Tag Archives: party strategy

Will we learn the lessons of 2014 in 2024?

It hit me yesterday that 2024 marks 10 years since the Scottish referendum on independence. How on earth did that happen?  Given the failure of the SNP to manage Scotland’s public services using the extensive powers they already have, you could argue that we had a very lucky escape.

For me, that referendum set in motion the events that led to where we are now. David Cameron learned that a broadly negative status quo campaign could win the day and transferred that experience to the campaign to remain in the EU.  He should have realised that the pro-UK side was lucky to get away with such a poor campaign and should have done so much better. If we had managed to get over 60%, we could have perhaps avoided all the arguments about a second referendum that have paralysed Scottish politics since.

The campaigns to stay in both unions failed to inspire, or offer any sort of positive vision. The Scottish independence campaign cunningly hid the negativity at its core with a frothy, engaging message that touched people’s hearts. The campaign to leave the EU just flat out lied to people and wasn’t effectively challenged either by the media or the opposition.

The Yes campaign and the campaign to leave the EU touched a nerve with people because they felt powerless to change their own destiny. It is also 10 years since our Deputy Leader Daisy Cooper, half a decade before she became an MP, suggested “Take Back Control” as a slogan for us.  It would be a slogan with meaning, too, because so many of our policies are about exercising power as close to the people as possible.  Liberal Democrats could deliver so much more than the non-existent control promised by the Brexiteers.

Liberal Democrats have so much substance in our policies to help deliver a much more equal, happier, sustainable society. From our guaranteed basic income, to strengthening our democracy by cleaning up our politics and making sure people get the parliament they ask for, to restoring our international reputation, to tackling the housing crisis and slowing our rush to climate catastrophe, we have some solid ideas that will make a huge difference to people.

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New Year, New Message?

So often the principles of liberalism are – rightly and reasonably – tempered in Liberal Democrat campaigns by the need to couch our message in forms appealing to voters. I believe that the next election is one of those rare moments of confluence where the core messages of liberalism are exactly what voters want and need to hear. The unapologetic promotion of liberal principles will give the country the hope, the promise and the solace which the large majority of voters and citizens now seek.

Whatever the complexion of the new government, it will inherit a wrecked economy and a shattered society. This reality should not deter us from offering a sweeping and hopeful vision of what Britain can be like if the right steps are taken now. The right steps are completely in tune with the vision of liberalism for empowered citizens living in equitable and vibrant communities within a competent state.

The preamble to our constitution reads “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. Our leaders are plagued by poverty of vision, by ignorance of the array of solutions available and by conformity to desiccated doctrines like the necessity to “honour” Brexit.

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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:

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Back to Beveridge at Ballot Time

As the countdown to the General Election begins, people grow increasingly nervous. The spectres of triumph and disaster lurk hidden from view as we approach the electoral starting gate.

Some with long memories fear the false step – the promise to reverse Brexit without referendum, the trumpeted amnesty to illegal immigrants etc.

Some with equally long memories bemoan a lack of boldness and differentiation – where is the penny on income tax for education ?

Much my depend on your local political geography. In the leafier parts of the South saying ‘we are not the Tories’ may be sufficient.  In the Labour dominated north it’s certainly not.

This underlines the need to have a message that impacts in the North and does not startle the horses or the electors in the South.

There are such messages particularly in the field of health and education.

I think it is now accepted that the Coalition Health and Social Care Act 2012 was one of the most pointless, opportunity-squandering and ham-fisted pieces of legislation in modern times with most of its provisions (CCGs etc) now abandoned or reversed.

Parliamentarians persisted with it despite the concerns of nearly all health professionals, the Lib Dem conference, Baroness Williams and colleagues like Andrew George and other brave souls.

It was not a charter for privatisation but a definitive and conclusive expression of the market principle when applied to health which although rampant in the Blair years had to be toned down even then to get through the Commons. It proved unworkable in our NHS which still tries to cling to Beveridge principles.

What if though we were to revisit those principles and abandon the costly, bureaucratic internal market in the NHS – where the piled on overheads of administrators, defending as commissioners and providers their own silos, disappear ?  Arguably the necessary creation of the new Integrated Care Boards has already blurred the boundaries within the internal market. Commissioners and providers are now working together as the NHS to desperately husband scarce resources.

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UPDATED: Senior Liberal Democrats call for “bold and distinctive offer to voters”

Thirty Liberal Democrats, including the chiefs of staff to two of the three most recent leaders, a former policy director, a former MP, two peers, members of federal committees, councillors and current and former candidates have called for the party to be bolder in the run-up to the General Election.

In a letter to the Guardian, they said:

There is a massive opportunity for a liberal alternative based on internationalism, environmental awareness and modernising Britain. But we believe the Liberal Democrats are swerving this opportunity, not seizing it.

It is crucial that we are brave and honest about the challenges a new government will face, with distinctive positions the Tories would never take and Labour dares not adopt.

They argue that rejoining the single market, creating a “dividend” that would revive our public services, should be part of what we offer.

Citing the way Paddy Ashdown set out a clear alternative to both parties, they continue:

We have bolder policies than Labour on the environment, fair votes and human rights, but we are not communicating them. At a general election, echoing Labour’s general antipathy to the Tories through local campaigns is part of the battle but insufficient on its own.

Only a statement of confident liberalism – on Europe, the environment, political reform and public services – will show people that the Lib Dems are a national force worth supporting. We do well when we have a principled message that cuts through, such as our current one on Gaza.

In the accompanying story,  former Policy Director and Federal Policy Committee Vice Chair Duncan Brack is quoted:

We’re not criticising the target seats strategy, but focusing on target seats alone is not enough,” said Duncan Brack, a member of the party’s federal policy committee who was an adviser to Chris Huhne in the coalition government.

“We need to stand for something inspiring. Otherwise, why should people join the Lib Dems, pay money into campaign war chests, go delivering and canvassing? And why should anti-Tory voters vote for us as opposed to another opposition party if it’s not clear what we stand for?”

The Party’s response shows that it is capable of delivering a robust message:

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Three ways the Lib Dems should use our distinctive voice at the next election

Alex Davies was Vince Cable’s Chief of Staff when he was Lib Dem leader between 2017 and 2019, a time of tumultuous and febrile politics when our “Bollocks to Brexit” message gained us 16 MEPs at the same time as we won hundreds of new councillors. We used the unique opportunities offered to us in the European elections to the max.

He, like many of us in the party, including me, are concerned that the party’s messaging is too timid for the coming General Election and feel that we need to be offering a much more distinctive liberal voice. Having put virtually all our eggs in the Blue Wall, we think that our strategy needs to be refined to make sure that we make the gains we have worked so hard for over the past four years.

In an article for Comment Central, Alex sets out three ways in which he thinks we could say something different and popular. Essentially, he says not being the Tories is just not enough. Mid Bedfordshire gave us a clue on how the next election could play out if we don’t enhance our message.

On the airwaves – where most voters consume election campaigns – there is no ‘two horse race’ with the Conservatives. Rather Ed Davey has to be heard above both Sunak and Starmer.

He reminded us of what Paddy said just before the last time the British public dumped a failing Conservative Government for Labour:

“My fear is this,” he said, “that we shall see an election, and maybe a change of government – but we shall not see a change of direction. We shall still be starved of clear vision, a commitment to change, the courage to face up to what must be done. It is the first crucial role of this Party to see that that does not happen.”

He sets out three ways in which we could tweak our message to challenge Labour as well as oppose the Conservatives.

First of all, the single market. We need to talk about getting back in there:

The Lib Dems could argue that the British people cannot afford to pay for his political caution. Britain’s third party should be brave enough to say that only a ‘single market dividend’ will yield the billions needed to fund real change in the country.

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Elon Musk shows Lib Dems the way

Elon Musk, in his finite wisdom, is axing the Twitter bird logo in favour of the letter X. This follows his recent decision to rebadge the company as X Corp. 

‘What’s this got to do with me?’ I hear you say. ‘I’m a Lib Dem and I’ve got leaflets to deliver.’ Yes, you do have leaflets to deliver, but stay with me – this could be a golden opportunity for the Lib Dems, but only if we have the courage to seize it.

In the infinite reaches of his multidimensional consciousness, Musk has realised the truth about birds: they’re boring. (In fact, they probably don’t even exist )

It’s visionary stuff, right? I mean, what do birds do for us, apart from inspire us with their majestic soaring and melodious tunes? Birds may be the descendants of the dinosaurs and have colonised every continent on Earth including Antarctica, but can they make a cheese sandwich or send a Tweet? No, they opted for beautiful plumage rather than hands – that was their choice, now they have to live with it. 

So, he’s going to axe the blue bird of acrimony and replace it with – surprise, surprise – an X.  As letters go, there are so many reasons to use X. It’s a structurally sound letter, it’s associated with mystery, it’s the 24th letter in the alphabet. Pirates use it on maps, mathematicians use it in equations, and Musk names all his bloomin’ companies after it. 

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Embrace the Elephant

The elephant is of course that big, and growing, elephant in the corner of the sitting room: Brexit. Now that Project Fear has become Project Here, it is time for us in the Lib Dems to be much more open about our belief that Britain’s place lies back at the heart of Europe.

Ever since the Brexit vote I’ve been reasonably sure this time would come. Voting to leave was a mistake, and its costs would sooner or later become apparent. The ideological nature of the vote was such that many people would cling stubbornly to their belief that it was right – for some years, I thought. But once it began to crumble, it would crumble quickly. I was right about the trajectory, wrong about the timing. I thought it would be at least another couple of years. (I didn’t allow for the damage to be so deep, or the government to be so negligent.)

As long as the bulk of Brexit voters held to their beliefs, and, equally, as long as the bulk of the British population continued to be hoodwinked by the idea that to campaign for our beliefs was somehow undemocratic, we were probably right to soft pedal on it. I have thought for a long time that the backlash would outweigh the potential gains; but I believed we only needed to be patient.

Our policy has become clear with  “Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe”, though the mainstream media have been, as usual, exceedingly quiet about it. Our leadership on the whole has remained reticent, but now the time for reticence has passed. There was some indication of this at the spring conference – the European passages of Ed’s speech were highly optimistic and were loudly and enthusiastically applauded. (Not reported in the mainstream press of course – maybe Ed was counting on that.)

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Poll highlights need for Lib Dems to develop compelling narrative

A poll of “blue wall” seats this week should make senior Lib Dems charged with delivering our next election campaign pause for thought.

Field work carried out by Redfield and Wilton Strategies last weekend shows Labour 7 points ahead of the Tories in seats the Conservatives currently hold in the south of England, but the party of Government gaining 2% and us going down 2% since the last poll a couple of weeks before.

Of the 42 seats that Redfield and Wilton count as the Blue Wall, there are not that many that we are seriously targeting so our 17% polling figure should not alarm us too much. However, the Tories are fixing their attention and massive resources on defending those seats and will not miss the opportunity to persuade people that these seats are between them and Labour not them and us. We will obviously be countering that where we are strong with local messaging so that people are in no doubt that it’s a two horse race between us and the Conservatives. We’ve been building very strong foundations in those seats over the past few years. However, we don’t want even a few people in the likes of Winchester and Esher and Walton thinking that they should be voting Labour to get rid of the Tories. If they do, then we’ll have Tory MPs, and surely nobody wants the likes of Dominic Raab in Parliament for another five years.

As Lib Dems we know the importance of targeting our resources very carefully. This, however, shouldn’t come completely at the expense of our national poll rating. The national mood music is very important both in our target seats and beyond. We need to be thinking about the political landscape for the next election and the one after that. Only by getting ourselves into more second places can we hope to properly break through. There is no point in winning a handful of seats in 2024 and ending up with the north face of the electoral Eiger to climb everywhere else.

Our national poll rating remains stubbornly low. We haven’t recovered from our coalition lows, except for that brief period when we were actually saying things that excited people in the early part of 2019. Capturing the imagination with a strong message and giving people a reason to vote for us is a good thing and we shouldn’t shy away from it.

We seem to be so terrified of saying anything that might upset the voters in the blue wall that we end up not saying anything at all. And those progressive minded voters who we need to  back us need to hear us talk about the things that matter to them too. And in truth, the things that matter to them matter to us.

I sense a frustration amongst activists in Labour facing areas that the increasingly centralised national Lib Dem campaign machine is not bothered enough with them.

We need to recover our boldness, passion and sense of indignation at what the Tories have done to this country super quick. We need to start using the P word, the S word the B word and the C word to show how the country can be a much better and happier place to live. We need to talk about ending poverty. We need to sympathise with the aims of our public sector workers who are striking for a decent pay rise and less stressful working conditions. We need to be much more robust in talking about the failures of Brexit which are damaging virtually every aspect of our lives. And we need to win the culture wars, not stand cowed as people are marginalised and demonised by the right wing media.

As Liberal Democrats we care deeply and instinctively about inequality and tearing down the barriers that people face that suck opportunity from them. That everyone should have enough food, safe and warm shelter and the resources to participate in life to the full should not be as controversial as the right wing media makes out every day, yet we don’t challenge them enough. We should be riding a coach and horses through the  Conservative narrative which sets people against each other. We want people to have a decent share of the pie, not fight each other for an ever decreasing pile of stale crumbs. So we need to start talking about ending poverty and giving people a fair crack of the whip.

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No room for complacency about the Tories

t’s tempting seeing the fall in the Tory poll ratings and the turmoil in Government as presaging a disastrous General Election for them. But we  have been here before – in the early summer of 2019 they were regular getting polls ratings in the 17-24% range and they lost 1,300 councillors that May and yet they went on to win a General Election a few  months later. 

If there is  one thing we know about the electorate it is that it has become hugely volatile with voters much more willing to switch parties which is great  in many ways but may still work against us. 

Nor can we assume a continuous economic crisis: The EY Item Club Forecast has inflation dropping to  1.8% in 2024 with growth of 2.4%. There is plenty of economic pain in store for 2023 with average earnings  continuing to fall but we should not under estimate the Tory’s ability to present lower inflation as an achievement of theirs.

The Tories are probably the most electorally successful party in the world: they have an extraordinary ability to reinvent themselves -helped of course by vast amounts of money and a formidable lack of scruples in how they fight elections.

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Grasping the opportunity from North Shropshire

The remarkable by-election victory provides an immediate opportunity to grasp the chance to revive the party’s derelict associations.

As readers of Liberal Democrat Voice are aware from my previous postings, I am very dubious that the party has the resources or the motivation to tackle the huge task of reviving activity in the majority of constituencies that simply do not have the individuals or knowledge of how to start from scratch. This is now the moment to grab those who are attracted to the party by the the North Shropshire – and Chesham and Amersham – results.

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The Party’s Crisis – a response to comments

The paper on the crisis facing the party, linked to by my LDV article on 30 September, sparked a great many pages of debate, for which I am grateful. However, much of that debate was centred around policies and their varying relevance to the current Liberal Democrat identity and programme. Normally I would have been delighted to have catalysed such a debate but the paper was intended to confront the party, and particularly in this context, LDV readers, with the nature of the acute crisis that challenges the future of the party itself. The argument in the paper is that if there is no viable party to promote them, then all policy ideas are castles in the air – shimmering perhaps, but no less ethereal for that.

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The Party’s crisis

The global political situation, with the rise of populism and nationalism, and the domestic political scene, with a Conservative government trampling on democratic values with impunity, is crying out for the powerful advocacy of Liberalism. The huge problem is that in Britain there is currently no relevant political organisation that encompasses and promotes Liberalism. The Liberal Democrats have sunk to such a level that the party is incapable of recovering to become the political force that the vacuum in our politics demands without first developing a topical and substantial statement of Liberal philosophy to unite around and to promote, and then adopting a dedicated and well-funded strategy to revive the hordes of derelict constituency associations.

The recent document “What Liberal Democrats believe” is a start but it fails to link the philosophy with relevant recent history and lacks the vital context of the current political situation. Its narrative is inconsistent and needs developing to provide a real Liberal vision that will inspire. Alas it merited a mere fifty minute debate at the recent conference (the previous equivalent debate aeons ago was allocated a complete half day!) and significantly the three working parties for which the Federal Policy Committee recently invited participation did not include one for the development of the philosophy statement.

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Party strategy motion passes – with amendment securing local members rights on standing candidates

This morning Conference passed the party strategy motion. One of the Federal Board’s key tasks is to bring a motion on party strategy to Conference for approval.

This one had lots of good stuff in it on developing a strong narrative, improving diversity and menber experience, developing our campaigning capacity and having a “one party” approach where we co-ordinate our effort.

There were four amendments, all of which passed and, I think, substantially improved it. Lib Dems for Racial Equality called for this party to finally pull its finger out and implement the Thornhill and Alderdice reviews and get out and engage with ethnic minority communities. The Parliamentary Candidates Association called for greater support for candidates and 10 members called for our progress towards net zero as a party to be expedited.

These three passed with little opposition. The drama was all around an amendment proposed by Federal Board member Simon McGrath. It called for us to stand a candidate in every seat at the next General Election unless local members agreed not to. Anyone who bears the scars of the Unite to Remain effort in 2019 will probably have some sympathy with this. However, others, including me, felt that it would bind any attempts to stand down in some places where it would be sensible to do so. I generally think we should stand everywhere, and I think that voices calling on us to stand down are generally from parties who wouldn’t do the same in return, but I felt we should give ourselves the flexibility.

ALDC Chair Prue Bray made such a good speech in support that I asked her if we could publish it. It’s just rammed with good sense about how we should work together and I love it.

I want to get rid of this government. Not because it’s Conservative but because it’s dreadful. It’s dreadful because it isn’t liberal, in its policies, values or behaviour. I want a liberal government, or at least one that we can exert the maximum liberal influence on. And the only way to get that is to get more Lib Dems elected. Labour aren’t liberal, nor are the Greens, the SNP or Plaid.

It’s us or nothing.

We won’t get more Lib Dems elected if we don’t stand, however tempting a pre-election pact might look. Unite to Remain looked tempting. It didn’t deliver anything.

When the battle is over, when the votes are counted, that’s the time to make pacts to further the progressive cause. And that’s why I strongly support amendment 3.

There are people who don’t agree. That’s fine, I don’t mind challenge. What I mind is people who tell me I am wrong without producing any supporting facts, and then go off and do whatever they want even if it’s completely against the interests of the party.

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Where next?

It beggars belief that a party led by the most incompetent, lying and self-serving group in modern times can carry not quite all, but most, before it in an election. What are we to do?

First, thank goodness for those who have held back the Tory tide: Labour in Wales, those glorious patches of the UK where Liberal Democrats and Greens have prevailed and, the Scots who remain unimpressed by Tory falsehoods.

But overall the picture is dismal. How can this well-educated and well-informed electorate vote for a group who almost on a daily basis betray all that is decent and honourable about our country?

There are two options. Either there’s something wrong with the electorate or something wrong with the opposition.

Since we cannot “dissolve “ the electorate and find another, indeed it would be pompous and presumptuous to want to do so, we must look to the opposition, including ourselves.

It’s too early to tally all of the votes cast on this Super Thursday, but it is a fair bet that the total number of votes cast of what might loosely be called “progressive forces” (Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and many nationalists) will exceed the votes cast for the Tories.(In the “Landslide election of 2019 which gave Johnson his 80 seat majority, and ignoring the nationalists and others, it was 43% Tories and 46% “Progressive.”)

Either we allow the Tories to use their money, their control of much of the media, and their shameless disregard for truth to hang on to the reins of power for another couple of decades or we get together to stop them.

Yes, I know, this will provoke groans about “siren voices” from some of our stalwarts who have tried to work with Labour and been rebuffed by their self-righteous assumption that Labour and Labour alone have the recipe for the good society and we should get off their patch and let them get on with it.

But it is time to stop mentioning that and look for the possible foundations for a Progressive Alliance.

I believe it would be possible to form a united front under the broad umbrella of Truth, Fairness and Opportunity.

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Ed’s experience can help him rebuild the Liberal Democrats

In his acceptance speech Ed Davey claimed to have been a member of our Party for 30 years. This surprised me as I worked in the same Liberal Democrat Whips’ office as Ed in 1989/90 and had assumed he was already a member.  I can’t claim to have influenced him in joining, but I can imagine some of the other great people who were in that team might have done.

My surprise was down to Ed’s keenness at the time to ensure we had a credible economic message and his enthusiasm for campaigning at the grass roots to get that message across, combined with his natural Liberal responses to the issues of the day we discussed each morning as we put the press cuttings together for our MPs. 

It was a small and effective team that saw our opinion poll rise from an asterix to near double figures thanks in part to the campaign materials we produced in association with ALDC. Known as the People First campaign it was promoted through ALDC and the tiny but talented campaigns team in Cowley Street. It was a first and much missed example of integrated campaigning the new leader might wish to remind himself of.

I also recall that it was Ed who came up with our distinct economic policy to give the Bank of England independence. This policy helped broaden the Party’s appeal beyond the inspiring leadership of Paddy Ashdown and our community campaigning. It was a policy that became one of the first things the new Labour Government did despite it not featuring in their General Election campaign.

In the run up to the 1997 election there seemed to be a wide understanding, probably learnt through the extensive local government experience within the Party, that you can have radical views and policies, but you can’t vote for them if you don’t get Liberal Democrats elected. This is where the targeting of messages and resources was developed that proved so important in helping to win seats like Twickenham and Oxford West & Abingdon for the first time since universal suffrage. 

Sadly, after the 2010 election we ignored the lessons and moved away from the tactics that had secured our bridgehead which has left Tim, Jo and now Ed with an enormous challenge to overcome. 

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Defining and measuring strategic objectives for the party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider fairness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A view on the leadership election from a former Lib Dem member

I joined the party in 2014, and resigned my membership just over a month ago. I didn’t leave because of any ideological difference with the party’s direction per se but because I have lost faith that the party is capable of winning and putting our values in to practice.

In the second half of 2019, I thought our watershed moment had arrived when the party had managed to surge in the EU elections, and attract a raft of exceptionally talented and likeable MPs from the other two parties. Like we had seen in Canada in 2015, and France in 2017, I thought the UK was about to be engulfed by a wave of liberalism in the 2019 election.

I still maintain that this was achievable for the party, but like many have correctly recognised, there were fatally bad strategic decisions made in our national campaign that unthinkably left us with fewer MPs than we had in 2017.
I believe the key questions for the leadership candidates are rather complex and existential. It seems to me that the party has a greatly embedded culture of strategic incompetence that causes us to squander each and every national electoral opportunity we’re presented with.

In my view, the party needs to accept that whilst electoral reform is what we all crave, we have to play the game of politics under its current rules – and not the rules we would like to play under. With that in mind, we need to decide which party we want to replace in this binary political system.

It seems obvious to me that the Lib Dems would ultimately supersede the Labour Party as Britain’s primary progressive force. Yet, our voter demographics do not seem to indicate this as a remote possibility.

My view is that the 2015 collapse that has ultimately led us to this sorry state of affairs is because our party had spent many years building voting blocs via local reputation that had no coherency in a national setting – so when our vote started to crumble, there was no obvious subsection to target and preserve.

Much of this is due to the party’s inability over multiple leaders to carve out a ‘core vote’. It is widely acknowledged that Labour’s power bases are urban centres and the Tories have their base in rural shire counties – but who do the Lib Dems represent?

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A longer read for the weekend: Where now for the Lib Dems?

The Liberal Democrats find themselves lost at sea, rudderless, without sail or paddle, and devoid of compass. Famously, Odysseus spent ten years afloat after the Siege of Troy – “long adrift on shipless oceans”, as Tim Buckley sang in Song To The Siren – but there’s every chance that the Lib Dems will spend much longer than a decade wandering the political oceans if they don’t sort themselves out, and quickly.

Of course, the party does realise it’s in trouble post its catastrophic performance in the December 2019 General Election, and Baroness Thornhill’s after action review has addressed some of the perceived problems. To be fair, her review pulled few punches but arguably is a bit light on solutions or suggestions for radical change. I have no intention of going through her paper point for point and leave it to you to read it should you choose to so do, but I would recommend it.

It’s an old army saying that there are no bad regiments, just bad commanding officers, and this adage probably applies to political parties too. Thornhill notes that Jo Swinson’s short period of leadership was pretty disastrous overall, leaving the party with only 11 MPs at Westminster and she losing her seat and resigning shortly thereafter.  Personally, I don’t blame Jo Swinson – I voted for her in the leadership election – but with hindsight she was probably too young, too inexperienced and perhaps too naïve to be leader of a political party. And she was either completely stubborn or very badly advised by those around her, of which more later. Suffice to say that whoever thought “Jo for Prime Minister” was a good idea needs their head examined.

What is completely unforgivable, though, is that the party has yet to elect a replacement leader and will not do so until August at the earliest. I am well aware of the arguments put forward in favour of this timescale but I’m afraid they just don’t wash. A new leader should have been in place within a fortnight, and that the party hierarchy thought, and still thinks, that an eight month hiatus is acceptable beggars belief, interim leaders notwithstanding. No serious, competent organisation in any of the private, public or voluntary sectors would deem this acceptable.

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged | 36 Comments

Some Questions for the Federal Party and Leadership

Who are our target voters that will increase our core vote?

What are the challenges they face? What are their hopes and fears? What are the three biggest, most fundamental, most enduring issues they care about enough to vote or change their vote? How do we know we have got beyond face value of what they say to what really influences what they do, in the voting booth?

What is our clear message to them on each issue, based on our values and expressed through our policies? How is that message different to the other parties? Is the message simple enough to …

Posted in Op-eds | 25 Comments

The party President writes…Key party decisions coming up at the Federal Board meetings next week

How do we improve as a party and achieve greater success in future elections? That’s the theme running through the bumper set of key decisions the Federal Board is looking at next week at our meeting. (Or rather meetings, as to avoid Zoom fatigue, we’re splitting one long meeting into halves on consecutive nights.)

Included in that will be the Board’s first considerations of the independent election review, headed up by Dorothy Thornhill and coming out later today. Thank you for all their hard work to her, her colleagues and everyone who contributed evidence to the review.

Even without that review, there are some things we already know we need to change, in particular our use of technology. That’s why the Board will also be looking at major plans to overhaul our approach, learning from the best of those outside politics and from politics overseas. A big part of the plan is much better use of volunteer expertise.

Posted in Party policy and internal matters | Also tagged , , , , , , and | 17 Comments

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”— Winston Churchill

Two months ago I wrote an article for this site. I spoke about how for the Liberal Democrats, tactics have become our strategy. In the time since, an election review has kicked off and internally there have been many conversations about what our strategy should be in the coming years. Most of what has been suggested, however, has not been about strategy. It has still been about conflating strategy with electoral operations and tactics.

That’s why I’ve responded to Mark Pack’s request for feedback on our strategy and what it should look like in the future, with this letter. I hope you will input your thoughts too!

We still fail to articulate what the vision and grand strategy is for our party. What sort of a party do we want to be in ten years, when the conservatives most likely face the election that will remove them from power? Who do we want to stand for and most importantly what course of action, at the topline, most basic level, must we take to get there?

Simply cobbling together a disparate core vote, that we adapt slightly after each failed election campaign will not take us to the end of that journey, especially while our national politicians choose short term opportunism over the alternative.

Posted in Op-eds | 12 Comments

Our vision for the future must be sound

Extraordinary times can have extraordinary outcomes. And these are extraordinary times. Civil liberties are restricted, the global economy is shutdown, and emerging communications technology is proving its worth. It’s very easy to assume that the world will change.

People point to the outcomes from other extraordinary times, such as the post World War II Labour Government which built upon the liberal foundations of social care. Folk say, “surely now people see the need for change”.

There is surely much to change – from the need to ensure effective scrutiny of Government can continue, requiring significant reform of parliamentary procedures, through proper valuation of those we now class as key workers, to the need for financial and medical security for all.

The challenges our society is having to work through in very short order are immense. The potential repercussions on the way we used to do things are also huge. For example, how many people are now finding that technology is making routine use of their office questionable?

But people have short memories, and the next General Election is scheduled to be many years away. The current Government doesn’t seem that minded to change very much. The clue is in the name of the governing party.

The saying “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them” almost always holds true. In 1945, the election most pointed to by left-leaning advocates of change, Churchill’s Conservatives were seen to have no viable plan for the post-war world, while Attlee’s Labour held out a positive vision for the future, rooting it in the horrors of the immediate past and explaining the clear benefits in a way which resonated.

Posted in Op-eds | 17 Comments

When tactics become strategy

The great strategist B H  Lidell Hart wrote: “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.” We can take from this many of the problems facing our party today. Following a decade of relative failure, we face an existential crisis and are in dire need of a rethink.

Many, including me, have written here in recent months about specific failings we’ve made, things we’ve overlooked or miscalculations that have occurred. But I think that much about how we operate as a party is fundamentally flawed – because we fail …

Posted in Op-eds | 32 Comments

My first thoughts on the way forward

As I start writing this post, it is less than 24 hours since the polls closed and that dreadful Exit Poll was published so this is to some extent a first draft of what where I think we got it wrong and why we must not assume that we have 4 years to prepare for the next General Election. I am writing and publishing it to start a discussion rather than be dogmatic about what needs to be done, so please join in and give our new President and new Leader a start in working out how to move forward.  Also I haven’t focused on policy issues, more on processes as that is where I think we need to learn the lessons.

This was the third General Election since I joined the Lib Dems and I could not be as engaged this time as I had been in 2015 & 2017 for work and  personal reasons. This gave me a better opportunity to observe what was going on this time with the knowledge of having been a candidate myself before.

Firstly, I don’t think we should attach any blame to the incredibly hard-working teams up and down the county both in target seats and in “no hope” ones. From what I saw, many people went above and beyond what could be expected of volunteers. Yes, I am sure mistakes were made and I hope every seat holds a post-mortem in the new year to look at what they could do better. That said I am not sure, even if they did everything they could do and did it exceptionally well, it would have made a substantial difference.

This brings me to my second and main point. General Elections are decided by  what voters see on television, look at on social media, read in the newspaper and hear in the radio, probably in that order. Sadly for us, much of the access to these outlets, especially television & newspapers, is controlled by a media that since 2010 has been hostile to us and done its best to misrepresent us and exclude us. I don’t think this will change in the next few years. We can’t simply moan about it. We need to factor it into our plans for the next General Election. And, as we cannot be sure the next Election will not be until May 2nd 2014, we must start getting those plans ready in January.

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged | 36 Comments

Six key areas for a partnership approach to politics

Since I last wrote about a partnership parliament’ we have won the Brecon by-election and a lot of the talk, quite rightly, has been about the ‘Remain Alliance’ which helped to deliver victory to Jane Dodds. What the by-election has absolutely demonstrated is that politics has become so factionalised that there will not be a Parliament in which one Party will have an absolute majority after the next General Election.

If we are to have a ‘Partnership Parliament’ then perhaps, we ought to consider a partnership approach to the elections which will precede it. In many ways the one is clearly the precursor to another. So, I set out what I think are the key themes on which we should negotiate pre and post-election.

Note that I said themes here. People rarely vote for or against specific policies. They vote for or against beliefs and themes which express themselves by way of high-level principles which they can relate. They then conclude on those themes that such a Party or such a person is the one that most resembles ‘my’ beliefs.

There are two items which are redlines which must be a pre-condition of the Lib Dems working with other Parties.

Firstly, we must revoke Article 50. This is a change from my previous position that we must aim for a referendum in which we would put the case for staying in the EU. Things have now gone too far.

Secondly, there must be an absolute commitment to electoral reform. The impasse in Parliament has largely happened because too many MPs are calculating their individual chances of survival in a haphazard ‘First Past the Post’ system which has failed to deliver a strong government. 

Both of these objectives can be delivered quickly in the kind of short-term Parliament which might exist after the next election. Then a General Election could be held in which the elections took place on the new STV system There are four areas where declarations of intent can be made now for wider discussions but where some things can be done very quickly.

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged | 70 Comments

Success will bring a painful challenge and we must embrace it

We’ve had an extraordinarily successful month. Back in April, we were written off, now we are clear leaders of a national movement that potentially includes over half the country. But we must be prepared for the cost of success.
Many who want a People’s Vote will join us, but they won’t agree with all our policies. A key part of our values is the belief that people should not be enslaved by conformity and should think for themselves.  Well, that belief is going to be put to the test.
There are many thousands of social democrats who are disgusted with Corbyn’s economic illiteracy, his hardline socialism, and his supporters’ intolerance of anyone who disagrees with him. If these thousands join us, and especially if some of them are moderate Labour MPs, that will start to change the culture of our party.
There will be thousands of Tory members who are disgusted with the way their leadership have caved into populism, have put personal careers and party before country, and are leading the nation in a calamitous direction. If these thousands join us, and especially if some are moderate Tory MPs, that will start to change the culture of our party.
This will be painful but necessary. If we refused to be a broad church, then we’d only get narrow support and the two-party system would re-assert itself. If so, our country, as it suffered under a succession of governments led by dishonest populists of the left and right, would rightly treat us with contempt.
Of course, it’s only a small minority in our party who oppose the broad-based alliance needed to change our country’s direction. But they are a loud minority, and they call our potential fellow members “neoliberals”, “reactionaries”, “soggy centrists”, and “authoritarians”.
Posted in Op-eds | 23 Comments

Radical policies and persuasive, angry voices – the next steps for the Lib Dems

When I joined the Liberal Party in 1967, I did not do it because I wanted a career in politics or a safe seat. Just as well really as I would have been doomed to eternal disappointment. I joined because I wanted to ‘march to the sound of gunfire’ as Jo Grimond wanted us to. I wanted to see radical alternatives to the tired establishment Brylcreemed and three-piece suited men of the Tory and Labour Parties of the time, most of whom defined their view of themselves and society through the prism of the two world wars that shaped the 20th century.

Politics then was quite different than it is now. It was much more genteel and respectful and of course, did not have the 24 hour a day exposure of modern media. But it was far more tribal than it is now. (95% plus voted for the main two Parties. Liberals, if we were lucky got to a whole 3% in the opinion polls, the Green Party didn’t exist and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalist Parties were thought of as a fringe of Celtic extremists.

We started to move upwards then because we dared to be different. I joined the Young Liberals who were often described as the ‘’Red Guard’ and in some ways were more influential than the Party itself. We campaigned then for gay rights, when no-one else did, we campaigned to join the European Economic Community from day one. On these and others issues we began to create a distinctive niche in politics which was not centre ground in terms of lacking a radical edge but it was centre ground in the context of not being on the loony extremes of either the Labour or Tory Parties.

What also made us distinctive was our approach to the business of politics. We started to pound the pavements. We started to make policies discussed in remote Town Halls and the even more remote Parliament in Westminster relevant to the day to day life of people we aspired to represent.

Since the sixties there have been many surges in Liberal and then Liberal Democrat fortunes. In 2015 and 2017 we went down further than in most of my 52-year political lifetime. In 2015 we were within a few thousand votes of losing our Parliamentary Party (with the exception of Alistair Carmichael in Southern Scandinavia!) If that had happened, we would have become an irrelevance. We would, quite simply have died.

I am not going to recount the last 4 years but I simply want to say that it was the thin orange line of Lib Dem Councillors that held the line. Yes Vince and our team did great things in Parliament but it was resolute and bloody stubborn councillors that both held the line and then began slowly to move us forward leading to the great rush in Lib Dem votes and councillors at the beginning of May and what everyone hopes (except our opponents who dread) will be a great advance when the EU votes are declared tonight.

There are three key lessons to me.

Posted in Op-eds | 36 Comments

Post-election reflections on building a Lib Dem core vote

This year I decided to carry out an experiment. I had the feeling that our strategy of Targeting had swung too far one way and was over-allocating resources, adding to the haemorrhaging of our Core Vote and leading our supporters, ex supporters and electorate at large to view the LibDems as increasingly becoming irrelevant.  

So I decided to do some work in the non-Target ward in Ealing that I had been allocated without using any human or material party resources. I also did not work with the other “paper candidates” in the Ward as I did not want to detract from their efforts in helping in the Target wards.

This was the result of my limited effort in my Ward Ealing Broadway:

Ealing Broadway Ward
Vote 2014 Vote 2018 Share 2014 Share 2018 Change Pct Change
Dorothy Brooks/Joyce Onstad 524 789 4.72% 6.24% 265 50.57%
Patrick Salaun 442 627 3.99% 4.96% 185 41.86%
Mark Sanders/Toran Shaw 391 572 3.53% 4.52% 181 46.29%
Total LibDem 1357 1988 12.24% 15.72% 631 46.50%
Total Vote 11090 12644
Electorate 10390 10641
Turnout 38.49% 41.30%

And here is the result in Ealing Common Target Ward where much of the Ealing resources were concentrated:

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged and | 54 Comments

Southport and strategy

This is my personal view about the Southport Conference Strategy motion – what’s good and what can be improved.

There are four big ideas:

  1. A dual approach to politics. We are an insurgent party In our hearts and minds – we want to use political power for change and reform through government and by working with people to help them to take and use power over the forces that affect their lives. It means practical campaigns for our values, fighting the forces that diminish people’s lives and making modern liberalism into a political and social movement.  We should win campaigns NOW on local, national and international issues, working with people in other parties and outside conventional politics.  Our members should be on the streets, into social media and telephoning to win campaigns not just votes. Votes will follow successful campaigns; if they appear to be our main or only purpose, we’ll fail to win hearts and mind for liberalism, fail to win a mandate for radical change and fail to win big elections.
  1. A re-statement of the big ideas that define our core campaign themes: the open society, tolerant, pluralist and internationalist; a fair economy which challenges inequality; and helping people to take back control. We want a strong society, a fair economy, and communities where people find themselves as confident, powerful individuals.

These campaigns resonate with communities throughout the UK . We are not defined by Brexit, although we have important things to say to people on both sides. We have strong messages for people “left-behind” by globalisation and for everyone who wants more control over their lives. We are an inclusive Party, hearing and responding to the pain of many who feel that the EU doesn’t help them, and explaining why open, tolerant, internationalist society works best.

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged | 9 Comments
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