Edition #53 of Liberal Democrat Newswire came out last week, looking at the problems with the current Liberal Democrat strategy and how to fix them.
You can also read it below and for more on the party’s strategy, see the media appearance I did afterwards.
Liberal Democrat Newswire #53
Welcome to the 53rd edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which takes a look at the revised Liberal Democrat slogan, the problem with the party’s strategy and sets out what the party should do next.
It’s also party elections time, with both the President and federal committees up for election. I’m restanding for the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) – more details here.
As ever I hope you enjoy reading Liberal Democrat Newswire, which has more subscribers than the party’s own official monthly publication, Ad Lib.
P.S. You don’t have to wait for the next edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire to keep up with news. My site is regularly updated with stories such as How do the most Conservative and most Labour constituencies compare?.
In this newsletter:
New Lib Dem slogan: three words added
See that text in bold? “Opportunity for Everyone” has until very recently been the mostly forgotten third part of the party’s national message.
It’s been there in theory since the start of Stronger Economy / Fairer Society but has been mostly missing from speeches, slogans and artwork. That was odd because Paddy Ashdown always talked about it being for him the most important part of the message as it is the part that best captures the difference in Liberal Democrat approach.
It also has strong echoes of the sorts of slogans tried out during his time as leader. The party then tended to go through new slogans at a rate not far short of my consumption of chocolate bars, but ones such as the mid-1990s “Unlocking Britain’s potential” get to the same idea of liberalism being about giving people the opportunities and support to be whoever they want to be.
Adding these three words to the standard party slogan makes sense, and is recognition that the party needs to try something different, but on its own is not nearly enough.
Two strategies, two failures
Neither the party’s strategy for the European elections (on which see Liberal Democrat Newswire #48) nor for the summer (on which see Liberal Democrat Newswire #52) worked. The party is still marooned in the high single digits / low double digits in nearly all polls.
However, there is also a problem in the way the party officially is setting out to address this. It’s misguided because it focuses on trying to fix the wrong thing.
Or in other words, talking about policy details in an attempt to persuade the public, useful though that is on specific occasions (hence this infographic and this website), is trying to fix the symptoms, not the cause. It’s issues of trust and principles that the party needs to directly address.
Addressing the trust issue
If you look at the Liberal Democrat poll ratings after going into coalition, there were on a steady downward trend almost immediately. By the time tuition fees came along to give that trend an extra twist, most of the damage to the party’s standing had already been done and the downward trend was already well-established.
In other words, tuition fees may be a favourite shorthand people use now to express their feelings about the party, but that is only a label for a bundle of emotions and facts being applied with hindsight. People were already going off the party well before any decisions had been made about tuition fees.
So the first step in a strategy that is focused on rebuilding trust has to be a better approach to being in coalition, especially justifying the compromises that deal-making requires.
We’ve seen already the sensible shift towards having more of the arguments in public. The party is finally catching up with the point that Nick Thornsby aptly made in 2011: “The Lib Dem strategy must be public negotiation, not internal opposition”.
The second step is to avoid making a pile of specific, quantified commitments which then in a hung Parliament get negotiated down into a pile of specific, not quite so large commitments in the to and fro of inter-party negotiations. (Remember that even in this Parliament less than 10% of the MPs are Liberal Democrats; to expect bucket-loads of party policy to be implemented undiluted and unadulterated is just fanciful day dreaming of a world where democracy doesn’t exist.)
Promise £5 billion in chocolate for voters, ‘only’ secure £2 billion and get pilloried by the opposition for the missing £3 billion of chocolate. Far better, instead, to indicate the direction of policy. Promise some free chocolate, secure £2 billion and it’s political job done. There have been promising signs of this approach being adopted during the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow.
But much more is still needed.
As with the experience of other parties which have successfully rebuilt their reputations, internal organisation and behaviour matters.
For the Liberal Democrats, that includes full implementation of the recommendations from the Morrissey report which followed the Chris Rennard affair. It also means taking a much firmer line on behaviour of all sorts. By coincidence or not, the firm line the party took in requesting a councillor under investigation in Scotland to stand down from their posts, even to the point of causing them to resign from the party, is a promising sign.
The other key element is one that has gone unstated and, so far, if the party gets this right it will be as much by chance and inadvertent side effect as by design.
It’s the role of the local candidate. How to rebuild trust in the party? Get voters to concentrate their attention on a local name who they know and like. That’s a strategy that can work in target Parliamentary and council seats, but it isn’t one that works much more widely. Which is why other steps are also needed, on which read on…
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Communicating the party’s principles
The other element that is needed to turn the party’s current strategy into a winning strategy is a much clearer demonstration of the party’s values.
That doesn’t mean long and learned discussions on philosophy; most voters won’t be interested (although the party could and should do much better at talking about its beliefs, rather than just current policies, to would-be candidates and to new members and helpers – hence the poster I produced).
What it does mean is carefully selecting issues which are popular with likely Liberal Democrat voters, are liberal and offer a clear insight into the party’s values. Equal marriage is one – though the speed with which other parties have moved to support it means its political value as a reason for voting for the Liberal Democrats, rather than another party, is quickly diminishing except for Lynne Featherstone in her own constituency.
Other issues which offer similar promise, such as opposition to the Snoopers’ Charter and Lynne Featherstone’s highly successful sequel to equal marriage – putting FGM firmly at the top of the political agenda – have generated very little political campaigning by the party. The occasional press release or brief piece of online content, yes, but campaigning? No.
That’s a mistake, and a continuation of the party’s flawed habit of seeing its supporters as passive bystanders rather than active participants in the battle for liberalism (see, for example, what I wrote back in 2011 – and why John Prescott is a somewhat surprising role model for the party).
Running national campaigns on such issues would generate three wins for the party. It would help communicate the party’s values; it would help deliver the party’s policies; and it would give members and supporters in those areas without strong local organisations a much greater sense of purpose and opportunity to get involved in the party’s activities.
Boosting party organisation
Running such national campaigns would also help strengthen the party’s grassroots campaigning strength in marginal Westminster constituencies, which is absolutely vital for the hope of holding Westminster seats against the national trend next May.
The Ashcroft constituency polling which I covered in Liberal Democrat Newswire #52 also showed that the Lib Dems are out campaigning Labour in Lib Dem/Labour battles but that in Lib Dem/Tory battles, it’s the Tories who have the organisational edge at the moment (details here).
That should be accompanied by an Organiser Programme to compliment the successful Leadership Programme for Parliamentary candidates:
The party should also revive an old idea, talked about but never acted on, of developing a registered supporters scheme.
Rather like one-member one-vote (OMOV) for party elections, when registered supporters schemes were first talked about they came with a lot of internal political baggage, being seen as a way of changing internal political power in the party. But as with OMOV, the world and the party have moved on and those old debates are far less relevant now.
What is relevant now is the need for the party to build a stronger network of helpers in a world where for many the formal step of joining the party is a big barrier. For members like me, comments such as “I’m happy to help but too busy to join” are baffling and illogical. Yet they’re also the sincere views of many – and the party needs to adapt to reflect that.
The general election provides an excellent opportunity to pilot different ways of making such a scheme a long-term success.
It should also be accompanied by a much stronger focus on gathering working email addresses for members and helpers. The party has become massively dependent on email for communications, yet in many parts of the country has a working, opted-in email address for less than half of even paid-up members. Cutting out so many from so much communication is a problem.
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Don’t forget the administrative details
As I’ve also mentioned briefly above, OMOV (one-member, one-vote) is coming for both the party’s federal committee elections and for party conference after Glasgow conference voted for the principle, but also for the amendment I organised which pointed out the deep flaws in the proposal and set out a better way forward.
If at all possible (and I think it is), the party should put OMOV in place in the spring, using time at Spring conference to get this sorted. Why spend time on standing order amendments at a party conference just before a general election? Because it’s very likely that just after the general election there will be a high profile and very important party conference – either a special conference to set what to do in a hung Parliament or the autumn conference when fallout from the general election is all around. Or possibly both.
It’s a much better incentive to get people recruiting and joining the party – and a far warmer welcome for new members – if their first experience of a big political moment in the party next year is one they can take part in as a fully participating member, rather than one they’re told to sit out because the rules haven’t been sorted yet.
That ethos should spread to reforming the party leadership election rules too. There just may be one next year… and if there is, it would make sense to turn it into a major recruiting opportunity for the party. The recovery of the Canadian Conservative Party from its two seat election near-wipeout was in part fuelled by its own leadership election rules – which not only allowed lapsed members to rejoin and vote in leadership contests but also gave leadership candidates lists of lapsed members to really fire up such recruitment. The Lib Dems can learn from Canada.
Important too, but a reform which can wait till after the general election, is sorting out the English Party:
It’s a promising sign that the contest for English Party chair is a rare four-way fight (David Hughes, Steve Jarvis, Liz Leffman and Gordon Lishman), suggesting the need for reform is drawing more people’s attention than usual to the state of the English Party.
Finally, the Federal Executive was told by Glasgow conference to think again and consult on quotas in internal party elections. Given the need to expand the party’s presence in BME communities, that should cover not only consideration of gender but also of wider diversity issues too.
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Political(-ish) podcast recommendation: Babbage
Continuing my new series recommending one podcast each month is the Babbage podcast from The Economist.A weekly show of just 5-10 minutes, it packs into it an efficient summary of the big science and technology stories that any person wishing to be generally well-informed about life around them should know.
Most impressively, this is done with explanations that are clear yet not dumbed down. The stories I know nothing about I find clear, and the stories I know lots about I still find informative.
Got a podcast that you’d like to suggest? Just email me at email@example.com and let me know.
Timetable for party elections: ballots delayed
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 is voting conference representatives and for the latter it is 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.
These emails were due to have been sent out by now but have been delayed. They are due imminently.
The remaining timetable for both contests is:
Presidential candidates in the news
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I hope you’re found this edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire interesting, informative, useful – or all three! Because of my emphasis on why details of policy aren’t the big issue for the party at the moment, I’ve not covered the leak of the current draft of the general election manifesto, but you can read about it here.Like this newsletter? Then let your friends know about it too. Just point them at this sign-up page. You can catch up on previous editions by taking a look at the online archive.
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