“An accident waiting to happen” – comprehensive, astute and blunt panel report on the 2019 elections


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Over the weekend, I have been thoroughly reading, and inwardly digesting, the 61 page panel report on the 2019 elections.

I started making notes of passages which would make good quotes for this article. But my list was soon very long. Pulling out pithy quotes turned out to be like shooting fish in a barrel.

From the reference on the first page to “our massive disappointment as a party”, with the addition that “it was obvious you were gutted and angry” – it was clear that this is a report written in down-to-earth terms with searing candidness. “Gutted” is not the sort of word you read in a dry, passionless document. And that word was entirely appropriate, as was the rest of the “straight-shooting” language in the report.

Perhaps the best place to start reading the report is on the last page. That tells you about the members of the panel. There are 15 members who are collectively diverse with an extraordinary breadth and depth of experience over a range of relevant fields.

This “real life” experience shows in the report.

It is best to read it yourself, if you have not already done so.

It is a very heavyweight report. It provides a plausible, coherent and engaging narrative of 2019 and events leading up to it. It covers every conceivable aspect of the elections of 2019 and does not mince its words. There are frank statements and quotes from submissions which are hair-raising. Here’s a sample of some that stood out for me, taking the single example of the topic of seat targeting (with single inverted commas when submissions are quoted) :

…‘too many targets, not enough bullets’…

…’small group drunk the Kool Aid’…

…The ‘target list’ was a political construct built on flimsy evidence of capacity to deliver either by local parties or through national input…

…We saw little evidence of challenges to the consequences of the enlarged target list being listened to, nor of serious consultation before the decision to call an early election…

…‘We were made a target seat at the start of the General Election campaign – however nobody actually told us this! We had no communication from LD HQ whatsoever. Indeed we only worked out we were a target seat from the literature that started arriving through our letter boxes.’…

– That level of devastating critique is repeated over every angle of the party and its organisation. It is made all the more devastating because it focuses on structures and processes, rather than on personalities, and is balanced with lists of positives.

One excellent thing about the report is that it posits an action plan with responsible action owners and timelines. It is also proposes a project manager for implementing the recommendations, together with a monthly progress reporting process.

The report basically says that the party started going off the rails from before the 2010 general election and that the 2019 general election disaster was due to a whole host of structural and organisational issues together with the “perfect storm” of the 2019 general election circumstances. The leadership is firmly included in the critical mix.

Its recommendations are a vast list of actions which cover every element of the party’s activity. On the subject of campaigning alone, the CEO has been suggested as the owner of 37 actions.

I don’t fear that this report is a “whitewash”. Quite the opposite. I fear that the list of recommendations is rather daunting and that the report’s conclusions may be rather depressing and cause dejection.

The report is basically saying that virtually everything in the party is wrong and almost everything needs to change. It almost seems that we should throw the whole party away and start again.

It’s going to take a lot of courage to grasp the various nettles and not just give up.

But, as the report mentions, time is on our side. If we lay solid foundations now, we can reap the benefits in years to come.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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56 Comments

  • Basically it says what many of us have been saying for some time, an out of date party, run by cliques, out of date structures, membership not listened to but talked at etc etc.
    Well that is going to hopefully change but we need a new Leader immediately and the existing party establishment must stand aside and stop telling the rest of us what we should do and not do, they have palpably failed and let us all down. We will have to be ruthless in bringing about the changes required, and if I hear one again the party is a “family” I will scream, we are an organisation and if we were a private company would have been disolved by now.

  • John Marriott 18th May '20 - 10:10am

    I haven’t read the report, nor do I intend to do so, so correct me if I am wrong. You see, the first mistake for the party was going along with a General Election in the first place. Watching the events unfolding in the House of Commons last year was like watching a slow motion car crash. Talk about playing into Johnson’s hands! If only the opposition parties had gone easy on the posturing and a few more Tory MPs had had the courage of their convictions, we might have ended up with some kind of government of national unity by the end of the year.

    Now I know that when such talk was in the air, we hadn’t heard of Covid-19; but I reckon that, had a government of all the talents been in place, it might actually have responded better to this far more serious challenge than what we ended up with actually did. For starters, it would have at least delayed our final parting with the EU while it fought the battle with the unseen enemy.

  • I have read the report, well most of it, and it is sombre reading and things need to change right away because time might be on the Party’s side but it is not on mine and and I am fed up with trying to make excuses for our bad results. I am in total agreement with John Marriott on not backing the 2019 election, in hindsight a delay to the Brexit deal and frustrating Boris Johnson’s ambitions may have saved many lives during the present crisis.

  • Complacency is not the only danger, some of us seem to take actual pleasure in beating ourselves up.

    The idea that we are particularly responsible for Deaths from C19 is fairly bonkers.

    The report is depressing but getting depressed is not a useful response. Dont just Mourn, Reorganise.

  • Above all we need to hire Lynton Crosby or an appropriate Lib Dem Crosby.

    You need someone that has the status and the respect to be listened to and the ability to come up with a very clear message that works and by personality enforce the repetition of that message. (That’s all – simples!)

    A Crosby figure may well have been able to read the riot act to the parliamentary party to say they were bonkers to support a general election.

    This is easy to say. But there will be a large of amount of the party telling such a figure they are wrong most of the time! They also need the ability to be right! The ego to battle for their position but the humility and open mindedness to consider contradictory evidence and not have a confirmation bias.

    The difficulty for political parties is bringing together three disparate wings the MPs, the national party and local activists. The best local campaigns I have been involved have been run by dictators who through luck or ability have proven themselves in the past. They also need the ability to not get set in their ways and change. Elections are arms races and the tank may have been effective last time but if the opponent has a nuclear bomb this time…

    I guess the closest we have come to such a person is Chris Rennard in the 90s and 2000s. He obviously drew on others but as national campaign director did quite a lot of things that seem obvious in retrospect but were less obvious at the time and crucially he was listened to!

  • Without their large majority maybe just maybe, the Tories would not have been able to make the fundamental mistakes made at the outset of the corona virus outbreak?

  • Barry Lofty: Of course, and because of their large majority, the Tories own all the mistakes that they have made and will make, on Covid, Brexit and everything else they are likely to mess up. Our task going forward will be to ensure that the blame for the mess the country will be in is passed in its entirety to the Tories. We certainly should not be legitimising the idea that the Lib Dems are somehow to blame for what the Tories are doing in a majority government. Stop amplifying the narratives of our enemies.

  • Richard Underhill 18th May '20 - 12:54pm

    theakes 18th May ’20 – 10:04am
    “We will have to be ruthless in bringing about the changes required, ”
    The Labour Party previously had one MP, although it has more now.
    The Green Party has one MP and a big issue.
    Our friends in the Alliance Party have had one MP (Naomi Long, East Belfast) FPTP.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alliance_Party_of_Northern_Ireland

  • Richard Underhill 18th May '20 - 1:12pm

    I am a member of the Liberal Democrats, but the party I like best is Alliance, principled, and in it for the long term.
    I do not live In Ulster
    Blessed are the peacemakers.

  • Laurence Cox 18th May '20 - 1:42pm

    @Paul

    I have read the report, at least quickly, and its observations chimed with what I saw as an HQ volunteer before, during and after the 2017 election. As a result I wrote a short document on the use of volunteers at HQ for Nick Harvey (the then Chief Exec). Mark Pack now also has a copy. I think that the only reason why we did not see the 2017 election as disastrous as 2019 is that our expectations were much lower; many of the same problems that occurred in 2017 also occurred in 2019 from the Panel’s report.

    One point that I would make is that everyone’s cognitive capacity is limited. If the leadership insists on signing off every decision it is inevitable that some things will fall through the cracks because they simply do not have the time to read and consider everything. Although we are supposed to be a federal party the delegation to lower levels in the hierarchy was almost absent. This may seem like an argument for going back to the old Liberal approach of a bottom-up Party, rather than the old SDP approach of a top-down Party which is enshrined in our Constitution, but the reality is that both approaches have their failings. Think about what might have happened if David Steel had simply accepted Roy Jenkins and a number of Labour defectors into the old Liberal party; we might well have seen similar issues to what we saw last year in dealing with candidates standing down for them and the constituencies where they stood.

    At least we are probably safe from a General Election until 2024, so we do have time to look at our Party structure and get it fit for purpose. It also means I am now more agnostic about not electing a new leader until 2021; a new leader now would have to spend at least the first twelve months of their leadership addressing structural issues in the Party, rather than developing their profile with the public.

  • @Richard Underhill: the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland are currently (since 12 Dec 2019) represented in the House of Commons by Stephen Farry, the new MP for North Down. Naomi Long (previous APNI MP during 2010-15) was, sadly, unsuccessful on this occasion – but came a very close second in East Belfast.

  • James Murray 18th May '20 - 3:40pm

    The 2019 Election Report nowhere mentions a need to crystallise a LibDem ideology with the society that that ideology envisages
    And why it is different from the ideology and society envisaged by Labour and Conservative parties.
    LibDems, like New Labour, is an ideology-free zone with no point.
    The Labour Party, God love them, despite Starmer, are still steeped in a ‘class struggle’ focusing as it does on a 19th-century Marxist view.
    This is completely inappropriate for modern times but IMO it retains its place as HM Official Opposition because the LibDems have no ideology and so no brand to sell – except it is ‘NOT-Tory’ or ‘NOT-Labour’.
    The Conservatives have a modern view of their society – smaller Government, free-market(ish), ‘hand-up’ vs ‘hand-out’ benefits, work and jobs to give dignity to each citizen etc.
    Crazy it is that the LibDems have no the ‘Liberal Democratism’ as an ideology when it has the unique claim that great ideology brand called “Liberalism”.
    NOT you will notice that portmanteau term that is seemingly all that is bad that are not Left Wing – the term “Neoliberalism”.
    I mean that wide range of views which real Liberals espouse that generally includes limited statist central government, individual rights (civil and human), capitalism (yes, free markets, but with light control), democracy of course but historically also secularism, gender and racial equality, certainly internationalism, and crucially the freedoms of speech, of the press and of religion.
    They believe that power should be devolved right down to the community and not issued from on high by the State.
    Liberalism welcomes diversity – the right to be different – and welcomes different views held by others – as otherwise how will you find out whether your worldview holds water?
    Liberalism is way more suited to the modern age than the last-century, failed versions of Socialism – Communism, Maoism, Trotskyism, Marxist-Leninism and all other Statist top-down, -isms. They failed because they could not drop their ‘class struggle’ nonsense, and focus instead on improving Capitalism instead of committing to destroy it.

    Jim Murray

  • Andrew Tampion 18th May '20 - 5:26pm

    I don’t understand the obsession with the recent General Election. It was voted through on 3rf Reading 438 to 20. So if our MPs had voted against it would have been 417 to 41. I’ll say it one final time before I give up. Both the Tories and the SNP wanted it for political reasons. They had a majority of MPs. There was no way to stop it whatever we did: so voting in favour was the least worst option.

  • Lawrence Cox – “This may seem like an argument for going back to the old Liberal approach of a bottom-up Party, rather than the old SDP approach of a top-down Party which is enshrined in our Constitution, but the reality is that both approaches have their failings.

    YES! Sorting out ‘top-down’ vs ‘bottom-up’ is key to good governance. The answer is that both are must be part of the answer – but they have different roles.

    I discovered this when working in the head office of a multinational that was pitched it into an existential crisis after it lost the plot as comprehensively as the Lib Dems have done and for much the same reason. The accounts were a sea of red ink as just about every important call the management made went wrong. Then the MD left and was replaced by a classicist who had absolutely no background in/knowledge of the business, but who DID understand leadership – he chose good people and he delegated. In just over three years the accountants were happily joking they couldn’t count the money fast enough.

    One of the biggest sources of mistakes was that everyone was paddling their own canoe, empire building or whatever, because there was no framework to give overview and coherence. So, one of the most impactful changes was to start asking all the subsidiaries what they, ideally, wanted to do (quantified in terms of capital spending & cash flow etc. impacts) on a regular basis. Those were briefly sense-checked (and referred for revision if necessary) and then subjected to a strategic review – did they fit and, if not, what?

    An example: The South African subsidiary had two projects it wanted to progress – a smallish, but high-quality one and a big but low-quality one. The SA subsidiary didn’t have the in-house skills for the first which was too small to attract good staff. Decision: Sell. The bigger one was economically borderline: Decision: Sell. We recouped our investment in both many times over.

    So, it’s like the saying: “Man proposes, but God disposes”. Ideas & proposals must be bottom-up, strategic decisions about what fits together/can be afforded etc. must be top down. Organisation MUST support that.

  • That was a commercial context, but it transposes directly to a political one. Two questions: (1) What is wrong with the existing approach? (2) How else might it be done?

    The current approach usually starts with the FPC commissioning a Policy Working Group to work up policy in line with a tight remit. But… it is slow, turgid, limited by very iffy remits and mostly ends up looking like it was culled from the Guardian of 15 years ago. Worst of all, it has never (!) found a way to use the huge resource of the members for either their expertise or political nous.

    It represents such a big investment of time and effort that, once done, it can’t really be changed and might as well be handed down on tablets of stone. So, the very thing that should most involve and energise the base has been centralised and made top-down.

    Also, spokespeople remain just that, mouthing policy they may not wholly support and not developing the political smarts they need. Worst of all, vision does not/cannot emerge from the incoherent muddle. That is why the party has never developed any.

    The alternative would be to abolish the FPC and WGs and go for the bottom-up approach of inviting members to get together and propose ideas and priorities. Those would go to the relevant spokesperson in the first instance for sense-checking, compositing etc. The legwork of that could be done by a beefed-up central policy staff with resource redeployed from the FPC and WGs but it should be the spokesperson who remains responsible for making sense of it and eventually taking it to conference for approval.

    Of course, not all policy suggestions would be mutually compatible and politically astute. That is where the top-down strategic review stage should kick in with the shadow cabinet as a whole making the calls.

    For instance, there might well be a pro-immigration policy and there would almost certainly be policies on sustainability and housing among others. But those are in conflict: I can’t see any way to support both large-scale immigration and other core policies. So, something has to give; the shadow cabinet would have to make hard and clarifying choices just as it would in office.

    Out of that clarity and consistency vision would emerge – and with it political connection to the electorate.

  • My impression of the report was that it was too comprehensive. It blamed everyone for everything over a period of time that started long before the 2019 election. That was why I described it as a whitewash. Blame all for everything at all times and you cannot be accused of pointing the finger.

    Perhaps the report was true and accurate, I do not have the detailed knowledge to know otherwise. One thing that I do know with complete certainty is that the voting public do not generally vote Lib Dem. Why is that? I know some of the reasons. We all probably know some of the reasons.

    Until you and I feel that we can express these reasons on these pages and have them received in a constructive spirit, then many people here can continue to blame the election for being inconvenient.

  • Katharine Pindar 18th May '20 - 7:50pm

    I also think you are making good suggestions here, Gordon – speaking as one who has argued against you on this site for years! But the Bournemouth Conference changed my views on our structures, in a way which this valuable Thornhill review has confirmed. I felt at Bournemouth that the show was being run by an unapproachable secretive clique that was not interested in what the members there, or in the country, really thought. I wasn’t able to find out afterwards who had actually drawn up the motion into which the Revoke policy was all too innocuously slipped (it wasn’t highlighted, or separately debated, though after a somewhat muddled debate it was voted on separately). Nor has it ever been revealed to us ordinary members who made up Jo’s clique. And now the Thornhill review confirms a leadership apparently in several parts, but none of them communicating effectively each other, with the local parties on whom success had to depend, and still less, sensitive to the electorate.

    So I like your radical ideas, Gordon, but how to get them effected? How can members ‘get together and propose ideas and priorities’? Perhaps all the regions should hold emergency meetings for all local members as soon as possible, inevitably by Zoom or Skype? And perhaps the September Brighton Conference should be transformed into a Special Conference, with both physical and virtual input, to change the Constitution and abolish the FPC and FCC, with a drastically slimmed-down rotating Federal Board of alternating spokespersons, Shadow Ministers and single representatives of each country and region? Then what? We would need methods of keeping communications open between ordinary members, local parties and the centre, perhaps using the closed Facebook groups to better effect. And dedicated email addresses and phone lines, maybe? Lots to think about.

  • Richard Underhill 18th May '20 - 7:55pm

    “It is about looking at all the things we need to do as a party and using technology to make them better”
    When collecting data from polling stations it needs to be sent back to local committee rooms. I suggested to Paddy Ashdown that this could and should be done electronically. He said NO.
    One of the things I like about ED Davey is his approachability. I asked him about the possibility of collecting solar energy from north Africa and transmitting it back to the y undersea cables. He considered it and answered it. France might be a problem.
    On another issue he told a fringe meeting and federal conference that he had been defeated by his own local party.
    At one stage we were asked to provide an audience for the deputy prime minister, who gave a speech at the National Liberal Club. Questions from named journalists were allowed, but not from us. A former leader, now a peer, was among the entourage.

  • Peter Martin 18th May '20 - 8:15pm

    @ Andrew Tampion,

    “Both the Tories and the SNP wanted it (an election) for political reasons.”

    Not all Tories.

    “They had a majority of MPs.There was no way to stop it whatever we did…..”

    I’d like to see your calculations on this. Remember that Tories had seen defections and expulsions from their ranks. There were others who could well have been persuaded to at least abstain.

    The Labour line is that it could have been stopped, had the Lib Dems not sided with the Tories and SNP too. But once the Lib Dems had broken ranks they didn’t have any other option to vote for the election too. So you calculation of 417 to 41 is quite fanciful.

    No doubt you’d argue they would say that, wouldn’t they. So MRDA. But all the same, I’d like to see your numbers.

  • Jonathan Coulter 18th May '20 - 8:26pm

    I found this a gripping report, though it only gave muted recognition to the error of agreeing to the General Election before the Second Referendum. Moreover, I think it missed an important point about the way the Party positioned itself vis-à-vis Labour. While we needed a competitive posture with enough ‘clear blue water’ between our parties, we also needed an eye on the longer-term, and to avoid high-flown rhetoric likely to unnecessarily inflame underlying mistrust and hostility. If the Lib Dem party survives as a credible political force, it will in all likelihood need to ally itself with Labour to stop the Tories in the not-distant future.

    While not downplaying the differences, I think our leaders could have drawn attention to areas of potential collaboration, such as resisting American pressure to engage in further disastrous middle-eastern wars of the kind opposed by both Jeremy Corbyn and Charles Kennedy – particularly pertinent in view of recent tensions with Iran. Moreover, they should have avoided aligning themselves with the media narrative that Labour was ‘a cesspit of antisemitism’, an argument that does not bear statistical scrutiny. Apart from being unethical, such a posture was likely to alienate potential Labour allies with whom we might want to work in the future.

  • Peter Martin 18th May '20 - 8:40pm

    @ Andrew Tampion,

    “There was no way to stop it whatever we did: so voting in favour was the least worst option.”

    This sentence tells me that you haven’t studied the numbers in any detail at all! Lib Dems and all bar one of the SNP actually abstained!

    So, if no Labour MPs had voted for the election we would have had, on the face of it, 291 Tories + 10 DUP + 9 independents in favour. This comes to 310 which is 12 short of the 322 needed for a majority if everyone else had voted against. I agree that is a big IF.

    But on the other hand it is quite likely that some of the 291 Tories might have not voted for an election if they had thought their vote actually mattered.

    So it would have been close. But it was still worth a try.

  • I’m going to say a few things that may make me even less popular if that is possible.

    I’ve said enough about Revoke and democracy but these are crucial to many voters. The lib Dems are passionate about their values. Ordinary people are too, but unconsciously. They do not go around with liberal values embossed on their foreheads or uppermost in their conversations. They distrust Lib Dems for seeming to place ideology before everything, including common sense.

    This also applies to the apparent obsession with BAME people. The public has always been conservative or reticent about these issues. Too much positive attention can appear as racist the other way. Some within the LD movement have a “full on”” attitude towards the small percentage of gender issues which is a huge turn off for a majority of the public.

    I mention the EU, champions of minority issues and could add a blind support of all things climate related and keen on a universal wage as broad brush policies that worry voters. Add to these, greater access to alcohol and drugs and the voters are convinced that the Lib Dems are an EU loving bunch of Lefties with crazy ambitions and no idea of reality.

    Ok, I’ve laid it on a bit thick to convey the message, but that is where the party is at, today. I don’t think it was like this ten years ago when I used to argue here about other things. I’ve also described why I no longer vote for the party. I hang about here, hope to change things, but see nothing to give me hope at present. It is more like a self-fulfilling close-nit club than a political party.

    Winning votes involves convincing the rest of society that you have the right policies. Being Lib Dem involves convincing yourself that you have the right policies. The latter makes you feel really good but does not win elections.

  • Don’t forget that the Lib Dem members (or, at least those members who attend Conferences) played their part in the election result:

    “As this work was going on – developed at the height of optimism and unconnected from the reality of what the party could achieve on the ground … with a fresh parliamentary by-election victory – the party prepared for the annual conference in Bournemouth.”

    “Over the years since the EU Referendum in 2016, motions had been put to conference in various guises for the party to adopt a stronger position on Brexit, namely that we should have a policy to revoke Article 50. This had previously seemed a relatively extreme policy, but in the light of a potential ‘No Deal’ Brexit, and six million signatures on a Revoke petition, it was gaining traction amongst members and was going to be presented at conference. Not wanting a ‘showdown’ with the party faithful, the leader’s team opted to support a motion that in the unlikely event of a majority Lib Dem government we would revoke Article 50, taking the electoral victory as a mandate. The vote was comfortably carried.”

    “That wishful thinking came to shape the future … that would grow into our key election messages. When the team were later hunting for their campaign messages it was here they came back to – Stop Brexit and Your Candidate for Prime Minister – messages designed for a conference attended by Liberal Democrat party members rather than the general public. When the electorate focused on them for the first time, in the election campaign, they went down badly.”

  • Peter – in your most recent post I would say that almost everything you list has been typical of Lib Dem policy for as long as I can remember. Most of it is effector sensible and if the majority of voters are leery of it then we just need to keep on keeping on: social liberalism usually wins out in the end. It’s a bit like why the Greens carry on: they’ll never have any power to enact their policies but a good number will be taken on by the main parties.

    I speak as someone on the left of the party so I accept that many will disagree, but here goes… the overriding goal of the last year or so should not have been to defeat Brexit but the ruling Conservatives, by which I mean the more extreme (Patel, Raab, etc.) and cynical (Johnson in particular). We never countenance working with Corbyn et al, and they refused to consider any kind of arrangement with us. Madness and stupidity.

    Our role should have been to moderate and ameliorate Brexit, not kill it. If we’re not perceived to be Democrats as well as Liberals then we’re doomed, and so it proved. A pro-Brexit Labour and Lib Dems with something to offer liberal Brexit supporters could have really squeezed the Conservative vote. We could have allowed May her ‘victory’ instead of handing Johnson – the worst politician in living memory – the keys to no. 10.

    But here we are. Let’s get over Brexit (please no more talk of rejoining), ditch any suggestion of a centrist identity and be properly liberal and democratic.

    I won’t pretend to have a clue how to organise leadership, etc. but the current position seems untenable. We didn’t vote for Davey.

  • Thank you predictive text for ‘effector’! I meant ‘perfectly’.

  • @Joseph Bourke – I made my last comment before yours appeared.

    Thank you, I enjoyed reading these quotations. It seems that convincing the rest of society of the value of Lib Dem policies is not a new problem.

    In my experience, people look for common sense. Everyone can identify with a common sense solution to a problem. A party with a common sense solution will have an easy win compared with a party with a crazy solution.

    Sometimes the crazy solution is the correct one. The public must be won over to change its mind.

    If the value system or ideology favours a particular course of action then, just like the crazy solution, it needs to be argued on its merits.

    The ideological policy may or may not be acceptable to the majority. Rejection means a rethink, either to fight harder or change course. Lib Dems have dragged along the bottom of the polls for so long that upsetting the electorate must have dropped below the horizon. This might explain some of the bizarre decisions.

    The bottom line for me is that the party has lost touch with the electorate. It has no idea how it relates to the voters or what the voters think of the party. It is too wrapped up in how well the party is observing its liberal values even if such an exercise is meaningless if the party has no political influence.

  • Lord Ashcroft’s polls and focus groups are quite large and often quite revealing as an outsider’s view. He did an in-depth poll of the Libdem vote in 2013 https://lordashcroftpolls.com/2013/03/what-are-the-liberal-democrats-for/ concluding:
    “The decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives did not so much cause the Lib Dems’ weakness as expose it. In this sense the party’s problem is analogous to the financial crisis. Lib Dem support in the years before 2010 was a bubble; it was over-leveraged, with inflated commitments it never expected to be asked to meet. Worst of all, these expectations were contradictory. A few people voted Liberal Democrat because they agreed with what the party stood for. Some voted because they were not Labour, and some because they were not the Tories. Rather more supported them because they were neither.
    “In particular, and crucially, the Lib Dems attracted a group of voters who did not want to vote for Gordon Brown and thought they had the luxury of voting against Labour without helping to elect a Conservative government. These people are numerous, and furious. What the Lib Dems have achieved, or how different from the Conservatives they can claim to be, is for them neither here nor there. As far as these people were concerned, the Lib Dems’ most important job – their only job – was to keep the Tories out, and now look what they’ve done.”
    “Some of these voters say they would be prepared to listen to the Lib Dems again if they distanced themselves further from the Conservatives, set out a distinctively left-leaning agenda, and found themselves a new leader (not because a better candidate is on hand, but because a sacrifice is needed to show the party’s contrition).”
    “The Lib Dem dilemma, then, is to decide how far to go in trying to win back people who have largely made up their minds to support Ed Miliband, and indeed only voted Lib Dem in the first place as a left-wing alternative to Labour. The more they do so, the less success they will have with the smaller but much more biddable moderate voters, who are also open to the Conservatives, want the party to play a constructive part in government and would be unimpressed with the antics that the angry left require.”
    Lord Ashcroft also undertook an analysis of Labour’s problems in February this year https://lordashcroftpolls.com/2020/02/diagnosis-of-defeat-labours-turn-to-smell-the-coffee/#more-16420. You could change the name from Labour to LibDem and much of the critique would still apply.
    As George Orwell wrote, “who controls the past controls the future” – and the lessons the party learns from this electoral disappointment will depend less on the detail of the review and more on the vision of the leader that takes the party into the next election.

  • Jenny Barnes 19th May '20 - 7:32am

    “Common sense”?
    For every difficult and complex problem there is a solution that is simple, obvious and wrong.

  • @ Peter. I’m going to take the chance that I may have to join you on the naughty step. I agree that we do put more emphasis on identity issues than the average voter. And yet the report notes that our support among BAME voters is weak, certainly less than Labour’s. The report is right, this is a serious problem if we aspire to be electoral force in urban areas. I am not going to fall into the trap of suggesting that BAME communities are culturally homogeneous, but we know that some members of Asian, African and Caribbean communities have strong religious beliefs that include socially conservatives views. Can I respectfully suggest that had a BAME muslim or evangelical christian viewed the first page of our website during the last election, they would not have immediately thought “Yes, this is the party for me”.
    None of this means that we have to abandon our commitment to a fair and inclusive society. Those values are shared by many in the Labour Party and elsewhere, but Labour lead on the issues that concern people of all backgrounds, health, education, welfare. It is a matter of presentation.
    The report suggests early on that the disaster of 2019 was years in the making and yet proceeds to focus on the strategic and tactical errors of the days and weeks leading up to the election. I would have liked a little more reflection on the political identity that we have projected over the past decade and the extent to which that identity resonates with the wider electorate. It would seem to me that not only have we failed to engage with urban BAME voters but we have lost our traditional heartlands, first the Scottish Borders, now the South West. It’s beyond the tinkering stage, but I am not optimistic about root and branch reform.

  • @Gordon, @Katharine Pindar. Regarding the policy making process, which is indeed in need of reform, can I refer you to the suggestion I made in a post back in February. We should copy the Conservatives (can’t believe I just typed that) and set up Local Policy Forums. Based on constituencies or groups of constituencies (Tories have 300 LPF), meet about 5/6 times per year to discus a policy paper sent out from HQ. Whole thing is headed up by a senior party figure (MP/Chair/Peer), with local volunteers to administer the process. Results of meetings are fed back into central party policy process and a copy finds itself on the desk of MPs with responsibility for that area of policy. Could we not devise a Lib Dem version thereof ???

  • Joe Bourke 19th May ’20 – 12:54am……………..“In particular, and crucially, the Lib Dems attracted a group of voters who did not want to vote for Gordon Brown and thought they had the luxury of voting against Labour without helping to elect a Conservative government. These people are numerous, and furious. What the Lib Dems have achieved, or how different from the Conservatives they can claim to be, is for them neither here nor there. As far as these people were concerned, the Lib Dems’ most important job – their only job – was to keep the Tories out, and now look what they’ve done.”……………………

    Another of those darned simple answers….If that was the case why did we poll only 1% more of the share than in 2005 (a fact that could probably be accounted for by ‘buying’ student votes) and end up with fewer seats than in 2005?

  • John Marriott 19th May '20 - 10:04am

    This thread has been largely sackcloth and ashes. Now, I in no way doubt the sincerity of many people, nor their desire to see real meaningful change in the way we do politics in this country (and I mean the whole of the UK). All those words, all those references, all those ideas and ‘policy papers’, all that knowledge! However, having read them so far, I am, as is my way, unfortunately, reminded of a once popular song. This one is from ‘the King’ himself and goes “A little less conversation a little more action”.

  • Peter Martin 19th May '20 - 10:28am

    @ Peter,

    “……..keen on a universal wage as broad brush policies that worry voters. Add to these, greater access to alcohol and drugs and the voters are convinced that the Lib Dems are an EU loving bunch of Lefties with crazy ambitions and no idea of reality.”

    I know where you’re coming from but the traditional demand of the left has been “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible…”

    So we are not asking for a so-called Universal Basic Income. We’ve no problem doing the work providing we get our fair shares!

    Alcohol and drugs are a problem right through society. I would say Tory MPs know more about coke, of the white powder variety, than most. It’s not particularly a left or right issue.

    We don’t seem to have much representation in Parliament now, Tony Blair did a pretty good job of making sure the MPs didn’t reflect the views of Labour members, but there’s still quite a few of us around who haven’t fallen in love with the EU.

  • Peter Martin 19th May '20 - 10:59am

    @ JoeB @expats

    “the Lib Dems attracted a group of voters who did not want to vote for Gordon Brown and thought they had the luxury of voting against Labour without helping to elect a Conservative government. ”

    Are we talking about the 2010 election? If so this can’t be true. The Tories had done a pretty effective job of laying the blame for the 2008 Global Financial Crisis on the Brown government. As if the Labour Government could really do anything to brink Wall St to the brink even if it wanted to!

    But, anyway the charge stuck. A Labour defeat and Tory win was, therefore, very much on the cards prior to the election.

  • John Littler 19th May '20 - 11:55am

    The report was too wordy and much about process. It was almost totally missing the fact that policy is at the heart of the present LibDem problem.

    Even activists struggle to explain what the LibDems stand for now. The wordiness of the report is matched by the wordiness of numerous policy documents that are held virtually in secret. Even the manifesto, which is essentially a condensed version of all of them, was held in secret given that there was no mention of the contents in any publication I could see, other than in the less than sympathetic Daily Mirror. Where were copies of the doc. on sale as they used to be?

    The formerly sympathetic Guardian is now generally contemptuous of the party following the coalition and even the Independent professing to openly Liberal now, is hostile as often as supportive.

    There is no public support for being more purist free market than the core of the Tory party. They own that belief within their internal coalition of views. Even leaving that aside, how on earth could that be the future thrust of the LibDems in the era of big government foisted on us by the virus, or by the huge swelling of the state needed to tackle brexit challenges. The public has moved on from revoking it for now at least.

    Look ahead to the challenges of greening the economy, dealing with the fall out form the new post industrial high tech economy with millions of jobs vanishing. None of this can be addressed without a Social Democratic approach and the public are looking to Government to shield them from the effects.

    The era of the myth of Britain sailing the seas alone is over and never was. Don’t make the mistake of hitching the LibDems to some free trade and free markets version or encouraging a race to the bottom gig economy that is already crushing ordinary people’s lives and hopes

  • I notice Ms Swinson gets a relatively hard time in the Report, but not a word about Baroness Brinton and the Canterbury situation. I remember an excruciating interview involving the Baroness and Rosie Duffield, (still incidentally) Canterbury’s Labour MP based on Lib Dem votes.

    The outcome was a hard faced tribal impression. Expert opinion is that the interview cost the Lib Dems a gain at Wimbledon…… and long term made it that much harder to enter into any meaningful future talks about a progressive alliance with the Starmer led Labour Party.

    No More Unicorns on Twitter: “Did you miss @RosieDuffield1 …
    https://twitter.com › nomore_unicorns › status
    Video for Sal Brinton Canterbury rosie duffield▶
    … councillor in Canterbury. I’d be interested to hear your views on the current spat between Rosie Duffield …

  • Paul Holmes 19th May '20 - 1:06pm

    @J Bourke. As a Party we really need to get beyond fixating on occasional temporary Opinion Poll blips.

    The MRP Poll of June 2019 showed us close to winning over 200 seats and, as detailed in the Thornhill Report, the Party thereafter based it’s entire election ‘strategy’ on this -with the result that we ‘Targeted’ ludicrously unwinnable seats and in reality fell from 12 to 11 MP’s. The brief blip of Cleggmania (following 1 good TV debate but soon to be followed by 2 weak ones) in 2010 led to a wildy over optimistic dilution of our Targeting Strategy and we suffered the biggest net loss of seats since 1970 (until 2015 of course).

    You say that in 2010 Cleggmania ‘suffered once Lab/Cons turned their fire on the Lib Dems’. But that is exactly why these one off blips are so meaningless -they don’t take account of how voters are really going to react during an actual election campaign when our opponents are offering alternatives and critiquing us. Even the journalists start asking awkward questions!

  • Paul Holmes 19th May '20 - 1:11pm

    @David Raw. To be fair the Report does critique the handling of the ‘Remain Alliance’ process although not Canterbury specifically. It also notes the organisational failures of the Party at the top including the large unwieldy Federal Board which simply rubberstamped everything. Remind me, who was the Party President who devoted much of 2015-2016 to a huge, time consuming, internal review including the creation of the Federal Board?

  • Paul,

    I entirely agree that these occasional opinion poll blips are illusory and unsustainable. This was a general point that the Ashcroft analysis in 2013 was making not just about temporary surges in the opinion: polls but the sustainability of support for the party in the long-term generally:
    “Lib Dem support in the years before 2010 was a bubble; it was over-leveraged, with inflated commitments it never expected to be asked to meet. Worst of all, these expectations were contradictory. A few people voted Liberal Democrat because they agreed with what the party stood for. Some voted because they were not Labour, and some because they were not the Tories. Rather more supported them because they were neither.”

  • @ Paul Holmes “Remind me, who was the Party President who devoted much of 2015-2016 to a huge, time consuming, internal review including the creation of the Federal Board?”

    I know who that was, Paul, but I’d be grateful if you could clarify your point please.

    As far as I can observe it, the time consuming, internal review including the creation of the Federal Board, has created a time consuming unwieldy Federal Board…… with a bias of thinking in the direction of London and the South East.

  • Richard Underhill 19th May '20 - 2:10pm

    John Marriott 18th May ’20 – 10:10am
    Don’t bother It would take all day to read. I have tried, but it is much too long and needs a summary. It is not a Liberal policy, which would require the acceptance of numerous charities and pressure groups. Putting lipstick on a pig is not what we are about. The Romans had a two consuls (good) except when there was a crisis, when they had only one, such as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Caesar.
    Andrew Tampion 18th May ’20 – 5:26pm
    “the obsession with the recent General Election” is what it is about.
    We get opportunities when other parties make mistakes.
    The Tories invented the Poll Tax.
    We won elections in Eastbourne, Ribble Valley and Kincardy & Deeside,
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1990_Eastbourne_by-election
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1991_Ribble_Valley_by-election
    https://members.parliament.uk/constituency/1625/election-history

    Labour MPs elected a leader who was not of ministerial calibre,
    often voted against his own government,
    befriended Gerry Adams (SF)
    failed to address the anti-Semitism issue in Labour,
    was the main reason why many normally loyal Labour voters switched to the Tories.
    They did not expel him. They re-elected him as an MP.

  • @ Joseph Bourke – Yes, it is crucial that, as you say, the shadow minister manages both policy development and steers it through conference. That is a fundamentally political process. Much of the legwork can – and should be – delegated to staff and volunteers but the navigation and choices are political and must be accountable.

    Also, it is essential training for rising stars. It is what they would have to do in government so prior experience of picking the wheat from the chaff is essential. Similarly, the leader must learn to orchestrate and motivate the shadow ministerial team, making sure that they collectively hit the key issues. It is where policy meets politics to become vision.

    I have a mental image of the change needed. Imagine several unpowered barges tethered to a tugboat anchored in a tidal estuary like the Mersey. While the tug remains at anchor the barges will just drift with the wind and tide and get into a dreadful tangle; that is where we are now. But once the tug gets underway, the barges will quickly fall into line astern; that is the change we need.

    @ Katharine – thanks for the fascinating detail that the Revoke policy was slipped in without proper debate. It is not the first time a major and controversial proposal has been ‘smuggled’ into official policy without proper (or any!) debate.

    It confirms yet again that, despite its theoretical belief in ‘empowering’, ‘devolving’ etc., the party is actually very top-down. Until we walk the talk it is difficult to see what the party really has to offer. Voters aren’t stupid and I suspect (but can’t prove) that many sense this core contradiction – especially those that lean liberal.

    @ Chris Cory – Yes, there are things we should copy from the Conservatives; in some ways they are indeed more bottom-up and more democratic than the LDs. That should worry us.

    Specifically, we should adapt two: Firstly, LPFs which would fit easily into the approach I outline above (but would not fit in now) and, secondly, the composition of their FB equivalent. It is <50% of the size of the FB and is staffed to coordinate campaigning.

    As President, Mark Pack must make a big call. He can try to save the failed existing approach and go down with it or he can work for positive reform and rise with it.

  • David Garlick 19th May '20 - 8:11pm

    This is a must read. Take the time to do so. Take it all in and then.. Don’t focus on the people who you might feel are responsible, unless you want to ensure that they are around to guide others on how to do stuff/not do stuff. Dont focus on the negative reasons for the report but on the comprehensive and positive routes we need to start out on. Dont listen to the naysayers about anything. Listen to the positive people who want to get this Party electable, successful and elected at local and GE elections.
    This is a massive opportunity to reset, state our case to the public and create a movement that can deliver success for Party Members, Local Parties, the National Party and most of all for the people of Great Britain.
    I have been nursing this boil for long time. It feels great to have it lanced. Every congratulations to Dorothy Thornhill and her team on a job well done, very well done.

  • Peter Watson 19th May '20 - 8:31pm

    @David Garlick “This is a massive opportunity to reset, state our case to the public …”
    That first step is the vital one.
    Do people, inside or outside the party, really know (and agree!) what that case is? For the last four years Lib Demmery has been overwhelmingly about stopping Brexit in an apparent attempt to paper over divisions about the pros and cons of the preceding six years and the extent to which the party is economically liberal. That’s a decade without a clearly communicated identity.

  • Katharine Pindar 19th May '20 - 10:33pm

    Gordon and Chris Cory. Yes, I think the party has indeed become top-down, Gordon, and since the over-large Federal Board is now debating the Thornhill Review, I fear your ideas may not get much further unless there is a membership revolt. I suppose the uncertainty about the September Conference may possibly move things forward. I remember Nigel Jones suggesting recently that we should have a meaty conference discussing the current issues facing the country rather than the usual pre-fixed agenda.

    I hope, though, that any reforms don’t just lead to us having a leader who is given carte-blanche to propose whatever they like, and have a private cabal of advisers as Jo did. The vision that is needed has to be one that first resonates with the party membership, and power has to be shared as you and Joe seem to suggest with shadow cabinet people.

    Chris Cory, I’m sure you are right, we can learn from Tory political practice in some ways. But local Lib Dems to sit down and discuss proposals handed out from HQ? I mean, Lib Dems? Isn’t the appropriate expression, Try herding cats?!

    Peter Watson, I don’t think you are fair to us. We do have identity, and not only in our policies, many picked out in the Manifestos. There was the thoughtful and attractive Demand Better booklet, and Demand Better would have continued to be a preferable slogan, obviously, than JoFPM. Granted, though, that we have to bring our principles and policies into concentrated overarching themes reflecting voter concerns, as the Thornhill review does ask, and some of us (including Joe) are working towards.

  • roger roberts 20th May '20 - 8:49am

    Am I the only one who remembers the media release that the Lib Dems would have information about every elector by the day of the General Election. How many votes did that cost us

  • Phil Beesley 20th May '20 - 1:43pm

    I have to say firstly that the prose bits are well written. There’s a density of ideas and opinions. Maybe too many bullet points.

    It is a 61 page document and if you subtract the index pages and blank space, it’s about 52 pages. There are eight or so pages of i. to xi. recommendations, and you have to think about how how ideas are implemented in the real world. Lots of i. to xi. recommendations are ideal for target achieving and point scoring, whilst failing to acknowledge big problems.

  • Nigel Quinton 20th May '20 - 4:49pm

    I have just finished reading the report and think it is a very sound piece of work, well written and with clear recommendations. Obviously there will be different opinions about its analysis, but it mostly chimed with me.

    A couple of areas that I felt it missed or underplayed:

    1. There was little discussion regarding our stance on (not) supporting a Corbyn-led GNU, and our generally anti-Labour stance from the time Jo took over.
    2. John Curtice’s analysis was that we alienated soft Labour in favour of soft Tory as our more winnable seats were Tory facing. This lost us more votes than it gained according to him, and although he rather dismissed the Revoke policy as having less effect, I think it contributed to this same effect.
    3. The report fails to fully identify the massive rift between the Westminster bubble and HQ and paid staff, and the volunteer organisation that exists mostly outside that bubble.

    But overall, a very good starting point, notwithstanding all the excellent caveats posted above.

    Now, can we have a leader with a marketable vision of Liberalism/Social Democracy relevant to the current century, and the skills to communicate it?

  • I have read the election review-sort of!, and the analyses by the broadsheets to get a feel of what for what the wider world thinks, and am now ploughing my way the various contributions from LDV readers. I am left with a feeling of deja vu. We always promise so much at general elections and always fall short. We always know that the former in- crowd would have done better, but they didn’t. I have no clear vision for the future but would suggest that we should be aiming to attract the haves as well as the have nots, but as a totality. May I politely suggest that , for example, to be asked to support IDAHOT by LGBTQ presumably from a BAME is looking at the problems we face from the wrong end of the telescope

  • Alex Macfie 22nd May '20 - 8:38am

    Nigel Quinton:
    1. We had no choice but to refuse to support a Corbyn-led GNU (which in any case would not have had sufficient support). The Tories’ big trump card, which enabled them to hold on in the Remain commuter-belt seats we were targeting (e.g. Esher & Walton), was “Vote Lib Dem Get Corbyn”. We could say we had refused to help Corbyn into No.10, and if we had not distanced ourselves from Corbyn, we might not even have won the seats in England that we did win. A secondary factor in our Tory-facing targets was the straight Labour→Conservative switching that handed victory to the Tories in Red Wall seats. That sort of traditional Labour voter exists in the south-east as well, so while the Labour vote was squeezed in many seats, the vote didn’t necessarily come over to us.
    2. Alienating soft-left voters was only going to be an issue in those few Labour seats that we were targeting, of which we probably only had a serious chance in Sheffield Hallam. Campaigning against a hard-left Labour party in a general election is always difficult (we don’t even seem to have gained tactical anti-Labour votes from the Tories, as Tory voters either took their cues from the national picture, or didn’t trust us not to prop up Corbyn even if we did defeat the Labour candidate), and thankfully isn’t something we need to worry about next time around.
    3. Absolutely, although in addition our paid staff were mostly overworked and underpaid. You know what you get when you pay peanuts.

  • Ronald Murray 7th Jun '20 - 10:40am

    As a now old and reasonably inactive member of the party. The one thing that strikes me is that we have ceased to be Radical with lots of new ideas we seem to have lost our free-thinking edge. To some extent following the merger with the SDP, we have become constitutionally and procedurally bound. In recent years we seem to have lost our local parties. Our elected members like other parties are constantly insulted here in Scotland by the armchair Nationalists. Who I constantly remind we are a Scottish Party who were the first to demand Home Rule for Scotland. We must break their one party hold in Scotland and the Conservatives in the Westminster. Bring back some real Liberal Policies like Industrial Democracy which I always loved. Even change our name perhaps to the Radical’s. Excuse any rambling lockdown is getting to me.

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