It seems obvious in Lib Dem circles that in the run-up to the next General Election we’re going to have to significantly concentrate our strength in our held seats, and the small smattering of (mostly Tory) constituencies where it looks like we can take them from our opponents. This is the subject of a recent op-ed by Stephen Tall on Lib Dem Voice, referencing a Guardian article.
It’s also a continuation of what’s been referred to as the “Rennard Doctrine”, a strategy which emphasises concentrating resources on where we can win adopted by Chris Rennard as Chief Executive, which saw the Lib Dems’ share of the seats won in General Elections more closely matching our share of the popular vote. A 20% discrepancy came down to around 10% – still a long way short thanks to the vagaries of “First Past The Post” plurality voting, but enough to make the party a more effective Parliamentary force.
The problem, as discussed in Stephen’s article, is that by concentrating resources on the places we can win, the places we can’t win get weaker and weaker. This was the story of Cleggmania in 2010; the biggest rise in membership in 20 years, most of whom joined in places where there was no Lib Dem presence, and hence nothing to engage or retain them. Yes, the fall in 2011 was even bigger than the Cleggmania rise, but the disheartening feeling of joining and getting nothing out of the party can’t have helped. (You can see more on Lib Dem membership figures over here.)
The alternative to purely concentrating our strength where we think we can win, is what’s termed in the US as a 50 State Strategy. It was popularised by Howard Dean as chair of the DNC (and indeed he came to Liberal Democrat conference in 2009 to tell us about it). This attempts to mobilise Democrat supporters wherever they are in the country, even deep in Republican territory – introducing them to each other, encouraging street-scale campaigning, standing for election… generally low-level grassroots activity which can build up over time. This doesn’t make much short-term sense; even the vote for President isn’t a direct popular vote, but filtered through the electoral college which is pluralistic in almost every state. However, in the longer term it can pay dividends; starting to flex campaigning muscles in Republican turf in 2005 may well have led to Obama winning Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina in 2008, since the party was more able to capitalise on Obama’s national media profile. The comparison to Cleggmania should be obvious.
We fought this year’s Euro elections on the idea that our areas of strength would give us enough votes to win seats in a PR system. Generally, our vote held up in those places thanks to our campaigning, but our vote elsewhere collapsed horribly, and we lost almost all our MEPs. We will need to build our strength nationwide before the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2016, and the European Parliament elections in 2019. But what of the General Election in 2015?
To borrow a phrase from bi activism, we can embrace the power of “and”. While it’s clear that the majority of our resources must be dedicated to campaigning until polling day, I think there’s room to look to expand, using the General Election as a driver. While we can’t run a full 650 Constituency Strategy, we can look a little wider than the boundaries of our target constituencies. Most of our held seats are non-adjacent, so we should be reaching out to bring members, supporters and activists into the campaigns.
As a Lib Dem in a constituency adjacent to one of our held seats, this is what I’ve been doing. I do a lot of work on member engagement and retention, trying to make sure my members are supporting campaigning and fundraising events in our held seat. I’ve organised simple social events to draw in people from across the area and get people talking and enthused, and their reach is spreading to other nearby “black holes”. Through all this the drive is to get people worked up, more keen to play a part in their local area, but mostly to come and help in our targets.
In the longer term, we have two options – keep rolling out from the centres of strength, which is a slow-but-steady grassroots approach, or try to identify potential hotspots where we might be able to start up activity more or less from scratch. I think that regional parties have a strong part to play in the latter. (One thing I like about CiviCRM as a membership management tool is that it allows you to map members, supporters and activists by postcode, giving you a good “feel” for where you might have a nexus of support.) But this will require strong regional parties who are committed to rebuilding in black holes, and I’m not sure how many of those the party has.
In the middle of the local election campaign, Federal Conference Committee have decided to ignore last September’s conference vote against their controversial CRB checks for delegates, and are holding a one-week “listening exercise” advertised on an unofficial party-aligned website. I’ve drafted the following response, and post it here for two reasons – to check I’ve not missed anything obvious, and to give guidance to others on a response (though the comments on the Lib Dem Voice article pretty much sum it up).
Coincidentally, I have a list of Brighton conference venues for hire courtesy of a friend who’s been looking at running a tech conference there. If FCC insist on imposing accreditation again, I will be organising an alternative conference for those disenfranchised by these measures. Hopefully there will not be more to come on that later because FCC will back down.
Some people have been discussing standing for Federal Conference Committee as a result of this, but since I don’t live in London I can’t really do that. As a voting rep however I will support FCC candidates who are opposed to disenfranchising our elected members through imposing unnecessary and useless CRB checks.
Again, if you oppose this security theatre, do e-mail FCC to let them know on firstname.lastname@example.org – while I suspect that with under six months to go, the decision has already been made, we can’t let FCC claim that nobody responded to their poorly-advertised “consultation” and use that as an excuse to do what they want. Also, please vote for this article on LibDig, and share it on Twitter and FaceBook, so more party members will see it and respond.
Since the Coalition, the big story in the media has been about a split within the Liberal Democrats, between “right-wing” and “left-wing”, where the former are Thatcherite market libertarians, and the latter are Old Labour-style command-and-control socialists. The differences between these “factions” is exemplified by two books. The first is 2004’s “The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism“, and the second is 2007’s “Reinventing the State” (though 2009’s The Spirit Level seems increasingly to be used to typify the latter camp).
Chances are that if you’ve read anything about the Coalition Government or the Liberal Democrats since the election, you’ll have heard of the Orange Book, or at least its contributors. The “Orange Bookers” are apparently a dominant Thatcherite bloc within the Lib Dems, who have seized key positions and are philosophically opposite to the socialist party membership.
In fact, I’m going to coin a new variant on Godwin’s Law – “As an online discussion about the Liberal Democrats grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Thatcher or the phrase ‘Orange Booker’ approaches 1.” Since the Orange Book is out of print, most people haven’t read it and rely on word of mouth and hearsay about its contents. Given this lack of understanding about the Orange Book, I’m going to coin an equivalent corollary to Godwin’s Law – when somebody uses the phrase “Orange Booker” (or related phrases like “Orange Tories”) in a debate about the Lib Dems, then they have lost and no further rational debate can occur. That’s a bit of a bold statement, so I’m now going to attempt to justify it.
First off, there’s the argument about numbers. The shock statistic is that four of the five original Lib Dem cabinet members in the Coalition Government (Laws, Clegg, Huhne, Cable) were contributors to the book. Clearly this is a right-wing stitch-up! However, Clegg and Huhne also contributed to Reinventing The State, along with other Government ministers like Lynne Featherstone, so this argument doesn’t really stand up – even assuming you can draw statistically significant conclusions from a sample size of five.
Secondly, there’s the argument about actual content. The Orange Book is about how “classical” liberalism, liberalism around markets and competition to improve efficiency, can be used to deliver social liberalism. That’s not unrestrained Thatcherite free-market thinking – that would involve market economics as an end in itself, rather than a means. To demonstrate this, I’m going to quote from the introduction and first chapter. Sure, it’s selective quotation, but it will provide evidence to support my argument, and that’s the starting point for a debate.
I’m not saying that I support the Orange Book in its entirety. I certainly don’t agree with all of its claims and conclusions. But we should treat it, like any discussion on how best to achieve a Liberal society, as a basis for discussion, not use it as a straw man to bludgeon dissent and make misleading claims about the party and its leadership. We need more rational debate about its arguments and conclusions.
Introduction (Paul Marshall)
As we enter a new century […] there is a good argument that Liberalism, and the Liberal Democrat Party, will be more attuned to the aspirations of an educated and self-confident citizenship than either of the outworn creeds of socialism or conservatism.
David Laws is thus able to use economic liberal principles to deliver social liberal goals. Indeed, the chapters reviewed so far all draw on what might be called ‘classic Liberalism’, demonstrating just how much the traditions of economic and political liberalism are relevant to contemporary problems. Other issues tackled in the book, such as family policy, pensions and penal reform, are more challenging and the solutions proposed draw on later strands of the Liberal tradition, notably the thinking of T. H. Green, Hobhouse, Hobson and, more latterly, Sir William Beveridge.
Indeed, J. A. Hobson actually used the idea of citizenship to distinguish Liberalism from socialism: ‘Liberalism will retain its distinction from socialism in taking for its chief test of policy the freedom of the individual citizen, rather than the strength of the state.’
Reclaiming Liberalism: A Liberal Agenda for the Liberal Democrats (David Laws)
The confusion about means and ends was only exacerbated in the 1980s by the Conservative Party’s decision to embrace the language, and some of the substance, of economic liberalism in their economic policies – which put competition, choice, the private sector and the market mechanism back on the centre stage. Since the embrace of this agenda by Margaret Thatcher and her government was not combined with a social liberal agenda of extending real opportunity and freedom to everyone in society, but was merely linked to cutting taxes to give choice to a majority, it was wrongly concluded by some Liberals that economic liberalism must intrinsically be part of a right-wing Conservative agenda rather than a traditional Liberal commitment.
A key question for the Liberal Democrats is to what extent we can draw on our heritage of economic liberalism to address some of the current problems in public service delivery. This categorically does not mean rejecting the social liberalism agenda, as some Liberal Democrats seem wrongly to fear. Economic liberalism does not mean shedding Liberal values in order to pick up Tory votes. The challenge instead is to ask to what extent we can utilise choice, competition, consumer power and the private sector to deliver a better deal for those on low incomes, as well as for those who can already fend for themselves.
I could have done more quotes, but I’ve been hanging on to a borrowed copy of the book for far too long now and need to return it to its rightful owner. But I hope this helps dispell some of the hysteria around the Orange Book, and lets us debate the ideas of economic liberalism as a means to social liberalism, like mature Liberal Democrats.
A week or so ago I was very happy to find out that newly-elected MP for Cambridge and friend of No2ID and ORG, Dr Julian Huppert was chairing a Liberal Democrat Policy Working Group on Information Technology and Intellectual Property. This is an area where Lib Dem policy has been lacking for some time. As a long-time campaigner against software patents and digital restrictions, member of the Free Software Foundation and general pro-Creative Commons copyfighter, it was entirely relevant to my interests and I rapidly volunteered.
The sign-up e-mail says this:
Working groups usually meet about once a month over a period of about a year. Meetings are mostly in London in the evening, although occasional week-end meetings outside London are also held. Unfortunately expenses are not available.
Members are expected to take evidence from witnesses and to contribute to writing the final paper. Some members largely contribute by email or by telephone conferencing, although attending at least one or two key meetings is very useful.
To me this is backwards. Very few people can attend meetings in London on weekday evenings. It’s possible to organise a national party body using e-mail, with webchat for real-time conversations, so I don’t see why a policy working group should be any different. I’m still going to contribute, but I’m going to feel like a second-class citizen.
This working group is not unique. If you’re not based in London, it’s practically impossible to engage with the Party. It’s fair enough that the Party is based there – after all, it’s where Parliament is so most of our MPs and Peers end up there fairly often. However, the Liberal Democrats is much more than its Parliamentarians – it’s the ordinary members, the councillors, the activists and campaigners and supporters.
The Party has online things like Lib Dem Act which allow its members to communicate, but it’s not using these tools to actually engage people in getting involved in the party, policy and organisations. Act is the wrong tool for this job since it’s public, but there are plenty of ways, largely online, which can involve people without the time and money required to commute to London; physical meetings could happen somewhere more generally convenient like Birmingham, or regional working groups formed which meet in person and then collaborate via e-mail.People have volunteered to implement ideas, including partywide secure videoconferencing. There’s no reason why these tools can’t be discussed and trialled, and every reason to get people outside the Westminster Bubble more involved in the direction and policy of this party.
Incidentally, this reminds me that some time ago I volunteered for consideration for such a future working group using an internal party website, which I can no longer find. I mentioned that I was interested in free software, software patents, digital rights and information technology. I have never heard anything back from this, even after the formation of this new working group. It’s bad enough failing to involve members, but asking them to volunteer and then ignoring them is scandalous.