Archive for the 'Lib Dems' Category


The LDs need a good day in next week’s locals just to show that they are still in the game

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Can they take councils and increase their council seats?

We are now three years on from the end of the Coalition and it is 8 years since tuition fees were a big issue. For the Lib Dems next week’s local elections are an opportunity to show that they are starting to recover at least at local level.

Because the elections up on May the 3rd include all the London boroughs there will be much greater mainstream media interest than is normal on the first Thursday in May. That in one way is fortunate for the yellow team because London is a region of the UK that really is separate and operates totally differently from the rest of the nation. It was also strongly for Remain in the referendum two years ago and surely, here, Cable’s party should be able to make some inroads.

There are three London boroughs in the southwest of the capital of where they have most hopes and this is reflected in the betting.

At Kingston which they used to control Ed Davey took back the main parliamentary seat at GE17 and when Ladbrokes opened its local elections markets last month it had the LDs at 1/10. That’s now edged out to 1/4 but that is still very tight. The Tories opened at 6/1 to hold on and are now 3/1 with no overall control moving from 16/1 to 8/1.

The neighbouring Borough of Richmond saw Vince Cable win back Twickenham in the General Election but the party lost their 2016 by-election gain of Richmond Park by a whisker. Ladbrokes now make it 10/11 on both the LDs and the Tories to win a Council majority.

When the market was opened the LDs were at 4/6 with the Tories at 11/10. No overall control has moved from 16/1 to 8/1.

The Tories had hopes of regaining the one London Borough that the LDs retained four years ago Sutton. When betting opened the Tories were 4/5 favourites. That’s now moved out to 3/1 with the LDs moving from 5/4 to 1/3.

Also up is one of the two elected mayoralties that the party has – Watford. Here the four times winner and now LD peer, Dorothy Thornhill, is stepping aside so the party won’t have a personal incumbency advantage. Ladbrokes make it 1/4 that it will remain in yellow hands

Nationally the Lib Dems need to see a big increase in the overall projected national vote share as well as seats.

Mike Smithson


Chris Rennard’s “Winning Here” – the requiem for the battered Lib Dems or the handbook for another revival?

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

A review of Chris Rennard’s newly published “Winning Here”

    “ Paddy’s personal ratings were shown to be very high in our poll, even at the outset of the by- election campaign. This helped to persuade him of the validity of the other poll findings.”

Thus Chris Renard then the LD director of campaigns and elections coaxed Paddy Ashdown into accepting his formula for winning the 1993 Newbury by-election. The humour and shrewdness about people’s motivation mark this first volume of his political memoirs (just published by Biteback): it never becomes a mere boastful catalogue of Rennard’s election trophies.

Lord Rennard has measured out his life in by-elections. This book revisits a varied series of by-elections from Liverpool Edge Hill in 1979 to Dunfermline in 2006. He had learned early on how much the U.K’s third party needs the boost from by-election success to improve its tally of seats in general elections. And, as the apostle of targeting seats for general elections, he in effect simulated by-elections in those seats which gave full scope for Lib Dem campaign techniques.

His first chapter “An Unusual Introduction to Politics in Liverpool” describes his immersion in the community politics developed by the Liverpool Liberal councillors, year-round leafleting, canvassing and campaigning. These continue to characterise the party’s approach to elections.

Without self-pity he writes about his loving but straitened upbringing. It was a Liberal Councillor who had helped Rennard’s disabled mother to get her widowed mothers’ allowance. Orphaned when nearly 17, Rennard then showed abnormal self-reliance in getting through sixth form and university. This he combined with a massive workload for the local Liberals. His heroic labours take on a Victorian resonance, an example of self-help straight out of Samuel Smiles.

When the Edge Hill by-election was called shortly before the 1979 General Election, the Liberals nationally stood at 5% in opinion polls, damaged by the Lib-Lab Pact and the impending trial of former party leader. Jeremy Thorpe, for conspiracy to murder. The Liverpool Liberals were in good campaigning shape with Rennard already a seasoned and trusted part of the machine.

The victory of David Alton at Edge Hill meant the saving of the then Liberal Party. They moved up in the polls and held eleven of their fourteen seats in the General Election that followed immediately: a lesson not lost on Rennard. During the Alliance years he became Alton’s agent and helped him win the new seat of Mossley Hill from third place. He then became the East Midlands organiser, in charge of the West Derbyshire by- election in 1986 when the Liberals failed to take the seat by 100 votes.

In 1990 by which time Rennard had become the LD Director of Campaigns and Elections the IRA murdered Ian Gow – CON M.P for Eastbourne. Paddy Ashdown was reluctant to put forward a candidate for the ensuing by-election since he did not wish the party to be seen to benefit from terrorism. This caused Rennard to send Ashdown an irate memo setting out reasons to stand:“.. It will not be seen to be bold and courageous to recommend not fighting- it will make you a laughing stock in Walworth Road, Downing Street and eventually in the quality press that you threw away this chance.”

The LD victory in the subsequent by-election made it clear that the LDs were back in business: “a safe seat had been lost to a party that Mrs Thatcher herself had recently branded as a ” dead parrot” Six weeks later she resigned as Prime Minister.”

Successes in Ribble Valley and Kincardine and Deeside followed, strengthening the LDs in the run-up to GE1992 but the hoped-for big increase in LD seats failed to materialise. Rennard argues that speculation about a hung parliament and proportional representation, which he himself had wanted to avoid, was promoted by Ashdown in the last days of the 1992 – and this deterred Conservative voters whom the Lib Dems had hoped to win over.

    Rennard’s attitude towards Ashdown rather resembled that of a kindly school master trying to make sure that a gifted pupil bored with the syllabus does himself justice in the exams.

This pattern repeats itself in Rennard’s account of the LD revival which began with the Newbury by-election in 1993 where Rennard shows himself to have been a sceptic about Ashdown’s preoccupation with Lib-Lab cooperation, believing that careless talk about coalition would cost votes. Based on his Liverpool experience the Rennard approach in any election campaign was to find out the issues on voters’ minds and to deal with those issues rather than go on about constitutional reform which polling suggested was only of interest to a minute fraction of voters,

Rennard’s strategy at GE1997 delivered 46 LD seats, the largest third party contingent since 1929 a number which had increased to 62 at GE2005. By then Charles Kennedy had become the Liberal Democrat leader and Rennard writes sensitively about the alcoholism which was to cost Kennedy the leadership. Ever practical, however he saw the Dunfermline by-election of 2006 as a means to give the party a boost after Kennedy’s downfall.

Throughout the book Rennard refers – never at great length – to his health problems of depression and diabetes-, problems not eased by his long irregular hours and it was these problems which caused him to step down as the Paty’s chief executive.

Certainly this book is generous to colleagues and friends, and suggests he is loyal and considerate in his personal dealings.

Steve Lawson


Lib Dems can do it on a drizzly Thursday in February – but what about on 3 May?

Saturday, February 17th, 2018

By-election gains may well be yet another false dawn

Up until last year, Sunderland had carved out for itself one, and only one, niche in British political life: it counted its votes at general elections faster than anywhere else. For six successive elections from 1992 to 2015, the southern Sunderland seat was the first to declare in the country. Other than that, the city was politically unremarkable: it’s returned two Labour MPs ever since the 1960s and the Red team is similarly dominant at local level.

2017 saw a bit of a turnaround on both scores. Local rivals Newcastle won the race to be the first to declare at the general election, while five months previously the Lib Dems gained a local by-election on a massive 36% swing. That was admittedly back at a time when Labour was very much struggling for support nationally, polling in only the upper-twenties, but it was still an extraordinary result.

Nor was it a one-off. In the first two months of the year, the Lib Dems gained two seats from Labour and no fewer than six from the Conservatives, despite the national polling showing the Tories up in the 40s while the Lib Dems remained marooned on around 10% with most firms. Against that, they lost just the one seat (to an Independent). They’d had similar success in 2016 by-elections, gaining 30 councillors that way and losing just four.

And yet come the local elections in May, Tim Farron’s party lost a net 42 seats, with net losses in each of England, Scotland and Wales. The tremendous by-election successes were simply not replicated when there were a large number of simultaneous elections, when voters’ attention was focussed more nationally, and when there was a larger turnout. The fact that the general election campaign was already underway no doubt played a part in the Lib Dems’ relative failure there but only a part. After all, activists will still work where they are most effective and given the relatively small number of target seats, in many areas, those priorities would be local rather than national.

So what of this year? Well, in a carbon copy election, the Lib Dems once again pulled off a Sunderland spectacular, gaining Pallion ward on a 33% swing, and followed that up this Thursday with three very impressive gains from the Conservatives (two in Teignbridge borough, proving that it’s not all down to targeting).

And yet. The national polls are worse for Vince Cable’s party than they were in May last year, and while the Tories are off even more (they were in the high-forties in early May 2017), Labour is far better off.

Not that that’s the best comparator. Local elections run on a four-year cycle and those being contested this time were last fought in 2014, give or take the odd boundary review. Back then, Ed Miliband’s Labour held about a two-point lead over David Cameron’s Tories, with Nigel Farage’s UKIP in the mid-teens and Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems around 8-9%. The local elections were no doubt affected by the simultaneous Europoll, contributing to the election of 166 UKIP councillors. The Westminster VI polls translated directly to the local election NEV, with the Labour gaining a 2-point lead in the NEV, UKIP on 17% and the Lib Dems as usual outscoring their Westminster share, taking 13%.

What can we expect this time? The battlefield in this round has thrown up the curious possibility of all the main parties doing well and badly at the same time.

UKIP is not a main party any more and will be annihilated at the election. They may well lose every single seat, though there’s the possibility of isolated exceptions clinging on due to a local profile. That means that the other parties effectively start off with net gains of over 150.

Labour will be most pleased about London being the main battleground. More votes might be cast elsewhere but the capital always attracts disproportionate media attention, which will suit Labour very nicely given how they gained a swing in the multicultural, pro-Remain world-city three times that of the national average at the general election.

By contrast, while the Tories might worry about their prospects in London, the rest of the country (that country being England – there are no Scottish or Welsh elections), looks more fertile ground given the direct windfall from UKIP and the polls showing a small swing from Lab to Con and a larger one from LD to Con since May 2014. The Blue Team should reasonably expect to make net gains – something which a government party has only achieved once since the 1980s, and that previous exception (2011) being mainly at the expense of a different governing party.

As for the Lib Dems, they, like Labour, have opportunities in London – albeit in far more restricted areas – but after that can expect a tougher fight. They do, however, have one of their two mayoralties to defend in Watford, where Dorothy Thornhill is seeking, and should comfortably win, a fifth term. But that should be one of the few high points. The Sunderland or Teignbridge results remain much more likely to be another false dawn than a yellow sun rising.

David Herdson


Winning where? The Lib Dem targets for 2022

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

Alastair Meeks looks at the challenges facing Cable’s party

Three years ago, the Lib Dems were still in government. Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg comprised half of the quad, the inner circle that fixed the government’s direction. It feels like a lifetime ago now. The Lib Dems were reduced to 8 MPs in 2015 and recovered only to 12 MPs last year (with a slight decline in vote share nationally), despite being the only party to advocate remaining in the EU. Replacing Tim Farron with Vince Cable has not given them any more airtime or sense of relevance.

The Lib Dems are urgently in need of a strategy. That strategy needs to be founded on a basis that can produce an electoral recovery for them. In turn, that means understanding what they need to defend and where they are best placed to gain ground.

Defence first. Here’s the list of Lib Dem seats. It’s a short list, obviously. There are two points of interest. First, the Lib Dems are not immediately challenged by Labour in any seat that they hold. They have now lost every last Lib Dem / Labour marginal. Secondly, they aren’t particularly safe anywhere – a uniform 5% swing against them would see them lose all but four seats and a uniform 10% swing across these seats would see every last Lib Dem seat fall.

Oh, so you think a 10% swing is big? Let me introduce you to my next list, the list of Lib Dem prospects, organised by swing required. As you can see, a uniform 5% swing to the Lib Dems would increase their tally by just 9 seats. A 10% swing gathers a further 10 new seats for them. A 15% swing brings in just 18 more. And by this stage, the table is actively unhelpful in understanding what’s going on: many of the seats feature simply as a function of a distributed vote – the Lib Dems finished fourth and lost their deposit in Edinburgh North & Leith, for example. Anyone fancy the Lib Dems’ chances in Kensington? I have asterisked where the Lib Dems finished third (and added additional asterisks for each additional drop in the voting order). As you can see, even on this shortish list, asterisks proliferate.

For targeting, I suggest the Lib Dems would do better to concentrate on seats where they already have a substantial vote share, which to my mind gives a truer reflection of where the Lib Dems have potential strength and chances of real progress. Here are the 52 seats where the Lib Dems have more than 20% of the vote.

This to me is a particularly interesting table. First, there are only 52 seats on the list. The Lib Dems held more seats than this up to 2015. If you wanted an indication of just how badly the Lib Dems have been smashed, there’s as good a measure as any.

Secondly, the colour that dominates is blue. There are just five Labour-held seats on the list – the days of Lib Dem / Labour marginals are well and truly over. This is perhaps exemplified by Bristol West. Stephen Williams won this seat in 2010 with 48% of the vote – it was the Lib Dems’ 11th safest seat. He lost it in 2015. He fought it again last year and tallied just over 7% of the vote. The battle on the left of centre has been fought and the Lib Dems have been routed for now.

Thirdly, it shows that the vote has polarised in each constituency – the same effect that has harmed the Lib Dems nationally is making life harder for them in their target seats too. Outside Scotland the Lib Dems hold no seat with less than 40% of the vote. There are three seats in England where they beat that mark and failed to take the seat. This is in part a function of the Lib Dems losing the battle of the left. The English seats they once held on lower vote shares (like Norwich South and Bradford East) were usually Lib Dem / Labour marginals where a fair chunk of the Conservative support refused to vote tactically. Now those have gone, the Lib Dems’ chances of coming through the middle have correspondingly declined.

Fourthly, the seats cluster strongly geographically. The Lib Dems have husbanded their strength well in Scotland. The Lib Dems have considerable residual strength in south west England and in quite a few seats south and west of London. Conversely, they are almost non-existent in the Midlands (a longstanding weak area for them) – there’s a hole bounded by Cambridge, Witney, Montgomeryshire, Hazel Grove and Sheffield Hallam where not a single seat can be found where 1 in 5 voters plumped for the yellow team last time round.

The Lib Dems will need to fight the next election exclusively in target seats – anything else will be a waste. I strongly suggest that if the seat isn’t on this list of 52, it should essentially be ignored next time around. Candidly, 52 right now looks far too high a number to be aiming at.

Next, the Lib Dems need to build policies to help themselves in their target seats. That means taking on the Conservatives. There is no point in taking on Labour because there are next to no Labour seats that they can take. Fortunately, there’s a nice big space between a Labour party that has taken the next left turning after radical socialism and a Conservative party that has decided to major on implementing a nationalistic Brexit, where the Lib Dems could hunker down and turn their guns on the Conservatives. So the opportunity is potentially there. They just need to take it.

Alastair Meeks


At 100/1 or longer Osborne, DMiliband & TBlair for next LD leader – totally daft or might there be something there?

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

Above is the Ladbrokes market for next Liberal Democrat leader. Clearly this is not something that is going to come to fruition quickly though my guess is that the party will have a different person at the top by the time of the General Election if that happens in 2022. That is still a long way off and a lot of things will have happened by then.

What is striking about the list are the three names that I have highlighted. They are all former “big beasts” who are well known. David Miliband, George Osborne, and Tony Blair have all been right at the top of British politics in recent times but none of them is currently an MP.

Clearly none of the three is a LibDem though probably all three are closest to the yellows on Brexit than LAB or CON.

We are going through a political upheaval and anything could happen. If a new force was to be created then the leader would have to have credibility and be well known. I think Blair is probably out of it but you could just envisage Osborne or DMiliband playing a part in such a movement which then, perhaps, embraced the LDs in some form.

Am I tempted to bet? No.

Mike Smithson


Trying to understand why the Lib Dems aren’t doing better in the polls

Thursday, November 23rd, 2017


The Lib Dems are still paying the price for being hollowed out in local government during the coalition years.

One of the mysteries of current politics for me is how badly the Lib Dems are doing in the  polls. Since the general election every opinion poll bar one has the Lib Dems polling in the single digits when the current political terrain should be fertile for them.

With Brexit being so polarising I’d have thought the only staunchly GB wide anti-Brexit party coupled with the Tories and Labour being led by two flawed leaders would see the Lib Dems polling a lot better than they currently are, so why aren’t they, the chart above might explain it.

Like their MPs, since the Lib Dems entered the coalition their councillors were shellacked every May, that hollowing of the party sees the influence of the party weakened and perceived to be an irrelevance. My own feeling and experience is that a strong councillor base helps you win and hold Parliamentary seats, and that’s why the Lib Dems have lost so many MPs in recent years.

Earlier on this year the Lib Dems hit their highest ever membership numbers, so it isn’t all doom and gloom for them. Assuming the next general election is in 2022, that gives the Lib Dems four rounds of local elections to rebuild their local government presence.

If they can rebuild their footprint there, and undo the near two thousands council seats the Lib Dems have lost since they entered the coalition it might help them see an increase in the polls and the number of MPs they have.



UPDATED: On the face of it Vince Cable would be taking a risk doing anything with the Chapman “Democrats party” move

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

The big development in the Chapman “Democrats party” move is the above Tweet from the ex-Mail political editor and former chief aids to DDavis.

There’s no doubt, as the YouGov polling above shows, that LD voters are much more likely to be pro-Remain than any other party and there would have been a risk for Cable in turning down the Chapman overtures.

But the LDs are a well established party where there are still bitter memories of the SDP in the 1980s with the eventual merger with the Liberal party to create the “Social and Liberal Democrats” in 1987. Cable comes from the SDP wing.

After that merger several leading SDPers, notably David Owen, didn’t join and remnants of the old party found itself often fighting battles with the new merged party. Back in 1989 when I ran for County Council as a Lib Dem my main opponent was from the continuity SDP and the fight was tough.

The LDs having been battered by the voters following the coalition are ultra sensitive to the dangers of a new party and a repetition of what happened in the 80s. They cannot allow themselves to be subsumed by Chapman.

I think Cable is well aware of the issues. The main thing is to impede the form of Brexit that TMay seeks.

UPDATE: The LDs have issued statement saying there is no question whatsoever of the party supporting the launch of a new party but that they will work with others to try to stop an “extreme Brexit”.

Mike Smithson


Can Vince make a Brexit-exit work for the Lib Dems?

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

And can he expand new Lib Dems support beyond Europhiles?

In the week when the Brexit talks finally got down to business, the Lib Dems acquired a new leader to head up the fight to – well, that’s the first question: what exactly are the opponents of the government’s Brexit policy (which itself is hardly perfectly defined) themselves advocating?

Vince Cable is already seeking to ride more than one horse on Brexit, advocating both that Britain remain within the Single Market and the Customs Union, and also that there should be a second referendum once a deal is in place, asking the public whether we’d rather stay in the EU after all, thanks very much.

One could argue that these are not contradictory and in a sense, they’re not: remaining in the EU’s key structures is most easily achieved by staying within the EU, and that if de jure membership isn’t possible then de facto membership (bar the influence and appointments) is the next best thing. On the other hand, those who want to keep Britain within the EU might not wonder whether trying to get the very soft Brexit doesn’t work counter to that higher goal.

Whether a Brexit-exit is even possible remains a contentious question. Several authorities, both EU and UK, have voiced the view that Article 50 can be withdrawn. This, however, tends to fly in the face of text and the logic of the Article. If notice could be withdrawn, what’s to stop a member yo-yoing until they get the deal they want? More pertinently, if it is revocable, why doesn’t it say so when it is so explicit about when the treaties cease to apply to the withdrawing member? Either way, without a judgement from the ECJ, no-one can know for sure.

But for the Lib Dems, and for now, that’s not a concern. Britain hasn’t experienced a conversion but there are more than enough who are very keen to Remain (or who are angry about Brexit if remaining isn’t possible), for a smaller party to chase. Some might point out that this was the same strategy that Farron tried in the Spring and which failed (although not for Cable himself). To some extent that’s true but Sir Vince might be more optimistic of making it work, partly because he’s a more authoritative figure and partly because he’ll be able to work in the light of more experience.

Opposition to Brexit (or support for the softest possible Brexit), however, can only be part of the Lib Dems’ recovery plan. To get back to where they were pre-2010, they’ll need to be seen as relevant again, which across large parts of the country, they’re not.

There are many stats which tell the same story. That they lost their deposit in 375 seats is one but perhaps the best illustration is that the average vote per Lib Dem candidate in 2017 was just 3771: it’s not been lower than that since 1886, when William Gladstone was leader and the franchise much more restricted.

You would think that conditions now ought to be ideal for a centre party. Labour has marched off to the left and looks set to stay there for the foreseeable future given the hugely increased authority Corbyn has received from Labour’s – his – campaign and election result. The Tories are weighed down by the Brexit talks and the internal divisions that’s causing, on top of an economy that might be stuttering and public services struggling after seven years of spending restraint. UKIP has served its purpose and even the SNP has peaked.

And they are ideal. The question is whether he can succeed where Farron failed and establish himself as a more credible opposition than Corbyn. He has form, of course. His brief acting leadership after Ming Campbell ’s resignation was notable for his ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ quip to Gordon Brown. He also cultivated useful links with the media, notably Robert Peston. Getting in front of the camera as often as possible must be a key aim.

Which brings us back to Brexit. Barring something completely unexpected, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will dominate British politics for at least the next 18 months. Labour’s internal divisions and particularly Corbyn’s disinterest in and ambivalence toward the EU should give Cable a tremendous platform to put an opposing case to the government, as well as to link it to the economy and potentially the NHS, social services and other issues.

The stakes are high. An effective performance from the Lib Dem team, led by Cable, could well see the party back into the high-teens or twenties. The coalition of ardent Remainers and pragmatic free marketeers is a sizable one but not one being particularly courted elsewhere at the moment. On the other hand, were he to fail as his two predecessors did, the future for his party would be grim indeed. Nature abhors vacuums and someone must fill the one in the centre. Logic suggests that should be the Lib Dems. But then logic has had an unusually weak relationship with politics these last few years.

David Herdson