The morale imperative

In terms of member morale and our reputation the news Lib Dem Peers in the House of Lords had voted for Chris Rennard to the Liberal Democrat’s Federal Executive caused the single most damaging day for the Lib Dems since the General Election.


The fact that this was a self-inflicted wound and one that was entirely avoidable made it even harder to stomach.

The attempts to shrug this decision off by party establishment figures as an internal matter shows they’ve learned nothing from Helena Morrissey’s report. You may think I’m overstating things, but:

Yesterday another one of my friends and longstanding activists Katherine Bavage resigned live on Channel Four News.

This morning I received a text from a longstanding member out of the blue:

‘I have just sent  a protest re: the ridiculous appointment of Chris Rennard…via the Freepost donation envelope that landed on my mat the same day as the news broke. NOT impressed.’

My friend, a former parliamentary candidate and member of Federal Executive, Kav Kaushik put together an online questionnaire that has attracted over 200 responses in less than 24 hours.

A petition organised by other members to call a Special Conference to change the party’s rules has already met the threshold needed to happen.

And a large number of new members in our Newbies Facebook Group, some of the most enthusiastic people in our party, expressed concerns.

A Twitter Poll I ran asking people if they thought Tim Farron should speak out against the appointment came out 84% in favour.

These reactions are just the tip of an iceberg and reflect a widely held opinion within the party. It looks even worse for women outside our party, looking in.

That peers would think there would be no external scrutiny of their action in electing Rennard to the Federal Executive beggars belief.

It’s probably the case that Tim Farron can’t change their decision but he can speak out strongly against it and lay down the direction he wants to lead the party in. It was good to see Sal Brinton respond and express disappointment but for many of us this was far too late to frame the developing media agenda.

A senior campaigner commented on my Facebook posts yesterday that Chris Rennard was the party’s most successful campaigner, almost as though that excuses everything.

Ignoring that there is precious little evidence to show his methods have adapted to the new methods of campaigning, I’m sorry one man, however successful, is not worth the resignations and the rapid demoralisation of hundreds more women and men in our party.


Without them, their energy, their commitment #Libdemfightback cannot happen.

They joined a party they thought would be liberal and democratic.

Transforming the Lib Dems, making us a female-friendly party is about more, much more, than our leader appointing women in reasonable numbers to his shadow team.

It means all of us, from the most senior to the newest member (particularly those Lib Dems that seek to represent others) living by the values we espouse.

Days ago I addressed an audience full of politically active women, many of whom voted Lib Dem at least once and have now joined the Greens, Labour and the Women’s Equality Party.

If you don’t think the Rennard affair affected their perception of our party? Maybe try to talking to one of them. Attempts to squash this debate internally are futile, if we allow those outside the party to draw their own conclusions that in the Lib Dems certain men are more equal than others.

When I woke up this morning I wondered if I could be bothered to go to Oldham on a Saturday in November to spend  7 hours on a train and £65 on the ticket, and then I thought no actually why should we punish the only woman on the ballot paper – our candidate – and all those other volunteers.

If we are going to change the culture in this party we are going to have to stick around and show that we are not going to take no for an answer but that doesn’t mean that we have to be silenced.
I am working hard to get elected as an MP in 2020, to kick the door down and keep it open for others to follow. My priority 2020-2030 will be to get more women elected at all levels and to ensure our next leadership election has women in it.

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Effective opposition means disowning bad Bills

In politics, timing and getting your message right are both important.

In opposition, even more so.

When the draft investigatory powers bill was published by Theresa May last week it was clear that this was something that Lib Dems should instinctively oppose.

It is not our job to defend what is contained in Conservative Bills.

What was published may have be an a considerable improvement than what was originally proposed in the ‘Snoopers Charter’ thanks to Lib Dem ministers in coalition – but that was then and this is now.

After all, we have liberal in our name and are naturally suspicious of any legislation which seeks to tip the scales further towards the state and away from the individual citizen.

People expect us to stand up for civil liberties because as on so many issues, if we don’t who will?

Like most people who are not Westminster insiders I rely on Twitter and other channels for my news.

On the day of the publication of the Bill I searched online to find out our line.Hours passed and still the Lib Dems had no official position.

In a crisis, one conviction politician leading a group of eight is worth hundreds who are silent.

The grim events surrounding the refugee crisis have shed an important light on developments in our own domestic politics.

Tim Farron is a conviction politician and one we are lucky to have leading our party.

 As I wrote last week Tim has led the debate in Westminster calling for a humanitarian response to the refugee crisis – visiting Calais weeks ago when the rest of Westminster was busy contemplating it’s navel/Jeremy Corbyn.

The fact his comments have not attracted widespread coverage do not make them any less right. They demonstrate the struggle we Lib Dems face to get our message across in our reduced state.

Tim needed to move the debate on, and he did today, heaping pressure on David Cameron:

Others, most notably Yvette Cooper have commendably followed Tim’s lead in calling for urgent action this week. But it would be wrong to say she has led this debate.

Erstwhile leadership candidate, Norman Lamb has also been speaking out – strongly in the face of continued silence from the majority of Tory MPs, proving once again we may not have quantity but we have quality when it comes to our parliamentary party.

Tim’s instincts – to work with Labour and campaigning charities to build a coalition of support for refugees outlined in an email to members this evening – are spot on.

If you want to win an argument and change government policy from the Opposition benches (and with only a handful of MPs) you should always be looking to build a platform with like- minded political parties and groups, particularly on moral issues which call for a human response as opposed to a political one.

This has been the first example we can point to of Tim’s pledge (made during the leadership campaign) to learn from groups outside Westminster to mobilise public opinion behind liberal causes.

With party politics in this country continuing to be a glorified minority interest sport enjoyed by around 1% of the population, this is clearly the right approach.

During the leadership election Tim made great play of learning from 38 Degrees and other campaign groups to rediscover the Lib Dems’ campaigning zeal.

The way in which Tim has sought to team up with these groups in response to #refugeecrisis petition was the first example of this.

Tim is right – there is no need to reinvent the wheel and start a new campaign. When a petition has been launched which meets our aims Lib Dems should get behind it.

People talk sometimes about ‘missing the Lib Dems’ in government  but this was the week the grim Post-coalition difference really hit home.

Last night I was moved to revisit Nick Clegg’s comments last year  – when he lent on Cameron to open Britain’s doors to desperate Syrian refugees brought it home again this week.

Looking at the Tories callous response to this crisis just goes to show what difference a year makes. Left to his own devices and without Nick and the Lib Dems to provide the government’s conscience Cameron got it badly wrong this week and looked pretty cruel in the process.

Events this week have also highlighted the fact David Cameron is very vulnerable to fluctuations in public opinion.

He has a tiny majority and this week has shown he cannot afford to fall out of favour with public opinion for long. In a rare move, right and left wing newspapers simultaneously called Cameron’s judgement on the refugee crisis into question.

Churchill is often invoked by the right as in ‘we will fight them on the beaches’ but this time the spirit of 1940 was invoked to draw parallels with Britain’s proud history of receiving desperate refugees fleeing Nazism.

As Cameron disappoints supporters on all sides, these headlines could be but a taste of things to come in the coming months and years.

This has been a damaging episode for him and his party, exposing once again the Tories’ achilles heel with the public – the perception they are ‘the nasty party.’

There is a space in our politics for a conviction politician, a group of conviction politicians, motivated to do the right thing on the big questions – such as those posed by this crisis – not because the press or public demand it but because they know it to be right.

The Lib Dems can and must occupy this space by adopting principled, radical positions – as they have done on the refugee crisis.

Because people elect politicians to take decisions based on reason yes, but on feelings and impulses too.

Rational and relatable – decisions that may not be popular with everyone but that are always justified and articulated according to a clear set of values and ideals.

Leading by the heart as well as the head – something Nick referred to during the election campaign and that Tim is showing he can do effectively in opposition.

If this is to be a callous Tory administration, let the Lib Dems be the ones to offer moral leadership from the backbenches and to galvanise the public into action around key issues.

If we do this effectively we will win more seats at council and constituency level and have the opportunity to become the official opposition in the future, where Labour have failed and are failing.

And finally, the role of female politicians in this crisis has been an interesting side note.

I was particularly pleased to see Jo Swinson speaking out on the crisis.

As I tweeted earlier this week, from Angela Merkel down, female politicians have led the way in responding to the debate around the refugee crisis and I was delighted to see Jo adding her voice.

Can this be an end please to the situation where women – female Lib Dem politicians in particular are confined, some would say unfairly pidgeonholed  mainly by the (male-dominated) media framing of the debate, into talking and being questioned solely about issues of equality, motherhood and childcare?

“Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” (With apologies to Beastie Boys)

The title for this post popped into my head while listening to Liz Kendall being interviews on Radio 4 Today programme.

Of course she’s in the race to win. What a stupid question! Not much better than that other stupid question she was asked.


I like Liz. Apart from her awesome taste in hip hop, Liz’s trouble is her ideas are way ahead of where most of the Labour party is right now.
If Liz wants to lead an economically credible party with a social conscience she really needs to join the Lib Dems.

But more of that later.

Politics is defined by key moments and how you respond.

The Welfare Bill was a key moment.

Tim Farron responded, and Labour flunked it.

Progress on political positioning OR How Tim got it right on the Welfare Bill 

After That Channel 4 interview Tim  started the week a bit bruised and getting media coverage sadly for all the wrong reasons.

The first test of his political skills came on Monday when he needed to make a call on the Welfare Bill.

This was a basic test for all opposition parties(set by George Osborne (complete with his in-your-face Guardian article) and while all the focus was on Labour, as Her Majesty’s Opposition, it was just as important for Lib Dems to get our response right.

The Lib Dems doing the right thing on the Welfare Bill was critical for a few reasons:

One, it was the first time Tim had spoken as our leader in Parliament, and indeed the first time Lib Dems as a political force would get to set out their stall without the Tories alongside us.

Over the next five years we are going to need a response to that perennial question: What IS the point of the Lib Dems?

This question is followed close behind by what are the Lib Dems for? And what are they against?

Tim’s response to the Welfare Bill is the start It helps us to begin to answer all those key questions

Consistency is everything (particularly for Lib Dems)

So what did Tim’s speech against the Welfare Bill tell us about the position he wants to take the Lib Dems, and what the Lib Dems are for?

Politics as we are often told is about choices. Framing choices between one thing and another, and also making them.

In his speech on Monday night, Tim said:

‘In truth, the Government do not have to take £12 billion from the poorest families in the country, mostly working families, but are choosing to do so.’

This is consistent with the line that Nick Clegg took before the election;

“[The Conservatives] are asking for £12bn over two years,” said Clegg, speaking to Newsnight’s Evan Davis.

“We’ve made £20bn over five. They want to ask the poorest to make additional sacrifices while not asking the richest to pay an additional penny through the tax system to balance the books – that’s downright unfair.”

Tim underlines the marked contrast between the Tory vs Lib Dem approach later in the speech:

‘The reduction in the incomes of poor families in work comes at the same time as the Government are giving inheritance tax cuts to millionaires, cutting corporation tax for the richest firms and refusing to raise a single extra penny in tax from the wealthiest people—for example, through a high-value property levy.’

Consistency is important in politics.

This is not to be confused with saying everything you say in politics has to the same.

Not changing your message to fit the times would be a mistake. However, your values which underpin everything – they need to be consistent. I wrote about the Lib Dems’ recent problems in that regard here.

In these media-driven times, it is  particularly important to be consistent in what you say and do so people can point to things you’ve said and done over a period of time and see a pattern.

Saying one thing and doing another ergo Tuition Fees is where it all went horribly wrong for us in the last Parliament.

In opposition, what we say becomes a guide for our would-be voters – to what we would do in government.

Finally, let’s also not forget the fact that seventeen thousand plus people recently joined the Lib Dems precisely because of what we were saying and doing in the last Parliament.

So, for all the reasons outlined above consistency of message is even more important for Lib Dems.

Establishing clear yellow water

But the success of Tim’s speech was not just about it’s consistency. Tim was also highly successful in setting out a key dividing line between us and the Tories.

One of our challenges during this Parliament is going to be setting out, repeatedly and at regular intervals, how we as a party differ from the Tories. This may sound obvious but it’s very important.

Firstly, we have suffered hugely because of being associated with decisions some of which we agreed with but a lot we did not made by Tories and with Tories in the last Coalition government.

The ‘nasty Tory’ brand has rubbed off on us and we are going to have to spend a lot of time washing it off.

Secondly, being in coalition with a party that is much bigger than us – and with a lot more media backers – has meant that our smaller brand has been subsumed.

So, every chance we get Tim, our MPs, our Peers, our councillors – all of us members – will need to talk about what makes the Lib Dems different from the Tories.

Tim’s message was clear ‘this is a Tory Bill. We wouldn’t vote for it in Coalition and we’re not going to start now!’

All of this is a lot easier to do in opposition but the pleasing thing is it’s already having a transformative effect.

Warming to his themes

Politics, particularly opposition politics, is all about picking your battles. It’s also about establishing territory on which to fight them.

If you listen carefully to the speech you can hear Tim setting out some key themes and key groups that he plans to champion this Parliament (you will notice many of these are familiar from Norman Lamb’s campaign)

Young people:

In many ways, young people are the biggest victims of the Bill. I think of young people being supported by housing benefit…Taking housing benefit away from young people is not just morally wrong but utterly counterproductive, because it will prevent them from accessing work and other life opportunities.’

Low paid workers:-

We will stand for the thousands of people in work and yet in poverty, and for the millions of people who might not be personally affected but who do not want to see inequality grow in Britain.’

The 1-5 Britons who have experienced mental ill-health

‘We will continue to make the case for u for a welfare system that understands the needs of people with mental health conditions and helps them back into work, rather than putting them under the kind of pressure that simply makes them worse.’

And again:-

‘We will continue to speak for the millions of people who are young, who suffer from mental health problems, whose parents have no spare rooms or spare income, who do not have parents at all, or who have more than two children. The Liberal Democrats will stand up for families, whether they are hard-working or just desperate to be hard-working.

Tim is bidding to replace Labour as the credible alternative to the Conservatives

If Tim had simply managed to be vaguely consistent in his message, careful not to trash our five years in government and had set out some key Lib Dem themes in his speech this would have gone down as a solid start.

But what impressed me is that Tim went further, much further in his speech than simply attacking the Tory government.

He stuck the knife into Labour too and signalled his bold ambition to get the Liberal Democrats into a position where we replace Labour as a political force.

Tim’s neat drive-by on Labour did the job perfectly:-

‘We will not let the Conservatives through choice, or the Labour party through their silence, unpick our welfare system.’

This was a full-frontal assault on Labour MPs for their complicity, conspiring with the Tories in recent years to create a toxic narrative in the media which has fatally undermined public confidence in welfare.

It fits in well with TIm’s comments last week in the speech he made when he became leader when he said ‘your failure is not my success’

Tim is explictly calling-out in his speech the fact that is Labour who first got the ball rolling on calling welfare claimants benefits scroungers a when they were in government 1997-2010.

The Tories simply carried on where Labour left. Tim’s remarks also echo something Tariq Ali said yesterday evening on Newsnight:

“These Labour people, most of them, can’t oppose the Tories because they agree with most of what they say” says @TariqAli_News

— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) July 24, 2015And right-wing commentators have spotted it too:

Tim’s speech would have been strong at the best of times, but on a Bill in which Labour abstained en mass against huge cuts to Welfare his timing could not have been better.

As Cllr Keith House, Lib Dem Leader of Eastleigh correctly tweeted after the debate:-

Tim did the right thing to rub salt in Labour’s wounds the following day with his excellent letter to Harriet Harman.

Yes, it was a stunt (a lot of opposition politics is!) but he was right to point out that it is the Lib Dems who are leading opposition to punitive Tory cuts, not Labour:-

‘Labour claim to be a party who believes in social justice. If that is true, then they must join with the Liberal Democrats in voting against these cruel and excessive cuts.’
 

With Labour seemingly intent on consigning themselves to opposition for decades there is a gap in the market for a party that is fiscally credible and socially-conscious

But its not just that Labour don’t seem to want to win it’s the fact they know and the public knows they don’t really stand for anything anymore.

Labour activists are now faced with the fact that their party is hollowed out, spent, after decades in power and subsequent years in denial about why they lost the 2010 election.

There is a gap in the market for a party that responds to British society as it is rather as we might wish it to be.

For a party with a vision grounded in reality, mixed with hope.

All that left and right schtick doesn’t work any more – it’s terminally broken.

The issues people care about now: housing, education, mental health, our ageing population, public services globalisation –  all require a liberal approach.

Liberalism – the freedom to live the best life you can afford, regardless of background, and in the manner you choose (as long as it doesn’t harm others) is where it’s at.*

If you agree with this and you’re not a member you should really join us*.

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