On female political heroes and why they matter

I wrote this piece before the Referendum. It got slightly overtaken by events,but I still think the things I wrote need saying.

We heard too little about Jo Cox in her lifetime, but her approach to politics will inspire generations of future female politicians for years to come.

This is not coincidental. Outstanding female politicians are generally unheralded in their own life times.Not only are there fewer of them (just 29% of our Parliament), but our political culture is institutionally sexist in the way it excludes women and fails to recognise or report their success.

When it comes to celebrating and commemorating female achievement in politics women are routinely overlooked. On its release last year Suffragette was the first film to be made of the movement. As Allegra Stratton has pointed out there are currently no statues of women in Parliament square.

But it’s not just the way women are written out of political history: our political discourse, driven by our national media, focuses on the ‘who’s up, who’s down’ tribal minutiae of politics not the substance. Loud voices, posing as confidence, as has been seen in the EU referendum debate has been prioritised over competence meaning female politicians have been almost invisible.

Women in politics are often judged not on their effectiveness but their appearance, something Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged.

It is therefore shameful that it seems to taken the death of Jo Cox to not only rehabilitate the role of the backbench MP as something to be admired but to elevate the status of female politicians.

Women were recently elected mayors of Rome, Madrid and Barcelona.Female political leaders are on the increase everywhere but in England .   

We often have to look further afield to Germany, America and Angela Merkel, Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton for inspiration precisely because we hear so little about our own homegrown talent.

A study by MIT economist Esther Duflo found the existence of female political role models to be critical in closing the gender divide in politics.

She wrote ‘seeing women in charge persuaded parents and teens that women can run things, and increased their ambitions. Changing perceptions and giving hope can have an impact on reality,”  

When I think back to the reasons I got involved I remember the female candidate I campaigned for and  the MPs (Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson in particular) I looked up to.

Aside from her trailblazing campaigns, Jo Cox’s approach to politics will inspire thousands of women who have perhaps never been a member of a party or contemplated a career in politics.

Reading the tributes it’s clear that it’s not just what Jo Cox achieved as an MP but the way she did it will be as influential.

The fact Jo Cox pursued her passion and remained true to herself throughout her time as an MP will be as much as an inspiration for young women, refusing to conform to stereotypes of what politicians are supposed to be like.

The fact that Jo’s reputation in Parliament was built on her track record and her knowledge in relation to humanitarian and development causes not her appearance or her political allegiances will encourage other women to pursue a career in politics.

But her personal style of politics will also be hugely influential to people who are put off by the confrontational, adversarial politics we are presented with in the media.

Historian John Bew wrote ‘She was not a contrarian or a troublemaker and much preferred getting on with people.

Jo’s own style of politics was above all collaborative and practical as Kirsty Mcneill wrote:

‘the revelation of Jo’s life was not just what she did, but the how she did it. Jo believed in the power of common action, never just asking, “What do you think?”, but “How should we do it?” In her mind there was no question that could not be answered in working together.

Crucially, as Nick Clegg commented Jo’s approach was not tribal, calling her: ‘unusually free of the tribal pettiness of politics – always friendly, cheerful and kind to friend and foe alike’.

Jo’s own doubts about herself, as hard as they are to believe, were both real and relatable.

As Jo’s friend Jess Phillips MP wrote ‘don’t think she wasn’t terrified every time she took to her feet in the Commons. She was, but she did it anyway. You see she was human.’

Allegra Stratton wrote that despite her obvious talent her friend felt ‘lack of confidence set her back a decade’

Another friend and colleague Rachel Reeves MP said: ‘Jo’s main hesitation about a parliamentary career was her young family. She worried, as many of us do, about whether she could be a great MP and a great mum at the same time’

Jo’s doubts, both her acknowledgement of them and the way she overcame them will inspire other women who wrestle daily with the same fears and anxieties.

Taken as a whole Jo Cox’s approach to politics was mould-breaking and defining.

Her inspiring words will be remembered long after her death but her approach too will appeal to many people, not just women, who have previously thought politics was not for them.

‘Very simply, she was passionate about helping people, and doing good. That’s why she went into parliament.’ wrote historian Jon Bew

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.

Speech – Where next for women in politics?

I was invited to be part of a panel debating solutions to the absence of women in Parliament in the UK at the Southbank Sex and Power: Where next for women in politics as part of the WOW festival.

Here is the speech I wrote for that event:

Life as a female activist in the Liberal Democrats is very frustrating as I find myself in a party where our female representation has declined since I first got involved in 2005.

This situation has clearly not been helped in recent years by claims of harassment and the failure to promote women to Cabinet positions.

As a result I know many excellent women members who have given up and I don’t blame them. So why not me?

It’s because I believe strongly my party should change, not the women in it. I spent pretty much the entire election period campaigning for our brilliant female candidates and yet not a single one won.

Whilst this can in part be put down to the national picture, it is a worrying trend that for a party that holds so much store in its support for equality that our female representation in the House of Commons has actually been in decline for the last 10 years to the point that it is now non-existent.

Ambitious women should not feel they have to leave the party to be elected and, let’s face it, no-one joins the Liberal Democrats for the easy way to power. But, there are still plenty of reasons women might want to join us:

We are the party that delivered shared parental leave, progress on women on boards, more transparency on the gender pay gap and fairer pensions.
These changes were all led, when they were given the chance, by women in government. Jo Swinson, Jenny Willott and Lynne Featherstone showed that women were just as capable and perhaps, given their lack of status, more than capable of leading the national policy agenda.

It doesn’t seem that it’s a lack of ability that’s the problem, it’s the lack of opportunity.

So how can we change this? For a start the talent pool needs expansion beyond the normal political types.

When I first became active in politics I had very little experience or no encouragement to stand, yet:

  • I stood for council in an unwinnable ward – and won!
  • I worked my way up from ward councillor, chaired scrutiny and then became a cabinet member and group leader.
  • I stood as a parliamentary candidate in 2010 and increased our vote share by 9%.

For someone starting out this can be daunting. I was able to do all this because I could call on more experienced politicians for mentoring.

The effect of this help should not be underestimated, especially when you have senior opposition members, mostly men, attempting to belittle your achievements and work.

As a result I tried to use my experiences to influence other women to get more involved.

  • I approached women who had never thought of politics, let alone being active, to stand as councillors.
  • I headhunted women to put themselves forward as parliamentary candidates.

This approach resulted in the election of several excellent councillors, women who would never have thought about putting themselves forward without positive encouragement.

It shouldn’t be down to individual women to do the heavy lifting. Politics is a team game and it is down to everyone to make a change rather than hope that thinking the right thoughts is enough.

In my party this took the form of congratulating ourselves with the fact that a number of women were selected in seats previously held by men but the support they were given was too little to make a difference.

We got better at selecting women but not electing them.

Our problems as a party go beyond the selection process:-

We have reached a tipping point where many members and not just women want to see direct action. I can see things changing.

  • Tim Farron has started strongly selecting a shadow cabinet with 12 women to ten men.
  • We have selected a female candidate Jane Brophy, in the first by-election this Parliament in Oldham West & Royton – the only major party to do so.

However, there is much more we need to do if we are going to elect women MPs in 2020 and myself and others will keep the pressure up for more action.

  • We need positive action, not discrimination, to select women in our target seats in 2020

I’ve spoken to Tim Farron about this and he has talked about ‘muscular intervention’ which compares with what one former MP called Nick Clegg’s failing strategy of ‘voluntary euthanasia’.

  • Local parties should be required to talent spot and put women forward to a national training programme to be councillors, council leaders and MPs
  • Mentoring from senior members should be offered to all women whether they are starting out or hoping to make that next step up.
  • There should be access to public funding for women wanting to run for office. Failing a political consensus, parties should take their own remedial action.

Politics shouldn’t be the province of men who have exploited the gender pay gap to get a leg up in financing their campaigns.

It is not enough for members to say that they believe in equality.

At all levels in the party from the newest member to the most senior, if they really believe in gender equality they must be able to say what personal action they have taken to encourage it.

If there’s a women you know who would make a great MP or a fantastic party leader isn’t it time you asked her?

Labour may not be ready for Liz yet, but women in politics are a step closer to real power

My interest in the Labour leadership contest has ebbed and flowed.

From my perspective, the most interesting candidates for both leader and deputy leader roles have been the women. Yeah, I’m biased.

I was gutted there were no women to vote for in the Lib Dem leadership contest.I’m not expecting any of Labour’s female leadership or deputy candidates to win necessarily but by standing for these offices they have helped further the cause of women in politics not just in Labour, but beyond.

They have shown in their different campaigns, policies and leadership styles that there is more than one type of female politician, women are capable of leading a major political party and being ambitious to win elections is a strength and not a weakness.

This might seem obvious but looking around across the political spectrum there are still too few prominent female politicians. We are nowhere near 50% representation in Parliament.

Despite the higher profile of women in politics it is still no walk in the park succeeding as a woman Helen Lewis pointed out in her excellent expositon of the countless structural barriers women face a few weeks ago.

Turning to the Labour leadership contest, the lack of receptivity, actually, downright hostility towards having women in positions of power that still exists in large parts of the Labour party has been revealing to say the least.

So here are my thoughts on the contest.

Although Liz Kendall could not perhaps match the initial excitement of the early days of her campaign, she would still be my first choice.

7-Liz-Kendall-Get

In terms of her personal style, I loved Liz’s -bloody-mindedness. I love the fact that she announced her candidacy within days of Labour’s defeat and did not wait to be asked. In doing so she made  her male rivals look positively dozy.

When voices (and mainly male) within her own party was calling on Liz to pull out she didn’t. ‘I’m in the race to win!’ was a her response, which admittedly sounded more forlorn as the contest wore on, and she was left trailing further and further behind.

I meet a lot of people through my involvement with politics and too often I find they lose sight of the need to actually win elections in order to implement policy.

This realism is one of Tim Farron’s strongest suits and something he emphasised when he was elected a few weeks ago.

Liz has been attacked for being unprincipled but as Isabel Hardman has pointed out this is nonsense:

The fact that Liz’s focus on the need to beat the Tories in 2020 ended up with her being labelled a Tory by some Labour ‘supporters’ is pretty ironic

In terms of policies, the one Liz put forward which appealed to me the most was her focus on early years education.  Hardly surprising – it’s Lib Dem policy! In fact, most of Liz’s strongest and most attractive-sounding policies are already Lib Dem policy:

Three months ago, a few days after the general election I bumped into Nick Clegg at a #LibDemPint meetup organised by new Lib Dem members in London. ‘Liz Kendall is a Lib Dem!’ were his exact words at the time.

Other things I liked  about Liz was her willingness to speak up about sexism in politics in places like Grazia Magazine and online.

As someone who has experienced ageism when I was a councillor it is incredibly inspiring to see a young woman putting herself forward for a senior role in politics. Liz is part of a new confident generation of women in politics – unafraid of talking about her love of hip hop alongside her interest in policy. She is breaking down barriers for the rest of us to be ourselves.

This leads me on to my other fantasy selection in the leadership contest – Stella Creasy.
Creasy

I met Stella last year at the Women of the World Festival (below). Although I found the event as a whole itself quite frustrating (I blogged about it here) I found Stella inspiring and interest to listen to.

With Stella Creasy and Margot James at the WOW Festival in London, 2014.

With Stella Creasy and Margot James at the WOW Festival in London, 2014.

Stella approaches the issue of women in politics differently than I do but I think we’re on essentially the same mission. She spoke powerfully about being selected as an MP in an all-woman shortlist – she said all of  the women on the list could be described as the brightest and best. She blew a hole in the idea that AWSs means tokenism and not giving members the chance to picking the best candidates.

Well before she put herself forward to be deputy leader I’ve admired Stella from a distance. I have experienced her primarily through her tweets. It’s true, we like a lot of the same music but that’s not the only reason.

I like the way Stella, like Liz, doesn’t try to conform to lazy stereotypes about what politicians should be like or how women in public life should behave.

I like the way she calls out sexism wherever she finds it. This gives other women, including me confidence. Stella wrote a fantastic article in Grazia about women in politics:

‘My mother taught me to put my money where my mouth is and not to expect to do it alone. So, I’m standing for a leadership role myself, not because we need just one more woman, but many. It is not my ambition to speak for them, but to find new ways to get more women from a wider range of backgrounds into public life because we will all benefit from the contribution they will make. To do that, politics has to stop being about a machine that turns up at election time, and become a movement where everyone feels welcome and able to participate. That especially means those currently locked out. It’s time we stopped asking nicely for change, and refused to accept the status quo. If you feel the same, get in touch – because however we cut our hair, we are mad as hell about inequality and not going to take it any more.’

I get a lot of young women approaching me online for advice about getting into politics. Without wishing to sound arrogant they look up to me. It gives them confidence to know that I got elected and that I rose to be a senior councillor. I’ve mentored a number of people and persuaded other women to become councillors and run for Parliment. If we are going to elect more women we need to have plenty of female role models – of all ages and from all backgrounds.

With Rebecca Rye on her election to Reading Borough Council in 2010.

With Rebecca Rye on her election to Reading Borough Council in 2010.

For me it’s the same looking at Liz and Stella. We need more female role models in politics. Throughout my career Lynne Featherstone has been a huge inspiration to me – seeing her out there doing politics at the highest level, following through her  own ideas has been really important for me.

Campaigning with Lynne Featherstone in Reading in 2007.

Campaigning with Lynne Featherstone in Reading in 2007.

Throughout this contest Stella and Liz have been attacked for being inexperienced. Women get this in politics all the time while men don’t to anything like the same extent. William Pitt The Younger was 24 when he became Prime Minister ffs!

It’s looking highly unlikely that either Liz or Stella will get elected but they have broken the mould and helped pave the way for other young women to get ahead in politics – thank you to them.

Finally, a word on Yvette Cooper.

Yvette Cooper

Instinctively, I am not a fan of Yvette. This stems primarily from the authoritarian, tabloid-friendly policies she was responsible for when she was Home Secretary. She never struck me as particularly likeable either but I’m starting to think that is more as a result of over-caution on her part. She got elected before the age of social media and has kept her personality largely under wraps.

However, have always admired Yvette for all she has achieved in her career. Reading this Guardian profile in July  you couldn’t fail to be impressed (again) by her CV:

‘Hers is a life and political career punctuated by firsts – a first in PPE at Oxford, the first female minister to take maternity leave, the first female treasury chief secretary, and now the ambition is to be the first female Labour leader and first Labour female prime minister.’

On paper, Yvette is the best qualified candidate by a mile. However, as Jenni Russell pointed out on Murnaghan on Sky News today she has spent so long trying not to say the wrong thing her campaign never caught fire and she came over as lacking ideas and passion.

I’m sure that Yvette is right about the deep sexism in the Labour party. I’ve seen it at local level. But unfortunately the way she tried to throw Andy Burnham under the bus just came over as a Brownite tatic not principle.

Over the past week Yvette has finally found her voice –  on the refugee crisis:

But it feels like this has been too little too late to stop Jeremy Corbyn. As others have observed Yvette needed to find this passion much earlier but it seems it was just too deeply buried all these years.

How ironic, that for ‘Blair’s Babe’s to be successful they had to stay silent.

This week marks Harriet Harman’s last week as acting Labour leader:

Let’s hope it’s not too many years before a women takes a helm of that party, if it survives this weekend’s results.

I’m not a Labour supporter, clearly. Whoever wins the Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections I’d like to see as many Labour members and MPs as possible leave their party and join the Lib Dems.

However, as young woman in politics who sees a future for herself in Parliament some day I’m grateful to Liz, Stella, Yvette and Caroline for standing in the Labour leadership elections and in doing so moving women collectively one step closer to equality.

I don’t see any of these women going quietly or fading into the background.

No matter what our politics, it’s up to us all to talk up women in politics and get more women into positions of power and influence within in political parties.

We should refuse to accept the status quo with women largely playing second fiddle to men in mainstream English political parties.

In the future, at least by the time my nieces are old enough to vote we should expect all party leadership contests to involve more women and for women party leaders to be the norm.

This won’t happen unless we who are active in party politics make it happen.

Female Labour leadership hopefuls, this one’s for you:-

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?

How #LibDemFightback found its voice and is teaching us oldies a lesson

When I sat down to write this post it was going to be about diversity, something I’ve been banging on about a lot this week.

My frustration with my party on this subject goes back a long way but this week’s meltdown was prompted as a result of my friend Elaine Bagshaw posting this article highlighting the fact 6 of the 7 places on the Lib Dem regional candidates list for the Scottish Parliament elections have gone to men.

And thereafter followed a stream of angry tweets.

Anyway, enough about that for now. If you’re interested, my friend Sam Phripp summarised really well why a few of us are really pissed off so I won’t rehearse.

I wanted in this post to revisit a subject I wrote about a couple of months ago – #LibDemFightback and the impact thousands of new members is having on my party.

Shortly after the election I wrote a blog about my frustration with the apparent disconnect between what my party stands for and how it behaves. I wrote:-

‘I think we need to take a long hard look at how our party appears to the outside world.

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.’

Peter Sigrist, a new member from London who I did not know at the time commented on my blog and said:

‘Hi Daisy. As a LibDem Newbie, it’s galling to read your views and feel the sense of imbalance in the party. I, too, want to hear what Norman Lamb and Tim Farron will do to make sure we represent properly the voters in the UK. But I don’t think it’s just down to them. I want every local party, every local organiser to articulate this. For anyone who has any status inside the Liberal Democrat party: now is your moment to make it clear what you are going to do to change people’s minds. If we don’t start hearing soon what the entire party is going to do to get this balance right, I want the 320 members who have so far signed up for our Newbie meetups in London to make themselves heard. Turn up to local party offices and events and ask them: “what are you doing to make the Liberal Democrats relevant and electable?” Change is here and I can’t wait to get stuck in to make it stick.

At the time, Peter’s optimism was hard to hear, feeling bruised as I was after an exhausting and disastrous General Election campaign. ‘He clearly hasn’t spent any time slogging campaigning for the Lib Dems’ I sighed.

Reading them again now I find Peter’s comments refreshing and invigorating – he’s got what the Lib Dems should do now completely nailed – and just days after joining the party too!

Anyway, more of that later.

Cultural divides on and offline

I am a member of various Facebook groups – an inevitable byproduct of being active in a political party.

The difference in tone between some of the established groups – dare I say it home to established/establishment Liberal Democrats –  and Lib Dem Newbies UK (home for most of our new members) is stark.

The Newbies group is a public group, established groups tend to be secret.

The description of the Newbies Group is as follows:-

The Liberal Democrats were savaged in the 2015 General Election. In response, many people in the United Kingdom chose to show their support. We want to help revive this party, which should be a powerful force for good in modern politics. What do you say? Tens of thousands of people can’t be wrong. Join us!

The Newbies group is aimed at new members but it’s membership is not exclusively new members.

The main difference I’ve observed between the Newbies Facebook group and others that abound in the Lib Dems is in terms of tone –  posts and comments tend to be generally positive, hopeful, open and discursive.

The hopefulness might seem surprising or odd for a party supposedly in the doldrums but not if like me you’ve spent any time as I have with our new members.

In the Newbie group all opinions have the same weight and all posts are permitted long as they are generally on topic and about debating ideas.

As a member of the group I can say this has led to a much more interesting, as well as engaging discussion.

Questions and discussions are actively encouraged in the Newbie group particularly from new joiners and people who haven’t commented before.

This includes young women who are often under-represented in online dicussions.

Being a member of this group got me thinking about how we can broaden the Newbie approach to how we conduct ourselves as a party more generally.

Let’s take a leaf out of Peter Sigrist and the Newbie’s book, and change the way we engage offline as well as online as a party.

Let’s stop shutting people and conduct our discussions in open forum – not exclusively or behind closed doors.

Let’s do more to create a level-playing field for debate. Create a friendly and positive atmosphere for our discussions so we get to hear the voices of all our members not just the loud ones.

Let’s give people the space to ask questions and talk about a broader range of issues that matter to them not just us.

Oh yeah, and when we come across blatant discrimination in our party, let’s challenge it head-on but not in a way that makes those facing discrimination feel like they are the problem. They aren’t.

Organisations get tired, lose site of their core purpose, forget why people joined them – none of this is unique to the Liberal Democrats!

But,  our liberalism is what makes us different, so reconnecting with our members and reinvigorating ourselves is a must.

Speaking as a member of ten years standing I’m excited about the positive impact our new members are having on my party.

And I cannot wait to see what  damage  they do when they turn up at #LDConf in September.

This week’s musical reference – New Generation, Suede (1995)

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.