Liberal Democrat Newswire #23 is out: Lib Dems gear up for 75 by-election campaigns

Edition #23 of Liberal Democrat Newswire came out last week, looking at the Lib Dem plans for the 2015 general election. You can now read it in full below.

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Mark Pack

Lib Dems gear up for 75 by-election campaigns

Welcome to the 23rd edition of my monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats. 23 is also the bowling lane number which the main characters in the film The Big Lebowski always insisted on.

Thanks for reading,


75 Parliamentary by-election campaigns on the way

Dragons' Den screenshotOver the last few months Liberal Democrat local parties without an MP have been going through a Dragons’ Den style process to bid to be a target seat at the 2015 general election or rather – in the latest parlance – to be a “strategic seat”. Add in to those seats which already have Liberal Democrat MPs and you get around 75 in total – which will be fought as if they were 75 Parliamentary by-elections.

The national election campaign will get funds and attention, especially if TV debates are (as is most likely) repeated and so dominate the media coverage. However, many campaign planners are looking back to the party’s 1997 election campaign which showed the power of determined targeting over several years, focusing of as much of the party’s resources as possible on the grassroots campaigning in target seats. As a result, although the party’s vote fell in 1997, the number of seats won soared.

Parliamentary selections for prospective candidates are also now kicking off, with the first advert having appeared in Liberal Democrat News for Shrewsbury & Atcham. The rate of selections looks to be varying greatly around the country as different regional and state parties are showing varying levels of enthusiasm for holding selections without being 100% sure what the boundaries will be for 2015.

The next big campaign organisation question is: who should chair Liberal Democrat general election campaign? Tim Gordon is winning many plaudits as party Chief Executive, but his experience of running election campaigns is relatively light whilst John Sharkey, last time’s chair, is very unlikely to want to do the job again.

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Lords reform: four questions people should ask

House of LordsWith Lords reform very much back in the news, there is much speculation on whether reform will go ahead and, if so, in what form. Three key questions are being mostly ignored in those discussions.

What’s the minimum number of Lords who should be elected in one go?
Attention so far has primarily gone on whether or not there should be any elected Lords and if so, what proportion of the House of Lords they should take up. A crucial detail is how many get elected in each tranche. Have too few, and even a nominally proportional voting system will struggle to deliver genuinely proportional results.

The most likely voting system – open lists using the regional European Parliamentary constituencies – would under numerous plausible vote share scenarios fail to deliver proportional results if less than 100 elected peers are up for grabs in each round of election. Indeed, if the number of posts up for election in each region falls too low a regional list system becomes in practice rather similar to first past the post – delivering lots of seats for the two largest parties and seeing numerous smaller parties, including UKIP and the Greens, locked out.

A minimum of around 120 elected peers each time, and so at least 360 in total, is necessary to make such a regional open list system work.

If the Lords does not get elections, should the number of MPs be cut?
No, this isn’t about a ‘you vote down Lords elections, we vote down the boundary changes’ stand-off. Instead, it’s a question of democratic accountability. In itself, cutting the size of the House of Commons strengthens the government and weakens Parliament because it means the payroll vote takes up a larger proportion of the Commons. Cutting the size of the Commons and also giving the Lords stronger grounds to hold the government to account via a democratic mandate works as a package deal.

Doing just the former would simply strengthen the grip of the Executive, something that would sit oddly with the professed desires by leading politicians of all the main parties to strengthen Parliament.

Does Labour really want Lords reform to be unfinished business in 2015?
Think through the scenario which many in Labour believe is the most likely combination: Lords reform fails and Labour forms a government after the 2015 election. But then what?

First, if Lords reform has failed and all the hereditary peers have stayed in place (nearly all Conservative, remember), Labour faces trying to rule with a House of Lords that is far harder for it to handle than if it had been reformed. Unreformed non-Labour Lords, having seen Lords reform bite the dust, are hardly going to be held back by fear of future reform in the way there were under Blair.

What’s more, if there is no one party majority in the Commons, the difficulties of stitching together a ruling majority in the Commons will be magnified by the need to have a workable block of supportive peers in the Lords too – a task that much harder in an unreformed Lords.

Unless, of course, there is one party Labour can do a deal with which would provide the necessary support in both the Commons and the Lords in one package. Which party might be in that position? The Liberal Democrats – guaranteed in an unreformed Lords to keep its large slice of peers. So in a neat role reversal, the short-tern joy at Tories falling apart over Lords reform in the 2010 Parliament would turn into Labour’s headaches at having to address the issue in the 2015 Parliament.

Far simpler to get Lords reform through in this Parliament, enjoy the problems it causes Cameron for a major reform to get through only thanks to Labour’s support and then see Labour’s ranks in the upper house strengthened in the 2015 elections to it. Long-term headache avoided, short-term political joy secured and more Labour Parliamentarians to boot. What’s not to like?

Jeet, jeet, jeet: the new Lib Dem catchphrase

Lib Dem 2010 manifesto prioritiesJEET, or ‘jobs, education, environment and taxation’, is the new catchphrase being muttered by increasing numbers of Liberal Democrats. The intention is to focus on these four areas, with as much as possible of both the policy work and communications by Liberal Democrat ministers repeatedly covering these four themes. As one special adviser put it to me – we started off trying to talk about far too many areas and now we’re concentrating on JEET.

The party’s autumn conference will be themed around JEET, one day per letter. (Thank goodness a 14 word acronym was not picked.)

Jobs, rather than the economy in general, is being highlighted in part because it is an area Liberal Democrat ministers can more directly do something about – in particular Vince Cable with apprenticeship schemes. It also fits well with Nick Clegg’s desire to promote social mobility and party polling has shown that many older swing voters are concerned by youth unemployment and can be won over by measures such as the Youth Contract.

The quartet deliberately matches up with most of the priorities set out on the front page page of the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto. It is how issues of trust are likely to be addressed at the next general election: ‘You may not like all the tough decisions we’ve taken, but judge us by the priorities we put on the front page of our manifesto. Yes,  we’ve not been able to deliver some of the policies inside and some of those may be important to you, but here’s what we said was most important then and look what we’ve done since.’ Tuition fees, of course, were not on the front page of the manifesto, which instead covered fair taxes, schools, the environment and (the one area missing from JEET) political reform.

On tuition fees the party has three options: do its best to ignore the issue, to apologise or to talk up the positive impact of the policy that is being implemented (especially in the light of the cautiously promising first round of evidence about teenage application rates and the levels of applications from the most disadvantaged households). The official line from Whitehall is veering very much towards the latter, though it is always possible this may change when the new Director of Strategy (replacing Richard Reeves) takes up post in the Autumn. Expect a trans-Atlantic signing for that one.

Aficionados of party policy program acronyms can file JEET alongside such predecessors as CHEESE and the 5 Es.

The obligatory Olympics story

There are many reasons to be impressed by the Olympic medal winning machine that is Bradley Wiggins, and not just for the way he courted all hardcore Liberal Democrat activists by starting his Tour de France victory speech with a joke about raffles.

Here’s another:

Bradley Wiggins on fame

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Lib Dems block further welfare cuts

DWP logoThe spectre (or, if you’re a Conservative MP, the promised land) of a further £10 billion in welfare cuts has been left hanging after a brief outing for the idea during George Osborne’s Budget Speech.

It has now been firmly kicked into the post-2015 world after strong opposition from the Liberal Democrats in government, especially their two members of ‘The Quad’, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander.

It is part of the story I reported in the previous edition of the newsletter about the next spending review, due in 2013 and likely to be missing the sort of detailed figures contained in previous reviews (on which, see the further story below).

Trouble for May’s snooping plans as 2 people wrongly detained

Network cablesThe annual reports from the Interception of Communications Commissioner are usually a damp squib, barely noticed in the media and with the Commissioner not having much to say even about worrying details buried in the middle of his reports. This year has been different with the headline-catching news that two people were wrongly detained after interception errors, generating widespread negative media coverage.

The possibility of errors and the severity of their consequences has been little talked about by the Home Secretary Theresa May in her push to get extensive new online snooping powers. The stark news about these two people make it that much harder for May to sustain her position of demanding legislation that includes no strengthening of the existing regulatory structure.

Party accounts for 2011 published

Great George Street: home to the Liberal Democrat HQFigures published by the Electoral Commission this month for national party organisations (i.e. excluding some of the component parts of the parties) show:

Liberal Democrats

Income £6,204,766
Expenditure £6,504,743
Surplus / (deficit) -£299,977*
Membership 48,934**

* There would have been a £217,473 surplus had it not been for a one-off write-off of a debt owed to the Federal Party by the Parliamentary Office of the Liberal Democrats which, after the loss of Cranborne and Short money income, was never going to be realistically repaid.
** 31 December 2011.

Conservative Party

Income £23,660,000
Expenditure £22,971,000
Surplus / (deficit) £689,000
Membership n/a*

* Membership fee income was down from £1,031,000 in 2010 to £863,000 in 2011 and see the Independent’s Tory membership in crisis story.

Labour Party

Income £31,326,000
Expenditure £30,253,000
Surplus / (deficit) £1,073,000
Membership 193,300*

* 31 December 2011.


Elsewhere from me…

  • Peace, Reform and Liberation book coverHistory of the party: I’m one of the authors of Peace, Reform and Liberation, a one volume introduction to the history of the Liberals, SDP and Liberal Democrats.
  • What the Lib Dems are achieving in government: see my popular infographic.
  • Political news in one place: get all the latest political news and blogs headlines on one 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.

Local Liberal Heroes: Anood Al-Samerai

Southwark councillor Anood Al-Samerai is the latest person to feature in my Local Liberal Heroes series:

Anood Al-Samerai campaigningWith an Iraqi father and a Kuwaiti home, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was grim news, save for one fortunate twist. By chance, her family was on holiday in Britain at the time of invasion and so was able to seek refuge from Middle East violence, settling in Southwark.

Growing up in this South London borough, Anood political views were shaped by two main factors: a passionate commitment to civil liberties, contrasting the welcoming Britain to the pervasive fear in Iraq she witnessed on her visits, and a dislike of the way Labour was mismanaging the local council.

You can read the full profile of Anood Al-Samerai here and you can see all the profiles in the Local Liberal Heroes series here.

101 Ways To Win An Election: now on Kindle

101 Ways To Win An Election - book coverPeaking so far at just outside the top 1,000 selling books on Amazon is the new volume from Ed Maxfield and myself on how to win elections. The paperback edition has now been joined by a Kindle edition too.

“Jolly but serious” – The Parliamentary Bookshop
“A rattling good read” – Tribune

Be amongst the very first to benefit from the book, and get 30% off the cover price*, by ordering it now from Amazon.

* At time of writing. Amazon have had rather a habit of changing the discount just after I send a message mentioning it.

Spending review row builds

Dr Evan HarrisIn the previous edition of this newsletter, I wrote about the battle building up over the next spending review:

Spending reviews are never easy when there is not much money to go round; throw in coalition politics too and the fizzling out of Coalition 2.0 becomes the calm before the storm. The 2013 review will be a year earlier than envisaged in the original 2010 ‘Plan A’, but the economy is not performing as was then planned. Moreover, the review will necessarily require widespread agreement between the two parties over much of government. Bringing it forward then leaves more time before the next election for the two parties to once again diverge somewhat and play up their differences.

It is a story both The Independent and The Times picked up on at the end of July, with Evan Harris in particular pushing to ensure that the Liberal Democrats do not end up signing up to a detailed joint tax and spend policy with the Conservatives that extends beyond the 2015 election.

The sensible outcome would be for a joint agreement on the size of the deficit in the years immediately beyond 2015, leaving each party to pick its own mix of tax and spending moves to reach that deficit figure – and each to pick their own mix of spending within their own spending totals. Politically that would suit both parties, especially on issues where both are happy to disagree with the other in public as they are appealing to different voter sympathies.

It would also force on Labour a political and economically tricky decision about whether or not to endorse the overall deficit figures that the Coalition agrees on. Agree with the deficit figures and Labour risks being seen as going along with the Coalition’s economic course; disagree with them and Labour risks being seen as the profligate party.

And in other news…

Power rests with those who write the minutes

Another gem from the Yes, Prime Minster archives: “The actual meeting is a mass of ingredients for you to choose from … The purpose of minutes is not to record events. It is to protect people.”

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