Six key points of the General Election Review

The Liberal Democrats’ Campaigns and Communications Committee has published its Review of the 2015 General Election today. Have they correctly analysed what went wrong? The review team conducted extensive interviews with key players and based its conclusions on feedback from 7500 party members. The report doesn’t pull any punches. Many activists will identify with its criticisms and will be heartened by its recommendations. In fact, from what I can see from social media, even some of the harshest critics of the last few years are finding this review to be satisfactory.

And, in the media, Patrick Wintour had this to say:

Some may feel that its key conclusions were stating the obvious. That should inspire confidence in the document. It covers the policy issues that had such a huge impact on our standing, our failure to communicate what we were doing, the weak points in our polling operation and is very critical of the messages we were sending out during the General Election.

Let me say a couple of things about the timing of the report, being published on a Friday. The West Wing’s Take out the Trash Day has forever cast aspersions at anything published on a Friday. However, that analogy would only be apt if we had published a whole load of things knowing that the journalists would only have limited space to write about them. The BBC News Channel says that FE discussed this more than a month ago. That is not true. We discussed it at our meeting on 1st February and gave some fairly detailed feedback over the next week. We had planned to discuss it again and approve the final draft at our next meeting which is on Monday. When it become clear that the news agenda would be dominated by the Europe story, we had a phone meeting on Wednesday evening and went through the draft pretty much line by line. Sal Brinton deserves a medal for chairing that one. It would have been hard enough in person.

We wanted to have a report that proved to the membership that we’d got it, we properly understood what had gone wrong and we knew how to stop it happening again. I hope that people feel that we got there.

Here are some of the key points:

This is not going to gather dust on some digital shelf

One of the things that I as a member of the Federal Executive member was keen to make sure was a clear commitment to properly implementing its conclusions. It’s there, at the end of James Gurling’s introduction:

GE Report implementation

 

There are 68 recommendations in total and some of them are quite complex. It will take more than a spreadsheet coming to Federal Executive meetings to ensure that it is done properly. I envisage that a small team will be charged with driving this forward and making sure that the lessons are learned and remedial action taken.

Some of the major recommendations come around accountability. The review recommends that, effectively, a beefed up Campaigns Committee runs the election campaign. This is already part of the Governance Review’s proposals to be discussed in York then refined and voted on in Brighton in September. This Committee will take responsibility for all elections and treat each of them as important. Local, Scottish, Welsh and European elections should not be seen as “interim” and there must be a strategy for doing well at all levels.

It does not mince its words on the effects of key policy failings

There is no way that the report could ignore the catastrophic effect of the decision over tuition fees and retain any credibility. In fact, it goes into the whole debacle in some detail. It also cites other coalition policies agreed to, such as secret courts, the Bedroom Tax and legal aid cuts as having an impact on our support.

Tuition fees GE Report

What exactly was our message?

Having spent two years with Stronger Economy, Fairer Society  as our key message, we then changed it three times during the last four weeks.

GE Report "Something must be done"

Polling or lack of it

The controversial in-seat polls did have their uses, the report concludes. For example, they identified the SNP’s post-referendum surge in Scotland. They showed us we had to position ourselves as fighting against the SNP, no matter what we had spent years doing before. They were also able to guide targeting decisions and help with local messaging. The biggest mistakes with polling, the report concludes, were just to stop for two years after the coalition was formed and then not to run enough qualitative research or a tracking poll during the short campaign.

Candidates

There were problems with candidate selection in this campaign. The Federal Executive had spent months asking about what was happening and kept being told by the English Party to butt out and that all was fine, only to find that there were still some significant gaps too close to the election for comfort. In fact, by the end of 2014, fewer than a third of candidates were in place. This leads to a recommendation that the committee that runs the election, the beefed up CCC, should be able to intervene, even though candidate selection is a state party issue. That again will be part of the Governance Review proposals at York.

One of the recommendations from the staffing section was that members of staff should not be tasked with sending out what is described as “controversial content to key stakeholders” in their own names. The Committee/committee chair who asks for this must send it out in their own name and take responsibility for feedback. I can’t think of many examples of this happening, but I suspect this is what the team had in mind.

Cultural Change

The team looked a lot at working styles throughout the organisation and identified a need for cultural change in some parts of it. They recommended less directive and more collaborative and innovative styles of working, citing examples where the former approach had failed and the latter had succeeded.

Growing and engaging our membership

One thing I’m particularly happy to see is an emphasis on improving the experience of members and in making sure that membership recruitment is embedded in the party. It needs to be if the leader is intent on us having 100,000 members by 2020. We need to look at what worked in places like Oxford West and Abingdon where their membership sky-rocketed during the couple of years before the election. It makes sense for local parties to actively grow their membership when they can earn money for it – and everything is always easier with more people.

Conclusion

This report  can’t be described as anything other than a very critical piece of work. It wouldn’t be much good if it just bashed, though. It also makes many very practical and realistic recommendations to build electoral success in the future. I hope members feel reassured that the concerns they expressed have been fully taken on board.

What do you think of this? What do you think needs to change? Do you think the review missed anything?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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28 Comments

  • Worth giving a big thank-you to the CCC, FE and other members who oversaw this. Probably a pretty thankless task, even with the lingering optimism of some of the feedback. I hope the party is able to do their work justice.

  • I read it.

    The thing that jumped out at me was the parties policy committee had decided that tuition should be free, the conference thought the same, and voting against any rise in tuition fees had been promised personally by every single MP including the leadership but the leadership still somehow disagreed with this.

    What I can’t understand is how the leadership thought it was acceptable to vote to triple tuition fees when the conference said is wasn’t and they had personally promised not to do it. I believe this has damaged the party more than anything else and that damage will literally take generations to undo. It’s as if the tories after winning the election due to the gray vote on the back of the triple lock promise decided that state pensions needed to be scrapped with immediate effect. I just don’t see how much his is fixable in my life time.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Feb '16 - 7:42pm

    It’s good if the purpose of the Lib Dems is to merge with the Labour Party and re-build as a centre-left party. To which I would add: maybe get into power around 2030 and periodically get defeated by the Tories and then win again.

    But if the purpose of the Lib Dems is to win a majority of their own and stop the country from lurching left and then right then the report seems to fail in quite a big way.

    I can’t get motivated by left wing politics, but plenty others can.

  • Lester Holloway 19th Feb '16 - 7:51pm

    A useful and honest assessment of the election campaign and everything that fed into it. However it seems like this is a ‘part 1’ with a ‘part 2’ looking at factors to do with our party, and our conduct and achievements in coalition, that appealed or didn’t appeal to different parts of society. There is a whole piece of work looking at BAME communities for example, and how we managed from a low base to see a jump in support in 2010 and how we lost most of them by 2015.

  • Martin Land 19th Feb '16 - 7:52pm

    A smooth, creamy fudge with a glaze of whitewash.

  • @Eddie Sammon

    The lib dems don’t seem likely to get into power on their own now. With 8% of the vote vote, eight seats and zero safe seats it is quite likely that the party will go the way of the SDP.

    The report makes the reasons for this clear. Destroying the party’s voter base over tuition fees and other (less serous) things.

    The previous leadership might have done this despite the promises that they personally made to their constituents and despite the will of conference. But it wasn’t just the leadership that did this, it was every MP that broke their pledge and the members that supported them doing this. Therefore this can’t simply be fixed by disowning the former leadership. If the Scottish elections bring more bad news this should not be on Tim or Willie, I still don’t think the party has fully experienced the full consequences of tuition fees.

  • I think the review is an excellent start.

    I must admit, that with so many failings evident in 2010-2012 (many of which were not only visible with hindsight), it’s remarkable we let the senior team remain in power. We need to get more hard nosed; we should have been prepared to boot them out – especially when the opportunity presented itself in 2014.

  • Bill le Breton 19th Feb '16 - 9:20pm

    Couldn’t we confine ourselves to keeping the comments on this report in one place. Surely that should be below the piece written by the Chair of the Team which wrote the report who has posted on this site to hear our views?

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/report-into-the-2015-general-election-49482.html#comment-394892

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Feb '16 - 9:28pm

    Rsf7, my preferred route would be to create splits in Labour and the Tories and get big defections from both.

    William, we should also remember that 2010-12 was before Cameron started panicking about UKIP and before modernisation was thrown out the window. Broadly.

    Regards

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 19th Feb '16 - 9:31pm

    Oh, Bill. We just can’t win. We keep comments in one place, we’re told we’re stifling debate. We split them up, people complain too because they tell us we’re diluting debate.

    I tend to think our readers are intelligent enough to comment where they see fit.

  • Eddie Sammon ” Rsf7, my preferred route would be to create splits in Labour and the Tories and get big defections from both.”

    There may well be big splits in the Tories as a result of the EU Referendum. But why would those defectors come to the LibDems rather than, say UKIP? And there may well be a split in Labour between the Blairites and theCorbynistas but again, why would either of those groups of MPs defect to the Lib Dems, the fifth party in politics? It is hardly going to be a good career move. Tim Farron hinted that this might happen last Summer but there hasn’t been a single defection because, quite frankly, neither the Corbynistas nor the Blairites are a good fit for the LDs. But perhaps I misunderstood you?

  • “This report can’t be described as anything other than a very critical piece of work.”

    Yes, but too much of the criticism is levelled at the public and the media, who were all too dim to be able to “understand” just what a great job the Lib Dems were doing. That’s how the executive summary reads. It’s a bit of a whitewash really, and only mentions in passing the “Rose Garden effect”, which in my view was at least as significant as the tuition fees debacle (an opinion consistent with the timing of opinion poll movements during 2010).

  • Barry Snelson 19th Feb '16 - 11:16pm

    Pleasantly surprised.
    This must have been a very tricky thing to write (with the party looking over their shoulder) and it’s a commendable balance between acknowledgement of failures and recognition of achievements. Most interesting will be how the press and public respond. With some generosity I hope.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Feb '16 - 11:32pm

    Hi Phyllis, mine is a long-term plan (that it seems some others share). I’m a centrist by instinct and it’s what I think is the best strategy too, broadly, so I’m going to criticise anything that wants to re-build the party on the left or even the right. Regards

  • Peter Watson 19th Feb '16 - 11:53pm

    We wanted to have a report that proved to the membership that we’d got it, we properly understood what had gone wrong and we knew how to stop it happening again.

    The challenge the party faces is putting itself back into a position where these lessons can be applied. Structural and procedural reform (and more female candidates, to pick up another ‘trending’ topic) will not help unless the party can put forward a consistent set of policies and a message that acknowledges the last five years but clearly shows a direction of travel.

    P.S. I share Bill le Breton’s frustration that sometimes discussions on LDV get spread across multiple threads because an editor creates a new article rather than joining in an existing discussion. In this instance, perhaps James Gurling’s announcement of the report and Caron’s summary could have usefully been combined to encourage discussion in one place about an important topic.

  • Caron, you get accused of stifling debate when you stifle debate – By running a single thread, then refusing to run a further thread on a parallel topic a week or two later, thereby ensuring that passions on the topic at issue will appear to fizzle out.

    On this occasion you have run two items on the same subject on the same day, which is an entirely different kind of unhelpful practice, does nothing to enhance debate, and just makes for confusion between the two comment threads. Of course it was reasonable for you to write your own separate article. What you didn’t need was a separate set of below-the-line comments.

  • Geoffrey Payne 20th Feb '16 - 7:03am

    What I am not reading here – and I haven’t read the report – is anything about the ideological convergence between the Liberal Democrats and the Tory party that took place from the influence of the Orange Book and electing Nick Clegg as leader of the party. It was Nick Clegg’s decision to agree to George Osborne’s timetable for budget deficit reduction that put pressure on our ministers to support many of these unpalatable policies.
    It was also absolutely striking how it was on the bedroom tax how the opponents which included the Child Poverty Action Group were simply not believed, whilst the Tory narrative on how it would work was trotted out as though it was our own.
    Another huge mistake was the formation of the quad in which Nick Clegg directed appointed Danny Alexander – an MP from the same wing of the party as himself – into a hugely powerful position within government. The workload on the quad was enormous and there was not enough time or expertise to discuss complex policies such as the NHS reforms. Ideologically these reforms fitted into the small state ideology of the Orange Book so it was assumed that they should be supported.
    We are sometimes told that MPs should have a privileged position in policy making within the party as they were elected by voters. Yet by 2015 the party was weak not through lack of MPs but through lack of activists on the ground. This balance of power within the party has to be reconsidered after this devastating defeat.

  • John Barrett 20th Feb '16 - 11:32am

    Geoffrey – There has been also little or no understanding in the report, or anywhere else, of the disastrous effect the quad and the decisions it made had on the party.

    The two most important people in the Treasury; Danny and George Osborne, having been appointed to the top of the most important government department in the middle of a global economic crisis, not because of their experience or skills, but because they were best friends of their party leaders was not a good start.

    Then for the same two to join their respective leaders in the quad, was not going to lead to any hard bargaining on either side. Their loyalty to Clegg and Cameron was the reason they were there in the first place.

    Neither had the depth of economic experience or the correct background or track record of success for the jobs they ended up doing in the Treasury and both were simply rewarded for loyalty and support for their men when they became party leaders. This was no surprise, as it has happened in previous governments and will no doubt happen again.

    Why it created such havoc for the Liberal Democrats was that our half of the quad effectively decided major matters of policy on behalf of the entire party.

    So, when Nick did not get his way with the party over Tuition Fees in the election campaign, he could easily change that through the quad. Instead of convincing the party, he only needed Danny to agree.

    The fact that all this and more is missing from the report is just one of its weaknesses.

  • “There are 68 recommendations in total and some of them are quite complex.”

    One of the reports authors said a few weeks ago there were something like 120. Have some been combined or are there some unpublished.

    I simply don’t trust the FE to make sure this happens given their previous record. There is no published implementation plan or outline proposals for how this will happen other than very vague generalisations. James Gurling said almost exactly the same after the 2014 welcoming the fact that the FE had endorsed the report in full. That wasn’t implement and people in senior positions kept saying it was being even though the slightest attempt at scrutiny could show that it wasn’t.

  • Geoffrey Payne sums it up perfectly though it was a welcome surprise (thank you Martin Todd) to see the report address the disastrous impact of the party becoming identified with the Lansley “reforms”.

    Amusing to see all the recommendations for yet more training. No amount of people skills training can salvage us unless we resolve not to endorse nasty policies that contradict our history and values! Nasties like our MPs voting to abolish the Health in Pregnancy Grant on the very centenary of Lloyd George introducing Maternity Benefits.

  • David Evans 20th Feb '16 - 4:56pm

    Bill, I wonder if we will get as many articles on this as the Fifty Shades of AWS that LDV has treated us to? The report doesn’t indicate any of the disaster being due to insufficient women candidates! Deckchairs anyone?

  • Be fair Ruth, all of us in the public sector know that we are only one more training course away from finally sorting the whole thing out. Why should the Lib Dems be different ?

  • David Evershed 20th Feb '16 - 5:59pm

    The report fails to recognise that the 2015 election failure was brought about by the 2010 election decision to have a wildly unrealistic policy to eliminate tuition fees (over time) and then for the election candidates to pledge to vote for such a policy.

    Once in government the party was always going to be unable to honour the pledged policy.

    The lesson is not to make wildly unrealistic spending promises to try to win an election by bribing parts of the electorate. It may have a very short term benefit but it generates long term damage.

  • Ruth Bright 20th Feb '16 - 7:22pm

    Chris Cory – if only Asquith and Lloyd George had been sent on the “Dealing with Difficult People” training course at party conference. History could have been so different!!

  • Simon Banks 1st Mar '16 - 11:17pm

    Patrick Wintour should know where to put an apostrophe – unless he thinks the report was the work of one lonely Lib Dem.

  • David Evans 1st Mar '16 - 11:58pm

    David Evershed – you are mistaken. The manifesto policy was to eliminate fees and was fully costed and could have been afforded. Getting the Conservatives to agree to it would have been difficult, but Nick played his hand so badly in the coalition negotiations we were lucky to get a £9,000 limit. As for the pledge, that was different – it was to vote against increases. The fact Nick chose to break his word on that is what has virtually destroyed this party as an electoral force in the country.

    That is something Lib Dems have worked for 40 years or more to achieve and it is something he will never be forgiven for.

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