Author Archives: John Grout

Accountability in the age of Covid


So now we know: no new leader for at least another fourteen months. This comes on the back of the cancellation of the Spring Conference, and talk of the cancellation of this Autumn’s conference as well.

Cancelled along with the Spring Conference, of course – and up for re-cancellation if Autumn is indeed cancelled as well – were the party’s sorely-needed consultative sessions on our values, on the 2019 general election, and on our 2019 manifesto, as well as the regular opportunities to hold party bodies and office-holders to account. The decision to cancel the Spring Conference, and any similar decision to cancel Autumn (as currently feels likely) means that we will not have a meaningful forum to discuss, debate and scrutinise the party’s general election performance until long after that election has receded over the horizon behind us.

The decision to postpone the leadership election again, this time for an unprecedented fourteen months, is a remarkable departure from the letter of the constitution, Article 18.2 of which only allows for a maximum extension of one year, and no article of which allows the Federal Board to vary this provision. Perversely, this means that our acting leader will not only remain in position for over a year, but will be acting leader for three times as long as the woman who beat him in the last leadership election. More concerningly, it means that we will not have a permanent leader in place for the huge round of local, regional and devolved elections scheduled for 2021.

Any one of these things – the catastrophic performance in the 2019 general election; the shocking loss of a popular newly-elected party leader in a general election; the decision to cancel Federal Conference at next-to-no notice; the decision to postpone a leadership election beyond the period set out in the Federal Constitution, leaving us vulnerable in the largest round of non-Westminster elections in a political generation; potentially, the decision to cancel a second Federal Conference on the trot – should rightly merit a great deal of introspection, and robust and extended scrutiny from party members.

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A practical, radical response to the election result

We see you. You, who would return our party to the comfortable, squishy, managerial centrism of the past. You, who would lay the blame for our defeats solely at the feet of a leader who had the temerity to be a young, outspoken woman. You, who are desperate to hark back to the 1990s when the 2020s are upon us in days. We see you and we will resist you, as we have at every previous election review.

It would be wrong to apportion any election result to a single cause. But let us not forget that Bollocks to Brexit was …

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Four remarkable years of Lib Dem Newbies

One thing that the last few years in politics have taught me – among others – is that, surprisingly, computers can’t count.  Or at least, Facebook’s computers can’t reliably tell you how many people are in a group, once it gets above a certain size.

On the morning of the 8th  May, 2015, I was absolutely devastated.  Not only had my party been all but wiped out, but Liberalism had been written off and my non-Lib Dem friends, while supportive of me, struggled to hide their belief that the drubbing was deserved.

And then something odd happened: thousands of new members flocked to the party, inspired by our principles and Nick Clegg’s remarkable resignation speech.  As Sal Brinton, our redoubtable (and now outgoing) President wrote, Libby, our popular bird-of-liberty logo, had become a phoenix.

One of those new members, joining a grieving and shell-shocked Lib Dems, started a Facebook group for newcomers to orient themselves, meet other members, and get involved in rebuilding our shattered party.  These ‘Newbies’ were a few-hundred strong, and started attending pints and meetings with Lib Dems who were surprised and delighted to welcome them. The group grew and required moderating, and soon, I and a few others were recruited by other volunteers, to help Admin the group and keep it ticking.

At the time, I think we all expected Lib Dem Newbies to last a couple of years and then peter out – the membership would fall back, our volunteer Admins would move on.  Members now established in the party (or leaving it, having decided it wasn’t for them) would drift away, and the group would slip quietly into obscurity. These things have a shelf life, after all.

…British politics has a funny way of subverting expectations.  Successive surges – particularly after the second shattering defeat of the Referendum – have seen us welcome thousands, and four years on, we are on the cusp of welcoming our eight-thousandth member.  We ask new applicants what inspired them to join, and where they are – and if, as is sadly often the case, they are yet to make contact with their local party, we’re so big now that someone else in the group is usually in their area with the right contact.

Since 2015, we’ve welcomed, linked-up, informed, and encouraged our new and returning members, and longer-serving ones too.  I’ve welcomed at least two “Newbies” who joined under Jo Grimond and felt reinvigorated by our energy, proving that Newbie-ness is about mindset, not joining date.  We’ve also helped Newbies get elected to everything from parish councils, to principal authorities, to Westminster, and now the European Parliament.

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What happens in a Lib Dem leadership election?

Since the first of the great membership surges in 2015, which coincided with the last leadership election, we have enjoyed at least three further surges, taking the party to comfortably more than 100,000 members.  But as a result, fewer than half of our members actually took part in the passionate and sometimes heated contest between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb.

So, what happens in a Lib Dem leadership election?


After proposals to extend the range of possible candidates failed at last year’s Autumn Conference, the rules around candidates are unchanged – candidates must be sitting Lib Dem MPs in the House of Commons, who are nominated by their fellow MPs and backed by at least 200 members from at least 20 local parties. The nominations must all be in by the 7th June.  Candidates have until 16:00 on the 8th to withdraw after this time – at which point, the official candidates will be declared.


Again, after proposals to extend the franchise to supporters failed at last year’s Autumn Conference, in order to vote in the leadership election, you must be a member of the Lib Dems before midnight on the 7th June.  You’ll receive an online ballot on the 1st July, if you have given the party an email address; members without a known email address will have paper ballots issued on the 28th June.  If there are more than 2 candidates, voting will be by instant-runoff AV (so, ranked preference).


The ballot – both online and postal – will close at 15:00 on the 23rd July.  Votes will be verified and counted at HQ, and a winner will be announced the same evening.


At time of writing, ten hustings in ten regions have been organised, and more will likely be planned – you can find a full list here.  If you want to attend, make sure you use the RSVP link so the organisers ensure there’s enough space – in previous years people have ended up sitting in the aisles!  Previous contests have seen online Q&As and virtual hustings as well, and it’s easy to see how Lib Dem Newbies might end up hosting one, for instance, as might the Green Lib Dems and other affiliated organisations.

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So how is our vote share shaping up?

Earlier in the week, on a whim, I collated figures for every vote cast so far this year,* by party, expecting either the Tories or Labour to lead by a decent margin.  The actual result surprised me – prior to this week’s by-elections, the Lib Dems were leading Labour by over 800 votes despite standing in barely over half the contests.  Even after those by-elections, which were decidedly mixed for the Lib Dems (1 hold, 1 gain, 2 losses, 1 no-show), we’re still leading the pack, 500 or so votes ahead of Labour.

I hadn’t planned to share this graph again for a while – it’s nice, but doesn’t really compare to the cumulative by-election changes graphs myself Brian and I have been preparing since the summer.  But, next week we have six by-elections – one on Tuesday (!) in Basingstoke and five on Thursday.  Two of those are Parliamentary, in Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland.  You may have heard of them.  Both are in “Labour heartlands” where we “can’t win”.

Here’s the thing, though: we are.  We’ve stood in five fewer elections than Labour this year, and we’re still beating them.  Labour’s largest win so far is smaller than our second-largest, their second-largest is only 5 votes more than our third-largest – and our third-largest win was Sunderland/Sandhill, which made jaws drop up and down the country.

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The #LibDemFightback: things to look for on May 5th

Eastleigh HQ leaflets

I’ve never been one for negativity.  I’m all for realism, however stark – provided that one is permitted to also consider how to change one’s circumstances if the current ones are dire.  This is one of the many reasons why the Lib Dems attracted me as a party – evidence-based policy, and a ‘well, let’s fix it’ attitude to tackling problems, offering solutions and alternatives instead of simply complaining.

The membership surge after last May’s elections, and the ensuing #LibDemFightback have been extremely heartening.  Outside the comfort zones of the Liberal Democrat community, the evidence for that fightback is there, but the new reality we face is that it is much harder to make ourselves heard than it was before last May.

So, I thought I’d try some evidence-gathering myself from council by-elections; you can see what I found here.

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The Nitty-Gritty: Evidence of the #LibDemFightback

Lib Dems love facts and figures – and evidence-based policy – so I thought I’d do some digging of my own to see how the #LibDemFightback is looking in the run-up to May’s elections.  While we only have opinion polls to guide us for the devolved assembly elections, there have been dozens of council by-elections already in 2016.

This year, up to February 19th, Britain Elects  calculated that Lib Dems stood in 17 first and second-tier council by-elections across the country where the party had contested the seat last time around – fewer than the Conservatives or Labour (26 and 21 respectively), but half again more than UKIP (11).  However we were the only ones with a positive average swing – +4.2%, versus average swings of -0.97% for Labour, -1.26% for the Conservatives, and a wince-inducing -8.06% for UKIP.

Since then, by my count, we have stood candidates in ten out of thirteen by-elections, gaining two, holding two, losing none.  Seven were in wards where Lib Dems stood last time – these averaged a +11.73% swing (the only fall was in Whissendine (Rutland), where we were the prohibitive winners with 65.1% of the vote, despite a -0.7% swing).  In the three where we stood anew, we netted 4% in Bloomfield (Blackpool), 8.4% in Ashby-de-la-Launde (North Kesteven), and a stonking 46.5% in Alderholt (East Dorset) – an 8-vote near-miss to the Tories at the first attempt.

What does this tell us?  Well, three things leap out at me.

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Opinion: The Flame

phoenixWe are rebuilding.  Nick Clegg said in his resignation speech that we face the task of nurturing the flame of British Liberalism.  But as we rebuild, what does – what should – British Liberalism mean?

This seems like something worth discussing.  We are a broad church with many roots: our forebears were Liberals and Social Democrats, but we incorporated the Pro-Euro Conservatives too, and many more of no former alignment.  So, we’ve got this flame of British Liberalism, and if the attitude of the party members and our spectacular membership surge are anything to go by, it shouldn’t be going out any time soon.

Right.  What does British Liberalism mean to me?  For me at least, two things spring immediately to mind before all else.

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Opinion: On the campaign trail with Jenny Woods and Meri O’Connell in Reading

Jenny Woods and Meri O'ConnellLast September, the Greater Reading party was gearing up to select its Prospective Parliamentary Candidates for the two seats in our area: Reading East and Reading West.  It was the fevered period just before the Scottish referendum, yet discussion about the looming General Election was increasing, including discussion of the number of women in Parliament and ongoing debate about women in the Liberal Democrats in the light of past events.

I was therefore delighted when Jenny Woods and Meri O’Connell were selected, enthusiastically and overwhelmingly, to stand for Reading East and Reading West.

Jenny is that rare thing in politics (less so in Lib Dem politics, it seems!) – a scientist, specialising in sustainability and policy making.  She joined the party in Reading in 2010 out of sheer frustration with how politics deals with science and funding.  She made her mark on the 2012 Spring Conference by proposing a policy amendment against the incipient Snooper’s Charter.  It was thanks to her that Julian Huppert and the rest of the party were able to take up the fight and kill it in Parliament; it is directly thanks to her efforts that the Snooper’s Charter and its cynical successor are not law.

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Opinion: We need to get better at talking up our achievements and rebutting the lies

Liberal Youth at Eastleigh - Some rights reserved by Helen DuffettI joined the party in the autumn of 2012; I did so more out of interest than any burning zeal, on the basis that the Liberal Democrats were the party I disagreed with the least profoundly, on the smallest number of issues.  In that time I’ve met wonderful, inspiring people, and come to feel increasingly that joining this party was one of my better ideas.

We are at a time of profound reflection in the Party; with that in mind, in the …

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Opinion: We need Digital Liberalism think we Liberal Democrats are missing a trick.

There was recently a revamp of the party website – clearly designed for a digital age, and to be used by touchscreens. I discussed it with a friend, who observed that, for all the party’s talk of openness, transparency and frankness with the public, there are still areas of the site which are off-limits, behind a membership wall. I said that it stands to reason that parties keep their forums, campaigning, electoral and training materials private – nothing sinister, just sense-making common practice. And then it hit us: why not say so, in so many words – on the party website, what it is that we’re hiding? A small addition – a cheap way to reframe the debate and make ourselves clear; the only voices raised on a subject that other parties are content to ignore.

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Recent Comments

  • Justin
    Housing First has an interesting, even radical approach to housing the homeless, in particular their first principle of not requiring or assessing for housing r...
  • Ryan
    I rather feel this is the worst of both worlds. The amount per individual is too trivial to have any meaningful or measurable impact on that child but in tot...
  • Peter Watson
    Where does a "flagship" policy like this one for catch-up vouchers come from? Members seem too surprised for it It to have been something they voted for, or was...
  • Fiona
    It's disappointing that a number of people who, either because they weren't paying attention, or because it's what they'd like, or they enjoy a bit of fake dram...
  • tim rogers
    Complete waste of time resources and money to stand in hopeless seats. Just what the Conservative party want....