Labour are united, 42% think that of the Conservatives but only 29% think that of the Liberal Democrats.

What happened in Bradford West?

George Galloway’s massive and shock victory in the Bradford West by-election has already generated a mini-publishing boom of articles trying to explain the political earthquake. As more systematic evidence emerges, the explanations are likely to be refined but several key factors have already emerged:

  • The constituency has a long history of bucking the national political picture and instead having results that closely reflect the ability of different candidates to appeal to the major ethnic and religious communities in the seat.
  • The combination of local community networks and social media meant buzz about George Galloway’s campaign was able to build and spread very quickly, with people’s personal endorsements of him carrying weight with those they talked to (either in person or virtually).
  • Galloway’s campaign involved intensive personal contact with the voters – via public meetings and his campaign bus in particular, aided by considerable word of mouth (see previous point).
  • Labour fought the wrong opponent. Labour’s campaign was an anti-Conservative one, understandable given the seat’s history but a major mistake as the result shows.
  • If you fail to serve in office well, even nominally large vote shares are very brittle.
  • Galloway’s campaign was brutally effective in distinguishing himself from other candidates. It was negative campaigning but campaigning that made him look better rather than nasty. In particular, talking up his own teetotalism whilst questioning that of the Labour candidate painted Galloway as the candidate in tune with the large Muslim vote. (Claims have started to emerge since that Galloway’s history of teetotalism isn’t all he says it is, but so far no hard evidence has been forthcoming to question his claims.)

For the Liberal Democrats, staying ahead of UKIP was a small consolation. It was also the party’s best Parliamentary by-election result so far in a seat where it started in a distant, weak position. This shouldn’t be overplayed – as Galloway’s victory was of the sort Liberal Democrats used to bring off. But the straws in wind are gently moving in the right direction, as you can see from this table of the changes in the Lib Dem share of the vote in Parliamentary by-elections and also the percentage of the previous general election vote which the party retained at the by-election.

Barnsley Central: -13.1% vote share /  15.8% vote retention
Inverclyde: -11.2% / 12.5%
Feltham & Heston: -7.9% / 20.5%
Bradford West: -7.1% / 31.8%

(By-elections excluded: Oldham East & Saddleworth and Leicester South, where the Liberal Democrats started in a much stronger position.)

These figures come from Lewis Baston’s excellent psephological round-up of what the Bradford West result means and how it compares with other by-elections.

Lib Dems block Tory donor’s sacking plans

In an early victory for new minister Norman Lamb, plans from Conservative donor Adrian Beecroft to remove or reduce major employee rights have been blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

Beecroft’s proposals included weakening maternity rights and letting companies sack people without having to give a reason and without risk of being taken to an industrial tribunal.

Prior to becoming a minister, Norman Lamb had said that such moves “would legitimise Victorian employment practices”. As a result of his victory, the formal government consultation on employment rules will make clear the government’s intent not to implement the Beecroft plans.

Lib Dem achievements in government: UPDATED

Post-Budget, I have updated my popular infographic “What have the Liberal Democrats achieved in government?”, covering issues from tax to Post Offices and from jobs to the environment.

The new version is available online and is free to share and to reuse, either online or offline. Details are on the website, including how to get a high-res version suitable for printing.

You can also get a full-colour wall poster version of the infographic.

Are the Conservatives fixing the Police and Crime Commissioner elections?

Consider two facts. First, two recent government decisions, taken by Conservative ministers, will significantly favour Police and Crime Commissioner candidates standing on behalf of parties with plentiful bank accounts. Second, the Conservative Party has by far the healthiest bank balances of the main parties. Whether conspiracy or coincidence, something is going wrong with how the election rules are being drawn up.

The first decision was against providing Commissioner candidates with a ‘freepost’ election address of the sort provided in Westminster, European and other elections. In those elections, each candidate can have one leaflet delivered for free to each elector, in order to help ensure that voters have some basic information available to them before deciding between candidates. (Candidates pay the printing costs of their leaflets.) However, this service, although extended in a modified form to elections such as that for Mayor of London, will not be provided for November’s Police and Crime Commissioner contests.

The second decision is not to have national spending limits for parties for those November contests. A party could, for example, spend an unlimited amount of money on posting letters to voters about the party’s approach to law and order. Unlimited, that is, except for the size of their bank balance – an area where the Conservatives have a big advantage.

As the election rules need to be approved by Parliament, by way of a Statutory Instrument, there is still time for Parliamentarians to kick up a fuss. Members of the Lords did this very successfully in 2000 over the initial plan not to have a freepost election address for the then new Mayor of London election.

Many Lib Dem MPs not sure boundary changes will go through

Now that we are well into the consultation periods over the Parliamentary boundary changes, how are the proposals going down with MPs? The answer to that we know thanks to new polling of MPs published by ComRes.

A reduction in the number of MPs and a more uniform constituency size means many MPs are facing up to the likelihood of their seat heavily changing or even going. Therefore, although reducing the number of MPs was a firm Conservative policy, it is no surprise that 22% of them are now opposed to it. However, only 3% of them think the boundary changes and reduction in number of seats will not go through in time for the 2015 election (with another 18% saying ‘don’t know’). But even if the Conservatives are returned to power, the proposed once-per-Parliament future reviews look unlikely to survive as already 51% of Conservative MPs are opposed to having regular reviews quite so regularly.

The views of Labour MPs are neither surprising nor hard to describe: they don’t like what is going on. 91% are opposed to equalising boundaries and reducing seats, and 85% do not want once-per-Parliament reviews in future. However, even 60% of Labour MPs expect the changes to go through in time for the 2015 election.

The most sceptical are Liberal Democrat MPs, with only 43% of them thinking the changes will go through. Another 43% say they don’t know, a sign perhaps that Liberal Democrat MPs are thinking that if Conservatives do not deliver on key Liberal Democrat demands (such as reform of the House of Lords), the changes to Parliamentary boundaries may end up being what Liberal Democrat MPs vote down in response.

With only just under half (48%) of Lib Dem MPs supporting the boundary changes, defeating them would not be met with widespread Liberal Democrat anguish.

Certainly, party strategists I have spoken to expect the threat of a rebellion over Parliamentary boundaries to be a significant negotiating factor if the Conservatives do try to walk away from any of the central commitments in the Coalition Agreement, Lords reform included.

Labour MPs may well therefore be unduly pessimistic about the chances of heading off a reform they do not like.

Social Liberal Forum: economic plan, summer conference

Last month the Social Liberal Forum published its first policy pamphlet, setting out a “Plan C” for the economy. Plan C’s emphasis on creating jobs through investment and infrastructure fits well with Keynes’s own policy advice of the 1930s. Keynes then emphasised the need not for simply higher spending in times of recession but for extra spending specifically on investment (as he saw that as the great unstable, non-self-correcting factor in a recession). Investing in infrastructure is far more Keynesian than cutting VAT.

Although technical at times, the pamphlet is very readable and keeps jargon to a minimum. It also includes a round-up of further reading, particularly useful as the pamphlet is a little short at times of specific evidence as to why individual policies would be effective. The upside of that is that it is quicker and easier to read as a result, and so likely to reach a wider audience.

You can read more about the pamphlet here.

The SLF is also organising a summer conference on intergenerational justice, with speakers including Nick Clegg, Ed Davey and Paul Burstow. You can get £5 off the registration fee if you use the discount code GINP3247 when you register online [now closed]. More information about the event is here.

Elsewhere from me…

  • Political news in one place: Have you tried out my 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?
  • My other email lists: aside from this monthly newsletter, you can also sign up to other lists such as more frequent blog post digests.

Plans for online monitoring under fire

“Good news! We’re taking one of New Labour’s laws that we opposed and extending it.” Doesn’t quite work as a message, does it? But in that stripped down cruel simplicity, it explains why so many Liberal Democrats members are angry at the news of the government’s plans for extending online monitoring.

Whether it is because people explicitly remember the party’s long opposition to much of RIPA and other measures during New Labour’s time in office, or because of a more subconscious and subliminal sense of dislike of what the civil liberties rules have been in the past, doesn’t really matter. The net effect is the same: telling people that rules they don’t really like are being extended isn’t good news. It’s bad news, no matter how logical the extension might be.

There is good news in all of this. Despite another big push by the security services and assorted allies, the big database of all our emails, texts and other electronic communications which Labour toyed with has stayed dead.

So too has the idea of giving them easy access to the content of the messages we send electronically (or at least mostly dead, bearing in mind the technical questions around the issue).

But the idea of extending existing RIPA powers to a wider set of communications founders if you aren’t that happy with RIPA. I suspect the understandable focus on the two points above means people have taken their eye off the ball a bit when it comes to appreciating the problem with the ‘but we’re just sensibly modernising RIPA’ message.

What is more, the extension of those powers is neither in the Conservative manifesto nor will it save money – the two reasons often and rightly used to explain why Liberal Democrats in government are not simply doing everything the party would wish. There are neither the Parliamentary votes nor the Treasury funds to deliver an ideal Lib Dem program. Yet neither of those explanations apply in this case.

Nor have events changed in some dramatic way justify a rethinking of this sort. If anything, events since the general election and the Coalition Agreement have cast further doubt on RIPA. Think what has come out with the Leveson inquiry and associated media reports. We now know far more about the widespread culture of abusing the current regulations in order for journalists to snoop on the public in search of a story. Not just occasionally, but on a regular and widespread scale.

In fact, the more you dig into what uses are made of current legal powers, the more questions that come up about how well they are used. For example, did you know that Google rejects over a third of the requests made to it by the UK law enforcement agencies to hand over data? Either Google is indulging in widespread obstruction to the fight against serious crime or it is being showered with unnecessary requests. The lack of even briefings from anonymous government sources claiming the former, suggests the latter is the truth.

All of which illustrates why RIPA needs reform.

Will RIPA get changed in the right way? Actually, I think there is a good chance it will do, as that is the message from Liberal Democrat insiders in Whitehall and from the first signs of public unease from Liberal Democrat MPs. Lib Dems in Whitehall are busy working on what changes the party should be getting made to RIPA.

Some related victories have already been secured, as Julian Huppert has pointed out:

It’s clear to me that what we want is more safeguards, not more powers for the state to keep data. We have already killed off some of the obviously illiberal proposals that have been floating around. The idea that if you send or receive an encrypted message you should be legally required to give the state the key is completely gone…

There still may not be a Bill at all in the Queen’s speech. That would be my preference. But if there is one, it must be one that increases the current safeguards not that just feeds the powers of the state. Strong safeguards are critical, they are the very essence of our civil liberties and no liberal can support any state surveillance without them.

The big risk is that it becomes a matter of too little, too late, securing a few changes to legislation while the wider policy and political battles are lost, especially if the party’s message continues, as it was in Nick Clegg’s TV interview, to be about there being no database but an extension to RIPA.

It’s not an extension of RIPA we need, it’s a major reform of it. Knowing that privately is not enough; it needs to be said publicly too.

I don’t want you to read this book

ALDC has just published a new collection I’ve edited. It’s called Top Tips for Local Campaigners and is packed with 160 tips. Here is how my introduction starts:

I don’t want you to read this book.

That may seem an odd request for an editor to make at the start of a book. But if you just sit down, read it, think a quick thought afterwards about what you made of it and then leave it at that, the book will have been a failure.

This is not a book to sit and read like a novel or history.

It is a practical manual – to be picked up, used, put to one side, leafed through again, left alone for a bit, urgently hunted for at a moment of crisis, remembered, filed away and brought back into use.

Put at least some of the tips to practical use and the book will have been a success even if you never read all of the words. (The words are all worth reading by the way, just in case you were wondering.)

ALDC members have all been sent a copy for free. If you are not an ALDC member, or if you want to even out the literary balance at home and have one copy for each room, then you can buy further copies for £4 (£3.20 to ALDC members) from ALDC.

Campaign Corner: How do we get more people phoning?

From my weekly Campaign Corner series, in which three tips are provided to answer common campaign questions: How do we get more people phoning?

  1. Fun group sessions: as with most campaigning, some people like going off and being active in their own time but many others prefer the fun and support of working in a group. Organise some fun group phone canvassing sessions, where you get together in a large room with mobile phones, have an initial briefing session, make some calls and then end with some food and drink.
  2. Virtual phone banks: for people who prefer to do phoning on their own, such as because they have childcare responsibilities and want to be at home, offer an alternative to the group sessions. Both CONNECT and Ears offer a remote phone canvassing system, where people login to a secure system and get taken through the name, phone number and script for each phone call in turn.
  3. Easy surveys: just as with doorstepping, a softer set of questions than simple voting intention often works better for getting new people comfortable with the activity. Mini-phone surveys work really well for this, such as “I’m calling on behalf of your local councillor Kit Agee. As you may know, she does a fortnightly email newsletter with news about Nether Wallop. Would you like to receive future editions?”

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.

And in other news…

How Donald Duck was used to sell income tax to Americans

How do you persuade Americans during wartime to pay income tax? With Donald Duck, of course.


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