Mark Pack hits back at activists who called for bolder, distinctive offer to voters

Last week we brought you news that 30 senior Liberal Democrats had written to the Guardian to say that the party should have a bolder, more distinctive offer to voters.

It’s only fair that we bring you the party president’s letter to the Guardian, defending the party against these claims. Mark Pack said:

Far from being too cautious, the Liberal Democrats under Ed Davey have shown incredible boldness (Lib Dems are being too cautious, say senior party members, 29 November). We are the only party committed to 0.7% on international aid, to proportional representation and to combating climate change. Above all, we are the only party to have a real plan to transform our broken relationship with Europe.

With Ed Davey as leader, our plan to get this Conservative government out of power is working, the team is united and we are winning again. Since 2020, we have taken the fight to the Conservatives – in record-breaking byelections in former safe seats from Buckinghamshire to Shropshire. We have added swathes of councillors across the country. The Liberal Democrats are the only party that wants to radically change the system from vested powers to fairer votes. We can only achieve this change through winning elections, with more MPs, more councillors, more assembly members in Wales and more MSPs in Scotland.

However, two other letters from Liberal Democrats on the same day had a different view:

Alan Butt Phillip took issue with the Party’s new slogan:

When the voters are crying out for radical change, the Lib Dems are calling for a “fair deal for Britain” – which has about as much electoral appeal as a pink blancmange.

Regular contributor to this site Peter Wrigley highlighted the radical policies we already have. He sees the problem as us being too shy to talk about them:

 Tucked away in an otherwise bland policy document passed at conference, For a Fair Deal, are the following gems: we shall protect the BBC and Channel 4; scrap the Illegal Migration Act; champion the Human Rights Act; and restore the overseas aid budget to 0.7% of GDP. I hope these exciting proposals make it to our manifesto and our candidates highlight them, rather than keep quiet about them for fear of scaring off floating voters.


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  • Steve Trevethan 6th Dec '23 - 6:25pm

    Anything bold on socio-economics?

  • Graham Jeffs 6th Dec '23 - 7:03pm

    I suppose Mark Pack feels obliged to support the status quo.

    “Above all, we are the only party to have a real plan to transform our broken relationship with Europe.”

    Except that we don’t tell anyone about it! Except that the electorate at large have no idea what we are all about. Except that we have absolutely no definition and people do not know what Liberal means anymore. Not a recipe for real progress.

  • Martin Gray 6th Dec '23 - 8:13pm

    Does Peter Wrigley really think they are policies that will get the voters flocking to us …?
    And what is this plan on EU relations – work more closely with Europe . Neverending word salad ..
    NHS , Economy. & cost of living , immigration, crime and Asb , eduction, housing …etc etc Those are what will decide the next election…Being nice to the EU & and maintaining the overseas aid budget – just doesn’t resonate with the average voter in thr street…

  • nigel hunter 6th Dec '23 - 11:35pm

    We have policies thatwill resonate with voters BUT THEY HAVE TO BE SHOUTED OUT ON THE ROOFTOPS Bold, even crazy stunts have to come to the fore to get media coverage for,indeed,we do NOT seem to be pushing thru when we are only polling 10 to 12% at best.

  • Katharine Pindar 7th Dec '23 - 12:39am

    Nigel Hunter is right. We do have to shout out about our bold and distinctive policies. The lack of understanding of them among the voters, Mark, is shown by the fact of the continuing polling, as you know well, of only 10-12% nationally. We surely need a co-ordinated national campaign plan by which our councillors and activists all over the country will be briefed on the bold and distinctive policies they can then relate to their own areas.
    Such as? We don’t have anything more radical and persuasive than the policy hidden away in the Pre-Manifesto motion passed at Bournemouth, to ‘Repair the broken benefits social net and set a target of ending deep poverty within a decade.’
    What do we mean? We mean everyone struggling to manage with the current inadequate welfare benefits should have the £20 given then taken away by the Chancellor (now Prime Minister) back to help them with the cost of living. That this should be the beginning of us FIGHTING POVERTY in earnest, till destitution and the need for food banks disappear. Fix poverty, folks. And the housing black hole. And support local government services that are crumbling. You can add more!

  • Peter Watson 7th Dec '23 - 1:30am

    “Tucked away in an otherwise bland policy document passed at conference … are the following gems …”
    In 2016, party conferences voted for radical policies with regards to grammar schools and faith schools which were promptly forgotten or deliberately ignored, so it’s difficult to get excited about what other “gems” the party might claim it wants but which would frighten its affluent Blue Wall targets.

  • It seems to me that one of the problems with talk of radical policies is that such talk appeals mostly to political activists: Activists of all parties are typically fired up with dreams of how they want society to be different from today, and how these radical changes are supposedly going to fix all out problems. (And yes, I’m probably a bit like that myself too 🙂 ). That’s why talk of radical policies is so popular on a site like LDV which I’d guess is mostly read by activists.

    Unfortunately for those of us who think like that, the average voter doesn’t usually care about radical policies or about lots of change: Most voters basically want a Government that’s competent and lets them get on with their lives. That’s the dilemma that party leaders and party strategists face. I’d hazard a guess that that’s a big part of the reason why the LibDem leadership act in the way they do.

  • Robert Hale 7th Dec '23 - 8:46am

    One of the national campaigns we could and should be running is the availability of cash and banking services in local communities Again on the news this morning we hear that there are still FIVE million people who rely totally on physical cash for their day to day purchases. They have resisted, for many reasons, the bullying of banks and some retailers to move away from cash and we should be sticking up for them.

  • Julian Tisi 7th Dec '23 - 9:42am

    @Simon R “the average voter doesn’t usually care about radical policies or about lots of change: Most voters basically want a Government that’s competent and lets them get on with their lives”
    @Martin Gray “NHS , Economy. & cost of living , immigration, crime and Asb , eduction, housing …etc etc Those are what will decide the next election”

    Both IMO bang on.

    For a Fair Deal includes a few radical gems, yes. But it’s competent and strong on the key areas that matter to voters, as opposed potentially to us LD activists. Bluntly, as much as we might like talking about PR or UBI, most voters don’t.

  • I’m surprised to hear that the Green party doesn’t support PR, 0.7% and action on climate change.

  • Surely a policy is only meaningful if you talk about it, if its buried within a document but never discussed that is not enough. Also the issues that “decide” a national election are not the same necessarily as what decides “blue” and “orange” wall” seats which have a different demographic to “red wall” seats. The economy and Brexit regret are very relevant in the former if not the latter.

  • Gwyn Williams 7th Dec '23 - 12:00pm

    I was going to rather sarcastically point out that the Welsh Assembly was replaced by the Senedd, which means Parliament in English, in 2021. However it illustrates my point about the nature of Party policy. The campaign for a Welsh Parliament started over 130 years ago when Tom Ellis and Lloyd George formed Cymru Fydd. It took over a century for that policy to be implemented. Over that time many voters supported the party for this one policy.
    In 2019 the Lib Dems main policy was to Rejoin the EU. In 2017 it was a second EU referendum or rather a referendum on the deal. We only have to go back to 2015 when the Media decided that our radical policy was to legalise cannabis to see the effect of a worthy policy that worsened a difficult campaign.
    There is still time to highlight a main policy before next year’s General Election. But it must be done now.

  • @ Russell, you say, “I’m surprised to hear that the Green party doesn’t support PR”.

    Actually, Russell, in the interests of truth and accuracy, the Greens do, so I don’t know where you got that from.

    “The Green Party supports an abolition of the UK’s first-past-the-post voting system, and instead supports proportional representation, which would grant the party a share of seats in Parliament based on its national vote share”.

    You should also note, there are two Green Parties in the UK – “the Green Party of England & Wales”, and “the Scottish Green Party”.

  • Cllr James Moore 7th Dec '23 - 2:44pm

    The main problem is not that the policies aren’t distinctive. The main problem is that many aren’t very Liberal.

    Recently various Lib Dems have got in the media for being in favour of banning smoking, telling people what cars they can and can’t buy, banning the advertising of certain “unhealthy” products, taxing the movement of people abound their own cities and creating new “hate crimes” for those using unapproved language.

    We continue to be in favour of more taxation, despite the fact the tax burden is as higher as the post-war Socialist government and the state is bigger than ever. We also continue to be in favour of centralised supervision of house building and development, denying local people any meaningful control over planning in their own area. And Europe seems to have been forgotten.

    Ed Davey has been offered a lot of advice in recent days, some of it justified, some of it less so. My advice to him would be to rediscover some of Grimond’s civic liberalism and start offering distinctive Liberal positions that demonstrate why the party should continue to exist.

  • Denis Loretto 7th Dec '23 - 3:42pm

    I reckon the problem is not too little policy but too much. Twice a year we have national conferences which earnestly work their way through worthy but hideously complex motions often covering several pages of the

  • … tell me aint so. How could one party be in favour of legalising sales of cannabis and at the same time banning sales of tobacco. Surely consistency would result in the same treatment of both … and respect for the historic traditions of the party would suggest licensed sales of both or does no one in the party [James Moore excepted] pay any attention to JSM’s “harm principle” these days.

  • Denis Loretto 7th Dec '23 - 3:48pm

    ….agenda. Buried within these motions is lots of good stuff but when is it publicised? We need to cut these down to crisp statements of the points that really matter and might get some attention from the electorate.

    (Apologies for being too prolix myself and hitting ‘post comment’ too early!)

  • James Fowler 7th Dec '23 - 5:41pm

    Simon R has it right, as does James Moore. A Corbyn-lite slab of radicals’ pet interventionist, illiberal policies won’t turn the polling dial a millimetre. They would only gratify the activist base who, it’s true, haven’t been given anything morally meaty to get steamed up about by Ed Davey, Mark Pack et al. who are all about respectability. But this is the right approach at present if we want to win seats.

  • Denis Loretto “We need to cut these [policy motions] down to crisp statement of the points that really matter…”

    I once heard Chris Rennard, then still LibDem Chief Executive, explaining how GE manifestos were developed and it was just as you suggest. The most important issues for voters were identified (they were invariably economy and economy-adjacent ones like education that touched directly on their current and future wellbeing). The relevant policies were trawled through to find sound bites (or things that could be made into sound bites) which were then tested on focus groups with the winners going forward into the manifesto.

    The record shows it didn’t work. While the FTP hurdle certainly didn’t help, the bigger problem was this approach just didn’t hit the spot.

    Judging by his letter to the Guardian, it seems Mark Pack’s innovation is to give up on economic issues and major on those that could be (and therefore will be) dismissed as ‘virtue signalling’ – that is policies that may appeal to a few activists, but don’t much interest the public; policies that are remote from their daily lives, don’t address their biggest concerns, are too technical for most etc..

    LibDem’s focus on ‘policies’ is mistaken. We should focus on understanding why the economy doesn’t work well and build campaigns on an outline approach to fixing it. Policies are then correctly seen as changeable/disposable tactics towards identified ends.

  • I agree with James Moore although we are up against the fact that at the moment being against the state telling people what to do is seen by many as a right wing outlook. However an agenda of personal choice alongside a social liberal stance on welfare, inequality and so on would be a winning combination.

  • Alison Willott 7th Dec '23 - 10:05pm

    Could we get energy companies to abolish the standing charge, and replace it with higher unit prices? Too many are now having to pay standing charge but not having enough actually to use any energy, so they can’t afford to cook or heat.

  • Leekliberal 8th Dec '23 - 3:03pm

    Has a new spokesperson on Europe been appointed yet? Perhaps we don’t really need one as the party has nothing to say on the subject!

  • Peter Hirst 8th Dec '23 - 3:08pm

    What do our focus groups tell us assuming we still hold them? I think people want hope and to have that we need to rebuild our infrastructure. We don’t need to invest a huge amount, just tell the story of a firm commitment over a decade to invest in our schools, hospitals, governance, green spaces, housing etc. It is more making it a priority than splashing out huge sums of cash.

  • Robin Stafford 8th Dec '23 - 6:50pm

    Christmas lunch today with 18-20 friends in a target seat. Mostly traditional Torys and they know my politics. Overall view? Who is Ed Davey and what do LibDems stand for?
    Saying nothing and pretending to be nicer Tories is not enough to give people a reason to come out and vote for us.

  • Paul Holmes 8th Dec '23 - 10:16pm

    @Gordon “The record shows it didn’t work.” Really?

    1997 saw us elect a post war record level of 47 MP’s more than doubling the previous best. 2001 saw an even better result. 2005 saw us elect 62 MP’s, the highest, now, in almost a full century. Campaigning on issues that actually preoccupy voters, combined with a good Target Seat strategy, actually seemed to work pretty welel when it was tried!

  • @ Paul Holmes,

    Yes, the early 2000s when Chris Rennard was Chief Exec saw good results measured by Parliamentary seats won but that isn’t the only measure. LibDem support has always been ‘flaky’, relying too much on the ‘none-of-the-above’ vote, much of which was blown away in the Coalition.

    In other words, the LibDem offer, then as now, lacked roots in a different vision of how the country, especially the economy, should be run. That can work in opposition, but not in government. It reminds me of the parable of the sower. From Matthew 13.

    “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.”

    The LibDem lack of roots was starkly exposed in Coalition, the low point arguably being support for the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme which went down with members like a bucket of cold sick and was just one of a long list of things that drove away many former supporters.

    I believe there is a genuinely Liberal alternative that will be hugely popular with voters but discovering it will require a willingness to be open to internal challenge – an innovation that would itself be very, ahem, Liberal.

  • “Mark Pack ‘hits back’ at activists who called bolder, more distinctive offer for voters”

    Am I the only person who thinks this is a problem for the Lib Dems in the run up to an election campaign? Alienating activists by telling them they’re wrong is a strange motivational tool for the leadership to take. The headline for the article is quite patronising, dismissive and a little passive aggressive. Perhaps a better model would have been to lay out all the positive policies and to seek feedback on why it is felt they lack distinctiveness to a large number of activists?
    Activists are the people spreading the message. Dismiss their concerns at your peril.

  • @ Paul Holmes we did well under Charles Kennedy because we had a distinctive liberal message and outflanked Labour on spending, Iraq, ID cards, tuition fees and even joining the Euro! Our vote % was double what it is now and that momentum is why targeting worked. Targeting didn’t always work though remember the “decapitation strategy”?

  • Mick Taylor 9th Dec '23 - 4:51pm

    @PaulHolmes. Well, yes, in part. We did elect more MPs, but at the expense of pretty much destroying local parties outside of target seats. After 26 years of targeting, there are swathes of the country, where it is now almost impossible for Lib Dems to mount a serious election challenge and members there are worth nothing – except as target seat cannon fodder.
    I came into politics 60 years ago to change the world and for that we need a Lib Dem government, because we’re not going to get the radical changes we need from the other parties, even in coalition.
    To do that we need to build a party capable of fighting a wide range of seats and winning them.
    Targeting worked in the shortish run, but will it actually work again, when many, perhaps a majority, of the electorate won’t hear from us at all in the next General Election?
    If our leadership focus on being inoffensive, to garner some votes from disillusioned Tories, then what hope is there for the radical change we know our country needs?

  • For the advocates of PR see Germany and our sister party the FDP, now at 4%, facing wipe out, again. The same will happen to us if we fall into PR trap.

  • Paul Holmes 9th Dec '23 - 8:23pm

    @Mick Taylor. Except that what you say is totally untrue of the period I referred to. From 1997 to 2001 to 2005 to 2010 the number of Target Seats grew at each election. Too ambitously in 2010. Far from ‘everywhere else’ withering away, the number of constituencies capable of delivering an actual, potentially election winning campaign, was constantly expanding. Remember that General Election seats, for a small Third Party under FPTP, have never been won by wishful thinking but by intense ground campaigns -sometimes these were even assisted by good national ‘airwar’ campaigns!

    Outside of the constantly growing number of serious Target Seats other areas were also expanding in terms of activity that elected Cllrs, Assembly Members, MSP’s and so on. In Derbyshire for example we reached a post war best, with one Council run by a large majority and three where we were involved in ‘Balanced Councils’.

  • Paul Holmes 9th Dec '23 - 8:24pm

    @Mick Taylor. What happened post 2010 is an entirely different matter. The best Target Seat campaign in the world would have made little difference to the self detruction that resulted from our Economic Liberal experiment in the Coalition. In any case the highly centralised ‘Command and Control’ campaign of 2013-2015 certainly would not remotely enter any campaign for a ‘best strategy’ contest. The 2019 air war and ‘Target Seat’ strategy alike were a farce of a different kind.

    At least, for 2024, the Target Seat Strategy has returned to what has been proved to work. The policy/air war remains to be seen. All being well we will be able to get off the intensive life support system that Coalition put us in only 8 short years ago when we were reduced to 8 MP’s.

  • Kyle Harrison 10th Dec '23 - 11:40am

    Even if the Lib Dems are on 10% of the vote they can still make major gains from the Tories. That’s how the FPTP system can work. You don’t need loads of extra votes nationally to take individual seats.

  • Paul is absolutely right in his last too posts. While some local parties did not grow in that period, a much larger number grew steadily and became a real thriving force in their local communities. This was not a period where most of the country was allowed to wither in order to support a chosen few target seats, but was in fact a period of great growth for the party in many areas which delivered more activists, councillors, AMs, MSPs, MEPs and MPs than we had had in a great many decades.

    As a result, we could also sustain a growing number of permanent staff, whether they be MP’s office staff (who often helped other local parties from time to time), Cowley Street HQ funded by short money, and in the Regional Parties.

    Indeed I remember my old friend, the late lamented Neil Trafford, who worked tirelessly for the party in the North West for many years. In a discussion we had about the use of funds to support local parties in council elections and he honestly told me “… there are quite a few local parties who are very happy in what they do, but do not have any interest in winning council seats at all.”

  • David Evans 10th Dec '23 - 1:22pm

    Sadly Kyle, I think your post is based on inexperience rather than any objective analysis of the situation. While in most general elections there are a few outliers, constituencies which have performed well above the norm, but they are simply the normal effect of multitudinous random factors – truly exceptional local candidate, phenomenally motivated and well organised local party, local opposition in turmoil etc. etc. etc. 10% nationally has never and will never deliver major gains.

    We need to do much better than that.

  • The issues facing voters now are the cost of living crisis, the NHS and Education crisis, local councils feeling the squeeze. Having a target for foreign aid and being a bit nicer to Europe doesn’t really cut it. Last time we were successfulhad a policy of raising the point at which people pay tax, we supported schools through target SEN funding, we introduced the greenest policies of any government. We have an opportunity to differ from the Tories and Labour and condem the policies of the government of Israel. We could support a rail system similar to Germany etc

  • Michael Kilpatrick Michael Kilpatrick 11th Dec '23 - 11:08am

    Cripes, what a disappointing statement from Mark. Just to take one point he made: we’ve been advocating PR for decades so that’s hardly a bold new stance and, since our stance on PR hasn’t generated enough votes over the last few decades apart from perhaps in those good five years before the coalition, it clearly hasn’t been a stance that’s particularly stood out.

    Getting on my hobby horse of constitutional change for a moment, I feel I should point out that Lib Dems have some more far-reaching reforms of the whole United Kingdom that would radically empower, level-up and engage more people and make a better, more stable and equitable settlement. Just fiddling with the House of Commons electoral system, as if that were the only thing we had to say on the matter really shows a paucity of vision and ambition. If Mark had bothered to mention those then people might realise that we have rather more ambition than simply shouting “…but…PR” all the time.

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