House_of_Lords_chamber_-_toward_throneMark Pack has news of a call for any Lib Dem appointments to the House of Lords to be used to bring more diversity to the Upper House.

However, I’m reminded of a suggestion I made a couple of years ago, and want to develop that further. What we should do as a party is quite simple: announce that we’re only appointing women to be Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords until we have parity in our group there. Obviously, I’d like to see the Lords abolished and replaced, but until such time (at least five years, as things stand) as that happens we should be taking steps to make our representation within there as representative.

I’d also suggest something else: our selected representatives should be people who’ve never been in Parliament before. Too much of the House of Lords consists of what’s little more than a comfy retirement home for ex-MPs (including those rejected by the electorate) and we should be casting our net much wider if we want to create a radical and diverse group in the Lords. Just putting more former MPs in there doesn’t do anything to promote a wider range of voices in the Lords, and we should be taking what few opportunities we have to do things differently.

Often debated here and elsewhere have been attempts to distill the nature of being a Liberal Democrat down into something simple and easy to understand. A couple of years ago, Alex Wilcock asked for suggestions to get it down to 150 words, but even that generated lots of different visions and visions.

Today, however, I think Jennie Rigg has solved it in a couple of sentences of her post on Lib Dem Voice suggesting a reading list for new members. It’s buried right down in the footnotes, but I think it’s a perfect insight into the party’s culture:

If you go for candidate selection, one of the questions you will be asked is “is there any part of party policy with which you disagree, and if so why?” If your answer is “no, I agree with all of it” you will be looked upon with deep suspicion.

Jennie has an aversion to writing for Lib Dem Voice but it’s clear to me that this is a ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ issue. If she can so easily define the party with two sentences, how many other deep-rooted issues could she solve with a casual remark?

, , ,

It occurred to me yesterday that I’ve never spent any significant time in the constituency of any party leader – I’ve passed through a few, but not been in any for a meaningful time – but that will likely change, assuming that Tim Farron or Norman Lamb is the next Liberal Democrat leader.

As MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Tim gets to represent a large chunk of the Lake District where I’ve spent plenty of time and will be back on holiday later this year. A constituency that includes Ambleside, Coniston, Windermere and Grasmere must be high up there on the list of constituencies most visited by tourists, but my favourite part of it is likely Langdale:

Westmorland from the Langdale Pikes

Westmorland from the Langdale Pikes


However, I’ve also been to Norman’s North Norfolk constituency several times recently, which contains some of Britain’s best-looking beaches, particularly the fantastic wide expanses of Holkham:
Holkham on a clear and cold day

Holkham on a clear and cold day


Whichever of them wins, I don’t think either of them will have trouble having good shots of them at home for the papers, or getting people coming to visit them in their constituency.

, , , , ,

Lib-Dem-logoThis is a long post – the version in my head is even longer – but it’s been gestating in various forms for a while and I wanted to get it out there while we’re thinking about the future of the party. To make it slightly easier, I’ve divided it into three parts – the first about the decisions the party made about its political positioning before 2010, the second about the decisions made with coalition and the effects they had, and the third about where we go from here.

Part 1: How did we get here?

‘Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it.’ If we’re going to look at where the party should go from here, we need to look at the process that brought us here, and for me that starts in the mid-90s as the party abandoned equidistance in favour of working more closely with Labour. Up until that point, our positioning had been best known by Spitting Image‘s Ashdown catchphrase: ‘neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere in between.’

However, after the shock of the 1992 election and the travails of the Tory Government that followed it, Paddy Ashdown began the process of shifting the party into being part of the anti-Tory bloc. This was rewarded with lots of tactical voting that led to the big by-election gains from the Tories, and also the party’s gains at the 1997 and 2001 general elections, only one of which (Chesterfield in 2001) came from Labour.

Things shifted after 2003 and the Iraq War. The party had already begun picking up council seats and councils from Labour, while losing ones gained before 1997 back to the Tories, but this accelerated, particularly in the North, culminating in a number of gains from Labour (and losses to the Tories) at the 2005 general election, coupled with a failure of the ‘decapitation strategy’ against senior Tories whose seats were perceived as vulnerable. After this, and particularly once Clegg became leader, the party began to move back towards ‘equidistance’.

That’s a simplified version of the strategy – there were lots of other currents going on at the same time – but I want to talk about it in general terms instead of getting bogged down in the details.

There’s a concept in the academic study of party systems, introduced by the late Peter Mair, called the structure of competition for government, which underlies other issues of the party system within a country. Part of it covers the way parties work together even while competing with each other in the electoral system. For example, in Sweden there are clearly separate left and right blocs of parties who tend to alternate with each other in government but a party from one bloc will not go into government with the other, while in the Netherlands, there are no clearly defined blocs so shifting between parties in government after elections is more fluid.

Britain’s post-war structure of competition was seen as being a very closed one, with just two parties competing for Government, and power alternating between the two. It had wobbled in 1974 and through the Labour government that followed, but reasserted itself in 1979. However, it broke down again after the 2010 election result, and we took the opportunity of that change to enter Government and formed the coalition with the Conservatives.

In the minds of many in the party, this was entirely natural decision. After all, we’d gone back to being equidistant between the parties, so we were free to choose whichever way we wanted to go, and there was no real way of forming a stable coalition with Labour. However, what I’d argue is that we catastrophically misjudged the mood of the public and their understanding of how the party system and structure worked. In their minds, we were still part of the anti-Tory bloc and so to line ourselves up with them was breaking our role in the system.

We’d convinced ourselves that returning to equidistance was right, but we’d failed to get that message over to the electorate – and indeed, our message to the electorate completely ignore that. In so many of our constituencies, we were fighting the Tories and putting out the message ‘vote for us to keep the Tories out’. Because the bulk of our seats were Tory-facing that’s the message the bulk of our voters got.

We also failed to notice that equidistant parties are incredibly rare in all political systems. People like to point at Germany’s FDP, but neglect to notice that they’ve only ever been in coalition with the SDP once, and that was over thirty years ago. The rise of the Greens as the SDP’s natural partner on the left since then made them a natural part of the CDU’s right bloc, not an equidistant party that can shift between the two of them.

There was a mismatch between the way we (especially the leadership) saw ourselves and the way our voters saw it. Joining coalition with the Tories exposed that rift.

Part 2: What the hell just happened?

It’s very easy to look back on May 2010 with 20/20 hindsight and imagine that everything that’s happened since then was entirely predictable. What we forget is that at the time nothing seemed predictable as the voters had delivered us into an entirely new political situation. Everyone was wandering in the dark and trying to guess the rules of this new political landscape, while the media – denied of the clear election result they expected – were howling at everyone to get on with it and give them something to report so they could move on to the next thing.

I still think the coalition was the least worst option available to us at the time and the other options on the table (confidence and supply, the rainbow coalition or just sitting it all out) would have led to a Tory majority government within 6 months to a year. However, I also think the process was ridiculously rushed and many parts of the decision-making process were made in the immediate post-election blur, rather than being discussed slowly and sensibly, giving much more time for a wider public discussion and a chance for us to assess the public mood.

The infamous Rose Garden press conference wasn’t a problem in itself. Indeed, it was probably a boon for the party in making Cameron and Clegg look like equals in the Government, and basic media management meant that they had to present a positive image at the start of the Government – imagine how bad it would have looked if they’d begun by looking like they could barely tolerate each other. The problem came with not seeing that as a temporary need at the time of establishing the new Government and instead taking that as the default mode for the party.

We completely messed up the politics of coalition. We were so determined to prove that coalition government worked that we let ourselves get caught up inside the machine and effectively went native. With a few exceptions, our ministers didn’t talk and look like liberals in government, but more like the government’s emissaries to the liberals. They decided their mission wasn’t to get as many of the wishes of the party and its voters into law, but instead to take what was decided by an increasingly remote government and attempt to persuade the party that that was it really wanted. Rather than justify compromises as the best we could get under the circumstances, we began talking about them as being somehow better than the position we started from and what we’d really wanted.

This led to the position of crowing about being ‘a party of government, not a party of protest’ which showed just how much wrong it was possible to combine into just nine words. The idea that these two ideas were polar opposites, the idea that the party was just about protest, the way it ignored the party’s role in local and devolved government over the decades, all combined to show that the leadership saw the party’s role as just another part of the beige consensus of the Governing Party of the elite consensus that dominates British politics.

All this led to the decision where we fought the election as a party of centrist managerialism, offering voters nothing more than the opportunity to split the difference between the two big parties. It’s not an inspiring vision, which can be seen by the way the slogans used to sell it kept changing. First ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ which then got ‘opportunity for all’ bolted onto it, which then was replaced by ‘Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross’ for the election broadcasts, which was then trumped by the ‘heart for the Tories, head for Labour’ gimmick which lasted till the final week of the decade when it was replaced by ‘Stability, Unity, Decency’ which sounded like the slogan of a dystopian dictatorship from Poundland.

The party forgot what it was for and the leadership tried to mutate it into something else during our time in government. The decision was made to let the necessities and limited possibilities of government define what our values would be rather than allowing our values to define what we would try and do in government. The message became a defensive one of managerialism and moderating other parties, rather than one of talking about what we wanted to do and what we stood for. We swallowed the managerialist mantra that the only thing people want from a political party is some form of nebulous competence, rather than making a liberal case for a liberal party.

Part 3: Where do we go from here?

I said on Friday morning that the election had been an extinction-level event. On reflection, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it would be easy to stumble on into extinction from this position. Centrist managerialism has been tested to destruction as a strategy and it has utterly failed. We’ve not just seen our number of MPs shattered, we’ve lost councillors across the country, slipped back to the fringes in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd, and gone down to just one MEP.

It’s the worst position the party’s been in since the 50s and 60s, and back then we were able to grow in a gradual way because we faced almost no competition as the old voting behaviours broke down. There were no Greens and no UKIP, and the nationalist parties were only beginning to gain a toehold in by-elections. Now, we’re in an intensely competitive electoral battle, and hoping to gradually accumulate while we sit in the middle being neither one thing nor the other is not going to work. We have to stand for something, and be seen to stand for something – we have to make liberalism mean something to the people again.

I’ve banged on repeatedly for the past year (because Conrad Russell’s not here to do it) about how we as liberals need to understand that liberalism is fundamentally about power, and specifically about challenging unaccountable power and putting that power back in the hands of the people. In his resignation speech, Nick Clegg talked entirely rightly about how we risk losing the argument to ‘the politics of fear’, and one of the things that drive that fear is the utter powerlessness people feel, which causes them to lash out and blame innocent others.

thorpetakepowerOur first big post-war breakthrough came in 1974 with the message ‘Take power. Vote Liberal.’ and we need something like that as our core message, but not just a crude libertarian understanding of power that sees it only as something that comes from that state. We need to show that we’re about helping people take power over every aspect of their lives, in the economy and in society, not pretending that government is the only problem. The best way to counter fears is to give people the power to confront them and realise that they’re not a threat, and we have to be the party that will help people take that power back.

Coupled with that, we need to be the party of hope, optimism and positivity about the future. That means being a party that gives people reason to believe that the future will be better than today for them and their families, not just somewhere with more gadgets to fill their increasingly small houses in the diminishing free time they have from their precarious employment. We need to be the party that talks about how science and technology can transform and change society, bring real opportunity to everyone to live the lives they want, and not be afraid of offering people a radically different vision of society. Let’s not be afraid to bring out all those old radical ideas to the public – land value taxation, basic income, drug legalisation and all the rest – and not just offer a vaguely liberal tinge to the current consensus.

To deliver this, we need to review everything about the way the party works. The structures we have now are essentially those laid down in the late 80s, a period when the idea of mass membership parties hadn’t quite died and the communications revolution driven by the internet hadn’t begun. Starting from a blank slate we need to ask ourselves the question ‘if we were setting up a liberal political party in 2015, what would it look like, and how would it work?’ There needs to be flexibility in the way the party works, coupled with a structure that trusts members to do the right thing and doesn’t just regard them as foot soldiers to be directed from the centre.

With just eight MPs, we’re going to need new ways of working. Already, the media are barely mentioning us and we can’t assume that making worthy speeches in the Commons is going to change that. We need to be a force outside of Parliament, building alliances and being part of campaigns that champion liberal values against a Government that’s going to ride roughshod over them. However, we also need to recognise that we can’t do this on our own, and will have to work with others – we’ve shown coalitions in government are possible, so we should be willing to push them in opposition. When we’re in agreement with others, we shouldn’t let tribalism get in the way of doing so, and perhaps we should be considering that we’re going to need to consider electoral alliances if we want to achieve the reforms we want.

I’ve gone on for long enough here, and this is just part of starting the debate about where we go from here. From my perspective, if we’re going to survive and thrive we have to be a radically-minded party that’s willing to be different and challenge the consensus. Liberals shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, and we’ll have to take plenty of them if we’re going to make this country a better place.

(If you’re still looking for things to read about the future of the party after that, I’d recommend David Howarth, Alix Mortimer and Jennie Rigg, but there’s plenty of thoughts out there right now)

, , ,

I’ve been looking through the election numbers (and thanks to Stanno on Twitter for a spreadsheet packed full of election data) and here’s a few things I’ve noticed.

The Liberal Democrats lost votes everywhere. There aren’t any chinks of light in seats where we managed to gain votes. The smallest fall was Dunbartonshire East, where Jo Swinson went down just 2.4%, and the biggest was Brent Central with the total 35.8% down on 2010. All four of the smallest falls were in Scotland (aside from Dunbarton East, they were 2.8% in Edinburgh West, 3.3% in Gordon, and 3.7% in Argyll & Bute) which suggests both hard campaigning in those seats and that anti-SNP tactical voting was a factor. Outside of Scotland, the least worst falls were David Ward in Bradford East (down 4.2%) and Julian Huppert in Cambridge (4.3%).

Labour’s share of the vote went up, and by more than the Tories. It was a terrible night for Labour, voters deserted Ed Miliband etc is the narrative, which ignores that their share of the vote went up by 1.5%, while the Tory share was up just 0.7%. In conventional terms, there was actually a swing from Tory to Labour, but this time the Tories were able to deploy their vote much more efficiently. On a crude measure, the Tories had only two constituencies (Hampshire North and Maidenhead) where they got over 65% of the vote – Labour had 17. There’s a possibility that without Scotland, the bias in the electoral system has now switched, and it’s Labour piling up votes in safe seats, while the Tories gain more seats with a similar share of the vote.

Where have all the voters gone?. 11,560,484 voters. That’s a huge number of people and more than anyone’s got an election since Tony Blair in 1997. Unfortunately, it’s also the number Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party got in 1992. David Cameron only got 11,300,303 voters on Thursday but national turnout was still only 66.1% despite the boost it got from the massive turnout in Scotland. The SNP have shown that it’s possible to engage non-voters, get them voting and change the rules of the game, but how does that happen in the rest of the country?

Turnout matters. It’s a theory I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I still think we make a mistake by treating all voters at all elections as a homogeneous group. I think we there are two distinct groups – those that generally turn out at all elections (with a possible subset of those who vote in local by-elections and PCC elections) and those that only vote at general elections – with different behaviour. For instance, UKIP got 4.3m votes at the European elections last year and 3.9m on Thursday. Once you take out a chunk to represent Tory protest voters who were never going to vote Farage at a General Election, it seems UKIP are very good at motivating voters to turn out for them at all elections, but not too good at persuading those who only vote at general elections to vote for them. Mark Reckless got almost exactly the same number of votes in Rochester and Strood that he got in the by-election, but lost his seat because Kelly Tolhurst (his Tory opponent both times) found 10,000 more voters for the general election.

I suspect a similar factor helped persuade Lib Dems that things wouldn’t be so bad: ‘Look at the local elections! Our vote’s holding up there!’ was the regular cry, but when that group who didn’t vote in local elections were added to the electorate, things went very bad. Differential turnout is a phenomenon that’s not been studied too much, and the corresponding phenomenon of differential enthusiasm amongst supporters of different parties is something I’ve seen put forward as a plausible suggested explanation for the polling errors.

That’s the main things I’ve spotted for now, but I do want to feed these numbers into SPSS sometime in the next few weeks, just to see what interesting figures I can draw out of them – I suspect there are a lot more stories to be told.

, ,

As I get people coming here looking for them, I’ll post them as I get them so the post will be updated as the evening goes on. Click here for the General Election result.

Berechurch: Labour (Dave Harris) 1,958, Conservative 858, UKIP 521, LD 406, Green 152
Birch and Winstree: Conservative (Andrew Ellis) 1,913, UKIP 569, LD 291, Lab 287, Green 145
Castle: Conservative (Darius Laws) 1667, LD 1172, Green 982, Labour 821
Christ Church: Conservative (Annesley Hardy) 964, LD 670, Labour 433, Green 319, UKIP 148
Copford and West Stanway: Conservative (Jackie Maclean) 673, UKIP 177, LD 115, Lab 155, Green 46
Fordham and Stour: Conservative (Nigel Chapman) 2,023, labour 396, Green 336, LD 327
Great Tey: Conservative (Peter Chillingworth) 979, LD 257, Labour 170, UKIP 162, Green 104
Highwoods: Independent (Philip Oxford) 1,592, Conservative 1,192, Labour 479, LD 466, UKIP 395, Green 187
Mile End: Conservative (Ben Locker) 2,101, LD 1,769, Labour 707, UKIP 533, Green 368
New Town: LD (Annie Feltham) 1,289, Conservative 832, Labour 772, Green 631, UKIP 493
Prettygate: Conservative (Will Quince) 2,269, LD 967, Labour 522, UKIP 489, Green 196
Shrub End: Conservative (Pauline Hazell) 1,571, LD 1157, UKIP 757, Labour 736
St Andrew’s: Labour (Tim Young) 1,462, Conservative 715, LD 447, Green 317
St Anne’s: LD (Barrie Cook) 1173, Conservative 976, UKIP 770, Labour 600, Green 241
Stanway: Conservative (Fiona Maclean) 1861, LD 1611, Labour 616, Green 261
Tiptree: Conservative (Margaret Crowe) 1,873, UKIP 1,313, Labour 535, LD 194, Green 129
West Bergholt and Eight Ash Green: Conservative (Marcus Harrington) 1,578, UKIP 370, Labour 306, LD 265, Green 204, Independent 151, Patriotic Socialist 12
West Mersea: Conservative (Patricia Moore) 2,154, UKIP 988, labour 402, Green 330, LD 278
Wivenhoe Cross: Lib Dem (Mark Cory) 668, Labour 328, Green 130, Conservative 271, UKIP 90
Wivenhoe Quay: Labour (Rosaling Scott) 1295, Conservative 1251, Green 325, LD 295

Official details are on the Borough council website here.

,

I’ve spotted a few people landing here after googling for the result, so here it is.

Will Quince (Conservative) 18,919
Bob Russell (Liberal Democrat) 13,344
Jordan Newell (Labour) 7,852
John Pitts (UKIP) 5,870
Mark Goacher (Green) 2499
Ken Scrimshaw (Christian People’s Alliance) 109

That’s a 100% swing for me from contented to gutted.

The local elections aren’t counted until later this afternoon, and I’ll post those results as I get them – they’ll also be on the Colchester Borough Council website, and I recommend Colchester Chronicle’s website and Twitter feed for live coverage. Click here for the Colchester Council local election results.