Second place stats to break the silence

I’m still alive, and still working through my Masters dissertation so my time for thinking about things to blog about is limited, which is somewhat handy as just about the only political topic to write about at the moment is just how silly Labour’s leadership election can get and I’ve already covered that.

However, things are coming close to the finish (though I may also be writing a PhD research proposal, because I don’t have enough on my plate right now) so more regular posting may resume here sometime soon. Until then, some statistics from my dissertation that a few of you might find of interest:

Parties in second place in Liberal Democrat seats post-election:
1992: Conservatives 16, Labour 4
1997: Conservatives 39, Labour 6, SNP 1
2001: Conservatives 44, Labour 8
2005: Conservative 43, Labour 18, Plaid Cymru 1
2010: Conservative 38, Labour 17, Plaid Cymru 1, SNP 1
2015: Conservative 4, Labour 2, Plaid Cymru 1, SNP 1

Parties holding seats in which Liberal Democrats were second:
1997 (Pre-election, notional results for new boundaries): Conservative 157, Labour 11, Plaid Cymru 1
1997 (post-election): Conservative 73, Labour 32
2001: Conservative 57, Labour 53, Plaid Cymru 1
2005: Conservative 83, Labour 106
2010: Conservative 167, Labour 76
2015: Conservative 46, Labour 9, SNP 8

(I’m pretty sure that’s all accurate, but please flag up any errors you spot!)

And if you’re interested in election data, you might find this collection of datasets interesting.

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220px-PaddyAshdownCampaigningOne interesting side-effect of my dissertation research has been looking at some of the responses to the 1992 general election. Any parallels to then are obviously inexact – Labour had a leadership contest then that didn’t threaten to split the party, for instance – but some of the reaction to the Tories’ fourth election victory in succession was to claim that everyone was doomed and John Major and Norman Lamont were now masters of all they surveyed in the political landscape. It’s interesting how much our conventional narrative of ‘Tories win election, then Black Wednesday happens’ elides the fact that there were several months between the two events when things looked very different.

It was in that gap – just a month after the election – that Paddy Ashdown delivered a speech in the town of Chard. It’s an important moment in the history of the party because it’s where Paddy began the process of switching the party’s strategy from one of equidistance between the two main parties and towards the goal of ‘realignment on the left’, a strategy first advocated by Jo Grimond in the 50s. The Chard speech didn’t make that leap in one go, but it does mark a clear positioning of the party as an ‘anti-Conservative’ one even though Ashdown is generally dismissive of Labour’s chances of recovery. Indeed, the idea that Labour was a hopeless case after an election defeat is perhaps the biggest parallel between 1992 and now – before Black Wednesday, things did look dire for Labour.

So the first lesson from 1992 is that in politics, things aren’t often as bad as they seem, and no matter how dominant a Government may look, events can always get in the way of even the best laid plans. No one expected that within twelve months of the 1992 that the Tories would have lost their reputation for economic confidence and would be facing guerilla warfare from their own back benches over the Maastricht Treaty.

The more interesting, and possibly important, lesson is how much of what Ashdown says in the speech is relevant today. Indeed, there are large sections of it that you could cut and paste into a speech for Tim Farron to give today, and they’d seem just as appropriate. Consider these as aims for the next five years, for instance:

to create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories; to assemble the policies capable of sustaining a different government; and to draw together the forces in Britain which will bring change and reform.

Or this as a reason why it needs to be done:

The poor, the unemployed, the homeless, those who have lost and will increasingly lose the small luxuries of hope as our public services continue to decline, our environment continues to get dirtier, and our pride in a compassionate and caring society withers away in the face of a continued Conservative assault on the things we took for granted as part of a civilized society only a few years ago. As we now contemplate our strategy for the years ahead, let us never forget that these are the people who sit huddled outside, waiting for us to get it right.

And this, on the role and ideology of the Liberal Democrats:

It is our task, as Liberal Democrats, to set our sails to the new winds which will blow through the nineties; to establish the new frontier between individual choice and collective responsibility; to draw up the practical means to change our economic system in order to respond to the environmental challenge; to liberate the political power of the individual within a practical system of government; to build a powerfully competitive economy, based on individual enterprise and founded on a flexible labour market; to create a taxation system whose purpose is not just to redistribute wealth, but also and perhaps chiefly, to redistribute opportunity; to extend ownership as a means of spreading wealth and diffusing economic power; to establish a network of individual rights which will fill the gap left by the death of collectivism; to rediscover pride in being English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish within a Britain that is big enough to allow different cultures and diffused government to flourish; to respond to the decline of the nation state in Europe without recreating the nation state on a European scale; to find practical means to strengthen global institutions so as to increase our capacity to act to preserve world peace and respond to global catastrophe.

It’s an interesting speech, and worth reading in full, but this is at the heart of it. At the time, the popular media caricature of Paddy, thanks to Spitting Image, was that he led a party that was ‘neither one thing, nor the other, but somewhere inbetween’ and this is an attempt to move beyond that by pushing forward a policy agenda that’s both liberal and of the left. Yes, it’s straying into some of the territory and language that Tony Blair would use for New Labour, but it was those similarities that allowed Ashdown and Blair to develop a working relationship after 1994, by which time Ashdown and the party had been able to develop the party’s position in more detail.

What’s important is that while Ashdown couldn’t predict the events of the next few years, he understood the fundamental pressures that would drive the party’s strategy. The nature of the political and electoral system meant it was unlikely that someone would defeat the Tories on their own, but combining efforts to achieve a common aim doesn’t mean you have to surrender your own identity to achieve it. That’s something we need to bear in mind over the next few years if we want a happier result in 2020, regardless of the events that come between now and then.

And one final idea to take away from that speech: Paddy proposed working with other parties in a National Election Reform Commission, which doesn’t seem to have taken flight back then, but in our more diverse politics with more high-profile parties seeking electoral reform, maybe now its time has come?

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police_electionsIf it was up to me, we wouldn’t be having Police and Crime Commissioner elections next year. They’re a pointless position, and in most cases appear to have become nothing more than a highly paid spokesperson for the police than providing scrutiny and challenge to them. I don’t get to make those decisions, and as the Government’s now made up of the only party that appear to think they’re still a good idea, we can expect to have another two sets of PCC elections before we get the chance to replace them with a system that might actually do a useful job in holding the police to account.

As they’re here for a while, the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive’s decision that the party should contest the elections with a bit more enthusiasm than we did in 2012 is a welcome one. While there is an appeal in the purity of abstentionism, I don’t believe that sitting on the sidelines and carping about the positions will achieve many liberal goals, whereas by actually taking part, we can achieve things. (It’s also worth noting that while no one would call the results last time good, the party did keep its deposit in all of the 24 contests it stood in, even though we failed to get into the top two in any of the contests)

What’s important, in my opinion, is that the FE shouldn’t just say ‘go ahead, stand’ and then wash its hands of the campaigns themselves. These elections are a great opportunity for us to get get out a message that should reach out to the core vote identified by Howarth and Pack. What we can pretty safely assume is that most of the other campaigns in these elections – Labour, Tory, UKIP and independent – are going to be competitions to see who can shout ‘tough on crime’ the loudest while looking stern in photo ops. There’s no point in us joining in a battle for ground that’s already very heavily contested by others, when we should be looking to reach the voters who are looking for a different kind of message. It’s an opportunity to run a national campaign stressing liberal values, stressing the difference between us and the other parties.

There’s an opportunity for us to set out the case for liberal issues like drug law reform (the Durham PCC’s statements on this may be the first interesting thing a PCC has done in the three years they’ve been around) and civil liberties. These elections will be taking place across all of England and Wales (except for London), and we should treat it as a national election campaign. A lot of areas won’t have any local elections next year, and running it as a national campaign can give lots of people all over the country to chance to take part it. Remember that for a large chunk of the party membership – those who’ve joined since May, and will hopefully keep joining until these elections – what’s drawn them to the party is national issues and liberal values. Running with a distinctive liberal message for these elections will be an investment in the long-term viability of the party and we might still surprise ourselves and others by winning one or two.

'Before your party switch can be done, you must answer my question one.'

‘Before your party switch can be done, you must answer my question one.’

Certain over-excited speculation (totally unlike the reasoned deliberation you find on this blog) about the possible fallout of a Corbyn win in the Labour leadership election has suggested some MPs might leave Labour for pastures new. As ever, with rumours of MPs defecting, it’s worth taking them with a bucketful of salt as while speculation of possible defections is often rife, actual defections are usually very thin on the ground.

However, Labour swinging to the left after a leadership election has been a trigger for a major wave of defections before, so perhaps we shouldn’t rule it out straight away. However, as I see it, there are two main problems any would-be defectors would face.

First up is the simple question of where would they go? Jumping straight across to the Conservatives seems unlikely, and there have been very few examples of MPs making that switch (the last was Reg Prentice in 1977), especially compared to the number who’ve gone the other way. However, switching to the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t be as easy as some may think. While the right of the Labour Party might be close to the Lib Dem economic position, it’s also the part of Labour that’s most likely to differ with them over security and civil liberties issues. Effectively, you’d be asking the wing of the Labour party that were among the biggest cheerleaders for invading Iraq and ‘anti-terror crackdowns’ to make common cause with a party that was amongst the fiercest opposition to those.

The only other option open to any potential defectors is to set up a new party, at which point the image of the SDP becomes the ghost at the feast (and David Owen is awakened from his slumbers to stalk news studios). It’s not an entirely impossible proposition (and Progress has always looked to me like something that could be turned into the nucleus of a new party if required) but it’s still a major step, coupled with a very high level of risk. Sure, you might form the party that can claim the whole of the centre ground and dominate British politics for a generation, but history suggests a gradual fade into oblivion is more likely.

Even after those structural issues are set aside, the second – and much more important in the short term – issue how any potential defector answers the Carswell Question: ‘will you be re-standing in a by-election?’ Carswell’s defection last year wasn’t just interesting because it came with little speculation beforehand, but because of the example he set (and Mark Reckless then followed) in calling a by-election to validate his defection. Now, you could argue that those were exceptions to the rule (no other defector since Bruce Douglas-Mann in 1982 had done the same) but you can sure that the media will ask the question incessantly. Any defector has to be prepared to face a by-election, or have a good answer to that question that they’re prepared to stick to – saying you wouldn’t call a by-election, then doing so, would likely be a good way to lose it.

That doesn’t mean we won’t see any defections if Corbyn wins, but as the cost and risk of doing it has been raised, expect any potential defectors to try and resolve their issues with the party first instead of jumping ship immediately. Indeed, the perfect scenario for any defector would be to get themselves pushed out before they get the chance to jump.

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farronforleaderYesterday was an odd day. I’d met up with some of the other people from the Tim Farron campaign at the Taproom in Islington, just over the road from the Assembly Hall where the new leader would make his first speech. We’d been told to expect the result to be announced online at some time after 4pm, but that came with just an announcement that the result would be arriving at 5pm.

So, we sat around outside the bar having a pint or two (and I definitely recommend the Taproom as a place for a drink) waiting for 5pm. I was idly checking Twitter on my phone when I noticed a Tweet saying ‘Tim Farron elected as new leader of the Liberal Democrats’. Unsure if it was a hoax or not, I clicked on the link, which took me to the party’s website (I know because I checked the address a few times to be sure) which had the news. Tim had won, and I got to be the one that told everyone around that table (including at least one senior party figure) that he had won. So that’s my tiny little footnote in the annals of important moments in Lib Dem history.

For me, and others, it was the first time I’d been on the winning side in a leadership election, so we weren’t quite sure how to react in this strange new land. To be honest, it didn’t feel entirely real until we went over the road, wound our way through the long queue to get in and finally got to hear Sal Brinton say ‘the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron.’

It’s a great speech and a great way to launch his leadership, but also makes the point that this isn’t the end, just one early punctuation point on a longer journey. As a party we only narrowly missed a full extinction level event in May, and we still can’t assume that survival – let alone recovery – is guaranteed. There’s a lot of work to be done to make that happen, and lots of internal debate that still needs to be had about the party’s direction.

However, Tim has had one stroke of luck in the timing of his election. The Tories are showing their true colours now they’re in power on their own, and Labour have completely dropped the ball on opposing them and look likely to be indulging in increasingly bitter feuding as their leadership election stretches on until September. I’ve seen several jealous comments from Labour activists about both the pace of our leadership election, the quality of the candidates and the quality of the debate within it.

farronjoinusThere’s a window of opportunity from now until early September for the party to get out there and grab space in the national consciousness. Tim needs to be at the forefront of that, but the other MPs, MSPs, AMs, councillors and others all have a role to play. There’s an opportunity to set out a liberal vision and make clear that the Liberal Democrats still have an important role to play in British politics. It’s not just about building support for next year’s elections, but building a wider liberal movement across the country and letting people know what we stand for.

I’m reminded of the message Kurt Vonnegut said many people need to hear:

I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.

We’re in a time when politics has become a field of despair, a battle to see who can demonise and belittle the most people while promoting visions of the future that seem only a few steps away from dystopia. Even amongst this, there are people out there who want better, who want to see some hope, to feel that the future is going to be better than the past and that we can make it that way. We need to reach out to those people and let them know that they’re not alone, and we’ve now got the perfect opportunity to do that. Let’s take it.


We did it!

I’m standing in a very hot Islington Assembly Hall right now, awaiting the arrival of our new leader on stage. There’ll be a proper blog post on this tomorrow but I just wanted to say that I’m very happy right now and very proud of everyone I’ve worked with in Team Tim over the past couple of months.

It’s the first time I’ve been involved in a successful party leadership campaign, and I’m still processing the fact that we got Tim elected and that I got to break the news to a lot of the team as I was the one who refreshed Twitter at the right time.

It’s been a great campaign, and it’s  been interesting to see the way Labour people have been jealous of both the manner and speed of it. For now though, it’s time to listen to Tim’s first speech as leader, then celebrate the victory.


Lib-Dem-logoIt’s rare that events line up to give you neat examples and ways to make a point, but that’s what’s happened today. In Cardiff, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams was making a speech setting out her vision for the future of the party in Wales and beyond, while somewhere in the aether between the Highlands and London, a piece by Danny Alexander on a similar subject was heading to the New Statesman. Even if they weren’t planned to appear on the same day, they provide a quite stark example of how much some people have learned from reflecting on the past five years in the two months since the election, and how little others have.

Kirsty Williams understands just what happened:

During the General Election, it became clear to me that people might have known what we stopped, but not what we achieved.
Yes, over those five years we did restrain some of their worst narrow-interest, anti Europe, anti green, nasty party instincts.
But I didn’t come into politics to mitigate the Tories. When I was growing up in Llanelli my political awakening didn’t coincide with thinking “if only someone could give Margaret Thatcher a bit more heart”.
I didn’t campaign for devolution and home rule because those Tory Governor Generals they kept sending over the bridge were just a little misplaced.
And I’m proud to be a foot soldier in the long battle between radicals and Tories that’s been fought in Powys in particular for generations.
Those differences and debates still matter. And we need to make that clear, and to win our case.
But we will have to persuade before we can prevail. And that needs a clear, distinctive and coherent message.

Meanwhile, Danny Alexander is busily praising George Osborne’s budget, and warning the party against becoming ‘a soggy Syriza in sandals’ and agreeing with Harriet Harman on not opposing cuts in tax credits:

I don’t like some of the welfare reforms in the Budget, but to make it the political dividing line is to fail to recognise the views of most people.

The most worrying thing about reading Alexander’s article is remembering that it was the instincts he displays here which were supposedly holding back the Tories during the last Government. He sounds like a man who’s swallowed the Tory mantra whole, even claiming that this budget is closer to his own ‘Yellow Budget’ and doesn’t see any lurch to the right in it. His conclusion is effectively that the party should be not much more than a vaguely liberal voice on the centre-right, embracing Tory economics while trying to make a case for civil liberties, the environment and the EU. It’s the sort of contribution that makes you realise why no one is lamenting his absence from the leadership election.

Kirsty Williams, on the other hand, is offering a much more invigorating vision of a party that’s free to go out and be unashamedly liberal again. She understands that while we can’t pretend the coalition didn’t happen, that doesn’t mean we have to pretend it was the greatest thing ever and no mistakes were made. She understands that if the party is to survive, in Wales or anywhere, we need a clear vision that marks us out as different. The only sogginess on display here is coming from Danny Alexander, happy to subsume the party in an undistinguished centrist mush. Williams is the only one making a case for the future of the party and liberalism as a force in British politics.