Mark Pack’s January report – the plan to build on our success in 2022

In 2021 we achieved something we’ve not achieved since 1993: winning two Parliamentary by-elections in the same year off the Conservatives. We start this new year with a larger Parliamentary Party than any of us would have dared dream of a year ago. (A winning run that has continued with the first council by-election of this year too – congratulations to now councillor Andrew Dunkin who won a seat from Labour from third place.)

The question now is how do we build on that success in 2022, and how do we make the most of our limited resources? Here’s the plan.

Winning over those with liberal values

We showed in both Chesham & Amersham and in North Shropshire how to appeal to many Conservatives. People with (some) liberal values, who often voted Remain, but who backed Boris Johnson in 2019. They’re now willing to listen to us, even to vote for us – as long as we listen in turn to what they say is most important to them. That’s why our campaigns in both those by-elections didn’t start with us lecturing them. They started with us listening to them, finding the common ground between their concerns and our values.

Tactical voting was important in both contests. We should be grateful for the cooler heads in other parties who saw this too.

But winning over a soft Conservative counts double – one on our total plus one off the Tory total. A tactical vote only counts once – one on our total but nothing off the Tory total.

We need to do both to win (and of course substitute in our main rival in places where it isn’t the Conservatives we’re up against).

Securing electoral reform

Get this right and we can be a big part of the story of removing the Conservatives from power. Get this right and we can be a big part of forcing a hung Parliament. Get this right and we can use that power finally to secure electoral reform for Westminster.

That is why the Conservative-Lib Dem battleground of the Blue Wall is so important. It’s the way to change all our politics.

But, the majority of our members, our elected representatives and our votes are from outside the Blue Wall. So we must get the balance right but I hope you can see why there is so much focus on the Blue Wall.

For Labour facing areas, having voters hear us talk about the part the party can play in removing the Conservatives from power will also be helpful mood music. Background noise that will make it easier for our local messages about Labour’s failure in so many town halls to work.

Refining our message

To succeed, we must continue to refine our political messages. We need to give people a clear sense of the difference that the Liberal Democrats make.

We’ve got an extensive set of market research underway and now have regular feedback sessions with our most active canvassers. That way we can make sure our decision are rooted in what voters are telling us – an important lesson from what went wrong in 2019.

In his autumn federal conference speech, Ed started setting out this messaging, with the idea of a fair deal for everyone at the heart of it. That desire to give everyone a fair deal, enabling them to lead their lives as they wish, is what makes us distinctive as liberals.

Improving our campaign support

We saw in both Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire how important our local organisation is. Without the May election results we had in both seats, we wouldn’t have had the by-election successes we did.

We’re starting to see the benefits of our big investment in our networks of field campaign staff. It’s been tough to prioritise this area of expenditure, but both results show the benefits of those difficult decisions.

We also need to continue to modernise our campaigning. So the Campaign Innovation Fund is back for 2022 to fund more experiments, helping us learn what works. We’re also bringing key data work back in-house so we can improve the data available to campaigners on the front line. We’ll be making major changes to our web presence during the year and improving many of our other tools.

Getting our organisation right

As the Thornhill Review – our 2019 post-mortem – found, the way we run ourselves as a party caused us severe problems. We’ve been working through a program of fixes, and are now looking at how to improve the role of the Federal Board.

Of the Board it said, “There is no clear ‘leadership team’ where the three pillars of the party – political, operational, federal – can make cohesive decisions, simply, quickly, and effectively. The Federal Board – 40+ members – is not, cannot, and should not be that team.”

So we’re now focusing on that question of the Board’s size. Is a body of 41 the size we need to drive things at the heart of the party? After a series of consultations, reform options will be going to the Spring conference for members to decide on.

Both volunteers and staff will be working flat out in the run-up to the next general election. They will rightly expect the party to have put its own house in order and to have learnt the lessons from 2019.

If we don’t finish implementing the Thornhill Review, we will be letting them down.

An important related matter is our candidate approval, selection and support processes. It’s important that all our candidates share the party’s values. As liberals we cherish the value of differences of view over policies, but our shared values must be fundamental.

Our elections committee (FCEC) recently decided to commission a review of how our candidate process is working after the first wave of selections in this Parliament and make any necessary recommendations for changes.

Given the issues raised by some recent selections, I am writing to the review asking them to look at three particular issues related to them:

How our pre-shortlisting due diligence processes are working at identifying possible areas of concern about candidates;
How our shortlisting processes are making use of such information; and
Where there are concerns but also a good explanation (e.g. someone has genuinely changed their views over a decade and there is evidence to demonstrate that), how we communicate such explanations to members, such as when members from other local parties hear of a selection result.
I will use future reports like this one to provide updates on the review’s progress.

Supporting you

We will also in 2022 be giving a renewed focus to membership. We must make it easier for people to get involved in the party, provide more training and events, and improve the diversity of our activist base.

I’m looking forward to working with our new Vice President responsible for working with ethnic minority communities to ensure we continue to get better at diversity and inclusion across the whole party. (The result will be published once an appeal has been heard.)

Without our members and other helpers, there would be no party. Our membership and its grassroots work has always been our greatest strength.

Thank you

So to end, thank you – for your support for the party, for all you’ve done and – I hope – for the help to come in 2022.

It is always risky predicting what a year of politics will bring. We do know that the May elections will bring an important opportunity for us to expand our local government base, bringing the benefits of our policies to many more people. Events like the World Cup will once again highlight issues of human rights, racism and the need for our society to continue to change. The Assembly elections in Northern Ireland will be both a great opportunity for our sister party, Alliance, and also remind people across the whole UK of the problems that Brexit is causing.

Whatever the uncertainties of what is to come, with your help we can make sure we continue our recovery so that the Conservatives are voted out of office and we finally secure electoral reform for Westminster.

Feedback on these or any other matters is very welcome. Please do get in touch on [email protected]

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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15 Comments

  • Thanks Mark.

    On internal party reform:
    The trouble is that the Federal Board serves two roles – it is a forum to bring together the leaders of the many different committees, AND it is the place where members elect people to provide democratic oversight of how the party functions. So often when a body tries to do too many roles it in fact does none. The problem that any reform faces is this: both these roles of the Federal Board are crucial. You could have just a meeting point, but then there is limited oversight; you could have just a body responsible democratic accountability, but then you do need a place which brings together various people. It may be that we can decouple the two roles somewhat (though I then wonder who chairs the oversight body if the President chairs the meeting place). The President certainly should not chair both bodies, as that would be akin to marking one’s own homework. Regardless of all this – above all I hope we can avoid a retrograde step, and maintain our commitment to reserving at least 50%+1 of positions for those party members directly elect to provide oversight (which is a different role to being elected to e.g. FCC).

    As for reform of vetting of candidates etc – I’m glad this is happening after a couple of mis-steps recently in extremely high profile seats.

  • A good start would be fighting and winning Southend West. The world has changed in the last 10 weeks, it is time to get to battle and continue our winning run, juist in time for the locals in May, it would also boost our vote at Erdington.
    Reform could well win, if the established parties do not stand.

  • Neil James Sandison 11th Jan '22 - 5:06pm

    good points raised by William why not split Board into 2 teams President gets functions and constitution .Vice chair get diversity . inclusion and membership .
    smaller but more dynamic teams could get to together quarterly or 6 monthly to progress chase .

  • James Fowler 11th Jan '22 - 6:00pm

    Great points Mark. When I read pieces like this from senior figures like yourself I think this Party has a fighting chance.

  • Brad Barrows 11th Jan '22 - 6:19pm

    Yes, voters need to be reassured that if they switch their support to the Liberal Democrats, it will help remove the Conservatives from office. It will not be acceptable for an expanded Liberal Democrat parliamentary group to use their numbers to help keep the Conservatives in office as part of a coalition or a confidence and supply arrangement. That would be a betrayal of those switching to the Liberal Democrats to help remove them from power.

  • Leekliberal 11th Jan '22 - 6:26pm

    As ever, a post full of wisdom and common sense from Mark. Where would we be without him! Just a thought on two ways we can benefit from Labour’s challenge in winning back socially conservative and brexity red wall seats. We can win soft Tory votes, unavailable to Labour, by making the the case for a closer and less punishing relationship with the EU ie. joining the single market and the customs union, at a stoke removing the massive bureaucracy that strangles our trade with them. Also as Keir Starmer is driven to take an authoritarian and failed line against, for example, decriminalisation of drugs, we can make the case for something better that is supported by all the evidence.
    Let’s be rigorous in testing policies and promoting ones that attract liberal people to keep winning those Tory seats we need to take to get rid of this appalling Government! All strength to your elbow!

  • Chris Moore 11th Jan '22 - 6:47pm

    In 2019, because of Remain Alliance and Revoke we got almost no support amongst liberal-minded Leave voters.

    Many were former LD voters and members. The West Country was once a bastion for the party on the back of such eurosceptic voters.

    We need to win this vote back. Even in Remain-leaning Golden Halo target seats, it’s winning over a decent % of such Leave voters which is the difference between a near miss – many in 2019 – and a win with a decent majority. You will never win many seats if you only appeal to Remain voters.

    We’ve done this in the past; we can do it again. North Shrop has showed the way.

  • It is good to see key work being brought back in-house. Outsourcing makes one vulnerable to rip-offs by the supplier.

  • theakes 11th Jan ’22 – 5:03pm:
    Reform could well win [Southend West], if the established parties do not stand.

    Reform UK were amongst the first to announce they would not field a candidate. Some other parties, such as UKIP, are standing.

  • Here’s the list of parties/independents standing in the Southend West by-election (to take place on 3 Feb).
    https://mobile.twitter.com/ElectionMapsUK/status/1480970746046435331
    This list has stock emojis in place of party logos, which is probably just as well, or it would require a trigger warning. If I were a voter in this election I would feel short-changed, and would either abstain or spoil my ballot paper.
    Voters don’t like stitch-ups, which is how the by-election will be seen.
    As we have chosen not to contest thie by-election, we have no moral authority to criticise anyone who has decided to throw their hat in the ring. If, as I fear, the far right candidates do well (their vote shares grossly inflated by a low turnout), then it will hopefully bring into disrepute the idea of standing aside out of “respect”. A slate of one “approved” candidate and an assortment of racists is not at all respectful.

    If we decide that, as a matter of principle, a murdered representative should always be replaced by someone from the same party, then this should be enshrined in law, witha formal process for appointing the party nominee without an election. But this would undermine the principle that we elect constituency representatives not party ciphers. If votes are just for parties, then ALL casual vacancies should be filled by appointment. Having a nominally free election but with no meaningful choice and an implied moral imperative to vote for one particular candidate is dishonest and undemocratic.

  • William: in the options for Board reform going to Spring conference are two that I think would cover your point about decoupling different roles. One is for a smaller Board plus a new ‘overview and scrutiny’ committee, which would have its own chair, and the other is for a smaller Board plus a ‘party council’ model, again which would have its own chair.

    The counter-argument to those of course is that people regularly complain we have too many layers and committees, so reforming things by creating a new one may not be the best move… so there’s also the option in the motion for a smaller Board without an additional body. Suspect there will be quite a good debate about the pros and cons of an extra body.

  • John Bicknell 12th Jan '22 - 1:05pm

    Alex MacFie: you make a number of very valid points about the virtue of having a contested election, whatever the cause of the vacancy. However, these arguments should have been made more forcefully, by the party, following Jo Cox’s murder, and the subsequent by election in Batley & Spen. Once that precedent had been set, it has made it impossible for any serious party to contest a by election such has arisen in Southend West, without appearing to be guilty of grubby opportunism.

  • Alex Macfie 12th Jan '22 - 8:43pm

    John Bicknell: Yes, the party seems to have let itself be bounced into not standing on both occasions. If it happened in one of our target seats, then we would have a better chance of setting the narrative.
    Precedents are not handed down on tablets of stone. A precedent can be abandoned if it ceases to be useful. If, say, UKIP wins Southend West or finishes with a respectable 2nd place, and one of the far-right candidates saves their deposit, then there would be a very strong case for saying that actually, in the event of a representative being murdered, democracy is better served by a normal contested by-election, rather than a pseudo-contest as in B&S and Southend West.

  • Alex Macfie 12th Jan '22 - 8:48pm

    I don’t think voters are very interested in whether a party contests this or that by-election elsewhere in the country, or how a party performed there if it did. The deposit-losing Lib Dem vote share in OB&S does not seem to have discouraged the voters of North Shropshire from voting for us. It’s the sort of thing that greatly interests the Westminster Bubble, but not ordinary voters.

  • There is certainly an argument that says why should voters necessarily want to replace a murdered representative with a candidate from a different faction of the same party when they might prefer to replace them with a Lib Dem.

    Saying that the new MP must come from the same “side” upholds a rather tribal view of politics.

    It was Ann Widdecombe who criticised the Lib Dem decision to stand in Eastbourne in 1990. So Widdecombism has won the day it seems.

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