Edition #52 of Liberal Democrat Newswire came out earlier in the week, previewing Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. You can also read it below, but if you’d like the convenience of getting it direct by email in future, just sign up here. It’s free!
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Since #52 came out, there’s been a couple of extra pieces of news about party conference:
- The Liberal Democrat conference app is now out. This time it will include more information than before, including the Daily Announcements. It’s available from both the Apple and Google app stores.
- In #52 I talk about the possible health debates at party conference. In addition to what I covered, the Social Liberal Forum is supporting a move from former MP and GP Evan Harris to commit the party to supporting the repeal of significant parts of the Health and Social Care Act. If taken for debate this amendment will be the one that causes party managers the biggest headaches.
Finally, if you’re on Twitter, the hashtag that’ll be in use is #ldconf.
Liberal Democrat Newswire #52
Welcome to the 52nd edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which starts off with a look at the detailed constituency polling released yesterday by Lord Ashcroft and then previews next week’s Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, including the rough road ahead for proposed party reforms.
As ever I hope you enjoy reading Liberal Democrat Newswire which, a few calculations based on the financial figures in the party’s latest accounts show, has more readers than the party’s own monthly publication, Ad Lib.
P.S. Remember, you don’t have to wait for the next edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire to keep up with party news. My blog is regularly updated with stories such as Nick Clegg gets it right on devolution.
In this newsletter:
Ashcroft polls Lib Dem held and target seats: the results
Yesterday Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft released the results of constituency polling in 15 Lib Dem held constituencies where the Tories are the challengers, five where Labour are the challengers and also two seats the party has hopes of gaining next May.The key voting intention question asked people to think about how they would vote in their constituency – which usually gets more accurate constituency results (and a higher Lib Dem share) than simply a question about the general election in abstract.However the polling questions didn’t name candidates. Where there is a high profile candidate, naming the candidate usually gives a further boost to their party.Those who have done such constituency polling before with and without candidate names expect naming a high profile Lib Dem to lift the party’s support further by between five and ten percentage points.”High profile” usually means a hard-working incumbent, but in the case of Watford is also likely to include the Lib Dem challenger, four-times elected Mayor Dorothy Thornhill – on whom see Lib Dem Newswire #50; she has since been selected.One other note of caution – Lord Ashcroft’s series of national opinion polls have shown more variation than most other national polling. Given that all these constituency polls are just snapshots and may also be vulnerable to similar high variations, proceed with extra caution.
Lib Dem / Tory seats
Across the Tory seats, the poll results show a series of extremely close contests (especially when the naming caveat above is remembered), alongside stellar constituency performances by Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) and Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam).
The figures in seats such as Solihull (Lorely Burt) and Mid Dorset (Vikki Slade selected to succeed Annette Brooke) also highlight the risk of the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party ending up all-male after the general election, a pattern repeated in the Labour battleground below.
Given the pattern in fights against the Tories, it’s no surprise that the figures in Labour-facing seats show a tough set of fights:
Redcar aside, it’s notable how low the UKIP vote is in these Lib Dem versus Labour fights. Many Liberal Democrats will be quietly hoping that UKIP manages to eat into the Labour vote in the way UKIP talked up at their party conference.
Finally the results for two seats the Lib Dems hope to gain next year:
Overall – and bearing in mind the caveat about names above – it shows that nearly all the seats are still very much winnable by the party, but in some cases there is a significant deficit to overcome.
Which makes Ashcroft’s findings on how many people can remember being contacted by each party in the previous few weeks all the more relevant. Low contact recall rates suggest a current level of campaign organisation that is going to struggle very hard to shift the polling figures much.
Full figures for contact recall are available in the full polling report but note that four seats have a Lib Dem recall of over a third: two where the party is polling very strongly (Cheadle and Sutton) and two where this suggests the party can do enough to win still (Cambridge and Hornsey; Julian Huppert and Lynne Featherstone’s seats respectively).
Indeed, across the Labour-facing seats the Lib Dems are out campaigning Labour, which throws an interesting light on what motivation is really like inside the Labour Party.
The summer strategy: well that didn’t work
After the party’s failed European elections strategy (on which see Liberal Democrat Newswire #48), there was a dual switch in the party’s strategy for the summer.First, out went talk of anchoring the party in the centre ground and in came a greater emphasis on being liberals and being opposed to the status quo.Second, there was a blizzard of policy announcements trailing proposals from the party’s pre-manifesto due to be debated in Glasgow next week.At times they had the feeling of old-style rainbow coalition politics: you like walking along the coast, whilst admiring trees, thinking of football and planning a drive across the England-Wales border? Then bingo, we’re the party for you.Individually, the announcements did well at generating volume of positive coverage for the party (and despite repeatedly botched internal party communications which often confused or annoyed party activists by muddling up what was and wasn’t agreed party policy).But most did little to sharpen the question of what sort of party the Liberal Democrats are and why being in coalition is compatible with the party having principles.
Anyone, after all, liberal or democrat or neither, can be in favour of walking along the coast. The policies that did much better on that score – such as taking a liberal approach on drugs – were much fewer in number and were not strung together into a clear overall narrative.
As a result, it’s not a huge surprise that the net effect of the summer campaign was no movement in the polls in the party’s favour. (See the latest in my weekly poll scorecard here.)
So the big strategic question for the party at conference – especially in Nick Clegg’s speech – will be ‘what to try next?’
There isn’t a simple, magic answer to that question, but there is one answer that is clearly wrong: simply carrying on as before.
One part of the answer needs to be talking more about the past as not nearly enough voters (only 33%) agree that by being in coalition the Liberal Democrats have stopped the Conservatives doing various things that would be bad for ordinary people.
In fact – as the regular exasperation of Conservative MPs shows – that’s exactly what the party has achieved, but unless more voters are convinced of this, the whole logic of going into coalition having been the right move will not convince enough of the electorate.
Another part of the answer needs to be greater clarity about not simply being in government for the sake of it – the risk with the rhetoric of wanting to be ‘a party of government’. Being in government isn’t the deal; getting Liberal Democrat policies enacted, which being in government helps, is the deal.
Party reforms set for a rough ride in Glasgow, part 1
Two proposals to change the way internal democracy works in the Liberal Democrats are set for a rough ride at the Glasgow conference.The first is a move to OMOV (one member, one vote) – that is, moving to letting any paid-up party member come to conference and vote (replacing the current system of voting reps elected by local parties and the youth and student wing), and also moving to having all party members vote for the main national (federal) committees (again replacing the current system of voting reps).The OMOV move itself has been widely consulted on and although it has some strong opponents, what I’ve seen of the consultation processes in the party are that it has majority support in principle. However, the actual proposals being put to party conference are very flawed.Technically, there are many problems with the wording of the proposed standing order and constitutional changes.Moreover, one point made by many during the consultation (including myself) was that expanding the electorate has to go with also providing the electorate with better information about candidates and what those who are elected then do in their name. At the moment many party committee decisions have a level of secrecy that would cause outrage if applied to local councils. Yet the proposals being put to conference have completely omitted any such improvements.For my own take on how they should be improved (and the amendment I’ve organised) see OMOV: the FE has submitted a mess to conference, so let’s sort it out.
That piece includes details of how the proposal changes would both land the party with a huge extra postal bill for regularly circulating paperwork to all party members, and also how the proposals would make it possible for a special conference in future to be called by just a single local party in many circumstances – a major change to the party’s rules which would certainly make any future attempts to oust a party leader much easier.
I have however yet to find an FE member who actually intended to do that…
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Party reforms set for a rough ride in Glasgow, part 2
In the last edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire I reported on the quiet change made by the Federal Executive (FE) to the rules for election to the party’s federal committees, introducing a new requirement that at least half of the elected posts must be filled by women.The change has been introduced in a very low-key way, with the only official communication from the party so far being a reference on page 22 of the ‘Reports to Conference’ booklet, and despite nominations having already opened for the contest on 15 September.However, the bigger procedural controversy over this change is whether or not the Federal Executive really has the power to make it unilaterally, rather than putting a proposal to conference to be voted on in the usual way.Looking at the powers the FE is given and the timing of their decision, the situation is pretty clear: no, it doesn’t.Moreover, the FE has failed to take action on the question of whether any other quotas, such as to improve the ethnic diversity of party committees, should be introduced – and by setting the gender quota so high in fact (looking at the records of previous committee elections) risks making them even more ethnically un-representative than at the moment.Finally, the FE has removed the provision that applied to previous quota rules, namely that there has to be enough candidates nominated of a specific gender to give voters meaningful choice amongst those candidates in order for that gender quota to apply.
An emergency motion has gone in on the issue, which you can read details of here.
Note: I will be re-standing for election to one of these committees, the Federal Policy Committee.
Sssh, don’t tell the diary columnists
The prize for piece of conference-timing-party-least-wants-press-to-talk-about goes to the relative amounts of time allocated to Vince Cable and Danny Alexander.Vince gets the standard 20 minutes for set piece speeches. Danny however gets an extra long 30 minutes slot.Meanwhile, prize for the worst pun in a motion goes to F22: “Flooding: a new high water mark”.
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The policy debates at Glasgow
As usual, there’s a series of worthy motions that fill in useful policy detail on a wide range of topics that are unlikely to be controversial, such as promoting better first aid skills in schools, improving equalities and continuing action to reduce poverty around the globe.More crunchily, Sunday morning sees a welfare motion that calls for significant reforms, including a review of problems with Universal Credit, improvements to the Hardship Fund and a very different approach to benefits sanctions.Significant though the package of changes to current government policy is, it’s also in line with the personal views of key Liberal Democrat ministers and so is unlikely to be opposed by the party’s leadership despite some initial nervousness from within Westminster about it. The motion complements the party’s wider approach of, belatedly, treating being in coalition as a matter of public negotiation, not internal opposition.Similarly substantial is the crime policy paper. Expect it to cause controversy outside the party in particular, not so much for its emphasis on rehabilitation (even many Tories these day extol the virtues of rehabilitation over simple punishment) but more for its take on drugs, including looking at options for a legal, regulated cannabis market and for treating drug addiction as a health rather than criminal issue. A liberal line on drugs has, however, long been popular within the party so these proposals should go through without too much problem.More controversial within the party is likely to be the public services policy paper which long-time critic of the party’s health policies, GP Charles West, is likely to want to amend significantly.However, his proposals go far beyond what other critics of the government’s health policy in the party have called for, looking not only to undo changes to the NHS made during this Parliament but to completely remove the purchaser/provider split in the health service. Given the party’s long-time commitment to the purchaser/provider split, even when in opposition and long before coalition came along, that is a move unlikely to succeed.
Less controversial than it should be will be the housing motion, which sets out to build 300,000 new homes a year. It should be controversial because of doubts over whether the emphasis on housing is the right emphasis and on whether the policies can really deliver 300,000 homes. But it is unlikely to be – and there is at least a separate motion focusing on private renters, an aspect of the housing issue often over-looked.
Then there is the pre-manifesto motion, weighing in at over four pages and allocated two and a half hours on Tuesday morning.
The fiscal policy within it continues a strong commitment to deficit reduction, but with a move towards prioritising greater investment and some public spending increases (e.g. ending public sector pay freezes) in the second half of the next Parliament – instead of the Tory policy of pushing on towards running surpluses.
That still, however, requires significant fiscal retrenchment in the first half of the Parliament, with the big risk that means areas like local government will face large cuts. See Liberal Democrat Newswire #50 for more on this.
Expect therefore debates over protecting local government and over whether the fiscal policy balance is right. Perhaps too a push to find extra sources of revenue to help tackle the deficit whilst protecting key public services.
A major theme in the motion is about giving citizens greater protection and power, such as with a Digital Bill of Rights and with devolving more power to local councils. However, the reference to “a new transfer of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland” is no longer enough given the post-Scottish referendum moves, so expect an emergency motion on political reform too and potentially lively debate given that the party is far from united on its attitude towards regional government.
All the policy papers, agenda and directory for conference are available here whilst my annual league table of MPs’ appearance on the fringe (and the Simon Hughes Memorial Award for most multiple-bookings) is up on my own site.
Pssst! Fancy some free chapters from 101 Ways To Win An Election?
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Political(-ish) podcast recommendation: Planet Money
Kicking off my new series recommending one podcast each month is the National Public Radio (NPR) show Planet Money.Though made for American listeners, it has a strongly international flavour to the issues it looks at related to finance, economics and trade.A recent show I loved looked at an American shopping mall which cuts across a local government boundary, resulting in different minimum wage rates for different stores in the mall. The resulting economic mini-experiment in what happens when you increase minimum wage levels is just as pertinent to the UK as the US.You can subscribe through iTunes or via the Planet Money website.Got a podcast that you’d like to suggest? Just email me at email@example.com and let me know.
Timetable for party elections
As well as elections for federal committees, this autumn also sees an election for Party President, in which Tim Farron is not able to stand due to the term-limits.The electorate for the former will be conference representatives (even if the OMOV proposal is passed, as it would come into force next year) and for the latter all party members.For the party committees, the election will be via online voting, unless the party has no email address on record for the member in which case paper ballots will be sent.The timetable for both contests is:
* Note: although nominations are open, the nomination forms currently being distributed have the wrong – old – election rules on them.
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