Sunday, 30 November 2014

Congratulations to Sal Brinton...and many thanks to Tim Farron

As far as party presidential elections go, this was not one to set the pulses racing.

That said, it has been one that should have a profound effect on how we "do" democracy in future - and it has been one that has asked questions about the kind of figurehead the party needs at a key time.

Before entering into any kind of analysis, it is right to congratulate Sal Brinton on her victory in the election. She will serve as the next Liberal Democrat president when Tim Farron's term expires at the end of the year.

The result, announced yesterday, is as follows:

1st round:
Sal BRINTON: 7865
Daisy COOPER: 4530
Liz LYNNE: 4389
Spoilt Ballots: 25

2nd Round:
Sal BRINTON: 10,188
Daisy COOPER: 6,138
Ballots not transferred or spoilt: 458

Turnout: 39%

This came as something of a surprise to me - and, no doubt, many others. A poll of members conducted by Liberal Democrat Voice gave Daisy Cooper on 52% of first preference votes just days ago. The Liberal Democrat twitterati have been keen to express support for their chosen candidates and pro-Daisy avatars were far more numerous than those promoting her opponents. Most activists I know seemed to be, at the very least, very welcoming of Daisy Cooper's candidacy and she appeared to be - of the three - the one who had most to offer to the party's grassroots.

Daisy was in many respects the "alternative" - the non-parliamentarian candidate with reasonably well-developed ideas for progressive cultural and organisational change. As such, she inevitably faced intense scrutiny but emerged with tremendous credibility. Her campaigning team clearly understood how to use social media; they also knew how to reach out to specific groups within the party. Reading the respective candidates' messages to internal groups such as LGBT+ Lib Dems and the Secularist &Humanist Lib Dems, it was obvious that one candidate had done their homework and was able to speak with both knowledge and sensitivity on the issues that affected members - in a way that the others simply didn't know how to. One candidate was clearly better at communicating and reaching out. That person was Daisy Cooper. Never before has a non-parliamentarian put together such a cohesive and effective campaign.

If Daisy was the "alternative" then Liz Lynne was an "alternative alternative", who wasn't remotely shy in furthering her reputation as nobody's yes-woman - Liz retains something of a reputation for standing up to Paddy Ashdown's proposed pacts with Labour. Selling herself as the working-class woman made good, she also has credibility from her time as an MEP. Unfortunately for her, Rochdale isn't far from anyone's minds at the moment and there remain many unanswered questions about what she knew. All the same, I considered she might have an outside chance and touring the country while nursing a fractured wrist won't have done her any harm.

The "establishment" candidate was Sal Brinton. Sal was endorsed by the likes of Paddy Ashdown,Ming Campbell, Jim Hume and Navnit Dholakia (and many others). Perhaps known chiefly for her advancement of equality issues, she's also utterly decent and respectable - and the party knows it. She's intelligent and loyal, and also the proverbial "safe pair of hands". She's someone for whom I have huge respect, but who doesn't really inspire me. And what we need, as a party, is a president who really can inspire people - both inside and outwith the Lib Dems.

In fact, the election campaign itself was less than inspiring. But it has raised some questions: most obviously, when Linda Jack failed to gain the required 200 nominations from conference delegates. Linda would have offered something different and while I would not have envisaged her winning, her presence would have made for a far more engaging debate and she would perhaps have been more focused on the nature of our party. The number of conference reps effectively this limited the contest to three candidates, which is hardly in the interests of democracy. Given the criticisms we have historically levelled towards the Labour Party for its refusal to endorse OMOV, this situation highlighted our own need for overdue reform of internal democratic practices.

Furthermore, it raised the question of whether a "non-establishment" candidate ever really has a chance. I would like to see a non-parliamentarian president, but after this election it would appear that this isn't likely to happen. The problem with my own - and Lib Dem Voice's - gauging of members' views is that they're not representative, simply because we're talking to activists who are motivated, who are informed and who are engaged. They know the candidates, they've attended hustings, they've debated the issues at conference and aren't shy in promoting who they feel is best-prepared to take the party forward. But these represent inevitably only a minority of the electorate, and more significant in elections of this type were the many relatively disengaged voters who make their mind up purely on the basis of a personal manifesto and endorsements from former leaders. This is why the LDV poll was so wildly wrong - and why any non-parliamentarian is always going to find it a near-impossible task to reach out to people who may never even have heard of them. Clever internet campaigns and insightful messages delivered to key groups are all good and well, but clearly lack the same impact with armchair voters as recommendations from the great and the good.

That is not to suggest that Sal Brinton is anything other than an excellent choice to succeed Tim Farron, but the outcome has left me wondering whether our presidential elections can ever be anything other than a popularity contest. Certainly in the next couple of years we will need Sal to use all her expertise and experience to inspire the party membership and reach out to the public in much the way that Tim Farron has.

A final word for Tim Farron. Or two words really: thank you! In 2010 I spoke to both Tim and Susan Kramer at Scottish conference, and both commented on the fact that the party president role is what the incumbent makes it. That admission made quite an impression on me. I cannot deny that, in the four years since then, Tim Farron has shaped the presidency in his own image to the degree that any future president will inevitably (consciously or otherwise) be following his example. Tim has been incredibly outward-looking in his approach, has come across to members and non-members alike as the amiable and appraochable face of the party, has excelled in communicating positive messages, as used his position to advance key campaigns and has - at specific times - become a figure behind whom the party can rally. He's shown the rest of us how to use the media. His immense charisma, energy and sense of humour have all helped to make his as popular as he has been impressive.

Even his occasional forays into religious controversy are relatively easily forgiven against the backdrop of the sterling work he has put in to advance the cause of liberalism.

So Tim, thanks for your efforts over the previous four years...Sal, it's over to you.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Another by-election - another dreadful result

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And so the media circus named the Rochdale and Strood by-election comes to a conclusion.

And a predictable one at that.

Anyone not expecting UKIP to win here is clearly out of touch with current political reality.

Firstly, it would take an exceptionally abysmal performance for a party with the incumbent MP, which has effectively called the by-election on its own terms, and with the ability to direct all its resources into the constituency to find itself on the losing side. Add to this the media presentation of the election as a straight fight between UKIP and an unpopular party of government in shape of the Conservative Party, and a UKIP victory becomes a near certainty.

That does not mean, of course, that UKIP have not worked the constituency - indeed, they have. The somewhat disingenuous "Vote Mark Reckless for Change" slogan aside, they've done many of the right things to benefit from the Conservatives' tactical mistakes and perceived weakness on the EU and immigration. Indeed, such was the emphasis on immigration that we are now seeing UKIP as something more than an anti-EU membership party; it has morphed into a general anti-immigration, anti-progress party.

The strength of UKIP's appeal can be demonstrated in the reaction to Reckless's careless intervention at a hustings meeting, in which he indicated immigrants would be asked to leave the UK. For any other party, this would have been its undoing. Almost instantly, UKIP distanced itself from its candidate's comments - and then came the claims that his words had been minconstrued, misinterpreted, and taken out of context by a hostile media.

The fact that this was caught on video and the context made abundantly clear, the ease with which UKIP can play the "victim of the media" card is stunning. Not only was UKIP able to escape unscathed by Reckless's foolish intervention, they were actually able to use the alleged media "persecution" to their advantage. This is a tactic that they are becoming increasingly dependent on, given the increased scrutiny on such matters as the party's confused and contradictory position on the NHS, but so far cries of victimisation have won the day. How long they can continue to do so remains to be seen.

One surprise from the result was that Reckless's majority was not bigger. The scale of victory was much less that recent polls suggested, something that will privately be of concern to UKIP. In the General Election, when turnout will inevitably be higher and the Labour vote will not be so easily squeezed, Rochester & Strood would be likely to return to the Conservatives. This will provide perhaps a crumb of comfort to the Conservative Party, who have succeeded in winning only one by-election in the currrent parliament (Newark) and seem to dread by-elections in the same way that Northumbrians once feared a Viking invasion. In both cases, the likely outcome is the same - annihilation.

Interestingly, the media are already asking whether this latest by-election result shows that UKIP has "broken the mould" of UK politics and "become by-election experts". The answer is no on both counts. UKIP should learn some lessons from the SDP (who consistently polled much higher than UKIP is currently). Furthermore, the media commentators making such suggestions need to retain a sense of proportion. UKIP has won two by-elections, both of which were essentially called by themselves following defections, with the territory and timing being ideal. A cynic might suggest that UKIP was particularly anxious for both Carswell and Reckless to trigger by-elections so as to gain some momentum and credibility. What is certain is that UKIP are yet to win a by-election where it deos not hold the incumbency, so I'd hold back from making wild assessments as to its expertise at by-elections just yet.

Moving away from UKIP. it was a particularly poor night for the Liberal Democrats. Another by-election, and another dreadful result. It was predictable, but that does not make it any easier to accept. It was not fertile territory and it was always going to be tough to get our message across given the emphasis on the battle between UKIP and the Conservatives, and the kind of dialogue that inevitably framed the by-election. But there can be no escaping that this is our worst result since the party's inception in 1988, and that's a quite incredible statistic in itself given the scale of some recent reversals. It should serve as yet another reminder of our current difficulties and will (hopefully) result in some sober reflection and action from our campaigns unit. Certainly, the candidate - Geoff Juby - performed as well as could be expected and deserves credit for taking on some of the poisonous rhetoric surrounding immigration. I hope the party thanks him for his efforts - I know how difficult it can be to be a candidate in a constituency where the cause is effectively hopeless, and the thankless task carrying the Lib Dem standard often is. So, many thanks Geoff.

Labour will be licking their wounds too. They cannot afford to take much pleasure from either the Lib Dems' misfortunes or the Tories continuing failures in by-elections. Reduced to 16.8% of the vote in a seat they finished a decent second in 2010, Labour will realise that much of their supporters opted to vote UKIP this time around. Questions remain about how temporary such an arrangement is, and whether this will be replicated on a larger scale in next year's General Election.

In times gone by, Labour would have been set to capitalise on the divided Conservative vote; now they are getting their excuses in early and tying themselves in knots over shadow ministers' foolish tweets.  If this by-election confirmed anything, it is that Labour are unable to provide an effective alternative to the government. This naturally benefits UKIP.

More positively, the Greens put in a credible performance, which was remarkable in the circumstances, polling almost 1,700 votes and finishing fourth (although still losing their deposit). It was their best result since the General Election of 2010. It was equally pleasing to see the Monster Raving Loony Party finish convincingly ahead of Britain First.

And so, this was another by-election that gave us something to think about, but not anything like as much as the political commentators at the Daily Mail would have us believe.