By forcing a narrative, the General Election Review misses an opportunity

I’ve been looking forward to finally having a review of the 2019 General Election to work through. It’s clear that we have many lessons to learn – and that learning must start with a clear and dispassionate statement of the facts, the opinions and the unknowns leading up to our defeat on December 12th.

This review is not that.

The review published yesterday has very little in the way of citations. In multiple places, figures are stated as facts – but we have no way of reviewing those facts. The one place I did find a citation (p43, “The specific research evidence against the ‘Revoke Article 50’ policy”) I don’t believe the cited work is done any real justice, and anyway it is dismissed with an uncited counterpoint.

To provide an example: a surprising omission, for those who remember the circumstances in which we voted for an election, was that it was widely feared the SNP and the Tories would achieve a general election without Labour and Lib Dem support (the legislation only required a simple majority). Now, it is of course debatable whether this would have succeeded (or whether we would have done worse if we voted against it, only to see it succeed anyway), and it would have been useful to have an insight into whether this situation played into the decision (and, if so, how much).

It’s these kinds of facts that I would expect to be in a comprehensive review. I wanted all the things we all “knew” about to be laid out in a clear, dispassionate and comprehensive manner – such that we could interrogate our own opinions, as well as debating with each other from a more united and complete perspective.

The review also consistently lapses into a strong narrative, which seems written to add weight to the specific points the review makes later on (and to validate the conclusions and recommendations). There isn’t really any discussion of counterfactuals at all. The background for the review is literally called “The story of 2019” and has headings such as “Meanwhile, in Westminster”. It’s frustrating, as a reader, to see this – it makes me feel like I’m being led to conclusions instead of having the conclusions demonstrated to me from within the entirety of the facts.

This review needed to bring the party together – first, by presenting the entirety of the relevant facts in a way no reasonable person could disagree with, and then by presenting recommendations that can be debated amongst a membership that are all working from the same foundations.

I fear that, by this measure, the review falls woefully short.

* James Belchamber is Chair of South West Birmingham Liberal Democrats and runs the Lib Dem Digital forum.

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16 Comments

  • Alex Marshall-Lewis 20th May '20 - 3:49pm

    The review does highlight one major issue for us. What is our vision? People can identify socialism and capitalism, they can identify left and right, they can see with a certain clarity the difference between Labour and Conservative. We are shades of grey in the middle and with Brexit seemingly a concluded matter, at least in the short term electorally, what makes us an exciting, attractive option now? The review should be seen as a break from the election and, with regret, from Brexit for now. We need a vision and we need to captivate our audience. People like stories. Let’s start telling some that are worth listening to. There’s plenty of socially liberal causes to start with.

  • James Belchamber 20th May '20 - 3:51pm

    Since writing this I was reminded of the Plus debacle (much of the Plus Executive feeling the need to resign after Phillip Lee was accepted as a party member).

    Again, I raise this not to pass judgement on the situation but because it’s clearly a significant event to many in the party that _seems_ to have been entirely written out of the narrative of the 2019 election campaign by official sources. It is undoubtable that some people would have refused to vote for us, and some members would have been demoralised, due to that action and the fallout from it.

    “The story of 2019” write far too many of our members, supporters and voters out of the narrative – on top of missing facts, circumstances and data.

  • The comments about circs leading to the GE are very pertinent. It seemed to me at the time that as soon as Johnson had been forced to accept that the 31 Oct “dead in a ditch” moment had passed, with the UK still in the EU, that a GE was a near cert given a simple majority was required. What the Libdems did very much NOT need was their fingerprints all over it! A total own goal! I think the Revoke policy cost us a lot of seats. I thought it was wrong for Swinson to not be allowed on the Leaders debate but when she did get on the telly she seemed to be just ripping in to the coalition. I thought she should have defended our time in the Coalition. Why should people vote for her otherwise?

  • James Belchamber 20th May '20 - 3:55pm

    (With this in mind, I would like to commend the efforts of those who worked tirelessly to ensure the BAME narrative was included in this document. Every word written about how our party consistently writes off BAME communities as “too hard” and “not our people” in pursuit of targeting needs to be read over and over by members at all levels until it’s an unrecognisable curio of an unrecognisable former party – whether our own, or whatever had to replace us)

  • Phil Beesley 20th May '20 - 4:50pm

    Alex Marshall-Lewis: “The review does highlight one major issue for us. What is our vision? People can identify socialism and capitalism…”

    Things we forgot about responding politely: ID checks. Creepiness. Surveillance. Skin colour. Age difference: non whites are younger, population density.

    I am a ‘safe’ privileged white man, and ‘socialism and capitalism’ have always been rubbish.

  • ” it was widely feared the SNP and the Tories would achieve a general election without Labour and Lib Dem support”.

    Are you kidding ? It shows how little is known down in the depths of Midlands England about Scottish politics.

    Before anybody replies they should remember that Home Rule for Scotland was official party policy when there was last a Liberal Government. It only failed to arrive because of the onset of WW1.

    GOVERNMENT OF SCOTLAND BILL. (Hansard, 30 May 1913) was introduced by William Cowan, Liberal M.P. for East Aberdeenshire.

  • John Marriott 20th May '20 - 6:31pm

    So, it was all the fault of the SNP that we ended up with a General Election. Come off it. The so called opposition Parties were, in boxing parlance, suckered onto the killer punch when, if they had left their egos at the door, they could have avoided another election. No amount of fine words, posturing or conference motions are going to alter the fact that, when push came to shove, they collectively blew it, a bit like the Lib Dems did between 2010 and 2015.

  • I would be very wary of any report which aimed at “presenting the entirety of the relevant facts in a way no reasonable person could disagree with” which James is looking for in his closing sentences. Politics is about disagreement and how you deal with it. The strength of this review is that the “Story of 2019” is only part of the – er – story. It highlights problems with roots going back beyond three General Elections and while offering immediate recommendations it also begins to chart a course for reconstruction going beyond the next couple of years. It deserves to be taken seriously. Look out for painful disagreements!

  • James Belchamber 20th May '20 - 10:16pm

    >Politics is about disagreement and how you deal with it.

    Politics is about disagreement on what to do, and handling that. Our politics is infected with disagreement about what the facts are (post-truth politics), but that’s not what politics is meant to be about.

    This review was a chance to compile a baseline of the facts, not just the facts that supported the review committee’s conclusions (however much I agree, or not, with them). But instead of setting the record straight, the only played a few of the tracks.

  • The Thornhill review is thorough, deep and has real insight. So naturally it ruffles feathers. We do need to make strategic decisions, what our target is. How we communicate what our simple vision is, please NOT here is the full chapter and verse of the manifesto, isn’t it worthy? No, James Belchamber, there are not lots of citations. It would be naiive of us to present all the detail in an open published review. Let’s all move on.

  • Laurence Cox 21st May '20 - 1:50pm

    I had a vague memory of David Raw arguing exactly the opposite previously:

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/lib-dems-seize-election-initiative-calling-for-prebrexit-poll-on-9th-december-62452.html

    Includes the following: It’s also clear to me that it suits the SNP to have an election on 9 December – a few weeks before the political embarrassment of the former First Minister Alex Salmond’s full trial opens in Edinburgh in January.

    So, we have a clear reason from him for the SNP supporting Boris Johnson’s election.

  • @James Belchamber. 3.55pm, 20/5
    So the final report was a result of serious lobbying the certain groups within the party. Why am I not surprised.
    Has it ever occurred to anyone that our lack of success with BAME communities is not down to some insidious racism within the party but to the fact that they don’t really care for our policies ? eg that many may be more socially conservative and pro capitalist that we are ?

  • James Belchamber 22nd May '20 - 4:01pm

    @Chris Cory “they” being BAME people, “we” being who? There are BAME people in the party.

  • @ Laurence Cox. You’re a very naughty boy for misquoting me, Laurence. I gather Alex Salmond’s lawyer has some spare time on his hands so you’d better look up his number in case you hear from m’learned friends..

    Yes, I said why the SNP wanted an early election, but you failed to quote an earlier post on that thread when I said that from a Lib Dem point of view, “The announcement of 9 December is ill judged for a host of reasons. It would be far better to let the Prime Minister take the blame for calling an unpopular election date”.

    On this occasion, some kind words and a suitable contribution to Captain Sir Tom’s site will be enough.

  • @James Belchamber. “They” refers to the specific group who are the focus of the whole discussion, we refers to the party as a whole, but I suppose it is an implicit reference to those who get to decide party policy.
    This is not some perverse use of grammar, as you seem to imply. Nothing I have said suggests that members of the first group can not be a part of the second, although I thought your whole point was that there was not sufficient overlap between the two. And how does such pedantry progress the argument one way or another ?

  • James Belchamber 22nd May '20 - 11:21pm

    @Chris Cory when you make arguments that sound eerily close to the arguments racists make it pays to be specific. Can you lay out your theory on why BAME people are less attracted to the party than White British people in more detail?

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