Monday, 24 October 2016

Reflections on Witney

It is evident that the Lib Dem performance in Witney was an overwhelmingly positive occurrence.  The biggest swing in a Conservative-held seat since the freak Winchester by-election of 1997, the campaign was also remarkable for its positive and welcoming atmosphere.  The party has learned to have fun again; it has been a unifying experience.

To what extent, though, has it contributed to the party's recovery from the long-term damage sustained under Nick Clegg's leadership?  This is more debatable.

The starting base was a local party in decline for a decade: a track record of campaigning that was patchy but had covered most of the district at some point or another.  Only the unusual stronghold of Charlbury & Finstock ward could now be described as fertile territory; however, there was potential to grow support in a Remain-voting, affluent seat.  Local councillor Liz Leffman - who in May recorded the ninth-best council ward result in the UK, and whose partner is a former Red Guard Young Liberal - was quickly selected.

A good opportunity, then, for some campaigning innovation - especially with large numbers of activists old and new ready to descend on an easily-accessible location.  A well-located HQ and a notably friendlier team than that of by-elections past made a big difference; people wanted to come back.

While some innovation did take place, visitors did question whether more could have been done.  A seat with over 100 different settlements could have lent itself to this.  The campaign, however, did use a local issue (housing development) and localised strong stories about the NHS.  This was made easier as the candidate (one of an all-local shortlist) had a good campaigning track record on the issue, and more or less neutralised the damage done to the party’s reputation by the Health & Social Care Act.

The mood among the various pro-EU '48%' groups was channeled although reports of the kind of strong pro-Europe messages that made it onto literature - for the first time in decades – were mixed.  Apart from in the partly military community of Carterton this seemed to resonate.  Where it worked particularly well was in galvanising campaign support which came from outside the party as well as a significant quality from the post-Clegg membership.  This led to a particularly heavy blizzard of literature, questioned by some on the campaign.

Also questioned was the campaign’s stance on housing.  West Oxfordshire contains the first Community Land Trust in the country (set up in Stonesfield in the 1970s) and Lib Dems in the district had a good reputation in pushing for provision of affordable housing to enable local people to stay in the area.  The Tory Council had failed to renew its Local Plan, creating a free-for-all for developers, leading to NIMBY campaigning in an area with sky-high house prices.  As a pro-housing party, it was surprising to see campaigning take that NIMBY line, although it was undoubtedly effective.

The Tories tried to select a dull, play-it-safe candidate; a solidly pro-hunt and anti-EU local councillor.  What they didn't count on were some wooden hustings performances in a constituency where such things still mattered; a toxic combination for the largely soft and pro-EU Tory vote.

The result was a massive swing - bigger than Romsey or Bromley, but unfortunately the 2015 starting base left simply too much to do.  A vast number of stakeboards demonstrated momentum.  It is said that the notoriously poor by-election aftercare support will be ramped up.

Nonetheless the Labour vote held up; indeed it seems they increased their share in Witney town itself while it fell everywhere else.  Their candidate was also local and anti-Corbyn.  The Greens' local celebrity Larry Sanders ensured that the progressive anti-Tory vote was firmly split.  This should be a lesson for those seeking anti-Tory pacts.  Equally, it is a reminder that some will not forgive Lib Dems for Clegg.

Liberal Democrats should not get ahead of themselves.  In other local by-elections on the same day as Witney the party's vote remained as low as 3 percent.  In parts of the UK less sympathetic to a ‘drawbridgfe down’ pro-European agenda, the message may not be so well-received.  The Witney result will be ignored by most of the national media in its glee at the party’s fate.  It will take several Witneys and a few wins to make a difference.  But the party now knows it can happen, and it is getting its self-belief back.  It has – if not a strategy – a vision.  The next step is anticipated with some zeal.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

What more can be done to improve the EU after the referendum? The debate that we are not having.

What more can be done to improve the EU after the referendum? This is the key debate that we should be having that we are not having. That remainers should be having with antis even now - we can disagree, they can vehemently oppose and want out of the EU but we can still find out what they don't like and try to change some of those things (any that are actually real and factual) for the better. This is the debate that Stronger IN and David Cameron have failed to have. SI because the political strategists are only focused on winning the referendum - not how or afterwards - and Cameron because he's hung by the split and hostility in his own party. I hope that after a winning vote David Cameron can be more reasonable with his Ministerial opponents - at least the less nasty ones - than he was with libertarian David Davis after his leadership win.  Conciliation will be needed but so is quick very quick action and results on reform. The campaign group Avaaz sent a survey to their members at the start of June about what more Avaaz could do, I think after the EU referendum to help in the UK on this issue. They are a great movement but they also missed the need for reform to take account of genuine concerns.

 The last question in the survey was:

 "5.  Here is a list of possible changes that could be beneficial to the EU. Tick the 3 boxes that you personally think would make the most difference."

 They listed 11 changes. I agreed with two of them, and ticked those two, I partly agreed with others and disagreed fully or partly with many.

 The problem is that Avaaz hasn't tried to include those who are sceptical about or anti-the EU project. There was nothing in the list to help win those people over. The list in the survey seemed to be about increasing the central coordinating role of the EU, not taking seriously the concerns of people who don't want this. Other measures might appeal to political geeks and those already active in working for NGOs etc. (voting for a President of the Commission, citizens' initiatives and registers of lobbyists and transcripts of meetings). I doubt they would appeal to many who were not already active or paid to work on these issues.

 The language of the Avaaz survey is, like that of Nils Röper in an article in The Conversation*, inherently in support not just of the current political project but further integration. I support the former to a large extent, and the latter a bit. However, the point I am arguing is that real concrete steps need to be taken to engage Antis to feel they have not been cheated by the EU 'project'. This passage by Roper is more helpful

 “Discourse should mean constructive dissent. .. The EU surely depends on grand visions and zealous europhiles, but the sacred pursuit of an ever closer union might have undermined the EU’s cause. Taking deviating voices more seriously and allowing for more skirmishes should be the motto of the future.”

 On Friday 3 June, interviewed on Bloomberg TV Europe 0850 UK, Günter Verheugen (a former Commissioner) concluded that regardless of an IN or OUT vote that significant reforms of the EU are needed that don't need treaty change. Eg more subsidiarity, transparency. Avaaz could usefully ask people for their ideas in support of reform and other improvements - even if some might reply based on misinformation, misunderstanding or lack of understanding, this can all help improve the EU. Avaaz and other independent or neutral organisations (like and 38 Degrees), Liberals, Trade Unionists, can all be having conversations about real reform -from a range of philosophies or ideologies. So could charities if they aren't banned by the Tories from talking about changing policies and 'politics'. But most of all if we have a statesmanlike Prime Minister this is a conversation that he or she should be leading - across Britain and beyond.

 * Why EU referendum voters are like disgruntled commuters in Nigeria, 1 June 2016.

 “According to Hirschman, the appeal of exit not only increases with the level of discontent about the organisation, but also with the creeping feeling you are unable to change it. In the UK we find both growing unease with the EU and a perception of impotency to change it.”

 “Considering the complexity of a system that accommodates 28 member states, EU law making has actually become laudably transparent and accessible.”

 “The nub of the matter for the UK-EU disconnect is an ill-informed public. Britain’s path to European detachment has been paved by a dismissive domestic media.”
 Nils Röper Why EU referendum voters are like disgruntled commuters in Nigeria
 June 1, 2016

 Postscript; what kind of changes in the European Union would I like to see. Really I want a change in emphasis. Less regulation, less law, less attempt to direct from the centre. At the same time it is utterly reasonable that countries can reserve benefits to their own citizens until residency and / or work criteria - timescales - have been met. I'd like Britain to take the work element seriously for its own long term unemployed as well but both of these should be for decision at UK level. I also want to see the EU abide by the principles it claims to be founded on in its foreign policy where they are often ignored in action - with neighbours and further afield. Of course this is hypocrisy of the Commission and the Member States - all our countries. (The much maligned Nick Clegg raised the need for the EU to actually stick to its values in dealing with the Middle East and North Africa countries in a speech in 2011 about the Arab Spring before the term had even been coined). Here is a flavour, what I said in feedback to Avaaz, on that change of emphasis. Avaaz survey responses.

 3. What do you think are the most negative aspects of the EU?

 A desire on the part of some in the centre to standardise unnecessarily and to look for an EU level rule or law when none is needed. Though no Governments say they support this many governments and ministers (or their civil servants) must tacitly do so for perceived economic or security reasons, or they fail to put a stop to sensible sounding but unnecessary standardisation. .. National parliaments could also use their consultative positions to put a stop to unnecessary legislation but they fail to scrutinise sufficiently and fail to do so.

 4. In order to support the EU more strongly, what kind of changes would you like to see?

 After hopefully Britain votes to stay in a clear statement by EU leaders, the European Parliament and especially the EU Commissioners that they will look at ways to reduce any real bureaucracy and unnecessary standardisation and to make clear concessions when so and efforts to engage with those in many countries who feel that the European Union centrally interferes in too much. Leaders of the EU engage people by cutting it back a bit. Show the antis that they are listening and acting by being conciliatory and acting. Give the antis something so they can say "we won that" "we got that".

Can Cameron Do it - Post the EU referendum? What is needed if Yes are Victors.

Not can Cameron win the EU referendum, if he loses then his, and the Tories' reckless gamble with our future will have failed, as it nearly did in Scotland. The official Yes campaign, Stronger IN, have been determined to repeat many if not all of the mistakes of the political campaigning and British establishment class from the Scottish referendum. If we lose, then many of us will be angry and in despair because Britain will not have voted to be the kind of country that we want it to be, it will not have voted for the shared cooperative European future that we want and believe in.

 But if the Remain campaign wins. Then hard work starts to pull the country together, to unite bitter wounds – among the people rather more importantly than among the Conservative Party (and Labour Party to lesser extent, as with the different views within the Greens and SNP also), to show antis and those who genuinely thought a better Britain lies out of the EU, that they are not ignored, that their views are listened to and acted upon, and for Cameron or whoever to achieve a better improved less centralised EU to try and avoid this rift continuing. Can Cameron do this? I'm not at all sure that he can, given his failure to present much vision in the referendum campaign, and given the bitter splits in his party so that if he wins his Eurosceptics will continue to put knives in his chest as they did with John Major. Only in a speech on security has Cameron put a principled and positive vision for Europe, one not based on the Stronger In political hack majority narrative of economics and fear.

 I'm not sure David Cameron can achieve this, but someone has to, and Liberals have to support them. We have to try. Many principled, progressive and educated modern young (ish) Britains from varied backgrounds have worked together on the ground and in the central campaign to keep Britain in the EU because they believe it is better for our future. Those people don't believe – like some of the EU elite appear to – that the EU is perfect, they want a better EU. We mustn't ignore on the anti side that there are reasonable disagreements with EU policies - different opinions - about the CAP or EU fisheries policy. There is no monolithic EU elite - the 'Left' use similar dismissive collective language to ignore anyone they don't like or want to blame - but there are some in positions of power and influence within the EU institutions who are genuinely out of touch and who should listen to ordinary people more.

  That EU elite includes in my experience some starry eyed Lib Dems and some of those with vested interests from the funding (from MEPs to academics – who want to keep their positions or keep the expansion of centralised influence going, needlessly). At the same time experienced Anti-EU membership voters do have a point. They never have been given a vote on the creation of the European Union or on the EU as a political project. Yes the European Community project has always been political. Yes they have had votes for Governments and parties (well not really, though they don't care about that), Yes many democrats are dubious about referendums, but the antis' point made by many older voters is perfectly valid that they voted for a Common Market, they didn't vote for this. As I  wrote months ago "If people feel after the referendum that they’ve not had a fair vote – like in Scotland, or in the previous referendum on membership of the European Economic Community, people feel somehow cheated – then there will be limited acceptance of the result and regular renewed calls for a new referendum leading to more instability in our national political debate of the kind that undermined John Major’s government and has bubbled as a hot and cold war in the Tory party under Cameron. People need to feel they are making a well informed positive choice."
 It has been great to be a part of a non-party and all party campaign on a very important issue instead of the parochialism and self-interest of British local and national politics with its divisive confrontational party political style. Let us put that energy to supporting campaigns for a better Britain in a better European Union. If Cameron wins, if he can vanquish the Johnson Jabberwock, then he has a once in a lifetime chance to build wide support in Britain for working with a wide range of parties from across Europe – especially those in central and Eastern Europe who share concerns about too much central dictat – to make the European Union better. Just because it is this way it does not have to stay this way. Cameron achieved a few small concessions in his negotiations (hardly mentioned in the referendum campaign – the avoiding this hardly being very honest, hiding the issue of reform). If he can lead after 23 June then together a British led coalition can reform a better Europe. We can show the antis, the reasonable moderate Brexiters, that they have been listened to, and we will be Stronger In.

Friday, 20 May 2016

A Zip for Europe....... in England

Recent arrivals to the Liberal Democrats might have thought that the conclusive vote at Federal Conference on remedying inequality in candidate selection had resolved things.  However, one of the party's less transparent bodies, the English Council, is debating a series of resolutions as to how the party's candidate selections in England will be run.

For the uninitiated, the English Council is a body of around 160 representatives, normally elected by regional parties [and the renamed Young Liberals].  The obscureness of the electoral procedure ensures that party bureaucrats are best placed to attend.  Nonetheless it takes decisions on substantial issues including membership and candidate selections.  Its next meeting is in early July.

The English Candidates' Committee has put forward proposals on candidate selection for Westminster and Europe.  The proposals for the latter reserve places in the top 2 of the lists for women and in the top 4 for BAME candidates, provided 'sufficient' candidates apply.  [No definition of 'sufficient' is given].  The motions don't take up the full range of measures passed in the York motion, which may give rise to some debate. News of the Welsh Party's position is awaited with interest given its historic opposition to any positive action measures.

One proposal that will attract significant opposition, however, has been tabled by Liberal Democrat Women chair Liz Leffman, Belinda Brooks-Gordon and Kirsten Johnson.  It proposes full 'zipping' for women candidates.  However, it proposes nothing to address other under-representations in the party addressed in the York motion, and merely asks that some provision be made.  It is also worded in a gender-specific manner.

The motion is very unlikely to be received well by those campaigning for the party to meet the non-representation of people with disabilities or from BAME communities, or for LGBT+ campaigners seeking to improve current representation levels; scathing comments from members of Ethnic Minority Lib Dems [EMLD] have already started to appear.  Its submitters have evidently not learned from the behind-the-scenes row between the movers of the York diversity motion and those from EMLD and others furious that the original motion effectively proposed positive action only for white middle-class women.  It seems some Liberal Democrats still think that equality doesn't apply to all protected characteristics.

The 'zipping' motion reads in full as follows:

The English Council notes:
1.       The passage of the Electing Diverse MPs Policy at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference 2016, and the agreement to adopt a range of measures to improve the diversity of our Parliamentary Party;
2.       The need to ensure the diversity of our candidates for the European Parliament elections in 2019;
3.       That the European Parliament has recently published draft legislation calling on member states to take all necessary measures to promote the principle of equality between men and women throughout the whole electoral process, emphasising in this connection the importance of gender-balanced electoral lists;
4.       That in the same draft legislation, member states are encouraged to take measures to promote adequate representation of minorities;
5.       That the Equality Act (2010) enables parties to take action to promote diversity.
Council believes:
1.       That the diversity of our current elected representatives at Parliamentary level is unacceptably low;
Council calls for
1.       All regional lists for the European Elections to be zipped, as in the 1999 European Elections, with the gender of the candidates alternating down the list.
2.       50% of regional lists for the European Elections to be topped by a female candidate, with regions paired with others of similar winnability to determine whether the list is topped with a man or a woman.

3.       Provision to be made for candidates from under-represented groups (those with disabilities, BAME, LGBT+) to ensure adequate representation.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Liberal Democrats to scrap Nationbuilder?

Note: posts on this blog are published by a small team. Therefore the name listed as the author of the post is not necessarily the person who wrote it, but rather is the person who was responsible for publishing it.

Sources inform Liberator that Liberal Democrat HQ has decided to scrap its arrangement with Nationbuilder at the end of the year.

Nationbuilder is an American company which provides campaign websites for organisations like political parties which include features such as mass emails, event management, volunteer recruitment and online donations. The national Lib Dem website and the SNP national website, for instance, are both built with Nationbuilder.

In place of Nationbuilder, LDHQ apparently intends to build its own in-house replacement with the help of volunteers. How well this goes will remain to be seen - not least given the disastrous experience of previous in-house projects like the membership system.

While this will no doubt come as an annoying disappointment to the local parties and activists who have spent a lot of time and money setting up Nationbuilder websites and learning how to use them, one key an upside to an in-house website system is that it will actually be able to talk to the party’s Connect election software and its Salesforce membership database. This was one of the big drawbacks of Nationbuilder which is a major rival of the company behind Connect.

Of course, the real reason for this decision might just be cost. The off-the-shelf price of Nationbuilder for an organisation wanting to store and use up to 81,000 email addresses is almost $1,000 a month - with an additional charge of $20 a month for every extra 2,000 email addresses. While this is quite steep even for the cash strapped Liberal Democrats with a large national email database it’s even steeper considering that this same monthly charge was also applied to every single local party with a Nationbuilder website.

So is this a case of common sense cost-saving coupled with a new willingness to use tools that actually meet the party’s need rather than the latest slick, high-price American product?


It’s worth noting that the company Prater Raines, which was set up by Liberal Democrats for Liberal Democrats in 2002 to provide affordable websites, has long provided a service which, if not quite as slick as Nationbuilder, is significantly cheaper and can do most of the same things that Nationbuilder can and a few it can’t, such as checking whether someone is a paid up member of the party or not.

Indeed, it’s telling that the party leader, Tim Farron, uses Prater Raines for his constituency website rather than Nationbuilder. Some might wonder if, rather than creating something new from scratch, HQ might be better off working with Prater Raines to improve what’s already available.

Nonetheless, scrapping an expensive system far too sophisticated for most local party’s needs and replacing it with a system that actually talks to the party’s other systems is in itself a promising step. Whether this change of approach will actually last is something which can only remain to be seen.

UPDATE: While we have no reason to doubt the truthfulness of our sources, Jake Holland from Lib Dem HQ has made the following statement in response to this post on facebook:

"Contract is up for renewal later this year, but there is no plan to ditch it. It's still the best platform out there for local parties. 

We are looking at how we can build a platform for volunteers to develop new tools and apps on, that is true, but so far we are looking at building out a set of (for the technical out there) APIs. For example, we worked with a few volunteers (thank you Fred Fisher) to build a telling app, which we'll be looking to test out soon, based on an API we made available."