Defining and measuring strategic objectives for the party

I wrote a piece here two weeks ago discussing the need for long term strategic objectives that would be consistent for 10-20 years and would, alongside our values, guide our decision making and enable us to develop a more focussed disciplined organisation. Knowing what our objectives were, and sticking to them over time would also enable us to rebuild a clear positive public identity for the party – in itself something key to long term electoral success and survival. And as others have commented, more important in the leadership election than the choice of specific policies.

The response to the piece might be summarised as “Yes this would be fantastic, but no it’s not really achievable”.  In particular there was scepticism about whether it was possible to move from rather general objectives (5 of which I suggested in my piece) to objectives with enough clarity and measurability to deliver the promise of focus, effectiveness and a long term electoral identity for the party.

This is one step towards showing that this challenge may be answerable. I have taken the five general objectives I set out (relating to climate change, fairness, education, the quality of political discourse, and the UK’s relationship to the world), given them a little more definition where necessary, and proposed how we might measure progress against them (say when we are looking back on the previous 15 years in 2035).  

Let’s start with the objective in relation to climate change – because this is the easiest to define (if not to deliver!)

“Promote /stick to the path to net zero for the UK (by 2045) and the world”

This is as clear as one could reasonably expect. It is not perfect (eg there are important debates about what exactly net zero means for the UK) but it is good enough for long term orientation. It is a long term objective which is not going to go away and needs sustained focus. It is not something we expect the current government to deliver without continual challenge and pressure from us and others. It is measurable.

Can we provide a similar level of clarity for my other proposed candidates for strategic objectives?

Consider fairness.

“Make the UK fairer” is a good general objective – in that it conveys crisply an important priority for our party, which many people will buy into. But it needs small print. Of the many things this might mean I suggest that in 2035 we should be asking ourselves as a party what we have done to;

  1. Reduce the number of people in poverty by 25% – this needs an agreed measure of poverty – of which there are many (a further blog by someone with more specialist knowledge!) and;
  2. Increase the number of those born into low income families who, later in life, are in the top half of the income distribution.

My third proposed objective was “to create one of the best and most inclusive education systems in the world”.

How would we know in our hypothetical 2035 review if we had done this or were moving towards it?

  1. Our schools would be performing well in an international context –eg as measured by the OECD;
  2. The proportion of working aged people who have achieved good further education, apprenticeship or university qualifications would have risen;
  3. We would have at least retained our current high proportion of globally top ranked universities.

Fourthly I proposed we should aim “to keep the political debate in the UK open, honest and fact based”.

This is harder.   One good test is how the public perceives the political process.  Do the majority of people think the system needs a lot of improvement?  Are they are interested in politics and broadly comfortable with the competence of MP’s in parliament?  This is all measured in a number of surveys – for example here.

But this also needs to be supplemented by something more subjective.  In 2035, let us look at the electoral campaign that was fought the previous year and compare it to 2019.  Was it more open, honest and fact based than last year’s malarkey?

My final objective was – “to make the UK welcoming, outward looking, optimistic and engaged in the world”.  There is rather a lot packed into this, and I suspect that defining it properly would take this blog beyond the patience of its readers – which perhaps means that the objective itself is not well thought out.  I will come back to it!

This is still only a beginning.  These objectives pass some tests.  Taken together they are a distinctive package based on our values.  Different enough from the other parties to be distinctive, but not so different as to lack appeal to a wide electorate.   Building on areas where we have (or have had) credibility and expertise.   Mostly clear and measurable enough.  One man’s opinion and needing a lot of further work.  

But I think the party will benefit if our new leader sets out this kind of long term strategic objective when setting our direction, and I am confident that setting out to do this is not a fool’s errand.

* Kevin has been a party member since June 2017, from Kingston

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31 Comments

  • David Evans 4th Jul '20 - 1:57pm

    Kevin, I’m sad to have to tell you, but your article is about as clear as mud.

    Just looking at one point – “Promote /stick to the path to net zero for the UK (by 2045) and the world,” with the added comment from you “This is as clear as one could reasonably expect.”

    What do you mean by “promote/stick to” and how would you objectively determine we had done it (by 2045), in a way that anyone, Lib Dem or not, would be able to assess progress and come to the same conclusion as you?

    PROMOTE

    – Would a mention in every Lib Dem manifesto up to that date suffice, would it need policy papers as well? How many covering what?
    – Should it be in Focus? Regularly? If so how often?
    – Should it be on our website? How prominently? How often updated? With what?
    – Do we need to be in discussions with other important parties (e.g. the Greens, the SNP in Scotland etc) with an agreed joint statement produced at the end?
    – Should every Lib Dem Council Group have a documented Climate Change strategy ready to implement if they take control of the council?
    – If they go into coalition is it required to be adopted in full by our coalition partners immediately?
    – Should all Council Groups have the same Climate Change Strategy, if not how do you determine if each one is acceptable?
    – What if we go into Coalition nationally?

    STICK TO

    Does this mean the path should never change? What is something allegedly better comes up (e.g. An allegedly guaranteed way to capture and safely store CO2)? How do you assess it? What if the assessment is wrong and CO2 can or does escape?

    THE PATH

    – Which path? Where is it set out?
    – Is there a clearly documented path from where we are to where we want to be in 2045, which will get us to Net Zero Carbon?
    – Is this just for the UK? or for the world?
    – If UK only, how do we prevent a government offshoring the problem (e.g. getting China to make our steel)?
    – If we allow offshoring subject to equivalent CO2 capture (by whatever means), how do we assess how much capture is equivalent to the release in China,especially if China say we are trying to interfere in their internal affairs when we ask to check?

    AND THE WORLD

    How?

  • John Marriott 4th Jul '20 - 3:15pm

    It reads a bit like a sermon. As the late George Burns said; “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good end and to have the two as close together as possible”.

  • “Stick to the path for net zero…”
    This is a fantasy objective and is not achievable for reasons discussed many times. It would ruin our economy and cost trillions. But leave all that aside and look at a different aspect.
    It is your objective, perhaps you could quantify the benefits for us? It would be irresponsible not to know the justification for such cost and disruption.
    It has been calculated many times that eliminating UK emissions would make not the slightest difference to the climate. As if to underline this fact, the recent global lockdown has reduced activity much more comprehensively than any climate plan, yet after several months of inactivity, the reduction in global atmospheric carbon dioxide is not measurable. It is not even negligible. The reason for this is also well known.
    About two thirds of all carbon dioxide is dissolved in the oceans and that is where two thirds of new emissions go too. Atmospheric carbon dioxide depends on ocean temperatures (Henry’s Law) and not the other way round. The distribution between oceans and atmosphere involves massive quantities that dwarf human emissions and against which even the biosphere makes a tiny difference. Just look at the Keeling Curve.
    Our CO2 reductions are worthless for other reasons. They are negligible compared to emissions in China and other countries and this trend will continue as countries realise that renewables do not provide a solution. Japan has announced plans for another 22 coal fired power stations and even Germany brought a new 1050MW coal fired station on line just last month.

  • Peter Kenny 4th Jul '20 - 10:49pm

    Yes, it is the work of decades to rescue the Lib Dem’s reputation, so as woolly as possible at this stage is all that’s needed!

  • The objectives discussed are not objectives for the party. They might be objectives for the country.
    We urgently need objectives for the party. What format they should take is an interesting question, but we do need to know why we are doing what we do.
    It would be a good idea to start with deciding how to organise the party to deliver and objectives at all.

  • Peter Martin 5th Jul '20 - 8:08am

    “Reduce the number of people in poverty by 25%.. “

    Maybe the Lib Dem constitution should also read “At least 25% fewer people shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance…..” ?

    Nearly always Lib Dems want to tackle the problem by calculating how much money it would cost, in comparison to what we can afford, to raise benefits, and to introduce new ones such as a UBI to lift everyone out of poverty. So we see proposals such as putting a penny on income tax to “pay for” this or that. This is really missing the point. Money isn’t the real difficulty.

    Money is a creation of the State, so why does it need what it has created in the first place by way of extra revenue from higher taxes? The purpose of taxation, for the Westminster Govt, isn’t to raise revenue to give itself spending money. It’s not a local council on a larger scale. Yes, it wants to provision itself and it can only do that if it can use the ££ that it creates to buy the things it needs. So if government needs soldiers it pays them in ££. If it needs potatoes to feed the soldiers it pays farmers in ££ too.

    So the government needs us to work for it -either directly or indirectly to produce the things it needs. It levies taxes to create a demand for the ££ it creates and so give them a value. We’ll then work to get the ££ to pay our taxes and so give the govt what it wants. Note: It’s the work not the taxes!

    So from the Govt’s POV it doesn’t actually want to eliminate poverty. Sure, it doesn’t want too many people dying on the streets from starvation but it doesn’t want to do anything but the bare minimum to keep everyone alive and be able to work when the need arises. So a minimalist UBI might be possible but it could never be enough to take everyone out of poverty because that would short circuit the entire system.

    So, is taking everyone out of poverty impossible? No. But we do need to think of a different solution which doesn’t create the short circuit.

  • “Reduce the number of people in poverty by 25%”.

    Why 25%, or 24%, or 26% ? Don’t the other 75% matter ?

  • David Evans 5th Jul '20 - 10:29am

    Kevin,

    I note that you haven’t responded yet to my post and those of others. I sincerely hope you do.

    But just to be clear, as a Lib Dem who has been committed to Green Issues for decades, I have seen too much Greenwash trotted out to make people (both inside and outside the party) feel good about themselves. Putting it simply, while totally accepting your premise that we need to do something (actually a massive amount) about climate change, your objective is neither clear nor easy to assess. Less scrupulous people will drive a coach and horses right through it, and you will not achieve what you and I know we need to.

    P.S. Sorry for the Capitals – this is not shouting, but it was the only quick way I can delineate sections in my comment.

  • Absolutely agree with Peter Martin. We need a new way of running the part so that we can discuss how we can, for example, have a discussion on poverty and how to eliminate it as a priority. We have an opportunity with a virtual conference to change the way we run our party.
    Please do not simply have the same format, except that there would be a much greater means of controlling the audience.

  • @ Tom Harney You need to talk to Katharine Pindar and Michael Berwick-Gooding about their motion for a New Social Contract.

    @ Katharine Pindar and Michael BG. On the historical concept of a ‘Social Contract’, (when, if, you get time) have a look at the works of William Cobbett (his attacks on the utilitarians and their 1834 Poor Law ‘reform’). Cobbett is on Wiki for starters.

  • Peter Hirst 5th Jul '20 - 2:24pm

    My issue with long term objectives is that circumstances change both external in events and internal in poll ratings etc. As long as the objectives are flexible and respond to what is possible, they’re to be welcomed. I’ve seen too many times us spoiling opportunities because we either did not spot them or could not adapt in time.

  • Antony Watts 5th Jul '20 - 3:11pm

    OK so climate is ZERO by 2040. Sorry but we need more than (or less than) ZERO to get us out of the mud. We need to reverse CO2.

    And since this is one of the high priorities we need a very clear action plan to do it.

    One that I keep going on about is transport, in particular Electric Vehicles. Transport is 14% of the CO2 we produce, but has gone down only 4% since 1990. Why? Cars, whose CO2 output has gone UP.

    So we need that rapid shift to EVs, for which the Government has said no more sales of fossile fuel cars after 2035 (or 2032). By then we should expect half of our cars to electric – that is over 10 million on the road. the issue is how do you deliver the Gigawatts of energy to keep them moving??? Replacing petrol stations with charge points. At least 10 million will be needed at homes, in the street… and 2 million across our road network for journies over 200 miles.

    That’s 12 million, or 1 million a year to be installed. The DfT/BEIS says there target is 6500. How ridiculous is that!!!

  • Kevin Langford 5th Jul '20 - 5:10pm

    So quite a bit to respond to here – and apologies to some that I was out when this went live!

    To pick up three themes

    1) On net zero (and particularly David Evans point), I think that both the Committee on Climate Change and our own internal policy have set out pretty clearly how one could get to net zero in the UK in terms of territorial emissions. The approaches are not identical – the Committee on Climate Change are aiming for 2050 rather than 2045 – but they have a largely overlapping set of proposals which, if enacted would get the UK to net zero in territorial emissions, and also consider how this is done without simply offshoring the emissions (so that we should progress significantly on consumption emissions as well). I think if we were to successfully hold the government to account to make them follow this path in the UK, and the country therefore ends up getting to net zero we will have acheived a lot. And as I said in the piece (though perhaps not as clearly as I had thought) understanding whether the country is by 2035 on the road to net zero in 2045 (or 2050) is going to be pretty clear.

    Our power to influence emissions by other countries is much more limited – but there are some things we can do – see again what the Committee on Climate Change is proposing in its latest report to parliament https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/reducing-uk-emissions-2020-progress-report-to-parliament/

    2) On poverty reduction – yes 25% is arbitrary. I agree that there is a presentational issue with going for a number that is anything less than 100% – but I also think we need to be realistic if we are setting ourselves long term objectives- possibly ‘very significant’ is better but possibly it is not. What is achievable in a reasonable time scale does depend on the measure chosen – thoguh William may be correct I am not sure there is enough of a consensus here to get to that without some further thought

  • Kevin Langford 5th Jul '20 - 5:11pm

    3) on party strategy; this has many elements. In relation to the points raised
    a) We need to have some consistent, clear and distinctive things to say about where we want the country to go if we are going to rebuild, and we need to persist with these as the basis of what our party is saying for many years
    b) This is not sufficient in itself, but comes before or at least alongside questions of structure, leadership targetting etc. I dont think we will suceed without it
    c) Clearly these objectives will be impacted by events – no sense denying that. One consideration in shaping them is making them as resilient as possible for ‘events’. To take an obvious example, choosing strategic objectives which were focussed around how the country recovers from Covid-19 is not a good idea, because, (most probably), within a few years this will be history. Not to say we shouldnt have policies about this but it wont be a strategic objective

    Will read your piece Michael and let you know my thoughts

  • Antony, where are you going to get the electricity to power millions of cars, especially on a windless night. Where will you get the cobalt, neodymium, dysprosium and all the other rare ingredients?

  • Kevin Langford 5th Jul '20 - 8:54pm

    Picking up a few points that Anthony and Peter have made on cars

    The 6500 target is I think just for rapid chargers on motorways. Most charging will be done at home. So the comparision between 6500 and 10million is not quite as ridiculous as it sounds. That said the government needs to do more quicker, and you would have thought there was a good opportunity to do that now as part of the post Covid-19 stimulus

    We will effectively need to quadruple non fossil fuel electricity to be able to both replace the 50% of electricity that still comes from fossil fuels and to provide electricity for cars and for homes. My understanding is that the consensus is that this is doable with the right policy incentives. The National Grid has done a lot of work on electricity storage and balancing the grid so that electricity is available when needed; there is definitely a requirement for investment here and for some further technological development, but over the time scales we are discussing one would expect this to be deliverable.

    The cobalt supply chain is an issue from a number of perspectives (rate at which it is produced, ethical issues in relation to how it is mined in DRC etc), but there is scope to both expand supply and, most likely, to reduce the amount of it which is required. Though I am not any kind of expert on dysprosium – to take one of the other substances you cite – and I know that building an industry as rapidly as EV’s will need to be built will create other bottlenecks, the price had come down significantly last time I looked, which suggests that the industry is not over worried that this is going to be a critical problem.

  • David Evans 6th Jul '20 - 7:57am

    Kevin, Thanks for the response. but you haven’t answered any of the difficult questions, have you?

    If you choose to refer to “Stick to *the* path”, you have to choose one not prevaricate over two.

    Likewise if you think a party of 11 MPs can in any way “successfully hold the government to account” over a period of 25 years so that “the country therefore ends up getting to net zero,” I really suggest you consider how a party of 57 MPs totally failed to notice the Windrush scandal unfolding under its nose over a period of five years when it was part of the government.

    You haven’t even clarified whether you really mean ‘and the world’ in your statement “Promote /stick to the path to net zero for the UK (by 2045) and the world.”

    Sorry, but what your article shows is not ‘that this challenge may be answerable’ but that you don’t have the answers to even the most basic set of questions raised.

  • Innocent Bystander 6th Jul '20 - 9:37am

    Again, nothing at at all, net zero in fact, on how to revive the our desperate economic situation. I could not find the word ‘economy’ mentioned. Just the usual airy dreaming based on some miracle that will arise from a ‘world class education’ system, presumably because the party is dominated by those from our huge education industry.
    Our world class universities are a liability and the ‘dreaming spires’ should be turned into flats. I am sure that suggestion will affront many but facts are facts. The most economically prosperous countries have their universities at the bottom of the ranking while the top of the list is dominated by those countries in the most precipitous economic decline. Someone should write a paper on how that paradox could be.
    I could do it in one word.
    Hubris.

  • Kevin Langford – Your “objectives” are essentially the same as the “targets” introduced by Thatcher and used by UK governments ever since.

    The trouble is they just don’t work as imagined. If they did, companies could simply declare their “strategic objective” to be doubling profits over X years. Many companies do just that, but it never works.

    For it runs up against Goodhart’s Law, namely that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

    If the target is enforced by sanctions or incentives, people cheat. Hence, for example, grade inflation.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40654933

    This is the result of too many regarding education as self-evidently a good thing for too long and so just throwing money at it without any coherent strategy to guide their plans.

    Strategy in contrast involves working out what is going wrong (while also recognizing the good) and working out a plan to fix it. So, I’m with those who say that the number one priority – which dwarfs all others in importance – is to sort out the party’s wholly dysfunctional approach and organization.

    And the good news is that throughout history and in every sphere, military, business and politics, small challengers have often toppled the entrenched powers of the day with good strategy. The stunning incompetence of the Tories opens the door to their defeat.

  • @ Gordon “The stunning incompetence of the Tories opens the door to their defeat”.

    Indeed, there’s truth in that…… but are you saying the Lib Dems are more competent ?

  • Kevin Langford 6th Jul '20 - 6:25pm

    With this post I will pick up the environmental thread and consider David Evans questions in more detail. I will come back to strategy in a subsequent one.

    1 Party policy is UK net zero 2045, CCC is net zero 2050. CCC has more resources and therefore has more detail behind its plan. I actually think it is more important that we ensure we are taking actions to hit these plans (which are very similar) rather than discussing too much the end date. But if you want one plan for now, the party’s plan is 2045

    2 Yes we do need to have policies to try and influence the rest of the world, but obviously our influence there as a country is much smaller (though we do have some). So yes I do mean and the world

    3 This is proposed as a strategic objective for the very long term. I think it has the right level of precision / definition for this

    4 11 MP’s can only have very limited impact – which means we need to focus on a few big strategic areas – I would choose this as one.

  • Kevin Langford 6th Jul '20 - 6:33pm

    Gordon – I agree with much of what you say, The world won’t turn out as we want it to, and events will present new challenges and force us to modify our plans. And if our organisation is ineffective, then there is little point having big objectives; we wont be able to influence them.

    But I dont think it is enough to say ‘lets get to an effective organisation’

    I think we need to be clearer internally and externally to what end this is to be put. How are we trying to influence the direction and life of our country.

    And I think the answer to this question needs to be broad enough to be consistent over many years and have a wide appeal. But I also think it is useful if we have some kind of yardsticks by which we measure it.

  • David Raw – I’m certainly NOT saying the Lib Dems are more competent. They are clearly far, far less competent than even the low bar set by the Conservatives.

    But by the same token a perfectly achievable improvement in the Lib Dem’s performance would see them leapfrog the Conservatives. And, at long last, I think that there is a reasonably widespread recognition among the membership that things have to change.

    Kevin Langford – I’m NOT saying it’s enough to get to an effective organisation. Far from it. An effective organisation is the just the necessary first step. It would be easy to beat the current ineffective organisation.

    Indeed, I suspect the Lib Dems have always suffered because their existing organisation focusses on policies and doesn’t have a workable way to address the issues of, as you put it, ‘the direction and life of our country’ since policy work is done in ‘silos’ divorced from front line politics.

  • @ Gordon “But by the same token a perfectly achievable improvement in the Lib Dem’s performance would see them leapfrog the Conservatives”.

    I agree about the Tories quite remarkable incompetence, Gordon, (Johnson hasn’t spoken to the First Minister of Wales since 28 May), but you’re stretching the elastic to breaking point.

    You believe ‘a’perfectly achievable improvement’ would allow a party with 11 M.P.’s to overtake a party with 365 M.P.’s. That’s like saying by the end of next week it will be this time next year.

  • David – Sorry I wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean leapfrog in seats but in in terms of setting the agenda/seizing the intellectual high ground.

    Votes would eventually follow but how many or how soon I can’t begin to guess.

    Mind you, if Brexit turns out as I suspect it might, then merely being not brain-dead will take any opposition party quite along way.

  • @ Gordon. Thanks, Gordon. A generous response.

  • Christopher Love 7th Jul '20 - 10:29am

    One-at-a-time objectives won’t work – we live in an interlinked world
    But not difficult to link, even in short-term – climate/pollution/jobs/energy poverty

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