True Faith: Why Tim winning is the beginning not the end of #LibDemFightBack

In the build up to the rally where our new leader would be unveiled I was preoccupied by which music would be the best soundtrack:

As someone who voted for the losing candidate (not for the first time!) you might have expected me to be down in the dumps.

But, to quote Pulp (who I’ve been listening to a lot this week) Something Changed. In fact a lot did.

What just happened?

As I blogged a few weeks ago it was always pretty clear to me that Tim Farron would win. But there were two big things that happened that I did not predict.

One, the galvanizing, revivifying impact of  Norman Lamb’s campaign on a frankly lacklustre contest, and secondly, the ability of the Labour party to completely implode whilst conducting their own leadership contest.

When Norman first threw his hat into the ring I must admit I didn’t think he had a hope in hell of garnering more than a handful of votes.

Heavily associated with the coalition (including Nick’s team), with a quiet demeanour and a low public profile I thought that he would struggle to make it out of the starting blocks and be a credible challenger to Tim.

But as I blogged last month, Norman got it right in so many ways that so many of us, least of all me, didn’t expect.

  1. His enormous energy + the serious and composed way in which he approached the contest – attending every hustings, visiting far-flung local parties – killed all suggestions that he was in the race as the fall guy to Tim’s homecoming hero.
  2. Norman’s ability to speak to and connect with members and his ability to capture a mood, coin a phrase: (‘our liberal age’ sticks in the mind).
  3. His ability to correctly identify the liberal issues we should absolutely be campaigning on – mental health, drugs reform and human rights.
  4. The way in which he spoke out forcefully against the lack of diversity in our party and our outdated structures led to him gaining huge respect from many.
  5. Finally his recognition that a political party is nothing if it is not a font for new ideas. All of these things were seriously impressive.

Not only that the combination of all the above proved incredibly effective in a way I think most commentators inside and outside the party expected.

I’ve written before that endorsements didn’t have a big impact on my decision, but I would have to demur slightly and say the wide array of senior Lib Dems across the spectrum who supported Norman was revealing and added weight there is no doubt.

Outside the party, the serious endorsements Norman attracted from unexpected voices such as The Economist only helped to solidify his appeal as the dark horse in this contest.

Thank you, Norman

But in the end, the real game changer was actually none of the above.

The signficant part of what happened was the transformational effect Norman’s campaign had on Tim’s campaign.

Bearing in mind Tim’s candidature was the biggest racing certainty in post-election Liberal Democrat politics and that he had an army of supporters before he even sent a single piece of campaign literature, by facing a strong opponent Tim was effectively prevented from running his own race by Norman.

By this I mean had there not been a serious contest Tim could probably have won this election fairly easily by campaigning on the things he wanted to campaign on and only speaking to his natural supporters.

By being challenged to a contest, Tim was forced to confront some uncomfortable questions on his voting record, sure, but for me the key thing was he was that Norman, involvement pushed Tim beyond his comfort zone.

In the end, Norman notched up 43.5% of total votes cast. This was a brilliant result against a popular candidate who had spent most of his political career gearing up for this moment.

That is 43.5% of party member who Tim will need to reach out to.

Some will be Nick Clegg supporters, some won’t be.  Some will be new members, some will be longer in the tooth. Some will be fans of the Coalition, some not.

Either way, judging by Tim’s shift towards the centre during the campaign those of us who fear the Party being dragged to the left can take comfort from the fact that in this result Tim must acknowledge that the party contains many viewpoints of which social liberalism is only one. So Norman has done the party a great service.

And not only during the campaign.

Norman has tested Tim before the other parties get their chance. Our leader must be battle-hardened and battle ready. There is one thing all Labour leadership candidates and future Tory ones can agree on: they want to see an end to the Lib Dems and fast.

By challenging Tim, Norman helped us take that first step out of the Coalition bunker and we should thank him for it. The contest has brought out the best in Norman and Norman has brough the best out in Tim.

Let’s face it, this is not something Labour will be able to say after their contest has decided into the usual soulless grudge-match.

That other silver lining

Politics is getting weirder and wielder these days and I’m having to get used to expecting the unexpected.

I’ve written before about the thousands of new members joining the Lib Dems being not only a big surprise but also a huge consolation to all of us who bust a gut campaigning in the last election.

No-one said we would get a defunct Labour party into the bargain! To misquote Shakespeare for a minute Labour at the moment can be summed up as follows:

Sans leader. Sans message. Sans everything.

For all my fears that Tim might lead us further into the wilderness the disappearance of Labour from the political scene now looks like a realistic prospect.

I don’t think for a minute that Jeremy Corbyn will win.

The point is NONE of the candidates barring Liz Kendall look like winning at what really matters – beating the Tories at the next election- anytime soon. A

nd as everyone keeps saying who know a lot more about Labour politics than I do – Liz won’t win. In the absence of a sensible Labour party I am confident that we will continue to hoover up support not only from the centre but the left too.

Oh what a night!

Finally, I wanted to write a few words about the humongous event that was the rally last night and why it left me feeling wildly optimistic and not depressed about the future of the Liberal Democrats.

It may have been because I spent most of the night after the rally hanging out in the pub with our ridiculously impressive new members but I don’t think that was the sole reason.

With Jack and Sarah - new Lib Dem activists and leading lights in #LibDemFightback. I told Sarah she needs to learn to love selfies!

With Jack and Sarah – new Lib Dem activists and leading lights in #LibDemFightback. I told Sarah she needs to learn to love selfies!

In no particular order:-

1.Norman was and is a total rockstar

The fact that Norman, the bloke I voted for was amazingly humble and posed for a selfie when let’s face it all he probably wanted to do after the result was declared was go home and drown his sorrows is testament to the man.

[The sight of him with one of my heroines, the architect of Equal Marriage Lynne Featherstone made it a pretty great evening from the get go as far as I was concerned]

I look forward to seeing Norman take on a substantial role as advocate for some of our signature policies not least equity in mental health care. I would also like to see him working with party members behind the scenes to modernise and fix our outdated party structures.

Oh and continuing to champion a more diverse party.

Me, Norman Lamb and Lynne Featherstone

Me, Norman Lamb and Lynne Featherstone

2. Tim agrees with Nick on some important stuff

The lot of ex-party leaders is often not a happy one.

Well at least that’s how it seems to work in the Labour and Tory parties.

Not us! Not only was Nick in the house last night (and it was hardly surprising to see him clapping and smiling at the right moments) In our media-driven age that’s what we all expect these days.

What I’m talking about is the fact that Tim was very deliberately – at least from where I was standing, in that hot, sweaty hall in Islington  – channelling Nick throughout his speech.

Bearing in mind thousands of people recently joined our party not least because the things Nick said and did in government this was a clever mood.

But it also revealed a deeper point – maybe Nick and Tim have more in common than people think.

They are both liberals. They both care about creating a fairer society. What’s so strange about that?

Nick Clegg looks on while Tim speaks

If Nick was about anything it was about this: not allowing accident of birth to be the key determinate on the success of a person’s success or failure.

The Pupil Premium was the thing that Nick has always cited as his proudest achievement in government.

And during the cold, hard years of Coalition when I was going out knocking on doors and regularly getting the door slammed in my face fo Tuition Fees it was knowing things like the fact that Lib Dems were focussing public spending on things like helping the poorest kids that kept me going.

So it was good to hear Tim not only praising Nick but talking about the things that Nick and thousands of us still really care about.

But there were subtler points I noticed too. This line in Tim’s speech shone through like a beacon:- ‘We are in politics to get stuff done. We got stuff done.’

So many times, offline as well as offline, people take it upon themselves to slag off the Lib Dem record in government and our reasons for going into government. I don’t buy it. In fact I reject their revisionism utterly.

We went into government for the right reasons and as Nick Clegg said recently intentions matter in politics. I also get fed up when people attempt to rewrite history and suggest that Lib Dem members did not want to go into coalition.

Whatever members may feel now as a consequence of being in Coalition and the loss of support that followed, at the time, when the question was posed Liberal Democrats voted by a clear majority at a Special Conference in 2010 to support going into coalition.

Tim’s restatement of the core purpose of a political party as a vehicle to do things was from my perspective therefore very bloody important for him to say.

Sure, we don’t want to be in government for a while. We need a period in opposition, to listen more to the public and to get back to winning ways.

But as Tim said none of us got involved in the Lib Dems as a good career move – either now or when I joined (2004). We got involved or at least people like me did to change things.

And for all of us who, over a five year period put ourselves on the frontline – not least scores of councillors and MPs many of whom lost their seats – and got a kicking for our troubles – we need to hear that what we did was for the right reasons.

That campaigning for the Lib Dems meant something then and it means something now.

Politics with a purpose is what #LibDemFightBack must be about.

With Duncan Hames, one of the MPs I campaigned for in the election. He lost his seat and he's still smiling!

With Duncan Hames, one of the MPs I campaigned for in the election. He lost his seat and he’s still smiling!

And so Tim’s recognition, public restatement of the fact that not only were Lib Dems in government we did things, we got stuff done – was really important. And really appreciated.

And maybe at last it was the response I an effective response to those of us who have expressed fears that Tim lacks substance.

Finally, I’m sure I’m not the only one who recognised a lot of Nick in the bit towards the end of Tim’s barnstorming speech aimed at people outside the party.

If you care about human rights join us.

if you think you shouldn’t have your emails snooped on join us.

if you think everyone deserves a decent home join us.

if you think its wrong to demonise immigrants, the young, the poor, foreigners, Brussels, the English, the Scots…join us.

If you are fed up of self-satisfied politicians ambitious for themselves and unambitious for their country… then guess what? You are a liberal. Embrace that diagnosis. It is an utterly decent and British condition. So join us, join us today.

As I said on Radio 5Live (21 minutes in!) this morning it wasn’t so much what Tim said that was different it was the way he said it. Simple. Plain. To the point.

Liberalism that does what it says on the tin. Well, it works for me!

2. Tim’s right. Winning in politics IS everything

This was the central plank of Tim’s speech and for good reason.

It’s absolutely what we need to focus on now. Today. Tomorrow and the day after.

You win seats because it gives you the power in politics to do things and most importantly to change things.

On a related point, Tim was absolutely right to urge members to ‘pick a ward, any ward!’ and to win it.’ Clawing our way back to power, from the bottom up.

That’s what I did. The Farron way is the way to win council seats. As Tim rightly said it’s not rocket-science. It takes belief and shoe-leather.

I beat Labour in a ward that hadn’t changed hands for decades. From that platform we went on to win more council seats, to defeat the Labour leader of my local council in Reading and also to build the biggest student branch in the country.

The tragedy of the past few years in government has been recruiting members and meeting activists who have never experienced winning. I was lucky. I won my first election within a year of becoming active and it totally and completely changed the direction of not only my politics but my life.

Winning is everything and it’s something that most of us – some of us – have never experienced that needs to change.

Yesterday’s phenomenal council by-election results which saw Lib Dems take seats of Labour and Tories and win with big swings are just a taster of what we can achieve and what we will achieve I think in the coming years.

I started this post by musing about music choices. I should have guessed that Tim, a football-supporting northerner would have picked New Order. World in Motion, however was a good and left-field choice.

I’ve attached the lyrics below because I think they are particularly poignant:-

Express yourself, create the space
You know you can win, don’t give up the chase
Beat the man, take him on
You never give up, its one on one

(Express yourself) It’s one on one
(Express yourself) It’s one on one
(Express yourself) You can’t be wrong
(Express yourself) When something’s good its never gone

Loves got the world in motion and I know what we can do
Loves got the world in motion and I can’t believe its true

Now is the time, let everyone see
You never give up, that’s how it should be
Don’t get caught, make your own play
Express yourself, don’t give it away

How I learned to stop worrying and back Norman Lamb to be the next leader of the Lib Dems

It’s taken a while, but I think I’ve made my decision about who I plan to vote for to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I’d be lying if I said I’d found this campaign exciting or involving, I haven’t.

And that was even  the reports of dirty tricks surfaced turning my disinterest into exasperation . It wouldn’t be a Lib Dem leadership campaign without them, it seems.

But I may be pissed off but I’m not stupid.

I realise that a political party without leadership doesn’t really exist and finding a new party leader is not a nice to have – it’s a bloody necessity.

Back in May, worn out the bruising general election I wrote a post about the issues that I wanted to see our new leader get to grips with which included: updating our structures and processes, tackling our woeful lack of diversity head-on, living our values and generally leading us to live up to the modern political party we all aspire to the Lib Dems being.

Looking back at that post this paragraph stuck out:

‘For a party that believes in equality, we need to much more to ensure that the voices of people of all ages, including younger members are not only effectively represented but respected and listened too as well.’

To misquote Whitney Houston, young people are our future. I want a leader who looks to solve the problems faced by future generations not just those who vote e.g. the over 65s. This means doing the right thing for the long term not short-term political gain.

All of these things and more have been in my mind at various times as I’ve wrestled (sometimes hourly) with the question of who should lead my party.

At times I’ve tripped over this aspect: if Tim Farron or Norman Lamb is the answer what is the question? And I have to be completely honest neither of them would be my first choice in an ideal world.

As someone who wants ultimately to represent people, probably as a member of Parliament, I want to serve under a strong female party leader not in my lifetime: within the next 10-15 years.

But this is politics and ideal worlds are for the birds.

I’ve done some deep-ish thinking about my party and it’s uncertain future since the election, summed up in my last post:

‘We are fighting for our political survival alright. As an American might say: yo’ shit just got real.

Political parties come and go. We Liberal Democrats have not earned an inalienable right to exist.

We need to justify our existence every day between now and the election. Or we might as well give up and go home…’

When you’re on death row as we are politically, choosing between one leadership candidate or another can feel like a luxury we can’t afford. Anyway, enough prevarication, I’ll try to sum up below how I’ve reached my decision.

Doing What’s Right for the Party vs satisfying yourself

When I blogged about the Lib Dem leadership I summarised the race as follows:-

‘The choice.. between Norman Lamb and Tim Farron has been presented in the media and in various places as a choice between continuity and change and charisma/communications skills vs credibility in government.’

Maybe it’s a hangover from representing just shy of 10,000 people as a local councillor in Reading but when I think about who to vote for doing the right thing for the collective hangs heavy on my shoulders. Initially, this is what made me think it had to be Tim.

It’s also been my biggest obstacle when trying to make up my mind about who to back as leader.

I feel responsible not least because people ask me fairly regularly for advice on who they should vote for to be our leader (like I have a clue?!)

In the desolate lands of Life After Coalition Politics Tim’s undoubted prowess as a campaigner and election winner stands glinting like an oasis in the desert.

It would be a hard-hearted person who, when faced with our almost total -wipeout at the last election did not feel the lure of Farron’s seductive promises to rebuild our base, to win back those lost Lib Dem citadels and highly prized seats we once held.

Watching Tim’s campaign video, launched this week traded heavily on his record in this regard. I summarised the Farron pitch as follows:-

To put it another way, Farron would be a leader who does what he says on the tin: campaign.

An area where I am in 100% agreement with Farron is on the overwhelming need to win elections.

If a political party doesn’t win elections it is reduced to a pressure group. As someone who has served as an elected representative I am acutely aware of the difference between winning and losing, being in power and in opposition. And yet after watching this festival of Focus leaflet delivery  I was left wondering:-

And so I found myself stuck, no further forward.

That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday, with Tim’s campaign message freshest in my mind I went to Oxford to attend #LibDemPint as part of my

ongoing investigation into and support for #LibDemFightBack Lib Dem pint

It was the second time I’d heard Norman Lamb speak in this campaign and I felt he had improved markedly.

Leadership hopeful Norman Lamb speaking to members. Oxford, 24 June 2015.

Lib Dem leadership hopeful Norman Lamb speaking to members. Oxford, 24 June 2015.

My reflections on what I heard are as follows:-

Lamb is right about the issues we should be campaigning on this Parliament

Mental health, improving educational outcomes for all children particularly the poorest, prison and drugs reform. These are issues on which we can set out distinctive liberal positions and where we can put clear blue water between us and the other parties.

Not only this, we can point to things in government we Liberal Democrats delivered, such as:-

and:

Lamb is right we have to rebuild not just our electoral base but our ideas too

As I was listening to Norman Lamb speak in Oxford speak I was conscious that he was appealing to me intellectually and I liked the feeling.

Yes, politics is about gut feelings but that is not all. I am someone who thinks a lot about politics. Thinking is important to me.

Lamb said :

Ideas are important in politics.

A political party that has run out of ideas has run out of road.

Coming out of a a five year government where a good deal of our policies were put into action and in the case of the raising of the Income Tax threshold purloined by other parties (Tories!) we need to replenish our stock of ideas in order to have something to sell the public.

This statement goes hand in hand with the next bit about campaigning. I also liked what Lamb had to say about appealing to a whole swathe of progressive voters by avoiding the straightjacket of tribalism:

Lamb is right that campaigning alone won’t win us back our lost seats

I follow lots of Lib Dems and talk to lots of Lib Dems and occasionally someone says to me ‘if only we’d put more resources in x seat’ we would have won or ‘we need to get back to delivering x number of Focus leaflets’.

As someone who campaigned for a period of several months in one of the best organised seats anywhere – Oxford West & Abingdon – with one of the best Connect contact rates in the country I don’t buy this argument.

Do I think that Simon Hughes and others would have held their seats if I and other activists had helped? No I don’t. The votes just weren’t there for us this time. So when Norman Lamb said:-

I couldn’t help but agree. For me this was one of the unanswered questions in Tim Farron’s campaign video.

Politics is about willing to get your hands dirty not watching from the sidelines.

Political parties are agents for change. If you’re worried someone or something you vote for might win, stick to signing petitions on 38 Degrees.

Other stuff I liked in no particular order

Lamb’s demonstrable liberal instincts typified by his focus on the rights of the individual:

Lamb’s explicit pitch to young people – a group completely marginalised and overlooked by other political parties.

His acknowledgement that our record on diversity is a disgrace and must be changed:

‘We are the least diverse party’ says @normanlamb to an audience with majority of middle-aged white men.

— Daisy Benson (@_DaisyBenson) June 24, 2015

After Norman Lamb finished speaking I caught up with a number of new Lib Dem members.

What struck me was their willingness to challenge orthodoxies both in the way we have traditionally campaigned in elections and how we have approached policy-making.

My thoughts crystallized as I rode the train back to Reading.  reading an article I stumped upon this article by Ian Birrell published in the Guardian which shed doubt on Tim Farron’s voting record:-

‘And what of [Tim Farron] dubious record on lesbian and gay equality? He has missed, abstained and even voted against important legal landmarks. Although Farron voted in favour of gay marriage, the campaign group Stonewall, reviewing his first five years in parliament, said he failed to support their position on significant votes. Lib Dems have the right to ask if Farron’s religious fervour would be a help or hindrance to their party’s salvation The same lack of liberalism can be seen in Farron’s support for higher income taxes and protectionist economic policies. This may impress some party activists, but there is no more future for the Lib Dems as a pale imitation Labour party than as chummy colleagues of the Conservatives. His opponent is not overburdened with charisma, but Lamb at least seems to be fashioning a liberal stance on criminal justice and drug reform.’

A couple of times during the past week I’ve imagined life under a Farron leadership.

The word that always springs to mind is traditional. Tim is a nice bloke. That was never in question. But this is a leadership contest not a school prize-giving.

Six things that stopped me voting for Tim Farron to be leader*

  1. I see Tim Farron as the leading representative of the establishment wing in the Lib Dems.
  2. I  worry about his longer term strategy to create a permanent and substantial space for the liberalism in our Parliament.
  3. I for one don’t look back fondly to the days under a Charles Kennedy leadership and do not want to return to one.
  4. I don’t hanker after a soft left alternative vision.
  5. I’m not convinced his choice of issues on which to campaign are the right ones or that they resonate enough with the public. See Stephen Tall for a good analysis of this.
  6. I do wonder what Tim wants to achieve beyond being leader of the Liberal Democrats.

*But I accept that he will probably win, and comfortably.

Returning to my comments at the start of this post, this election campaign has not set my world on fire.

Neither of the two candidates are my first choice – they are not so much best of a bad bunch as virtually the last men standing – when I say this I don’t mean this as a slight on either, I’m just being honest.

Things that had little or no impact on my decision:

  1. Endorsements
  2. Campaign team members
  3. How candidates voted on Tuition Fees
  4. Social media campaigns of either candidate
  5. Lib Dem Voice articles

That said, I’ve thought carefully about my choice. I’m backing Norman Lamb. norman2 Am I worried about the future of my party? Hell, yes.

Have I backed the wrong horse? Probably.

Have I put country before Party? I hope so.

I’m spectacularly crap at backing eventual winners in leadership contests. I don’t really care just hope liberalism wins for all our sakes. — Daisy Benson (@_DaisyBenson) June 22, 2015

Far away, so close: #Libdemfightback one month on.

It’s almost a month since I wrote about my experiences campaigning for Liberal Democrat candidates in the General Election.

In little over a month my party has been ejected from power. We are now officially, according to the pervading narrative, ‘in the doldrums’.

Pop music is so much better than politics for expressing heartfelt emotion. If the Lib Dems current status was a song title it would surely be ‘From Despair to Where’? (Manic Street Preachers (1993) or perhaps ‘Stuck in a moment you can’t get out of’ (U2, 2002). I could go on. In fact I went the whole hog and created a collaborative Spotify playlist.

Except it’s not that simple. Politics, much like life, never is.

Since I wrote that blog – depressed, angry and most definitely suffering from post-traumatic shock brought on by our massive defeat at the general election, something crazy happened.

More than 15,000 people have joined the Liberal Democrats.

Our total membership now stands at 61456 (and counting, as the ticker on the Lib Dem website proudly proclaims)

I’ve already written about my impressions on meeting some of our new members in London shortly after the election.

Now the dust is settled since the election  I wanted to take some time to  reflect on my impressions since.

  1. After our recent near death experience the Liberal Democrats are still on a life support machine. 

While outwardly I may project the air of your archetypal Lib Dem cockroach or ‘die-hard Lib Dem’ as I was recently introduced at a party the other day, reader, I have my fair share of doubts about the future of my party.

Reading this article by Danny Finkelstein cheerily titled ‘RIP Liberal Democrats. It’s all over for you.‘ in The Times prompted one of such fit of insecurity.

Reading that article felt like looking over the edge of the electoral cliff, into the abyss:

‘Well it’s happened now. They have hit the ground. So now, what next? Nothing, that’s what. It’s over. It is so over that “what next” isn’t even the right question. The Liberal Democrats are about to choose a leader, asking themselves “who?” and “how?” and “when?”. But what they should really do is get Vince to take out his whiteboard again and in big letters write: “WHY?”

It is not impossible to imagine the Lib Dems surviving as a tiny parliamentary force, perhaps (very perhaps) winning by-elections, even finding a suitor in a hung parliament. What is less easy to see is why the effort to do this would be worthwhile.’

I was angry when I first read this article. Bloody arrogant Tory columnists, I thought. Why do I subscribe to this right-wing rag again? I raged. ‘He’s a Tory. No-one outside the Westminster bubble cares about this stuff’ soothed a friend.

But what followed was worse than the anger I felt initially . It was the feeling of despair. What if Danny was right and we really are finished as an electoral force let alone as a political party? But we Lib Dems have got used to smiling through the pain. ‘I’ll print out that article and use it for extra motivation’ the hardened political activist inside of me said.

I was left with the nagging feeling that Danny Finkelstein asked precisely the right questions in the article. Questions that many of us (me included) would probably rather avoid particularly after suffering such a drubbing. Questions that we need to face up to this Parliament and fast.

We are fighting for our political survival alright. As an American right say: yo’ shit just got real.

Political parties come and go. We Liberal Democrats have not earned an inalienable right to exist. We need to justify our existence every day between now and the election. Or we might as well give up and go home. Or join Labour, or the Tories. Liberalism has been around far longer than the Liberal Democrats and it may well outlive the Liberal Democrats.

On reading that article by Danny Finkelstein I was forced to confront a future without the Lib Dems in it. It could happen, but obviously I hope it won’t.

2. We are in a hole but it could be worse, we could be the Labour party.

For all of my worries about the future of the Lib Dems I console myself regularly with the thought that Labour are in a far worse position. Not only have they failed to win the election and convince voters they are a serious alternative to a Conservative government, what little credibility they had accrued from being in government 1997-2010 has been washed away leaving zero credibility where it matters – on the economy.

The Labour leadership election is the dullest I can remember. Labour as a political force feels to me to be totally moribund . New Labour is dead. Milibandism is dead. Long live….what? The best candidate by a mile seems to be Liz Kendall and yet we hear every day the mantra ‘she can’t win’.

For all the criticism of Ryan Coetzee’s slogan: ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ we need to own this phrase. We Lib Dems are the only party that can truly say we delivered a stronger economy and a fairer society in the last Parliament, in government.  Now is not the time to disown our own legacy and with it our credibility in the eyes of the electorate.

3. Diversity. Battle won?

Shortly after the election I wrote about my ongoing frustrations with my party for its failure to take action to improve diversity. I wrote this post against a backdrop of years of over-promising and under-delivering by senior figures – not least Nick Clegg – on this issue. I’m pleased to say that diversity has featured very prominently in both Tim Farron and Norman Lamb’s campaigns to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.

I’m by no means the only one to have raised this issues regularly and I’m particularly grateful to my friend Daisy Cooper (who I backed for Party President)  who put both candidates on the spot publicly on this whole question. Tim and Norman’s responses can be found here.

I now do have confidence that whoever wins the race to be next leader of our party will take action to address the disgracefully unrepresentative aspects of our party – not only in terms of our parliamentary candidates but in selecting who will advise them and who will speak for the Lib Dems outside Parliament as well as in over the next five years.

I’m also reasonably reassured that both candidates will act to shake up our party so that things like our party committees are no longer personal fiefdoms for the long in the tooth.

However, as I’ve tweeted and blogged many times changing the way we do things is one thing, changing our culture and the way our members select candidates is another. I hope that whoever wins will address this both explicitly and implicitly over the coming months and years.

4. We may be out of government but our legacy lives on 

We have lost all our ministers and by extension all our influence in government. So goes the conventional wisdom. Except it isn’t actually true. Many of our policies and initiatives continue beyond the political grave particularly in areas where we had Liberal Democrat ministers for example in health and business for example in reforms to zero-hours contracts.

I was particularly heartened on speaking to two senior civil servants working in mental health this week who remarked on the long lasting influence Norman Lamb has had in relation to mental health policy at the Department of Health. This was a timely reminder for me that civil servants absolutely can tell the difference between the excellent and the indifferent when it comes to ministers.

It was exactly the same when I was a councillor and it was some consolation when we lost control of Reading Borough Council after running it for a year in 2010-11 to hear officers say to me how they had noticed the things that I and others had tried to do both in terms of our policy agendas and our leadership style.

There will be plenty more policies that Lib Dems led in government that will continue under the Tories. We need to continue celebrate our ongoing achievements in government, because you bet if we don’t, the Tories will.

5. I’m still unsure who to vote for to be next Lib Dem leader

The choice this election between Norman Lamb and Tim Farron has been presented in the media and in various places as a choice between continuity and change and charisma/communications skills vs credibility in government. Put simply, a vote for Norman Lamb is a vote for what we did in coalition and a vote for Tim Farron is a vote against it. Plenty of people I hold in high regard are backing Norman and others are supporting Tim.

Endorsements have not had the effect on me I thought they would and I find myself not much further forward.

I must admit that neither campaign has set my world on fire. I am confident both candidates would make competent leaders. Social media, ironically, has become a barrier to communication in my opinion with both sides frenetically posting on Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to engage members. Laudable, yes, but not terribly inspiring. I’m actually starting to see the social media outpourings of both campaigns as something of a distraction, particularly when it seems as though the content is coming from people around the candidate rather than the candidate.

The longer the campaign has gone on the less sure I have been out who to vote for. I know Tim Farron best of the two candidates and favour his ability to communicate with the public but am also impressed by Norman Lamb’s record in government as a minister and have liked some of the things he has said about us living in a liberal age and needing to turn this into solid support for Liberal Democrats.

My gut feeling is that Tim Farron will win by a comfortable margin. He started the race well ahead having won two Presidential elections. I suppose the question then becomes what is it that’s stopping me from voting for Tim, leader-in-waiting.

Overall, my lack of certainty about who to support stems mainly from questions relating to party strategy. And being a (typical) Lib Dem I can see arguments on both sides as to which direction we should go.

The recent article on Charles Kennedy’s legacy by Phil Collins in The Times summed up my dilemma best

‘Mr Farron might assemble enough protest votes to make his party a viable contender for the balance of power. But, on balance, he does not want power. Charles Kennedy did what he did rather brilliantly, with style, wit and warmth and politics would be better for more people of his stamp. But what he did can only take you so far. Mr Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats climbed all the way to the summit of the mountain he set out to climb. The trouble with that is that when you reach the top you cannot help but wonder at the point.’

I have a confession to make, which in light of recent events is a little embarrassing. I nearly didn’t join the Liberal Democrats because of Charles Kennedy’s leadership.

I voted Labour in 1997, but after initial enthusiasm for Blairism (inspired by decades growing up under seemingly endless and unbeatable Tory governments), I grew tired of Labour in government. This happened a couple of years before the Iraq War (which I marched against under no political banner) when Labour started doing things like penalising single mothers.

There were a couple of years from this point on when I was not affiliated to any party before I eventually joined the Lib Dems in 2005. What put me off joining earlier was what I saw as Charles Kennedy’s lack of desire to build a party of government that could beat the Tories and present a credible alternative to Labour. This, bearing in mind the Tories had been in government every year since I was born until 1997.

So this question about the purpose of the Liberal Democrats goes way back for me. Phil Collins has written  a couple of times about  people who voted Lib Dem in 2010:

‘These people were furious to wake up and find they had accidentally voted for the government.’

As you may have guessed, I am not one of those people. That said I do agree with Lib Dem Strategy Director Ryan Coetzee’s post-election analysis that ‘getting into bed’ with the Tories in 2010 effectively ruined our electoral chances in 2015. In particular when he says:

‘I have no doubt that going into coalition was the right thing to do for the country, but I can’t help feeling it is the root cause of our current woes.’

I agree very strongly with this statement.

Our current position is highly paradoxical: we recently suffered our worst electoral defeat and yet we are also experiencing one of the fastest periods of growth in our membership in our history.

All I know is there are no easy answers to questions about what we do next.

As Einstein once said

 “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

 I feel like this about politics more and more, despite a decade of active involvement and campaigning in three general elections.

I would like to think that we can learn not only from our time in government, but also from our defeat and also our time in opposition.

David Miliband said this about the Labour party in The Times today, but I think it applies to the Liberal Democrats just as well:

‘The only guide to the future is the past, I’m afraid’

Reflections on an evening with our new members

On Monday night I attended the first #LibDemPint social for new Liberal Democrat members in London in Walkers, a bar on Whitehall.

The first thing that struck me about the event was the professionalism – people were welcomed by smartly-dressed  people with clipboards. I joked to one of the organisers Josh Lachkovic that I could resign my membership now as there was nothing left for me to do!

Less of a wake more of a celebration

Peter Sigrist one of the organisers introduced the speakers in an atmosphere I can best describe as euphoric – not perhaps what any of us were expecting after the drubbing Liberal Democrats received at the polls a couple of weeks ago.

So when we heard someone ‘a gatecrasher’ had arrived in the form of Nick Clegg this just added to the excitement that was already building in the room. I was delighted to see my friend Elaine Bagshaw, Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate in the speaker line up alongside more established names such as Tom Brake MP, Caroline Pidgeon, Tim Farron.

Nick Clegg speaking to new members after 'gatecrashing' the event.

Nick Clegg speaking to new members after ‘gatecrashing’ the event.

Don’t underestimate our new members – they know more than you think

It was thrilling for me to meet so many new members in one place. As a party member of 10 years I felt like a veteran! I was keen to find out from all the new members I met what had prompted them to join. For me one of the most revealing things was hearing that many, if not most of those I talked had been Liberal Democrat supporters for years before deciding to join. They did not suddenly wake up one morning and decide they would become a Liberal Democrat.

This made me even more confident that there are lots of people out there who share our values but who are not yet party members. We must connect with those people and fast.

However, I also spoke to several people who admitted to having not voted Liberal Democrat at this election for various reasons. Maybe they lived in a seat Lib Dems were not in contention. Maybe they were angry at the Coalition. Either way, when they heard Nick Clegg’s resignation speech many of them thought ‘my god I’ve got to do something!

Nick Clegg’s resignation speech clearly had a massive impact on many of the new members I talked to. One talked about forcing his housemates to sit round and watch it with him and then telling them they must join the Liberal Democrats.

I spoke to a lot of people – most in fact – who said they had not been members of political parties before. I found this fascinating and I was interested in what they wanted out of party membership. The answer is different things. Several people asked me how they could get involved in events and campaigning – others influencing policy.

I and many like me have lived and breathed political parties for years. We are anoraks! We need to remember that many of our new members are not and we must not make our activities exclusive or cliquey. So what if you haven’t canvassed before and have never used Connect? All of of us were new once.

Something else I noticed which was really exciting was the varied backgrounds and wide experience our new members are bringing to the party. I spoke to someone who campaigns for electoral reform, another expert in Irish and European politics, communications professionals, musicians.

This made me think – we must not approach our new members with the view that ‘these people are new therefore they know nothing and we will have to teach them how to be Liberal Democrats and do things in a Liberal Democrat way.’

Before we start telling people (even in a well-intentioned way) what they should and shouldn’t do we must ask them what they think and find out what we can learn from them.

We have a huge opportunity here to grow and develop as a party by taking on board the skills and attributes of all our new members and of course doing more to involve our existing ones.

Other things I noticed – it may of been the venue and the timing of the event but there were fewer women there than I would have liked.

I had so many interesting chats with people. I urged them to if they could to attend our party conference in the autumn and to continue to challenge us a party. We have so much to learn from our new members before they ‘go native’ so to speak.

I said that if there were things that they expected to find in a political party – to ask for it! Based on the feedback I was getting no-one I spoke to looked like they would be backward in coming forward in calling for change, quite the reverse.This was music to my ears!

A historic night

Leadership hopeful Tim Farron chats to some of our new members.

Leadership hopeful Tim Farron chats to some of our new members.

Quite apart from the excitement of seeing so many new members from across London it was a memorable night for so many reasons: Nick Clegg attending – clearly interested in  not only meeting the new members but also securing his legacy and place in Liberal Democrat history. Tim Farron, potentially next leader of the Liberal Democrats also in attendance and keenly meeting his electorate.

I really enjoyed myself and I left feeling very positive – excited even – about the next chapter in our party’s history. We are entering a period of renewal and we must make the most of it as a party.

Future events have already been set up in London  and others are planned around the country. I am confident based on the conversations I had with people at the event on Monday night that these members are going to make a big impact on our party not just now but well into the future.

me and peter

Me with Peter Sigrist one of the dynamic organisers of #LibDemPint

Talking the talk is no longer enough: time to live our values

After a general election campaign that focussed on the leadership qualities of David Cameron and Ed Miliband we find ourselves with only a handful of MPs and even fewer leadership contenders from which to choose.

With Nick Clegg out of the picture the media focus switches to Tim Farron and Norman Lamb.

However, Clegg’s influence persists with many new members citing Clegg’s dignified defence of the Liberal Democrats role in the Coalition as the catalyst to their entry.

Much of the commentary both inside and outside the party has focussed on questions of political positioning and responses to the recent election results e.g. along the lines of where should the Lib Dems place themselves post-coalition?

Debate revolves around the arguments put forward by those such as Stephen Tall who advocate a place for the  Lib Dems in the centre and those such as David Howarth who argue for a return to Liberal Democrat core values.

Howarth describes these as:

internationalism, protecting individuality and non-conformity, hating bullying and the abuse of power,  promoting environmentalism, protecting civil liberties and a love of democracy’

These debates are familiar and they are important.

Whoever leads the Liberal Democrats will need to clarify our values before they can come up with a convincing narrative in response to the perennial question: ‘what are the Liberal Democrats for?’

Already we have an inkling as to the sorts of things Tim Farron plans to campaign on this Parliament.Writing in The Independent earlier this week he said:-

I believe our party needs a leader ready to make the positive case for civil liberties, a more equal society, a green economy, an open and internationalist approach and the political reform that this country needs to avoid it splitting apart –  someone to stand up for a freer, fairer, greener Britain.

Norman Lamb has set out his stall citing improving social mobility, reducing inequality, modernising public services. making the case for remaining in the EU and electoral reform.

However, in my view both campaigns will fall short if they choose to focus on these narrow political questions.

I think we need to take a long hard look at how our party appears to the outside world. We are not representative. Let’s fix that.

And we need to take a closer look at the way we do things and are processes. Can we make it easier for people to get involved?

We need, I think to take this opportunity to refound our party so that it reflects modern British society as it is today.

We need to live and breathe the values we espouse in the preamble to our constitution:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.

If we say we are about promoting equality there can be no more all-male, all-white shortlists.

If we stand for democracy – every member’s vote must count.

This is not just about living our values. It makes political sense too.

Only by being genuinely inclusive and representative of British society will we have the numbers of activists we need to reach out and represent people effectively across the country.

It’s an awful cliché but there must be no no-go areas for Liberal Democrats in the years ahead.

Everyone always said there were ‘no safe Lib Dem seats’ at the last election.

Now that sounds like a cruel joke – we can’t fight future elections on old boundaries either real or imagined.

I want to hear our leadership candidates set out how they will build a Liberal Britain – street by street, town by town.

This means winning council seats and parliamentary seats in urban as well as rural areas.

It means integrated campaigns using modern technology.

As someone once said doing what we’ve always done means you’ll get the result you’ve always got. What will we do differently in the years ahead?

An end to the ‘Chumocracy’

David Steel’s article Six Ways Nick Clegg Steer steered the Liberal Democrats to disaster unwittingly drew attention to an ongoing issue within the party – the overconcentration of power in the hands of too few party members, particularly those senior in years and those who have been involved in the party for a long time versus newer members.

This paragraph in particular stuck out:-

As party leader, Clegg puzzled us all by ignoring the more senior members of his Commons team including Campbell, Alan Beith, Malcolm Bruce, Simon Hughes and Kennedy. Instead he created a negotiating team entirely of newer and younger colleagues whom he could dominate. He himself had become leader after only two years in parliament and had been leader for less than three. He compounded this omission by not appointing any of the senior members subsequently to his ministerial team.

For a party that believes in equality, we need to much more to ensure that the voices of people of all ages, including younger members are not only effectively represented but respected and listened too as well.

Although we have an active youth wing, as a rule I don’t think we have a good balance between older and younger members in our party. Older members dominate selections of parliamentary candidates for example. Our councillors also tend to be older too.

There is also a pressing need to be more responsive to young members with 51% of the 12,000 who joined the party in the past week under the age of 35.

I am keen to hear from our two leadership contenders how we might further open up positions and roles in our party.

Introducing one member one vote in elections to party committees is an essential part of this.

I thought this would be a no-brainer and I was amazed it was not something we introduced years ago.

I sat in a debate at Liberal Democrat Conference last year where one party member of many years standing complained that further democratisation of our internal party structures would lead to ‘the wrong sort of people attending and voting at our conferences’

With thousands of new members keen to participate I really can’t see how the party will be able to resist moves to increase and enhance internal party democracy or risk looking very silly indeed.

I’m keen to hear what the two leadership contenders views are.

The Lib Dems’ Women Problem

Age is not the only area where the party needs to live up to its own values. The pitiful number of female Liberal Democrat MPs in the last Parliament was a serious embarrassment and as I’ve written previously Nick Clegg’s failure to promote women to the Cabinet was a big strategic error.

Last year when I asked a Lib Dem parliamentarian what the party’s strategy was for addressing the absence of women in our parliamentary party ahead of the last election I was told Nick Clegg was urging what was ‘voluntary euthanasia’. What this meant was male MPs retiring and where possible female candidates being selected in their place. In so far as it led to more women getting selected in ‘winnable’ seats this strategy was reasonably although not wholly successful.

But that strategy was predicated on holding our Lib Dem seats at the general election.

I spent the entire election campaign pretty much campaigning for our brilliant female candidates and not one got elected.

Now we are faced with the unthinkable: not a single Liberal Democrat MP is female.

Add to that we also have no ethnic minority MPs.

And no disabled MPs.

Our abject failure as a party to get women and minorities into Parliament in reasonable numbers over the last twenty years is now plain for all to see, and will be for the next five unless radical action is taken.

The Leadership Programme introduced by Nick Clegg has had some successes in developing women and minorities it was far too limited in size and scope.

Women need more than mentoring and training to get selected. The onus is placed on candidates to local parties not for local parties to modernise themselves and start selecting more women and other under-represented groups.

But it’s not just our structures and processes that are holding women and other groups back in our party.

It is also our culture that needs to change.

The exodus of a large number of senior female party activists following accusations of harassment last year did long-lasting damage to our reputation particularly with women.

I and many others were privately and in some cases publicly fuming about the whole handling of this episode.

The party rightly faced a barrage of criticism online and in the media. The situation impacted how I felt about the party and I no longer wanted to go on doorsteps to defend it.

I also knew that this sorry saga coupled with the paltry number of female MPs added up to a massive turn off for our potential female voters.

I tweeted about one particular encounter with a former supporter and my comments were seized on by a senior male peer:-

Goddard

The peer’s final response to me that

‘the lesson is bringing the matter that has been fully investigated up again just before election’

made it painfully clear to me that many party members – mostly but not exclusively older – had not got the message about how damaging this episode was to our party.

Countless times I and other female activists encountered a condescending attitude that dismissed and belittled our concerns as trivial and unimportant.

This whole encounter exasperated me and many others – men as well as women. Debates on Facebook in groups such as Rock The Boat rumbled on seemingly ignored by senior party figures.

It’s impossible to measure what the impact was on the election but my bet is it contributed to general impression many women voters had of us that the Lib Dems were not pro-women.

The failure to develop a female-friendly narrative was a huge error by the party. For the first time in my lifetime feminism was fashionable again.

Meanwhile Labour politicians such as Stella Creasy and even Ed Miliband were speaking up against #Everydaysexism and #NoMorePageThree.

Where was the Liberal Democrat voice on this? Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone worked hard on this agenda but their efforts were undermined by Nick Clegg’s failure to promote them to the top table and for the party’s ongoing failure to properly address the issues.

Tim Farron and Norman Lamb must harness our former female MPs and other women in the party and make fighting for issues women care about central to our cause.

More generally if Tim Farron and Norman Lamb are serious about rebuilding the Liberal Democrats into a party modern, inclusive and representative party it needs to break out of small party syndrome where who you know is more important than what you know.

The signs are positive. In March, Norman Lamb said:

“We have failed ultimately to get a good balance into Parliament and we have to think of other things to pump- prime the change,” said Mr Lamb. “The current imbalance, the likely continued imbalance and the potential for the situation to be less good make me believe that something more is required and that’s why I argue for some form of positive action.”

As things stand our party looks to the outside world to be both very pale and very male. This must change.

Lamb’s proposal that the Deputy Leader of party should be elected by all party members and female is a good first step.

When I asked Tim Farron this week what his view were he indicated that the lack of diversity in our party means we need to take measures that liberals might not like.

I agree.

The Launch of Tim Farron's Leadership bid at the Black Horse Pub in Otley, May 2015

The Launch of Tim Farron’s Leadership bid at the Black Horse Pub in Otley, May 2015

Some reflections on the General Election

layla group

Out on the doorstep with Layla Moran and team in Oxford West & Abingdon

I don’t pretend for a second to be an expert on elections but I did want to write something following campaigning for Lib Dem candidates this election. It was an interesting experience for many reasons and unlike any other election I’ve ever campaigned in.

I was a candidate in the last election but not this one. I decided fairly early on I did not have the resources either  financially or in terms of time to stand in a winnable seat and had no desire to stand somewhere we couldn’t make inroads. I was under no illusions this was going to be a difficult election for the Liberal Democrats and I preferred instead to focus on places where Lib Dems could win.

My priorities this election were twofold: to do my bit to elect more female women MPs and to support some excellent Lib Dem campaigners (mostly female) i’ve got to know over the years in their fight to keep their seats. Frustratingly this failed to happen in any of these seats and we now end up in a position of having no female Lib Dem MPs in Parliament.

Campaigning with Tessa Munt our fantastic candidate in Wells.

Campaigning with Tessa Munt our fantastic candidate in Wells.

My respect for people prepared to put themselves up for election – particularly in the very tricky circumstances our party faced has increased even further and I take my hat off to all the candidates I campaigned with for putting themselves on the frontline. None of them were under any illusions as to how difficult this election was going to be for Liberal Democrats and the fact they stood anyway is a testament to their commitment.

I spent the election campaigning for my friend Layla Moran in Oxford West & Abingdon, Duncan Hames in Chippenham, Lynne Featherstone in Hornsey & Wood Green, Vikki Slade in Mid Dorset & North Poole, Tessa Munt in Wells, Mike Thornton in Eastleigh and Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire.

Although the majority of time was spent in Oxford West and Abingdon (OxwAb) I knocked on doors in all these constituencies apart from Jo Swinson’s due to the distance so instead I donated to Jo’s campaign and encouraged others to do so online.

Below are some of my reflections after talking to hundreds of would-be voters during the election in the above constituencies.

Tory and Labour strategies and its effects on Lib Dem support in marginal seats

I was struck when I canvassed in Chippenham shortly after the campaign began by a Conservative leaflet I saw that said bluntly ‘this is one of the 23 seats we need to win to form a government’. I thought this was pretty blatant and unambitious as a target but on reflection it backed up all the stuff that has since come out about the ruthless way in which Lib Dem seats were targeted by the Conservative party.

During one particular evening canvass session slightly later on in the election campaign a middle-aged women I spoke to expressed concerns to me about the possibility of a SNP-backed government. This struck me as odd at the time: I was in Somerset and the seat was a Lib Dem – Tory marginal.

In this seat, as doubtless many others our messages were all about the strong local record of our candidate in this case Duncan Hames who had won the seat in 2010 after 80 years of Toryism. I spoke to lots of people who recognised the good work Duncan had done which encouraged me that he had a chance of holding the seat.

That weekend I knocked on doors in Hornsey & Wood Green. A Lib Dem supporter told me she would normally vote for us and was a big fan of Lynne Featherstone but wasn’t going to this time as ‘Labour needs this seat to be able to form a majority government’. She was worried about the SNP too but this time Labour had put that fear in her head. This experience left me reeling – I’d never encountered a response like it before during an election campaign. I was used to campaigns being about one party’s policies vs another and one candidate’s record vs another.

So in two totally different constituencies two different political parties were campaigning against Lib Dem MPs – Labour as part  of their narrow ‘35% strategy’ and Tories for their own 23 seat strategy. Politically, we were caught between a pincer movement – left and right.

I drove back to Reading from Haringey wondering how we could effectively counter these messages, genuinely worried about the ability of Lynne – one of the party’s hardest-working, well-known candidates to hold her seat.

As various election results attest, the way Tories manipulated the media debate to stoke up fears about a Labour-SNP government this was a highly-effective strategy which paid massive political dividends — more effectively it seems than even some of the victorious Tory candidates expected .

It seems that Tories got their lethal message across mainly via direct mail and phone calls to voters including and particularly identified Lib Dems. During my entire time campaigning in OxwAb I didn’t see any Tory activists knocking on doors until Polling Day.

Local vs national campaigns

Lynne

Our literature and campaigns in the seats I fought Lib Dems focussed on the qualities of our candidates, their records in office and our manifesto commitments on education etc this got us so far but did not counter the negative messages the Tories and Labour were putting out about hung parliaments and coalitions.

Interestingly I spoke to a few people who said they wished they could have two votes one for their local candidate and one for a political party.

All defeated candidates should I think take heart from the fact that what happened in our held seats was not so much a rejection of them personally but a response to wider fears about who would form the next government – fear put in people’s heads by the two main parties, but mainly the Tories.

Leadership and Coalition – it depends who you talk to

I retired from being a councillor in 2014. My second term  as a councillor 2006 – 2014 coincided with the Coalition being formed. During that time, going on the doorstep in a Labour-facing area was a very difficult indeed.

Looking back, 2011 was probably the low point where I had many doors slammed in my face, we were rapidly losing council seats and I heard many people say they couldn’t vote for us again because of Nick Clegg and Tuition Fees.

So it was with some trepidation that first started knocking on doors for the Lib Dems again at the start of this year. It may well have been because I spent most of my time in a Tory rather Labour-facing seat (Oxford West & Abingdon) but I was genuinely taken aback by the change in tone of doorstep feedback. As I said to activist friends at the time – it was shocking to find not only did people not appear to hate us as they once had but they seemed willing to vote for us again.

This was a big turn around and for the first time in four years I was really enjoying knocking on doors again. People knew about Lib Dem policies we had fought for in government – the increasing of the income tax threshold and they were responding positively to new policies such as a pay rise for public sector workers.

Several people said to me they thought the Lib Dems had been a good brake on the Conservatives in government .

There was no doubt judging from feedback I had on the doorstep from voters that Tories were majoring in their campaign during this election on leadership and who was/wasn’t prime-minister material. They were clearly keen to turn the election into a presidential race – one that Ed Miliband could not win.

I met people who described Nick Clegg as ‘weak’ and ‘spineless’ but I was pleasantly surprised to hear more people say they were impressed by Nick Clegg – quite a few said Lib Dems had been a brake on the Tories, a couple had seen him on ‘Last Leg’ and thought he was a good bloke.

One of my favourite comments someone told me with characteristic sang froid  ‘I thought Nick Clegg was going to be rubbish when he first started [in Coalition] but actually he turned out to be pretty good.’ Several times people contrasted Nick Clegg with Ed Miliband and their opinion on Nick was always more favourable

I found it very interesting to hear what people said about the Coalition 2010 – 2015, and coalitions more widely. Some voters I talked to saw it as a positive to see political parties working together (they may have been Lib Dem voters?). A couple of others I spoke to – one in OxWab and one in Wells said they preferred ‘strong’ government e.g. single-party government. This may or may not have been in part a response to the messages found in Tory leaflets promoting their 23 seat strategy.

Judging by our results nationally I’m willing to admit that many of those people I met who were positive about the Liberal Democrat performance in government did not go on to vote for Lib Dem candidates. But I think a fair number of them did. I recruited members during the campaign and I know from talking to other activists that people continued to join the party throughout the campaign.

For this reason I am against us ditching wholesale Lib Dem achievements of the past 5 years in government. Based on what I heard on the doorstep I think a reasonable number of people in the country at large who voted in the election did appreciate our role in government and voted for us because of it. Furthermore I think the party’s standing and Nick Clegg’s reputation will grow rather than decline as time goes on.

Women voters

As you may have noticed, I’m particularly interested in women in politics. I was delighted to find this election that women I spoke to seemed a lot more engaged than in previous years. One quizzed me about our policies and said she was fed up with political parties assuming women only want to hear about childcare: ‘I’m single and have no children. What are you doing for me?’ she said. In general, the issue women raised most often as their key concern was education followed by the NHS.

I met very few women who said they were planning not to vote which was an improvement on 2010.

Of those that commented about party leaders on the doorstep women tended to be more outspoken critics of Nick Clegg than the men I spoke to describing him as ‘weak’. Of those that criticised him both indicated a preference for a majority government rather than another coalition. I think these voters may have been targeted by Tory literature. It would interesting to read what this said.

‘I’m genuinely undecided’

I heard this in every constituency I campaigned in on a bigger scale than any election I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve been brought up by experienced activists never to take this response at face value when you canvass and to ask the classic follow ups ‘who did you vote for last election? and ‘is there any party you definitely won’t vote for?’ But this time it felt different.

This time people seemed genuinely to be unsure who to vote for.

People were telling me they were undecided right up until the polls closed in OxwAb. This was the first election I campaigned in where people talked to me about visiting vote match websites to try and work out who to vote for. Several people told me they had visited websites and had discovered no-one party matched their views. Everyone who had come out with a result which included UKIP immediately rejected the findings I’m pleased to say.

I think the huge emphasis on polling and hung parliaments by the media might also have had a part to play. That and people seeing via the Leaders Debates that there were more political parties on the menu than just Labour, Lib Dem and Tory.

Electoral reform – back on the agenda in a big way

After the disaster of the AV campaign I was not surprised Lib Dems nationally decided that electoral reform should not feature prominently in our national campaign. This may or may not have been a mistake. To my amazement, voters raised this with me on doorstep after doorstep. Maybe this was their response to the commentators harping on about hung parliaments?

It may also have been a reaction to the fact that they lived in all cases in ultra marginal seats and disliked being effectively forced by Lib Dems or our main opponents to choose between two parties or vote tactically.

Europe – the dog that didn’t bark

Unlike some years (mainly 2005) no-one raised Europe with me on the doorstep. Immigration also came up less frequently than I expected.

UKIP!

As expected the number of people saying they were planning to vote UKIP was tiny in all the places I canvassed apart from Eastleigh (the only place I campaigned where UKIP was active). A few people shouted ‘UKIP!’ at me in the street and on the doorstep – it’s become the new ‘f*** You’.

Shy Tories?

The Tories won in OxWab and all the seats I campaigned in barring Hornsey and Wood Green and yet I spoke to very few people who canvassed as Tory. I’ve spent most of my career as a political activist campaigning in Labour-facing seats against Labour so this was a new experience for me.

Knocking on doors in OxwAb I met very few people who said they planned to vote Tory right up until Polling Day. I got the strong sense that people voted Tory out of fear of something worse e.g.. a Labour/SNP government. No-one said ‘I’m voting Tory because I like their policy on x’ but then I did not canvass anyone who was down as a Tory from previous data.

On Polling Day itself I spoke to someone who admitted switching away from Lib Dem to Tory because of her fears of a Labour-SNP government. I thanked her for being so candid. This makes me think again that people switching away from us cannot all be attributed to voters’ rejection en masse of our record and our policies – although of course some of it will be that.

The reputation of politics, politicians and political parties

Last election the expenses scandal loomed large and in many cases Lib Dem candidates were the beneficiaries picking up seats from mainly Conservatives. I’m pleased to say this election I heard very few people say that all politicians were corrupt or on the make. I put this largely down to the fact that last election some  newspapers namely the Daily Mail and The Telegraph concentrated heavily on stories about MPs expenses.

The reputation of political parties and sadly the Lib Dems continues to be fairly negative. Broken promises has been a big theme of the election and even though everyone has done it the Lib Dems are the poster boy for this thanks to Tuition Fees and Nick Clegg’s apology.

I found it odd in Hornsey & Wood Green where people rejected Labour in large numbers in previous elections as a result of unpopular decisions Labour took in government such as the Iraq War people were going back to supporting them again. Tuition fees continued to loom large on some of the doorsteps I canvassed. However, by the same token this makes me think people will return to the Lib Dems again in the not too distant future.

The national Lib Dem campaign

If you judge a party’s election campaign by electoral results alone it’s hard to see the Lib Dem campaign as anything other than an unmitigated disaster. However, I don’t think this is entirely fair.

Media commentators liked to remind the public on a regular basis that Nick Clegg had a very poor standing in every opinion poll carried out.

You might have expected, then, that the party would choose to leave Nick out of the campaign entirely.  However, the national party, bravely or foolishly depending on your view defied this logic by putting Nick at the centre of the Lib Dem campaign.

Not only did this give Nick the opportunity to re-define himself it also helped to remind voters of his positive qualities and why they liked him in the first place.

By putting Nick Clegg on every radio station, TV programme and chat show it reminded the public what an outstanding communicator he is. This was a brave and risky move but I think the right one. Nick’s performance on the final Question Time was authentic and convincing – he spoke like a human being and was the only party leader to really engage with the tough questions the audience threw at him.

I think that Nick Clegg’s strong performance throughout the campaign did genuinely improve his standing with voters. I certainly picked up more positive than negative sentiment about Nick up on the doorstep.

However, the problem was that what was happening in parallel was that Conservative messages on the phones and in direct mail were using Nick Clegg’s words and actions in government against the party’s own supporters. The Tories effectively weaponised Nick Clegg against his own supporters by focussing on his perceived untrustworthiness on Tuition Fees and going into coalition.

This was a cruel irony after Nick Clegg had been the best coalition partner the Tories could wish for, helping to deliver strong and stable government for the full five year term. Tories in turn used this against Lib Dem supporters in Lib Dem held seats.Nasty but clever this tactic appears to have been taken straight out of the Lynton Crosby handbook.

These tactics caught us on the hop but really we should not be surprised. Unlike us, the Tories have been winning elections for hundreds of years. The downside of the Lib Dems getting into the political big time e.g. into government is the other parties take us more seriously and actively campaign against us.

As much as I don’t agree with it fear will always trump hope in elections and we now need to figure out quickly how we deal with this kind of threat in future.

Do I regret the fact Nick Clegg played a prominent part in our national campaign? No I don’t. I’m not sure what realistically we could have done to counter the Tories campaign to decapitate our MPs other than perhaps say more strongly what the Tories would do in government without Liberal Democrat MPs to stop them.

If Nick Clegg had not been at the centre of our national campaign we would have faced questions too – particularly as election campaigns get more and more focussed on leaders and less on policies.

Towards the end of the campaign Danny Alexander brandished a report of what the Tories might have done on welfare cuts but this came too late to make an impact I think and did not resonate in Lib Dem-Tory marginals.

Another unheralded part of our national campaign was the way in which it motivated our members and supporters – including me! When you’re going out voluntarily night after night trying to sell the Lib Dem message you also need to be regularly reminded of why you’re doing it.

The Lib Dem campaign did this brilliantly and I particularly draw attention to the social media campaign which was streets ahead of previous efforts and helped keep morale high throughout.

The Lib Dem fundraising campaign was slick and effective. We are always behind the other parties who can draw on business and trade union fundraising but I loved the way popular personalities such as John Cleese , Paddy Ashdown and Hugh Grant were mobilised to leverage donations.

The impact of polls

As Andrew Marr and Polly Toynbee admitted on BBC News yesterday they based all their commentary on what the polls were saying. Polls that then turned out to be wrong. It seems that what happened was the parties then responded to what the media and the polls were saying which distorted the campaign messages even further.

The primary beneficiaries of this were the Conservatives as fears of a hung Parliament were amplified.

I’ve been taught by more experienced activists to remember that the only opinion polls that matter in elections are the ones on polling day e.g. the results of elections.

It saddened me that the media fell so badly for what the pollsters were saying rather than actually going out and talking to people on doorsteps. As a result the entire election campaign then became about hung parliaments rather than actual issues.

The media made efforts to do more vox pops and get more ‘ordinary people’ involved in their coverage but this struck me as unconvincing and superficial when all their coverage was continually distorted by polls.

The aftermath

I’m still struggling to get my head around the election results and my sadness for the MPs we’ve lost pales into insignificance when I think about how individual MPs and their families must feel.

I don’t blame Nick Clegg for these results and I don’t think blaming him for the situation the party finds itself in gets us any further forward. There were lots of things going on in this election and it is going to take some time to unpick all of them.

I have tried to detail the impact as I saw it of Tory and Labour campaigns in some of our held seats as I think it’s important to consider this when assessing the overall success or failure of our own efforts.

I take heart from the people who are joining and re-joining the Lib Dems in droves. The news that the Tories plan to implement their manifesto in full should be a rallying call for all of us to organise and regroup.

We are a political party not a pressure group though and we will need to consider how we go about winning elections again if we are to have a chance of influencing the direction of British politics and our country.

I’ll leave the last word to our outgoing leader Nick Clegg:

Fear and grievance have won. Liberalism has lost. But it is more precious than ever and we must keep fighting for it.

It is easy to imagine there is no road back. There is.

This is a very dark hour for our party but we cannot and will not allow decent liberal values to be extinguished overnight.

Lib Dem Women in Government – Clegg’s Strategic Error

A picture tweeted by @Nick_Clegg with Lynne Featherstone and school children ahead of International Women's Day 2015.

A picture tweeted by @Nick_Clegg with Lynne Featherstone and school children ahead of International Women’s Day 2015.

Over the past four and half years since the Coalition was formed, there has been a recurring narrative put forward by various political commentators including Andrew Adonis in his book on the Coalition’s early days Five Days in May that the Lib Dems made a big strategic error in their choice of which government departments to lead.

Said commentators argue that Clegg et al might have been better off having a secretary of state in on one of the big four departments such as the Home Office rather than spreading their eggs around various (smaller) baskets.

Things might have gone better, goes the narrative, if Lib Dems had placed less emphasis on Lords and electoral form and more on issues where they might have had more success against the Toriesr/traction with the voters.

However, Jo Swinson MP’s  impressive speech today at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference yesterday in which she reflected on her time as a minister and Liberal Democrat successes in government today got me thinking something else.

What if, Jo had risen to be a Cabinet minister. How much more might she have been able to achieve?

In her speech, Jo reeled off a roll-call of pro-women initiatives that she, her ministerial colleague in government Lynne Featherstone MP and others had delivered:-

In Government, Lynne Featherstone secured £40 million to support victims of domestic violence and a further £10 million specifically for women’s refuges.

We’ve introduced a new offence of domestic abuse – of coercive and controlling behaviour – because this kind of abuse can do as much harm as physical violence

We’ve criminalised forced marriage, introduced new stalking laws and thanks to dedicated campaigning by Julian Huppert, we’ve introduced a new law to tackle revenge porn.

Lynne has championed the cause of girls at risk of FGM at home and abroad. Thanks to her efforts we’ve changed the law to better protect girls at risk and improve reporting, so those who commit this appalling crime – and allow girls to be cut are brought to justice.

We will not stop there. We recognise there is much more to do.

For the second time in as many weeks, Jo said that the introduction of Shared Parental leave was her ‘proudest achievement in Government’.

And then Jo hit us with a longer of Lib Dem achievements in Government:

‘Liberal Democrats in government have won hard-fought battles to improve the lives of women and girls in the UK

Shared parental leave

More women on boards

Pay transparency

New rape crisis centres

Extending flexible working

More free childcare

Support for carers

Action on FGM

Fairer pensions

Tax cuts for low earners

We should be talking about this record with pride on the doorstep as we campaign in the weeks ahead.

Our efforts in government would not have been possible without your efforts in our constituencies. Our victories in government are your victories – and yes – the fights we have not won have also been the crosses you have had to bear.

And we have more to do:

Sex & relationships education in all schools

Use-it-or-lose it paternity leave

A further £400 tax cut

A million more women in work

Pensions fairness enshrined in law

Tackling media sexism

Closing the childcare gap

National funding for victims of violence’

To do this, we need more Liberal Democrat MPs.  And especially more Lib Dem women MPs.

And of course Jo is dead right about how we deliver more Lib Dem policy but particularly the last bit.

But my thought was – so often women MPs are talked about in terms of numbers. Quantity rather than quality. As if the only true indicator of women’s success in politics will be when we have lots of women in Parliament. Box ticked.

We need do need more women MPs: of course we do. Everyone can agree on that.

But what is the true value of women in government? I would argue that women, often but not always make exceptional ministers and cabinet ministers, given the chance.

The operative bit being: given the chance.

The old cliche that always gets wheeled out – about women being ‘naturally good at multi-tasking’ or that awful word’ juggling’ (as they are used to managing a family as well as a job) is wholly inadequate and fails to capture the full range of women’s skills and attributes: problem solving, the ability to think strategically and critically, the ability to lead to name just a few.

When we hear about politicians making ‘tough decisions’ in the media we usually just hear about men.

But I made plenty of tough decisions as a councillor. Such as having to close a care home that was no longer fit for purpose, or working out how to fund day services when our budgets were cut by central government.

Even the Lib Dems are just as bad as the rest when it comes to trotting out the same old stereotypes when it comes to our politicians: Paddy Ashdown was introduced at the Conference Rally to the chimes of ‘Hero’ whereas Kirsty Williams, Leader of the Lib Dems in the Welsh Assembly walked on to ‘She’s a Lady’.

In 2015? Really? The mood music matters when it comes to setting the political tone inside and outside political parties.

Get a new Spotify playlist next year, guys.

The old adage that a woman’s political skills and abilities are derived soley from the fact that she is capable of raising a family  does not explain the success of ministers like Theresa May for example – not only one of the longest serving Cabinet Ministers in the Coalition but also the longest-serving Home Secretary for fifty years. And, the olds story about juggling doesn’t and cannot apply to her: she has no children!

Nor do the tired stereotypes usually applied to women – Housewife vs Career Woman  do not offer a useful guide as to what qualities women can bring to government.

Female ministers, like all ministers should be judged by their actions in government not their marital status.

Jo’s speech today was one of her last speeches to Conference as a Government Minister before Parliament is dissolved ahead of the election. It is of course possible (but I hope not the case) that this may also have been one of Jo’s last speeches to Conference as a Member of Parliament (her seat is vulnerable as many Llb Dem MP’s’ seats particularly those held by women are.)

I read a tweet today that said Lynne Featherstone MP is the only Lib Dem woman MP re-standing in London.

When I reflect about the stand-out things that these two politicians delivered in government I think they are hugely impressive: Equal Marriage and ending Female Genital Mutilation (Lynne) and Shared Parental Leave (Jo).

Changing the law to enable people who love each other regardless of their gender to get married and couples to decide for themselves how to manage work and childcare will impact thousands if not millions in years to come.These changes will outlast governments.

Ministers of either sex would be delighted to have them written on their political epitaph (notice here how much David Cameron tried to take credit for Lynne’s achievement on Equal Marriage!)

I fully expect the achievements of our female ministers to be feature prominently in the General Election campaign. And rightly so.

However, what makes me sad is that both these women (and others such as Jenny Willott MP) could have achieved so much more had they been given opportunity by Nick Clegg to sit at the Cabinet table. It also saddens me that there are other female Lib Dem MPs whose potential contribution to the Coalition Government we will never know.

Jo Swinson said something very telling in an interview with Buzzfeed this week:

“I thought I’d do a good job and then I’d get promoted. It took me a while to realise I had to go and make the case.”

It’s evident for all to see that Jo and her female counterparts in government have been doing a very good job as ministers but despite this they weren’t promoted by the boss, Nick Clegg.

For a liberal leader and self-confessed believer in social mobility who will be campaigning at this General Election on the slogan: opportunity I find Nick’s failure to promote his own extremely able female colleagues deeply disappointing. It also undermines the message that he’s trying to convey and leaves women voters questioning whether Nick really means it.

photo c/o @libdemwomen

photo c/o @libdemwomen

Nick and his advisers understand the symbolism and the need for him to be surrounded by women. Lots of women. Precisely because there are so few female Lib Dem MPs.

The above photo was tweeted by @Libdemwomen ahead of International Women’s Day with the caption ‘@nickclegg @lfeatherstone and plenty of women’. Unfortunately this phrase brought back memories for me of Mitt Romney’s infamous ‘Binders full of women’ comment during the US Presidential Election in 2012.

It reinforces the general point that the debate about women in Parliament but specifically women in the Liberal Democrats all being about simply increasing the numbers.

This is obviously vital but it allows the positive contribution individual women can make as politicians to be overlooked and fails to acknowledge the intrinsic value of women as actors within our political sphere.

When historians look back at the contribution of Liberal Democrats to the Coalition 2010 – 2015, and ponder the decisions made by the (all-male) Lib Dem negotiators – I expect their studies to focus on questions such as did the Liberal Democrats pick the right departments and the right battles with the Conservatives? What impact did these decisions have on the success/failure of Liberal Democrats in government?

I would like to see another question posed: what more could the Lib Dems have achieved in government had female Lib Dem ministers been put in charge of entire government departments?

When you see the zeal with which Jo Swinson, Lynne Featherstone and Jenny Willott have attacked the issues in their respective departments it makes you wonder what more they could have done in other areas given half a chance.

What other issues and injustices could have been tackled with these, some of our Party’s best campaigners at the helm?

People go on about the strategic errors Nick Clegg and the architects of the Coalition made when they drew up the Coalition Agreement and picked which departments would have Lib Dem ministers. I think not promoting these women to cabinet posts should go down as one of them.

What matters is that next time we are in government whoever is the leader of our party promotes the best person for the job – and looking at the calibre of our female MPs and candidates that must include women.

Less WOW more Woah – women counting women out (again).

Wow festival

Earlier this week I went along to an event on ‘Women and Politics’ – subheading ‘what will the next government do for women?’ part of the Women of the World Festival. The hashtag was #CountingWomen2015

The venue – The Purcell Room at The Southbank Centre – was packed out and I think they could (and probably should) have have held the event at a bigger venue as it was sold out.

It reminded me of an event I attended about a year ago with Charlotte Henry organised by The Telegraph’s Wonder Women page in that once again it was brimming with intelligent women, passionately interested in politics.

However, yet again, frustratingly from my perspective, there seemed to be an invisible barrier stopping these women getting involved in politics to any greater extent.

The audience listened rapt whilst the usual horrifying statistics were reeled off by an expert panel which included Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society, Stella Creasy MP, Margot James MP and Jo Swinson.

Just 22% of MPs are women, 350 parliamentary constituencies in the UK have never been represented by a woman etc – the numbers were met with murmurs and sighs almost as if they were last week’s winning lottery numbers being read out.

These are the grim facts about politics, but what can WE do about them? seemed to be the speech bubble hanging over the crowd.

Doesn’t it make your blood boil? seemed to be the subtext of the presentation.

Doesn’t it make you want to do something? I thought.

On both occasions I kicked myself (mentally) for not bringing some Lib Dem recruitment forms along.

One audience member suggested that women dump parties altogether and form their own one simply as a vehicle to get heard.

As Jo Swinson MP, one of the speakers commented when challenged by the Chair, esteemed playwright Jude Kelly to come up with ways to give women more influence in the political debate said at one point:

‘You’ve all paid £10 to listen to political debate. That is buy-in [to politics]. Get involved!’

Towards the end of the evening, after recounting a depressing story of one of the three main party leaders giving a talk to a specially assembled group of women at Number 10 (one can only guess it was David Cameron or Nick Clegg) Jude Kelly asked the Panel:

‘What can we [women] do to influence political parties?’

Subtext: when will THEY listen to us.

As I tweeted at the time, I wanted to shout:

‘Join one!’

As I posted earlier, while women in their thousands UK continue to withdraw and disengage from the political arena it will be easier and easier for political parties to ignore them and marginalise issues they care about.

Why? Because women are just not in the room when they need to be – when political decisions are made and our elected representatives are selected by the chosen few.

When middle-class women in positions of power and influence in the media and the arts (of which Jude Kelly is just one example) shake their heads this just goes to emphasise the overwhelming powerlessness so many women feel about politics. Women who just happen to be chairing debates in an international women’s festival!

This is a ridiculous state of affairs and just adds to the problem of women being largely absent and unheard in British political culture in 2015.

I think women like Jude Kelly and others like her –  women in public life, authors and journalists have a responsibility not to put things in the way – inadvertently or otherwise of other women becoming politically active.

I understand and am familiar with the many and varied entirely explicable reasons why women themselves might find it difficult to come forward and get involved in politics. However, I don’t think these alone should prevent women getting involved in some way and influencing decisions – at whatever level.

Not getting involved at all because the current party system is seen to not work for women is not going to help political parties become more women-friendly.

In fact, it makes things harder for those women like me who are trying to change the male-dominated culture of political parties.

We need to get more women into political parties and then into council chambers and then parliaments. Full stop.

I think two things help this process: women seeing other women active in their local area and women encouraging other women to stand.

I found campaigning for another woman in 2005 (Kathy Newbound in Maidenhead constituency) was pivotal in my decision to stand for election to my local council for the first time in 2006.

I think if I hadn’t seen Kathy out pounding the streets – a candidate I could relate to I don’t think I would necessarily have contemplated doing it myself.

I say this because once upon a time I was one of those women who went to debates but never put up my hand. One of those people who had something to say but never said it out loud.  And it’s quite possible I may have stayed that way.

I agree with Jo Swinson who said on Monday night that the negative portrayal of politics and politicians relentlessly churned out by the media doesn’t help – in fact it’s part of the problem.

The recent BBC series  Inside The Commons series is just one recent example which plays into the all-pervading narrative of most MPs being self-serving more interested in the sound of their own voices than helping their constituents.

It provides the easy get out clause for many people including many women to use disillusionment with our ‘broken political system’ as an excuse not to get involved.

As Jo Swinson also said, and she was the only panellist to say this, political activism can be hugely rewarding and this point is largely missed out by the media and political commentators.

In government as Business minister, Jo has delivered Shared Parental Leave. Something she described as her ‘proudest moment’.

It goes without saying she could have not done this without her involvement in politics and a political party.

This is doing the public and women in particular a massive disservice and it’s time the media and commentators took more responsibility for contributing to the current depressing state of affairs.

I can say that my time as a local councillor was easily the most rewarding, meaningful and worthwhile work I’ve done in my life so far – helping people in need with their housing problems, bringing empty homes back into use, working to ensure care could be provided and afforded for vulnerable elderly people.

And it’s the reason I plan to stand for Parliament again in the future.

To deny the positive aspects of politics is to fail to paint an accurate picture of what being involved in politics can offer the individual and denies thousands of women the chance to have fulfilling political careers.

It also means that as a country we are missing out on the contribution of women to improving our society and our country.

On my way out of the debate I ran into the amazing women who are campaigning for Parliament to be made up of 50% of female MPs. They need 100,000 signatures for a debate on the issue – a debate! With 32 million + women in Britain the least we should be able to do is to have a debate and how we get more women elected. You can sign it here.

I also ran into two young women who want to become councillors. I encouraged them as best I could!

In conclusion, he time for holding one-off events like these repeating the same old stats about women in politics is past.

Politicians and commentators need to stop talking down politics and emphasising disillusionment. Like Harriet Harman in this clip from yesterday…

There need to be fewer furrowed brows and more follow up from women in influential positions who can make a real difference to help more women into power.

We need to harness the interest that (plainly!) exists  in politics and give women the tools they need to win.

This must mean an end to cynicism and the beginning of of positive encouragement.

And we need more frequent discussion in the media of the genuine opportunities being involved in politics can bring for all concerned.

Off the shelf*

hairdressers

My journey from girlhood to womanhood can be traced through magazine subscriptions- first Horse & Pony, then Just Seventeen before the New Statesman in my teens, then Vogue and most recently Grazia.

It occurred to me the other day I’ve subscribed to Vogue longer than I’ve been a member of any political party – in this case the Lib Dems  – which a cynics may argue shows my commitment to fashion goes deeper than my commitment to politics.

But actually, I think it may reveal something else: we are more complicated than the easy labels people attach to us: ‘Fashionista’ ‘Stay at Home Mum’ ‘Career woman’ – and more than sum total of the magazines we read.

It was something that Grazia writer Polly Vernon said at the ‘Feminism then, now and tomorrow’ event part of #Grazia10 I attended last week that really hit home:

‘’Liking football is seen as a serious, important pursuit for men. A woman who likes fashion is seen as a little bit stupid”

I love the mix of fashion and politics in Grazia: being a fan of Leopard print and equal pay is not and should not be seen as mutually exclusive!

But women’s magazines, despite their big readerships continue to be largely ignored by the mainstream media – unless that is a celebrity says something controversial, debuts a new hairstyle or is seen to reveal too much flesh.

Similarly, political parties ignore women’s magazines and their readers until there’s an election on. Then they want to get in women’s faces at every opportunity.

Sitting in the hairdressers last Saturday Ed Miliband popped up in my Twitter feed via @Red_Daily Miliband waxing lyrical to Red readers about increasing access to childcare and why women should vote for him.

I asked a question at the Grazia event about whether or not the idea of ‘the Women’s vote’ was a useful one these days – partly because I and a lot of my friends feel profoundly patronised by stunts like Labour’s ‘Pink Bus’ and also as a single, childless woman I’m turned off by the relentless focus on childcare and the NHS –  as if these are the only things that women care about.

The responses from the panel were revealing. Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism, from the same generation as me said that instinctively she would have rejected the idea of a women’s vote in favour of a greater focus on bringing women’s quality of life and rights to an equal level with men, as individuals.

Anita Anand, however was supportive of the idea – pointing out the huge power of the ‘grey’ pension vote to influence political parties and their policies. A few years ago politicians and the media ignored MumsNet now they listen to them precisely because they have so many readers and with them so much influence.

Like Laura, I was brought up believing that the great Feminist battles had largely been won.  I studied Feminist Theory as part of my degree course but saw it as a Historical Thing and dare I say something outdated and unfashionable.

It wasn’t until later in my twenties that I became aware – partly through reading women’s magazines and books by Caitlin Moran and Hadley Freeman about women’s struggles for equality in our culture but also in pay and representation. And the more I read the angrier I got.

Thankfully there is now without doubt more publicity around feminist campaigns such as No More Page Three in the mainstream media than ever before.

But still, it seems to me the (mostly male) politicians in Westminster aren’t listening.

Political parties, including mine, have been behind the curve on these issues which have been led largely by ordinary women online and in the media.

I’m pleased to see Lib Dems campaigning for equal pay and shared parental leave and all the main parties now backing the need for affordable childcare. But it’s not enough and women should expect more.

These issues are still firmly parked and often forgotten about under the banner ‘women’s issues’.

And because women are not well represented in our Parliament and on boards in companies these issues will not feature as prominently as they should this election given we are 50% of the total population – there are over 32 million of us!

But not only that: progress is undermined by the treatment of women MPs and activists by political parties and the media. If they are going to talk the talk they have to also walk the walk and treat women with respect.

After the event I tweeted:

‘Imagine if @Grazia_Live readers mobilised behind a political party.

Grazia’s equal pay campaign is a great start. Grazia readers should rally more regularly on more political issues, more often, but why not include Vogue, Red, Cosmopolitan and Glamour readers too? This would make young women’s voices far harder for politicians to ignore – particularly between elections.

A recent poll for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour found a third of women surveyed unsure who they were going to vote for. This is a huge opportunity for political parties but we should not wait for them to come to us Grazia readers should take the initiative and lead the debate.

Politics is a numbers game. By working together Grazia readers can help make women’s voices count.

UPDATE: Grazia is reporting tonight that new equal pay laws will be brought in by the government following its successful campaign.

*I originally intended to get this published in a magazine but I decided to self-publish instead.