The end of an era. Now for the renewal

Rock bottom. That’s how it feels to be a Lib Dem right now. The loss of all but one our Euro MPs, including class acts like Graham Watson, Sarah Ludford and Andrew Duff, – on top of a number of wipe-outs in the London locals – is a bitter pill indeed. Only our MPs now have to face the wrath of the post 2010 electorate.

There is something else that I feel acutely, especially here in London. It’s the end of an era. That era started for me with the Lib Dem fight against Lambeth Labour council. The party came from nowhere in the 1990s to leadership of the council. There were similar dramatic successes in Islington, Southwark, Brent, Haringey and Camden. Longer established strongholds of Richmond, Sutton and Kingston also advanced to power. Now only Sutton acts as a beacon. Small groups hang on in Southwark and Haringey, and the party remains a force, albeit diminished, in Kingston and Richmond – but the rest is almost complete wipe-out. I know many excellent councillors, devoted to serving their electors, who have now been turned out for, mainly, faceless Labour party hacks. and the loss of Sarah Ludford completes the awful picture.

There are two things that strike me from a survey of this wreckage.

The first is the failure of the party’s European election strategy, to promote itself as the only strongly pro EU party, in contrast with Ukip. This was a core vote strategy, and I strongly endorsed it as the right way to approach elections held under proportional representation. Indeed the party closely followed the advice set out by this blog a year ago – after the calamity of its confused London Assembly campaign in 2012. The result was strikingly similar to that earlier disaster. Actually support for keeping the country in the EU has risen, according to the opinion polls. It wasn’t a case of the party losing the argument over membership. But pro-EU voters did not accept that as a reason for voting for the Lib Dems. They seem to have voted for Labour and the Greens (who have mollified their previous Eurosceptic stance), and even the Conservatives. It was not enough to overcome the perceived toxicity or irrelevance of the party’s brand. Optimists in the party, including me, have assumed that the party’s unpopularity was a mid-term thing that governing parties always endure. Well it is clearly much deeper.

The second thing as that the party’s decline is not uniform. In some areas the party made a powerful showing in the local elections. Sutton in London; also Eastleigh, Cheltenham, Oxford and Watford – as well as up in Cumbria. In most of the places where the party did badly, it had the air of an exhausted old guard trying to fend off newly invigorated opponents. The Labour Party in many areas, notably Islington and Lambeth, has renewed itself, learning many lessons from earlier Lib Dem campaigning. Meanwhile the Lib Dem organisation was weakening. The councillors were spending too much energy being good councillors, and no enough rebuilding the hinterland. They hoped that being good councillors was enough to ensure being re-elected; ordinarily it might be, but not against a well-organised and well-funded opposition, especially when the national tide is out. The places that succeeded had engaged heavily in renewal. They maintained dense social networks, and had strong local leadership. Sometimes (I think Cambridge would be an example) the party did all these things and it was not enough – but without them failure was certain.

So what next? Ironically the election results show that the country needs a party espousing liberal, internationalist values more than ever. Ukip is the anti-liberal party, and the Conservative and Labour parties are now being urged to ape its views on Europe and immigration to win back lost ground. Neither party was strong on liberal values in the first place, and they will now be worse. The Greens’ record on liberal values is somewhat untested – they do have some illiberal strands of opinion – but they have failed to advance beyond the margins. They don’t have the organisational oomph, and have failed to deliver popular appeal. So Liberal Democrats do not need to doubt their party’s reason to exist.

Top of the agenda for the party now should be long-term renewal. This means recruiting motivated activists and donors. The party should hone its liberal identity to show that it is the only political movement that properly stands up for modern, liberal, internationalist values, with a priority for sustainability and humanity, rather than national and class identity and gross national income. It also means concentrating remaining organisational resources on this – and especially on recruiting and sustaining supporters in the areas where it has a weak local base. A positive online presence and organisation will be key; to much is left to moribund local organisations.

There is one more act to play in the party’s coalition ordeal: next year’s general election. The party needs to hang on to as many of its parliamentary seats as it can. Local MPs often provide the local leadership that helps the party to sustain itself. But hanging on to MPs and plotting the next coalition government should cease to be the leadership’s obsession. Rebuilding the party comes ahead of that.

And what of the leadership of Nick Clegg? Many say that he has become toxic to the party’s image – representing all that they dislike about the party. He enjoys being in power too much, and, so the public thinks, he compromises too much so that he can enjoy that pleasure. He is identified with too many coalition compromises that supporters hate (on benefit reform, legal aid, NHS reform, to name a few). He does not have a deep enough understanding of the local leadership and community politics that will be required to rebuild the party. This may be so, but somehow ditching him now seems to be the wrong thing to do. It reeks of panic. There is no obvious replacement in the wings. The party needs to rethink what it is, and what it stands for, and to choose its leader accordingly. That debate can start now, but the sensible time to conclude it will be after the 2015 election. I am not supporting calls for his resignation.

I feel very bruised. But I also feel that the country needs the Liberal Democrats to be there. We can renew and rebuild the party. And in a funny sort of way, I am even looking forward to the task ahead. I want to help.

The European elections are a victory for proportional representation

They look like a colossal waste of effort. Elections to the European Parliament take place every five years, and turnout in Britain, as in much of the rest of Europe, is dismal. Few understand what the European Parliament is for. But last night’s debate between Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Ukip’s Nigel Farage shows that things are going in an interesting direction. These elections are contributing more and more to the wider process of politics in this country.

The most important thing about theses elections is that they are held using proportional representation (PR). Parties in practice need to get over 10% of the vote in a particular region to get represented – but that still gives parties with a broad but thinly spread appeal a much better chance than parliamentary and even local council elections. The vote share won by the two parties that dominate conventional elections, the Conservatives and Labour, is dismal. This is adding a new dimension to the political debate because it offers voters a greater choice.

The conventional way of politics in the UK is to tell the voters that the real choice is between just two parties. Which two varies depending on where the election is being held, but mostly it is between Labour and the Conservatives (though Scotland is a big outlier here). This serves to close down political debate to a few carefully chosen swing issues that appeal to marginal voters in marginal constituencies. Minority views are dismissed as being irrelevant. But this line of campaigning does not work with PR. And the European elections are the only ones held under PR for most English electors (Scottish, Welsh, Northern Ireland and London Parliament/Assembly elections are held under PR).

The most obvious beneficiaries of this have been to the Lib Dems, the Greens, and, above all, Ukip. Ukip is a right wing insurgent party that represent political views that are as far away from mine as you can get while still being a respectable political party (unlike the openly racist BNP, for example). But it speaks for an important minority of mainly English voters who feel oppressed by the current political system, and ignored by the main parties. The EU is an important focus of that discontent, as is what is seen as excessive immigration. As an aside it often draws its strongest support from areas that are relatively unaffected by immigration – but that does not stop it being a popular scapegoat. The issues are linked: free movement of people is a vital plank of the EU project.

The Conservative and Labour parties would rather these issues were suppressed. They represent inconvenient divisions within their own ranks and put their internal cohesion under stress. And that led to last night’s debate. Ukip and the Lib Dems take clear sides, and are quite happy to slug it out in public. And the public gets to hear a proper debate. That is a very important part of the democratic process. Floating voters may not have learnt much from the verbal slugging match, which I judged to be a score draw (with plenty to please both sides), but it at least would have drawn them into the issues.

Where is this heading? In the great scheme of things I don’t think the direct European Parliament elections are a great success in closing Europe’s democratic deficit. I think its original configuration as a forum for delegations from national parliaments was a better one. But for as long as it is the only national election held under PR, it is serving a useful purpose. The right answer is to use PR for national parliamentary elections, but alas that aim remains very distant. PR for local elections may be a more realistic intermediate step.

Meanwhile it will be very interesting to see if the interest stirred by these debates will affect turnout at the elections. But even if they do not (I will only believe it when I see it) they are doing something to close Britain’s democratic deficit.

European elections: saving the Lib Dems from wipeout

Winner Lib Dem Golden Dozen Blogs – 9 December 2012

The Liberal Democrats have just selected their candidates for elections to the European Parliament in June 2014.  These elections are important to the party – it takes itself seriously as a player in this forum, and it contributes a lot to the party’s strength and depth nationally.  But the party faces a wipe-out.  It needs some radical thinking to have a chance of avoiding such a fate.

The problems start with the party’s low opinion poll standing.  The typical 9-10% is not enough to get the party representation in any of the regional constituencies, except the South East, under the PR system that is used.  But it is worse than that.  The party has always underperformed in these elections.  Its usual campaigning methods are worse than useless.  The party’s appalling showing in the London 2012 elections is a much better guide: closer to 5-6%.  Complete wipe-out.  How to save the party?

The first point is that the party needs to acknowledge the root causes of its campaigning weakness in this type of election.  The party’s electoral successes in local and Westminster elections have been achieved using campaigns that focus on three things in particular: identifying local issues that stir the passions of floating voters, a ruthless third party squeeze (“Labour can’t win here, etc”), and identifying voters and getting to them to the polling stations.  All three are useless in Euro elections – and yet they are so deeply embedded in Lib Dem campaigners’ thinking that they infect everything the party does.  The party fails to put over a message that motivates voters, and since canvassing covers such a small proportion of the potential electors (and usually they are based on other sorts of elections anyway), the polling day knock up has very little impact on the result.

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  The party’s Euro candidates tend not to be, shall we say, the party’s most inspiring campaigners. They are very interested in the goings of the European Union.  This makes them well qualified to be Euro MPs – and indeed the party punches well above its weight there.  But they are not good at finding messages that connect with voters.  Even when they think they have found a killer, like using European arrest warrants to catch terrorists and paedophiles, this in practice has little resonance with the public.

So the party’s normal messages and techniques are ineffective, and the Euro candidates struggle to find an alternative.  In the last election I remember delivering piles of tabloid newspapers that were clearly going to have little or no effect.  Motivating the activists is a real problem, never mind the voters.

So what to do?  The basic strategy is quite clear, and has been talked about for some time.  Find enough voters who feel positive about the EU’s role in Britian’s future to turn up and vote to reach about 15-20% of the vote share.  No other significant party is rallying that vote.  The Labour Party is trying get these voters by default, but without prejudicing its chances with the more sceptical majority.  The Tories don’t seem to think these voters even exist.

Next, how can effective campaign be mounted?  What will be needed is poster and Internet advertising, mass direct mail based on promising demographics, and a good freepost (the single leaflet delivered for free by the post office).  This is supported by an online and social media campaign.  All this activity, combined with the right messaging, will draw in media attention.  Almost no need for local activists to do much legwork – they can get on with their local campaigns.  This will cost a lot of money – so the first priority will be to raise it.

The party is getting better at fundraising, but many party activists have little idea about how it works.  Donors, rich and not so rich, need to be motivated in a very similar way to ordinary voters.  They need to be inspired by the campaign’s messages, and think they might catch on with the wider public. You don’t raise the funds first, then decide on the campaign’s messages; it is the other way round.  So the work on messaging needs to start now.

Here is my humble suggestion.  The campaign theme should be “Save Europe!”.  No doubt this can be improved on, but note the key features.  First and foremost it is pitched as a response to a threat.  People are more motivated by response to threats than positive ideas, and motivation is critical.  The “No” campaign for the AV referendum was highly successful as it pitched AV as a threat to the status quo.  So is pulling out of the EU a threat to the status quo.  The party can be progressive and conservative at the same time!  Further is the idea of “Europe” – vague and big.  The idea is to appeal to people with an international consciousness.  There is a double meaning: first to save Britain from leaving the EU, and second for the country to play its full part in solving a continental crisis that will affect us anyway.

How to build on this idea to make the threat seem real?  “Save jobs” and “Save the Environment” should be the focus.  Messing around with EU membership is a clear threat to jobs – and indeed one of the main appeals will be to businessmen who fear for the future of Britian’s relationship with the EU.  The environment allows the party to play on its international outlook.  Indeed it is an appealing idea to use an Earth from space picture with Europe visible on the surface as a campaign logo.  It also sets the party up for some skirmishing that may be needed with the Greens.  And it contrasts with Ukip’s outlook.

Ukip are the rising starts of Euro elections, which frightens the two main parties.  But if the Lib Dems are after core voters rather than floaters then Ukip’s strength is an opportunity.  It helps define the party: “We are the party which is against everything Ukip is for.”  The more they know about Ukip, the more they know about us.  The party should indulge in some relentless negative campaigning against Ukip – including how they have behaved in the European Parliament – though not straying into accusations of racism.

So you get the general idea.  The best next step would be to appoint a national organiser to work on messaging and strategy.  This needs to be somebody comfortable with challenging the Lib Dem conventional wisdom on campaigning, but with a degree of political realism (contrast some of the Yes to AV campaign types).  Though much of the campaigning needs to be done in the regional constituencies, a lot of the design effort can be done nationally – and the Internet and media campaign needs to be led nationally too.

I do hope the party wakes up to the danger and tries to a bit radical!

London elections – the Libs Dems need to rally the base

After the Lib Dems shocked the world by going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, plenty of commentators threatened the party with oblivion.  At first glance this week’s results in the local and London elections show this prediction to be comfortably on course.  In fact the Lib Dem vote held up well in the party’s strongholds (including in their vilified  leader Nick Clegg’s Sheffield constituency), so extinction is not beckoning.  Some very challenging questions are being posed for the party’s leaders and campaigners, though, especially here in London.

The London results look particularly bad.  Brian Paddick, the mayoral candidate, managed a deposit-losing 4%, and was behind Jenny Jones of the Green party, and only just beat the independent Siobhan Benita, advocating a new runway for Heathrow.  In the Assembly the party mustered a mere 6.8%, leaving it with just two Assembly seats: the peerless Caroline Pidgeon and newcomer Stephen Knight.  These results represent a big fall in the results achieved in 2008, which was already a very bad year for the party.

But it gets worse.  This time the party had the best funded and best organised campaign it had ever put up across the capital.  The results acheived did not match the Greens, who who were barely funded and organised at all, having a much smaller base of activists and donors to draw from.  It wasn’t that the Greens did particularly well – the Lib Dems did very badly.  A repeat performance would mean that the party will lose its London MEP at the Euro elections in 2014.

The London elections are an awkward challenge for the party.  It’s entire campaigning wisdom is based on going after floating voters to win first past the post elections.  This already makes the party vulnerable in proportional representation systems, such as that used for the Assembly.  And yet the attention of the electorate is drawn to the parallel mayoral race (rightly, in view of the office’s powers), which is (near enough) first past the post.  This draws the party in a floating voter campaign for Mayor, that fails either to attract floating voters (because the party is not amongst the front runners) or to rally the core vote, the “base” in political jargon.  The party gave a lot of prominence to tough-sounding slogans like “you break, you fix” to reassure the floaters about the party’s stance on crime, but this left more liberal voters (like me) cold.  The party’s literature consisted of a lot of tabloid newspapers which neither worked as sources of local news to draw people in, nor to rally wavering loyalists.

And the base seems to be disappearing.  Surely metropolitan London is the most liberal part of the country?  And yet the overall results must be amongst the worst in the country.

So the lesson for the party must be to spend more time rallying the base.  It needs to be spell out what the party stands for, liberal values above all, and less defensively justifying the coalition, and not trying to appeal floating voters in areas where the party isn’t strong anyway.  The requires a completely new mindset from the party’s campaigners.  Even when they promise to do this (I remember last time’s Euros particularly well), they tend to get the same old rubbishy tabloids, positioned messages, and so so on.  The next Euros will be an important test.  I’m not holding my breath.

That applies especially to London.  The party still needs to hang on to its MPs and councils, which takes relentless floating voter persuasion – but the party surely can’t afford to disappear into nothingness outside its bastions.  The party needs activists, donors and the moral authority that come with a genuine nationwide base.