Opinion on Nick Clegg’s first anniversary: Mark Littlewood – A number of clouds, but some silver linings

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As Nick Clegg reaches his first anniversary as Liberal Democrat leader there is much for him to reflect on, but not – at least yet – a great deal for him to celebrate.

Let’s start with the bad stuff. Then look at some areas of success. And end with some grounds for genuine optimism.

The principal bad news is the state of the party in the opinion polls. It’s as simple as that. There are, of course, staging posts of “real votes in real ballot boxes” between General Elections, but the best guide to the performance of a party – and its leader – remains the plethora of national opinion polls pumped out on a weekly basis.

There has been no obvious “Clegg effect” in the first year of his leadership. In fact, if anything, the party may have slipped backwards slightly over 2008. In broad terms, we are running at an average of around 15 – 16%, suggesting about a third of our supporters have deserted us since the last election. Some polls suggest we may have lost half our support. No poll I can find suggests we have increased it.

These are poor numbers. Not necessarily catastrophic, but definitely bad. Whatever the public “spin”, the party’s inner circle must not kid themselves that these figures are anything better than that.

The electoral problem is, of course, exacerbated by Britain’s insane electoral system. If we do lose a third of our vote, we will probably lose many more than a third of our seats. If we lose half of it, we will lose more than half of our MPs. The line between a fairly good outcome in Parliamentary seats and a disastrous one is a very thin line indeed. It feels like we are walking that line.

The second problem relates to Nick’s public profile. Now, it’s always damned difficult to make an impression as the third party leader, even more so in your first year and even more than that in the midst of a severe economic downturn. However, in the public consciousness, it is hard to imagine what – if anything – they associate Nick with. What particular issue? What specific cause?

The media view of Nick is probably a bit worse than this. The “memorable” moments of his first year in charge will be the embarrassing and impenetrable contortions of the Lisbon Treaty referendum vote, his “confession” to Piers Morgan that he has had sex with less than thirty women, his guess that the state pension is about £30 a week, and his expression of some rather forthright views about his Shadow Cabinet colleagues on a plane journey. In the media narrative, the impression of being gaffe-prone is potentially as damaging as the reality of it.

Finally, the actual elections contested in 2008 don’t look great for us. The local elections were fairly pleasing (expectations of a net loss of seats were defied again and the party edged out Labour for second place in the popular vote); but the Parliamentary by-election results have been disappointing in comparison to progress made in previous mid-terms.

The amount of money spent on Henley and Crewe was enormous (probably amounting to over £250,000, when all is said and done). The results were very flat and certainly didn’t warrant this outlay of cash or the immense amount of time spent in those constituencies by MPs, including Nick himself. The London mayoral vote was even more disappointing – and for the Liberal Democrats to secure less than 10% of the vote in one of the most liberal cities in the world certainly raises some difficult questions.

But if this sounds like a list of errors and wrong-turns, it is important to point out the numerous upsides. These have often been relatively quiet and “below the radar”, but no less significant for that.

When all things are considered, Nick’s turns at PMQs have been little short of excellent. This is a man who only entered the House of Commons in 2005 and amongst the many impressive qualities on his CV, being a strong and experienced Parliamentary performer was not really one of them. As the record of his three predecessors show, getting the hang of Prime Minister’s Questions is fiendishly difficult.

Nick may not have landed a string of spectacular punches on Brown, he may not have generated a slew of favourable headlines, but – crucially – he has come across as unflappable, poised and incisive. It would be difficult to conclude anything other than that Nick is a strong and feisty performer – and this goes some considerable way to mitigating any damage caused by the previously mentioned gaffes. If Nick performs as well on the campaign trail as he does at PMQs, Liberal Democrats are in for a treat come the General Election campaign.

The second silent success has been the outbreak of unity – especially in light of the party’s dramatic shift in tax policy. These have been choppy times since the last General Election. If one counts Vince Cable – and its hard not to – Nick is our fourth leader in this Parliament. Given there has been no upturn in our electoral fortunes, plotting, rumour-mongering and personal manoeuvring are amazingly absent from LibDem politics. There are obviously differences over policy and approach, but these have not been couched in pro or anti-Clegg terms. Nick is overwhelmingly seen as the right man to lead the party at this time and this pays considerable testament to his personable, honest and straight forward style and approach.

We will go into the next election united behind our leader and that is a luxury it was not at all clear we had a year or eighteen months ago.

There are two big challenges for 2009 – tuition fees and Europe. The party’s commitment to the abolition of university tuition fees is hard to square with a desire to drive down taxation and limit government spending. The cost of such a pledge would be dramatically higher in 2010 than it was in 2005. How the leadership handles this – and the extent to which they “take on the activists” (again) – will be crucial. A defeat for Nick so close to a possible General Election would be damaging but a refusal to have any form of showdown could look weak and unconfident.

Then there’s the Euro elections in June. Devout pro-Europeans (such as myself) regret that the party has put its pro-European credentials on the back-burner – especially at a time when the supposed benefits of national sovereignty have been exposed by an international financial crisis. But the challenge for Nick will be whether he can project a compelling narrative in a UK-wide election. The Euros will be seen, rightly, as a dry run for a likely General Election in 2010. Improving on the 15% we secured last time and reclaiming third place from UKIP should be the minimum target.

So, there have been a number of wrong steps and there are major hurdles ahead, but there also some causes for cheer. And we should not lose sight of the ace in our pack. Nick Clegg has shown he can be an A-grade performer on the most important medium in modern British politics – television. Of course, we will always whinge that we’d like to see and hear more of him on the airwaves. But, in the heat of a General Election campaign, he’ll be on TV and radio everyday. The British public will warm to and respect Nick’s straight-talking, no nonsense, personal style. That provides a genuine opportunity to build up a real head of steam behind us as the campaign proper gets underway.

If Nick can generate that momentum, who knows where it might take us?

* Mark Littlewood is a former head of media for the Liberal Democrats, and Communications Director of the classical liberal think tank Progressive Vision.

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  • Your theory about the relationship between our vote share and our number of MPs is wrong.

    There simply isn’t any evidence to suggest the relationship you suggest. Just plot vote share and number of LD MPs on a graph and then explain your argument.

    I worry more about our ability to adapt if we got PR than about our continuing ability to defend seats strongly under FPTP.

  • Mark Littlewood 18th Dec '08 - 6:33pm

    Pretty clearly, if we lost 99% of our vote we would lsoe more than 99% of our
    seats (we’d lose 100% of them).

    Here’s a few more credible vote shares plotted.

    Obviously, the number of seats we’d win at any particular vote share also depends on the balance between Labour and Conservative.

    Using Electoral Calculus, and assuming Labour and the Tories are always neck and neck, you get the following numbers:

    Con 36 Lab 36 LibD 23 = 60 LD seats
    Con 39.5 Lab 39.5 LibD 16 = 27 LD seats
    Con 42 Lab 42 LibD 11 = 9 LD seats

    On this model, if we lose a third of our vote, we lose more than half our seats. If we lose half our vote, we lose 5 out of 6 seats.

    Okay, there’s all sorts of stuff about uniform swings, local factors etc, but the essential point holds.

    Equally, if we double our vote, we will more than double our number of seats!

    On a result of Con 26 Lab 26 LibD 44, there would be 416 LibDem MPs (Labour would form the opposition with 134 and the Tories woudl ahve 72)

  • No – the essential point doesn’t hold. There just aren’t uniform swings. Electoral Calculus is nonsense, no matter how credible the vote shares you put in.

  • Elizabeth Patterson 18th Dec '08 - 7:27pm

    I don’t agree that the worst thing for us this year is our poll ratings; to be under the radar in a year while Nick is learning the job and our policies are not firmed up is not a bad idea.

    It gives us the opportunity to get our narrative together and get it honed down into a credible story while no one is really looking. Then when the time comes we will be ready.

    Remember how badly we got caught over figures for LIT in the last election? We are still not exact enough with detail.

    Even Vince can be quite casual with figures; this morning on Today he said that 6-8 Housing Associations were in financial trouble; but out of what total?
    It makes all the difference.

    The other day we gave strange figures for educational under-achievement: “Four out of five white boys from deprived families
    and half of chinese boys”. Why not say 80% and 50% so we have easily comparable figures.
    Nick’s figures this morning on how the Vat money would pan out also left some confusion.

    We should also hammer the government on their figures. Yesterday, in answer to Vince’s Commons debate on chopping the Vat change, Labour’s Minister claimed:

    “Tax cuts will not help those like pensioners who do not pay income tax. The average household spends £900 a month on Vat rated goods and services”
    Most pensioners don’t have &900 per month to spend on everything!

    Figures matter and policies matter; we are lucky to have maybe a year to be really CLEAR about both.
    The most positive thing about Nick is that he is not afraid to repeat and repeat his message, and the message is good; but I worry about the figures.

  • There should be a law of the internet – like the one about mentioning Hitler/Nazis – that anyone who uses electoral calculus to justify their argument automatically loses the debate (and in addition should serve some sort of ban).

    Poor show Mark – you ought to be able do much better. Unfortunately the recent backing for keynesian economics to deal with the credit crunch rather destroys you and your group’s raison d’etre.

    Yes let’s cut taxes and spending when everyone’s about to lose their job and home…

  • Hywel Morgan 18th Dec '08 - 8:15pm

    “The other day we gave strange figures for educational under-achievement: “Four out of five white boys from deprived families
    and half of chinese boys”. Why not say 80% and 50%”

    AIUI using percentages is understood by fewer people. I aspire not to use percentages when writing leaflets for this reason.

  • Elizabeth – you may find percentages easy to understand. Many people do not. Better to say “four out of five” than “80%”. More people understand that. Vince was right.

    Darrell – we should remember local elections. We have more councillors than 1 year ago. Good result.

  • Mark, are you intending to make a career out of talking the party down?

  • You think London is “one of the most liberal cities in the world”? Hahahahahaaa!…

    Oh, mercy!

    Um, have you actually been there? I mean, really there – or do you spend all your time just in theatres in the West End?

  • Electoral Calculus might not be entirely accurate… it is though possibly more useful as an tool for estimating outcomes than whatever was used to predict that Henley or Crewe were a credible prospects.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 18th Dec '08 - 10:28pm

    “No – the essential point doesn’t hold. There just aren’t uniform swings. Electoral Calculus is nonsense, no matter how credible the vote shares you put in.”

    It’s worth pointing out that Electoral Calculus doesn’t actually use uniform swings, but a modified model that attempts to take into account the expectation that that the Lib Dems will perform better than a uniform swing assumption would indicate.

    Obviously the model is very deficient, but at least it is an attempt to evaluate the implications of the polls in some kind of semi-rational manner. In contrast there’s a tendency in some quarters simply to say something like “It’s all nonsense; the polls are meaningless; it will all be fine if we work hard enough”. That may be comforting, but it’s not very rational.

    In a sense, I think the onus is on the optimists to justify their expectations that the Lib Dems will perform so much better than these projections would indicate.

    On “UK Polling Report”, Anthony Wells has attempted to come up with his own modified model, taking into account factors like the benefits of incumbency and regional variations in swing (based on the huge YouGov poll of marginals for PoliticsHome). It shouldn’t be reassuring to the optimists that currently this modified projection (based on his average of the opinion polls) gives a lower number of Lib Dem seats than the uniform swing projection – 33 rather than 34.

  • You really are very tedious.

    I’m not proposing that we make any assumptions at all – you are proposing we accept your relentless counsel of despair, cynicism and inaction on the strength of two flawed models which are positively creaking with them.

    Electoral Calculus got 52 seats wrong in 2005 which it admirably tries to make sound good. But once you factor in the number of seats that are safe it’s postively pathetic. For the sake of argument, let’s say it successfully predicts the result in one out of two marginal seats. That’s fractionally (but only fractionally) better than taking the top two parties in any given seat and tossing a coin.

    The other model is more ad hoc, but hardly varies from uniform swing at all. It’s adjusted, I think, only by a single poll of marginal seats which was presumably heavily weighted towards Lab/Con marginals.

    I can’t be bothered reminding myself – it’s uniform swing with minute adjustments and no info at all on Scotland, Wales and NI.

    Your use of the adjective ‘candid’ is meant to be ironic, isn’t it?

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 19th Dec '08 - 12:03am

    “It [Anthony Well’s model]’s adjusted, I think, only by a single poll of marginal seats which was presumably heavily weighted towards Lab/Con marginals.

    I can’t be bothered reminding myself …”

    It wasn’t, of course.

    But don’t worry, you are far from being the only person on these boards who “can’t be bothered” to acquaint himself with the basic facts, but doesn’t let that stand in the way of being both rude and dogmatic.

  • The point about Electoral Calculus (and any opinion poll number crunchers) is that it is arse about face.

    The next General Election won’t be fought UK wide on swings in and out, it will be fought hand to hand, street to street in about 150 seats involving at least four contenders (but not necessarily all at once). Any opinion polls that can accurately predict that will make its inventor very rich. Otherwise you can stick your finger in the air and see which way the wind is blowing.

    Or stick your finger somewhere else if you are one of the swarm of tedious plooky Toryboy posters that currently infest the internet …

  • Can you remind me exactly what were the ‘…causes for cheer’ over the last year?

  • Mark Littlewood 19th Dec '08 - 2:33am

    An interesting discusssion.

    But I think my maths hold.

    I don’t take Dan’s view that adducing Electoral Calculus merits immediate censure along the lines of holocaust denial.

    I’m not overly confident about the Electoral Calculus model. But I stand by my words. If we lose a third of our vote then we will lose more than a third of our seats. If we lose half of our vote, we will lose more than half of our MPs.

    If anyone thinks different, I will try and produce a chart or graph (but honestly, it isn’t necessary for anyone who gets past Key Stage III maths).

    GavinS feels strongly on this point. I’m keen to se his prediction of LibDem seats in Westminster if we get 16% or 11%? (Do we win MORE seats as our vote share declines?)

    But my real frustration is reserved for “eastender”.

    Actually, that’s not true. I’m not that frustrated.

    But the grinding inevitably of anyone saying anything other than “it’s brilliant” or “we’re going to win the league” or “isn’t Nick Clegg totally wonderful” being treated as treasonous is just boring.

    Anyone who believes I am “intending to make a career out of talking the party down” is not really across modern politics or the media.

    There are not many opportunities to make a career out of talking the party “up”.

    There are no careers at all– nor any cash or cache – in “talking it down”.

    When I left the payroll of the party last year, I thought it was right to keep quiet for a while. I knew a lot of the other personalities involved. And I knew their jobs and lives and careers counted too. Unless you feel hugely strongly, you don’t muck around with that stuff.
    I did not comment at all on Ming’s performance or leadership until he resigned. But then….well, it’s fair to speak up, I think.

    In any event – 18 months on – these are my honest views. They are unalloyed and direct.

    I refuse to be “off the record”. And I loathe journalists saying they are willing to take “off the record” comment.

    I put my name behind what I say.

    I’m not an “ex-staffer” or a “former senior aide/adviser” or – less still – “a grandee” or “insider”. What I say goes in my own name. I insist on that. And I wish more folk would do the same.

    That’s the route to a healthy internal debate.

  • Mark Littlewood 19th Dec '08 - 2:48am

    Ooops…missed a response to Mboy.

    Yes, I live in London. Live in a high crime area (south of the river just near Clapham Junction)

    In the last year, I have been punched in the face and mugged and my girlfriend has been held up at knife point. In her case, facing possible gangrape by six or seven men.

    We occasionally do go to the theatre in the West End, though.

  • Mark Littlewood 19th Dec '08 - 3:43am

    Bill Quango said: “Get your profile up. Its the only way. You can bicker about holding/losing mythical seats all you like but without exposure who cares? I mean, that Lib Dems will have been a very minority party for a very long time..going nowhere slowly.
    Question Time and This week are probably the most watched political programs. Where are your big hitters. QT produces some able and some just awful spokespeople. Insist on putting only your coherent people on.
    Portillo and Abbott.
    Where is the Lib Dem? Badger the BBC until they let you put Campbell or Kennedy or Ashdown on permanently.”

    Been there. Seen that. And if there was a T-shirt to have, I’d have it.

    The QT panel is at the programme’s discretion. Beyond threatening a LibDem boycott – which would be laughed at (rightly) – the negotiating hand the party has with Question Time is crushingly limited. It’s an offer from the programme to have Mr/Ms X.
    Pretty much take it or leave it.
    You can negotiate a little on the margins, but not much more.

    The Andrew Neil show is an interesting one. I fought this battle twice. With zero success. Only possible option – now (and even then) – is Lembit Opik.

    The idea they would change the format to accommodate a former LibDem leader is a triumph of hope over reality (it’s also far from clear that Paddy, Charles or Ming would be able or willing to be available between 11pm and 1am every Thursday).

    The suggestion that the BBC can just be “badgered” into submission by the LibDems is very sweet but, I’m afraid, totally naïve.

    They just stop returning your calls if you take the piss. And start to treat you as -not merely irrelevant and boring – but totally mad.

    And if you get that reputation from QT or This Week, it’s toxic.

    Don’t expect your phone calls about Nick Clegg’s big policy announcement next week to generate anything other than indifference, mirth – or worse still, booming laughter in Millbank.

    Not saying I handled these negotiations perfectly, but if I fell short it definitely wasn’t because we failed to “badger” the BBC into submission.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 19th Dec '08 - 8:19am

    “Or stick your finger somewhere else if you are one of the swarm of tedious plooky Toryboy posters that currently infest the internet …”

    As I pointed out before, Electoral Calculus doesn’t operate on a uniform swing assumption, but does try to take into account some of the special factors that operate in Lib Dem seats – and the model has been modified since the last general election to try to improve that aspect.

    If you have anything other than childish personal abuse to contribute to the discussion, be my guest.

  • Mark,
    good to hear you speak up as always, even if it’s hard to agree with everything you say.

    I accept that your maths holds, but the conclusions you draw from the electoral calculus methodology as a result of that maths is severely flawed. It is based on too many assumptions.

    I would be interested to hear what Nick Clegg has to do to get our poll rating to fall over the next year, because now that he has got his feet under the table it will get hard to dislodge him and his increasing public profile.

    A steady if unspectacular leadership which doggedly plods away at the important issues pays real dividends, because when the crunch comes people care more about the conditions of their day-to-day lives and the things that can be controlled than anything else.

    The fundamentals of our party are strong and we have the foundations to build on – if we don’t get distracted we can only improve.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Dec '08 - 9:27am


    You are quite right about the difficulty of getting Liberal Democrats on television programmes, which is why you are horribly wrong on “taking on the activists (again)”.

    The third party revival began when it was realised that political success didn’t have to depend on a glossy national image, but could instead be worked by enthusiastic activists with their ear to the ground. Much of the 1980s was spent arguing about this, this was the real difference between Liberal and SDP, it took ten years to persuade those who came to us through the SDP that the third party game wasn’t going to be won by playing according to the conventional rules.

    Sloppy media people (who, as you say aren’t interested in what we really do) fall back to thinking along the lines of 1980s Labour, so our “activists” are supposed to be like their “activists” then. No, Labour “activists” then were working on a model where there was a always a big Labour vote, so going out and persuading people to vote for you wasn’t what political activism was about. Rather, political activism was about getting the right people into the right places through internal party politics.

    Our “activists” are people who know there isn’t a bedrock support for us which will come out because it always comes out for us. Instead, we have to go out and win most of our votes and continue to campaign to hold them. As a result, our activists know what works with the voters, and are concerned with getting the message across in a way which works at local levels.

    Your caricature of a “niche sandal wearing contingency” who have to be “taken on” is laughably incorrect. Who are these people? The ordinary Liberal Democrat member who does the work, who makes sure the literature is delivered, who takes on the role of councillor, who listens and reacts to what his or her constituents are saying is the “activist”, but I simply don’t recognise this sort of person as a drag to the party who has to be “taken on” (meaning – “made to feel miserable so he or she drops out”?).

    No, the real equivalent to the 1980s Labour “activist” is the person wedded to a narrow simplistic ideology, who spends his or her time pushing that ideology, confident the vote for the party will keep coming in somehow. There are shadowy funds to create a “party within a party” which can push out tracts promoting this ideology, and organise within it for influence. It denounces as politically incorrect and to be “taken on” those who aren’t fully on board with its plans to change the ideology of the party to that it wishes. It attracts idealists who love to meet and polish each other’s egoes by constantly chatting about how clever they are and how stupid are those who disagree with them.

    But the real work goes undone, because those really responsible for getting the vote out are pissed off and have gone on to do other things.

  • Dan, the more interesting question is how the party does estimate likely gains and losses as it has a large bearing on how resources are targeted.

    This is the point with Henley, most impartial observers, Electoral Calculus, MORI, pollingreport, and those almost entirely ignorant of political campaigns, but graced with a basic intelligence in maths and human behaviour etc. would have told you this was a no-win prospect.

    Yet despite that, somebody or a committee in Cowley Street decided this would likely be Rourke’s Drift not the Alamo.

    Clearly they were very wrong, and spent in excess of £100,000 proving it. That after a similar error in Crewe, and after a 2005 election result that underperformed expectations.

    That is clearly a problem for a party that relies on accurate targeting to outperform swing, and needs to make every penny count.

    Matthew, Geoff you are right to a point, but you’re talking at different levels. It is self-evident that a party with no profile and few seats needs to fight ‘street to street’, and prioritise by-elections to make small, occasional gains, then retain that effort to hold them, and that can be done by flooding resources from far and wide as part of a targeting strategy.

    That model though begins to fail when you become more successful. If all seats need resources, no seats can be targets. If you are no longer plucky insurgents but part of the establishment, you can no longer run a credible narrative of not being like the other lot.

    I’d also say that making a virtue of the party’s amateurism somewhat glosses over that in many areas we have no choice but to campaign that way. Most of our MPs and Councillors I’d suggest would much rather their seats were in part retained through a solid core-vote and undercurrent of coverage than having to slog their guts out on mindless deliveries and cyncial canvassing exercises.

    It is also the case that this ‘ear to the ground’ as you put it is quite a self-delusion. First there is nothing special about Lib Dems in that regard, there are community campaigners in all parties, including the loathsome BNP. Second the bulk of politician to public contact is either so brief as to be misleading, or through case-work which provides an entirely distorted and extreme view of the problems local people face. Good politicians balance those inputs with polls, research and other sources to get a more complete picture.

    Really bad ones start to believe they ‘know’ what’s going on or ‘have a hunch’… and thus we return to the problem of the targeting strategy that led to Henley….

  • CCF – you don’t make your case by selectively quoting one sentence and playing the ‘personal abuse’ card. But then with initials like you have might lead many to think you are indeed ‘a plooky toryboy’…

    Matthew Huntbach is spot on. The fundamental problem with the party leadership (and particularly those advising it) is that they exist in the Westminster bubble – they need to get out more and end the ridiculous fixation with macho posturing. Voters are fed up with this type of politics and want to hear coherent, well argued solutions – not quick fix ‘positions’ designed by so called PR ‘specialists’ to maximise media coverage for 24 hours.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 19th Dec '08 - 11:24am

    “But then with initials like you have might lead many to think you are indeed ‘a plooky toryboy’…”

    On the basis of my _initials_??

    In any case, if you think I’m a Tory you obviously haven’t read many of my posts. But, to be fair, you’re far from the first person who has found it convenient to yell “Tory Troll!” when he’s read something he doesn’t like.

  • Mark – you suggest surprise that someone might believe Lib Dem vote can go down but party win more seats. That was 1997. Votes down. Seats doubled. Prefer votes up, seats doubled. 1997 shows it can happen however. Surprised you have forgotten that. Or are you too young to remember ?!?!?

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 19th Dec '08 - 11:44am

    “That was 1997. Votes down. Seats doubled. Prefer votes up, seats doubled. 1997 shows it can happen however. Surprised you have forgotten that. Or are you too young to remember ?!?!?”

    But of course, that was because the Lib Dem vote dropped slightly (by 1%) but the Tory vote dropped by 11%.

    As things stand now the Tory vote is up by something like 6% since last time. That’s much more favourable to the Lib Dems than a few months ago, but with the Lib Dem vote down by something like 7% many Lib Dem seats are going to be under severe threat from the Tories.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Dec '08 - 12:24pm


    When you say “there is nothing special about Lib Dems” in regard to “ear to the ground”, you are wrong. As I pointed out, circumstances forced our party to develop by having a better ear to the ground than the others. Where we had it we prospered, where we didn’t, we didn’t. Darwinian evolution means those who have got it right have survived. I am not calling for mindless activism or cynical canvassing, far from it, I have always been quite opposed to that stuff. But I am saying it is a virtue that we have developed a cadre of activists who have come up that way, and for the leadership and those who are close to them to dismiss those activists in the macho “take them on” attitude is to throw away a huge asset.

    I agree there is nothing particular about the Liberal Democrats in ideological terms which makes “ear to the ground” uniquely ours. You are quite right that the BNP also use it. We should be really scared if we lose it, and they gain it and develop it. When I have seen some of the BNP’s stuff which is less obviously racist, I may find the underlying message loathsome, but I can see why it works.

    When you say “the bulk of politician to public contact is either so brief as to be misleading, or through case-work which provides an entirely distorted and extreme view of the problems local people face” that is an indictment on the whole political system. It SHOULDN’T be like that. The whole point of mass political parties is that politicians emerge from ordinary people, they don’t come from a separate caste of aristocrats who never have contact with the masses. Sure, surveys and polls and research and thinking and discussion are all important for a rounded politician, but life experience and a continued contact with ordinary life is essential. I hope by “politican” you mean MPs and not all of us who are members of the party, otherwise we’re doomed. As Dan says, the problem is ordinary people believe that politicians live in a “Westminster bubble”, or as I’ve put it, that they are an alien race imposed on us. We MUST break that, otherwise we WILL lose to those who are surer in their feeling for life on the street, and I am very afraid one day that will be the BNP or some cleaned up equivalent. MPs and others high up in politics can be kept on the ground and informed and sure about what works if we have a political system where they are kept in touch with, accountable to and scrutinised by, ordinary people who are members of the party.

    I wouldn’t be so dismissive about “the party’s amateurism”. If this means an image and way of presenting itself which is refreshingly different from the convention, it may well work. Indeed, the old community politics movement got very good at this – managing to produce literature which looked like it was produced by amateurs (so the punters thought “hey, look, these are people just like us”), but was actually to a format very carefully developed and nationally co-ordinated. Don’t dismiss that way of development just because it isn’t conventional, this is, as you management types like to say, “thinking out of the box” isn’t it? Look, as an analogy, at the way the evangelical house-church Christian movement is booming while the big mainstream denominations are plummeting.

    I’m not meaning by this that we should reject ideology. Of course we should have a clear image about what we are for, and I agree that is essential for building core support and attracting reliable activists who will stay with us. I’m also very well aware of the dangers of literature designed cynically to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to win votes – to the point where I walked out of participation in one recent by-election (Bromley and Chislehurst) because I felt our literature went too far that way. All I’m saying is don’t take the attitude that the only thing that counts is a glossy national image, and that party activists are people who must be “taken on” rather than listened to.

  • Matthew,

    I hope my point was that it’s important to get a balance, clearly there is a spectrum of postions between ‘only listening to activists’ and ‘only reading polls’

    The issue facing us as we grow though is we need to get dramatically better at the latter without letting the former slide.

    As to macho posturing… well again there needs to be a balance… if leading activists and the leadership never fell out or there were no fierce debates in the party, we’d either never change or never have anything worth changing. Thankfully we are not that parorchial.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Dec '08 - 2:52pm

    No, Neil, I don’t agree “there is a spectrum of positions between ‘only listening to activists’ and ‘only reading polls’”. That would suppose the two are opposites. The whole point of my argument is to suggest that activists probably have a clearer sense of what ordinary people are thinking than does the leadership.

    Nor do I agree with “if leading activists and the leadership never fell out or there were no fierce debates in the party, we’d either never change or never have anything worth changing”. That would suppose the only way we could change is the leadership imposing change on activists against their will, or vice versa.

    Of course if the party is to develop there must be fierce debates, but you seem to be suggesting those debates must always be between the leader and leading activists, and the leader must always be right because he knows better.

    I would prefer leader and activists to be working together. There are times when a leader needs to seize the initiative and make proposals. There are times when a leader needs to inform the party from his/her own position within Parliament what will work there and what won’t. But a good leader will know a big part of his/her job is to listen and present and be the champion of those who put him/her there. If there are arguments within the party, s/he should be careful not to be overwhlemingly one one side, but to listen to both, to advise maybe, but in the end to be willing to take up whatever is clearly the party membership’s majority position. Or resign if s/he really disagrees with it. The leader is our servant and not vice versa.

    If we start off in a position of mistrust where the leader feels it’s his/her job to “take on” the activists, that activists are strange people whose views will generally be the opposite to what ordinary people want as shown in polls, then we are on a losing streak.

  • “The whole point of my argument is to suggest that activists probably have a clearer sense of what ordinary people are thinking than does the leadership.”

    On that we must disagree, I would suggest the best informed are those seeking the widest range of good quality independent sources.

    Relying only on the wisdom of activists, representing only a small number of liberal democrat supporters in the small number of areas where the liberal democrats are active, and claiming that to be the best quality political information available, such that all other sources should be ignored or treated as suspicious is frankly silly…

    If you don’t agree I suggest you compare the accuracy of our canvass returns with those of professional opinion polls as to who gets closer to real election results, and also maybe ask youself why companies spend millions on professional research techniques before launching products rather than just ringing up six people who ‘really get it’ from their own sales force.

    I didn’t get your debate point, the inference is your own, but on leadership, the prime goal of the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party is to lead that party to form a Liberal Democrat Government and represent it as Prime Minister, it is not chairing internal policy debates, for that we have the FPC.

    You may though be right that there are times when a more consensual leadership style (e.g. Kennedy) is useful in advancing the party united towards that goal. However the big snags with consensus are two-fold. First not all positions can be reconciled, sometimes one side or another will lose and fudging can be worse than a decision either way.

    Second internal consensus is just that, it ignores the views of those currently outside the tent who might want to come in. Such exercises can just look like self-indulgent naval gazing… rather than reaching out to the public… much like this debate really…

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Dec '08 - 9:14pm


    I am not suggesting only relying on what acitvists have to say, but I am saying don’t dismiss them. Treat them as a good and useful resource, rather than some opposition which has to be “taken on”.

    And, to be frank, your idea that someone in the Westminster bubble knows oh so much more what works with ordinary people than the combined wisdom of so many people who lives and ordinary humdrum life, and also put in voluntary effort as a councillors or school governors, or do some campaigning work for the party locally is, well …

    You ask “why companies spend millions on professional research techniques before launching products”, I reply why is it that so many people are throughly pissed off with politics and think all politicians are an alien race remote from ordinary life? Maybe because it’s too dominated by smart professionals trying to sell it like a consumer product rather than engaging in the LIBERAL vision of people running their own lives through active engagement in politics.

    You say “internal consensus … ignores the views of those currently outside the tent who might want to come in”. So, where are those people? Where is that great band of people wanting to come in, and what will make them come in is the leader making activists feel miserable and driving them out of the party? Where’s your evidence that we will prosper so long as we get rid of the people who have made us prosper so far?

    You say this looks like “self-indulgent navel gazing”, so you suppose engineering a row between the leader and party activists won’t look like that? You say “reaching out to the public”, and the way to do that is to piss off those who do that on the ground?

    You say this debate is “self-indulgent navel gazing”, no, I disagree, it is fundamental that we get this right, and I feel passionate that you are getting it wrong. I can see our party losing put because we have lost our edge, we are seen as just another bunch of that alien race of “politicians”, evil people cut off from real life. We have to change that, and the way we can change it is by radically altering the way we do things, so that there is much more emphasis on us being a movement emerging from ordinary people and going upwards. It is my belief that this is how politics can and should be that makes me a liberal.

  • Matthew,

    My point remains you need a balance between different sources when consulting people. Being monomanical about the wisdom of polls or activists is not going to give you a full understanding of political issues in any seat.

    Further I am a Liberal Democrat rather than a member of a cult, so I cannot relate to your comments about aliens or an ‘evil’ race of politicians, or your fears of a holy war between the leadership and activists.

    However I will note that in respect of your concerns about where the ‘big tent’ is going to come from there are many more ‘liberal’ voters out there than those that currently vote for us. But then if you did not regard opinion polls as ‘unclean’ tools of the unrighteous, you would be reassured on this point as well.

    I might also add that if your key criteria for taking anyone’s opinion seriously is that they engage in the same sort of political activism and engagement that you do, are you not guilty of wanting to create another kind of political elite to place above others rather than being genuinely concerned with empowering people?

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Dec '08 - 12:56pm

    My comments about “aliens or an ‘evil’ race of politicians” were not my own views on politicians, but how I find politicians are viewed by ordinary people. I do not know what you mean by “member of a cult”. This is a huge serious issue we have to find ways of tackling, and if you don’t understand the point I am making, or think it is so silly you just want to make jokes about it, you must live in a very diffeent world than the one I live in.

    Neither do I see anywhere in what I have written which can be interpreted as a “holy war between the leadership and activists”. I was simply expressing my concern over attitudes which we heard in the leadership election, and have featured again in “Clegg after a year” comments in the media. That is, suggesting that the problem with the Liberal Democrats is “activists” who are denounced as “left-wing”,”tax-raising”, “statists” and the like, and who have to be “taken on”.

    Nowhere in what I have written do I see language which warrants words such as “opinion polls as ‘unclean’ tools of the unrighteous”. Nor do I see anything which suggests I regard it as the sole criteria for taking someone seriously that they engage in politcal activism.

    All I am doing is expressing concern that there seem to be some in those advising the leader, and it is picked up by the right-wing media because it’s what the right-wing media want to hear, who seem to want to engineer a battle between leader and party activist. Predominantly, these seem to be people who wish to push out party very strongly towards what they call “classical Liberalism” and I call “right wing economics”. I think we should be a bit more generous towards those who work unpaid for our party. I also do feel that our party is firstly a voluntary organisation of its members, not a tool to advance the leader and those who bend his ear.

    You are attributing attitudes and views to me which are far more extreme than those justified by my actual words, to the point where I think it brings up serious questions about you and your motivations. Just why are you so worked up that you are unable to see the simple little point I am making and instead paint me as some sort of zealot fighting a “holy war”?

  • I am afraid that is how you are coming across to me, and expanding on your activist/leader theme by alluding to an unamed shadowy conspiracy of enemies plotting the downfall of the things you love, hardly helps…

    My key point remains that politicians need to use a range of sources to understand the public mood, and I disagree with your earlier assertion that Liberal Democrat activists are a uniquely insightful source versus consulting the public direct through tried and tested mechanisms such as polls, groups, media, stakeholder engagement etc..

    I have argued all are important sources, you that the former must be taken more seriously than the latter. I disagree and I find your drift into grand conspiracy theory, sneering at ‘professionals’, and reluctance so far to explain ‘how’ exactly activists might be better consulted or engaged other than through the professional techniques you depise something of a puzzle.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Dec '08 - 3:27pm

    I did not say at any point that political leaders should not consult polls etc, I just noted I felt they know less about ordinary life than do ordinary people who hapen to be active party members. Isn’t that what liberalism is about – that the ordinary person knows more about his or her life and how to run it than the genentleman in Whitehall? By your very argument, we should reject liberalism and endorse statist socialism, because political leaders, by the use of “polls, groups, media, stakeholder engagement” etc must know better than us what is good for us.

    Regarding conspiracy, well, it was not me who wrote about a “niche sandal wearing contingency” who have to be “taken on”. I was reacting to someone else who wrote that. I can only interpret it as a desire to confront party activists and force them to change or leave. Why do we keep getting these snide remarks made about “activists” from certain sections of our party?

    I do find comments like this coming from groups like “CentreForum” and “Progressive Vision”. Who are these groups? Who funds them? Why do they and their spokepeople always get quoted in the media? Why is it regarded as “sneering” etc when I am a bit disturbed about the power and influence these groups seem to have? I note they tend towards one end of ideological debates in the party. Why can’t I ask questions about them? Why when I asked one of their directors the actual question “Who pays your salary?” didn’t I get an answer?

    I’m all for free and fair discussion, but why is it that one side seems to have access to a lot more funding and influence than the other? Why do you regard it as concocting a “grand conspiracy” to ask questions like this? It seems to me that part of being in politics is that you do ask questions. Do you suppose I should not ask questions about power and influence, and instead sink back to being a little man, content to leave the “professionals” to do the thinking and tell me what I should do?

    Sorry, Neil, I am a liberal and a democrat. As part of this, I do believe in power to the people rising upwards and not power to the leader falling downwards. What is wrong with this belief that you should insult me for having it? Do you not agree with me that the Liberal Democrats is ultimately a private organisation owned and controlled by its members, and that therefore its leader is ultimately its members’ servant and not vice versa?

  • “I suggest you compare the accuracy of our canvass returns with those of professional opinion polls as to who gets closer to real election results,”

    That comparison has numerous flaws – firstly with the appropriate adjustments canvass data can be pretty accurate – so no different to opinion polling when it uses different weightings.

    Secondly no poll – whether canvassing or opinion polling predicts an election result. See virtually every article Bob Worcester has ever written 🙂

    Thirdly – canvassing serves an additional purpose besides just giving you an estimate of support. Often it is the feedback from canvassing that gives you the best idea of what messages are striking the biggest chord.

    You usually get a rolling picture from canvassing rather than a one day snapshot, and what is often more important in canvassing terms is how votes are moving rather than the absolute figures.

  • Matthew

    I think there are a few problems with some of the new points above, apart from the general tone of victimhood.

    First who or what is ‘ordinary’?; and how do you know our activists are that way?

    It is surely more a point of liberalism that we are all extraordinary; but that aside, surely you recognise that the difficulty of assessing the ‘ordinary’ views of the ‘man/woman/transgendered person on the Clapham omnibus’ is why there are polling companies?

    Going to TRA meetings doesn’t make you any more in touch with what tenants think than being a council officer working in housing or a communications director looking at the housing department’s satisfaction survey, does it… all three have valid points of view and different sources of information informing it. A decent councillor will talk to all of them, before using their own judgement to formulate policy and campaigns.

    And that brings me back to the key questions in previous comments:

    1) How do you propose the party makes better use of the wisdom and experience of activists on top of what is already done? I don’t recognise your assertions about activists being ignored or marginalised by shadowy cabals or think tanks, I certainly don’t feel that way.

    2) And accurately distilled, why do you believe then that that wisdom should be a better guide to the public mood or what the party should do than other credibly researced sources?

    3) What’s then wrong with the party’s decision-takers using their judgement on what to prioritise by researching a balanced range of sources?

    “Do you not agree with me that the Liberal Democrats is ultimately a private organisation owned and controlled by its members, and that therefore its leader is ultimately its members’ servant and not vice versa?”

    It’s a rather strange question with an entirely false point of opposition within it. As a voluntary organisation nobody is anyone else’s servant, we remain involved because we want to, and that’s it, whether you’re the leader or an armchair supporter.

    Further we are a representative democracy, both in the party and the country as a whole. Politicians are not wholley-owned subsidiaries of either their local party or the people who pay their campaign expenses. And where they are, it’s usually not a good thing for democracy.

    You seem to be bordering on arguing that various levels of the party should be able to mandate and compel their locally elected politicians to do what they say regardless of the views of the local people who actually elect them. But if you are not saying that, what are you saying should change?

  • Anon, I don’t disagree with you that there are many pros and cons to canvassing, and it’s a good campaign technique, however it’s not unbiased opinion research, and there’s a lot wrong with believing it’s the same thing. You need both.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Dec '08 - 6:31pm


    I’m not saying anything should change. It was not me who wrote of a “niche sandal wearing contingency” who have to be “taken on”. I am noting this and similar comments made recently and during the time of the leadership election. I believe such comments, which hint at the idea that our party’s progress requires engineering a fight between activists and leadership with the leader winning, are damaging.

    I am very much opposed to elected politicans in their elected role being subject to any sort of mandate and, contrary to your suggestion, nothing I have written suggests that. However, the role of “Leader of the Liberal Democrats” is not a publicly elected role. Mr Clegg in his position as MP for Sheffield Hallam can do or say what he wants, and I would strongly oppose any attempt to put him under party mandate. Mr Clegg in his role as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, however, needs to have the awareness that he is servant of the members of the party in that role.

    Leader and activists should be working together and trusting each other, respecting each other’s roles. Comments about activists needing to be “taken on” do not encourage that necessary trust and good working relationship. If these comments are made by “sources close to the leader” as they usually are, if it was not the leader’s intention to have them slip out in this way, he should deal firmly on those sources. Activists unsettled by such comments may need reassurance, which Mr Clegg may consider giving in some speech at some time.

    I believe that an image of our party, put across in its national publicity, which gives more emphasis to its local members and how they are people whose lives are like those of most other Britons, and how being in the party has enabled them to take leadership roles and make changes to their communities, could help us a lot. It would help dispel a lot of the misbeliefs voters have about politics and how it functions. It would make us look different, not the top-down Westminster-centred party which so many people now find alienating.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, many of our activists are people with enormous skills. They are people who in many places have taken on the two-party system locally and broken it by their own hard work and good judgment about what works on the ground. Those at the top of the party need to consider that perhaps they have something useful to say, rather than treat them as a burden which must be “taken on”.

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