Building the Lib Dem political party: how to gain local activists and increase support

Anyone following the party will be familiar with the history that the Liberals were the opposition party to the Conservatives and brought in reforms which we are all proud of now. The fall of the Liberal Party was as much due to its own mistakes as that of the rise of the Labour Party but there is much to learn from the Labour Party’s rise in the early 20th Century which the Liberal Democrats can emulate. It is one of collaboration, loose associations and local activism.

This is a chart of the vote share of the political parties in the UK showing the demise of the Liberal Party and the rise of the Labour Party. The Labour Party’s origins lie in the late 19th century when it became apparent that there was a need for a new political party to represent the interests and needs of the urban proletariat, a demographic which had increased in number. Some members of the trade union movement became interested in moving into the political field and several small socialist groups formed wanting to link to political policies e.g. Independent Labour Party, Fabian Society, Social Democratic Federation and the Scottish Labour Party.

The Labour movement grew not through growing the political party from the inside, by gaining more members and co-opting movements into the political party, but from the outside, gaining people/organisations prepared to support the broad ideas but keeping their own identity. This loose association eventually turned into a formal political party.

The movement had its core supporters but it grew support through collaborating with movements with similar aims. The co-operative movement provided its own resources to the Co-operative Party which gave its support to the Labour Party. Today the Co-operative Party is the 4th largest political party in parliament.

However, the real power in the growth of the Labour Party was the growth in Labour’s local activist base and organisation. With the support of many different movements, organisations, and groups it grew wide public support. Labour clubs became a social hub and almost an institution for many communities. The Labour movement, and therefore the party, were relevant to the public.

It was not just about ideas which inspired people. It was not just policies which people thought would benefit the country or themselves. It was the relationship people had with people in these different organisations/groups which made it relevant. The relationship grew into a relationship with the family and the area. This is what I call relationship based politics.

The importance of relationship based politics can be seen everywhere. Where there is a relationship with the public stronger the support (see here or here). And recently this was shown in the post ‘so what’s it really like on the doorsteps

It’s quite touching to knock on a door and have someone tell you that the first stranger to knock on her door when she moved into the estate years ago was your fellow councillor and she’s never forgotten it. The fact that he took time to knock on doors, and take round a leaflet with useful phone numbers on it, means that she’s voted for him ever since.

So there are many lessons in building a successful political party but the most important one which the Lib Dems have known for a long time is that of local activism. But it does not necessarily mean it has to be in the party’s name. Collaboration and loose associations with other organisations can increase your local activist base and agreements with them can result in increased membership eventually. But essentially it is about forming relationships with voters and making the party relevant in today’s society. Small, simple steps go a long way to achieving this.

Lib Dems should distance themselves from the ‘happiness’ agenda and start making liberalism more relevant

Come 2015 the government will have gone some way to establish a happiness index in an attempt to shift the focus of quality of life from a purely economic one. Many people are getting involved in this with the launch of the Action for Happiness which brings LSE economists and government advisors together in an attempt to increase national happiness. But when 2015 comes will this be considered useful by the public. Will people vote for it? Will the concept have progressed liberalism?

While I have seen this as a way to help the Lib Dems, I have serious problems with this concept. What do we do to make ourselves happy? Are such activities sustainable and would they continue to make us happy if we continually did them? You may feel happy on holiday, but would you feel happy if you were always on holiday? Happiness is not something you can ‘get to’ by doing certain things. What makes you happy one minute does not necessarily make you happy the next. Happiness is not an end in itself and so is poor guide for policy development.

Happiness is more of a by-product of focusing on other things. Spending time with friends and family, doing a hobby, doing a job you like/love, or helping out in the community are not done because they make people ‘happy’. We have all felt unhappy at times doing any of these activities but we may continue to do them anyway. If the reason we did them was to feel happy, we would probably have given up on most of them (particularly knocking on doors campaigning). We do what we do for fundamentally different reasons and everyone has their own reasons. However, when looked into who are the happiest people they have generally been people who feel fulfilled in their lives.

Fulfilment would be a much more useful concept for politics and certainly more useful for liberals. Liberalism is about the values of liberty, equality and community. It seeks to give people the freedom to choose for themselves what is important to them and to involve themselves in their community as they see fit and develop their talents to the full. This fits very well into the concept of fulfilment that Covey has: To Live, Love, Learn, & Leave a Legacy.

This gives a much more useful concept to make liberalism relevant to people today. That we would look to help people live life how they want to, support their relationships, help families who need it, support people’s education at any age and to help them get involved in their community. The politics of fulfilment is a much more meaningful concept than that of happiness which will not help anyone and will only attract ridicule.

The Lib Dems should distance themselves from this happiness agenda and start talking about liberalism and personal fulfilment.

This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations

- George Bernard Shaw

Opinion polls which show some fundemental beliefs about Lib Dem strategy are wrong (and what needs to be done)

The recent Sun commissioned opinion poll makes for interesting reading for the Lib Dems. Unfortunately, it is not a good news story of increased voting intention, but it questions some of our fundamental beliefs which has informed our political strategy and the recent calls to the party leadership. This poll shows how many people believe that the Lib Dem vision of society best represents what they want:

It is not good news that at present only 11% of people responded that the Lib Dems reflect the kind of society they want, and it probably wouldn’t surprise people to see that of those intending to vote Lib Dem a vast majority believe they do. The interesting thing is the fact that only 32% of people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 believed they did. More people who voted for the Lib Dems believed other parties reflected the kind of society they want than the party they voted for. Much has been written about the types of voters the Lib Dems attracted in the 2010 General Election and it was never going to be possible to retain these votes. However, this fact poses some questions for the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems have consistently complained that the party is not getting its message across and members of the party have demanded the leadership and the party push the Lib Dem message harder. The underlying belief is that if only people got the Lib Dem message, then more people would want to vote for them and the polls would rise; and in many ways this is true.

However, the Lib Dems have complained about this problem for years, not just since it has been in this Coalition. The polls dipped to 11% when Ming Campbell was in charge and he stepped down complaining that the press focused more on his socks than the policies. And again this was true.

But considering the fact that the Lib Dem polls have always gone down after an election leaving the core Lib Dem vote, hence the rise in this poll in voters who believe the party’s vision of society, may mean we have to consider another possibility other than that people are not getting the message. Maybe people do get the message that we have given out and those who agree vote for the party. Then the party attracts people who agree on other specific issues but not with the Lib Dem message, it attracts protest votes and tactical votes but not people who believe in the Lib Dem message. So in the election in 2010 most people who voted for the Lib Dems did not believe the Lib Dem message.

We see the pattern of  losing votes after an election (those who don’t believe in the Lib Dem vision) reverting to our core vote (polls go down), pick up specific issue votes (polls go up) and at election time gain protest votes (polls peak). But look at this poll for Labour or the Conservatives. People who vote for them believe in the society their party wants and their poll ratings remain more consistent than ours which makes it easier to build on.

Maybe we need to consider the fact that the message the Lib Dems have, the vision of society they communicate, is not convincing people. The message the party has is good enough for those who believe in the party and its values and principles, but it is not good enough to widen the party’s support base. The Lib Dems’ campaign in the general election seemed to focus heavily on gaining specific issue and protest votes, not widening the party’s support base through better communication of the Lib Dems’ vision of society. The party will naturally lose this support outside of elections if this is the strategy so why are we surprised the polls have dipped?

A majority of Lib Dem voters do not yet believe in the Lib Dems. This is where the Lib Dem strategy needs to focus. No more protest votes, no more targeting specific issue votes, but a wholesale campaign to convince people of the society we believe in, the society we joined the party for. We need a better story for that society, not just specific policies, not just specific gains in government, but a story about a liberal society, what this means and how it affects citizens.

People do not vote for what you do, they vote for why you do it. The party needs to give people something to believe in.

How the Lib Dems can produce a killer political slogan

Political slogans that people can remember are priceless in a campaign. Some researchers in the US believe that candidates with the best, most memorable ad slogans usually win.  So how can the Lib Dems improve their slogans?

Orwell once said “From time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase into the dustbin, where it belongs.” And history is littered with appallingly bad slogans such as

  • I’m not a witch, I’m you!
  • Immigration Is a Problem.  Just Ask an Indian.
  • Don’t Stop, Keep Going On!
  • Are You Thinking What We Are Thinking?

The Lib Dems 2010 General Election slogan of “Change that works for you. Building a fairer Britain” may have seemed like an appeal to both Labour and Conservative camps but it ended up being unusually long with an uncomfortable pause and many thought it was unlikely to win the party any new friends.

What makes a good slogan is language and context. Get both of these right and you get a killer slogan. Some that have captured the context right have been “Don’t Swap Horses in Midstream” (Abraham Lincoln, 1864) and “I propose a New Deal” (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932). However, the chief marketing officer of Epsilon says that one of the problems in modern politics is that campaign political strategists often write the line rather than creative people with a flair for writing. Those who have used creative talents have benefitted such as “Britain Deserves Better” (Labour, 1997) or “Labour Isn’t Working” (Conservative, 1979).

The problem for most people trying to come up with slogan is that creativity is hard, the context continually changes and the slogans end up using political language resulting in it sounding unbelievable. So the best slogans often end up being accidental, such as “It’s the economy, stupid”, an impromptu exhortation scrawled by James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, in 1992; or the unofficial Lib Dem slogan, given by Gordon Brown “I agree with Nick.”

We have very little influence on the context as this is continually changing but it needs to be at the forefront of the mind of those who are making up the slogans for the Lib Dems as it seems at present this is distinctly lacking.

If we go back to what has worked for the party it has been simple language. Nick Clegg won the first debate, not because he said anything startlingly new, but because he used straightforward language, not the processed verbal pabulum that people have come to associate with politics. Five years ago the Lib Dems were all about simplicity, running with “The Real Alternative” as Charles Kennedy won the party their highest number of seats on the back of its opposition to the Iraq war.

Reading the suggestions by those in the party on LibDemVoice for a slogan seemed to read without a context and used political language. It is not that people are not trying or don’t have good ideas, it is that we are trying too hard. A good slogan comes naturally, in the context at the time, in a language people ‘get’.

One of the best slogans the UK has seen was the wordplay employed by Labour in 1957, who, reacting to Harold Macmillan’s government’s “Never had it so good”, hit back with “Never been had so good”. This placed the slogan in the right context with the right language. It doesn’t sound like it was made up by a politician or executive as much as it does someone down the pub.

Instead of people coming up with ideas and putting them on a website, or executives, or politicians sitting around a table, maybe we all need to go somewhere more natural, with people who are not political and just talk about politics and maybe something will come out that can be used. With 70,000 in the party maybe one sentence used in the pub by one member would make a great slogan?

Do negative campaign ads work?

Negative campaigning

Image by gorfor via Flickr

Are voters turned off by negative campaign ads and mudslinging? Some say they are yet it doesn’t stop political candidates or parties from using them. Do we know the evidence about whether negative ads work or do we use them hoping they will work, or because we all know a good negative ad which did work? The results from the research may actually help inform and improve our campaigning.

Research on negative campaigning and negative campaign advertising has produced some conflicting results. Some studies suggest that negative campaign ads are more easily remembered and therefore have a greater influence on voters’ attitudes and vote decisions. Other research, however, provides evidence that the opposite is true. Moreover, while some research suggests that candidates who run negative ads are more likely to win, other research suggests that running negative ads makes a candidate more likely (or at least equally likely) to lose. There are also conflicting conclusions about the effect of negative advertising on voter turnout–some research concludes that negative campaigning depresses turnout while other findings suggest that intense competition (often characterized by negative campaigning) enhances voter turnout. For an excellent review of this research see The Effectiveness of Negative Political Advertisements: A Meta-analytic Review.

While the research on negative advertising in political campaigns is not clear the conventional wisdom among campaign professionals is that negative ads do work. That is, while voters might not like negative ads, their perceptions of candidates attacked in negative ads are tarnished by the information they are exposed to. But that is not to say that they should be used wholesale as there are significant downsides and risks to using them. So what can we learn from the research to improve our campaigning?

  • Overall, negative political advertising produces negative evaluations of both the sponsor and the target.
  • 87% (in one survey) of people are concerned about the level of personal attacks in today’s political campaigns
  • Voters distinguish between what they feel are fair and unfair “attacks” in a political campaign.
  • At least 57% (in one survey) believe negative information provided by one candidate about his or her opponent is relevant and useful when it relates to the following:
  • Talking one way and voting another
  • Not paying taxes
  • Accepting campaign contributions from special interests
  • Current drug or alcohol abuse
  • His or her voting record as an elected official
  • At least 63% (in one survey) indicated the following kinds of information should be considered out of bounds:
  • Lack of military service
  • Past personal financial problems
  • Actions of a candidate’s family members
  • Past drug or alcohol abuse
  • Both younger and older people agreed that negative political advertising is not informative, but older people consider negative political advertising as less believable and have more negative attitudes toward the sponsor than younger people.
  • Negative political advertising is more effective with lower income voters. They perceive negative political advertising as more informative and more believable and had more positive attitudes toward the sponsor than higher income level voters.

So voters do not treat all negative information equally and while negative ads have the capacity to weaken political support for a candidate’s opponent, being negative in a campaign can also diminish the attacking candidate’s stature among voters, producing a “backlash” effect, especially when that information is not perceived by voters as relevant to the campaign.

The rule is never use negative campaign tactics unless your have to. You only have to if you feel cannot win simply by presenting positive information about yourself.

Candidates most likely to use negative ads are challengers. Incumbents have generally spent years building positive images of themselves among voters. The longer an image of a candidate is maintained in the minds of voters, the more difficult it becomes to change that image. A challenger hoping to unseat an incumbent must provide evidence that the positive images voters have of their opponents are inaccurate.

The choice that candidates have to make is whether the negative information they want to emphasize in a campaign against an incumbent is important enough to voters to make them disavow their opponents and support them instead. When a negative ad aims at something outside of the bounds of what voters consider to be relevant and fair, the effects just might be opposite of what was intended.

The fate of the Lib Dems lies in the economy: Accurate predictions for the state of the economy to 2015

The fate of the government and that of the Lib Dems essentially comes down to the state of the economy in the time they are in office. There are so many predictions and so called experts who tell us what is going to happen only for them to then revise their forecasts. People rely on the newspapers and these experts like Nouriel Roubini to inform us, yet how reliable are these sources? Below is a graph of Roubini’s stock market calls which shows how accurate he is at predicting the market.:

The papers have a particular view too:

Telegraph – Britons’ fears raise double-dip recession chance

Bloomberg – Blanchflower Says Budget `Certain’ to Lead to Double Dip

Financial Times, Martin Wolf is worried that the concerted austerity of Germany, Britain and other industrialised countries may “destroy the recovery”.

Guardian – Britain’s leading companies increasingly fear the UK could suffer a double dip recession because of government public spending cuts and a renewed economic slowdown across the globe, according to a report released today.

People are left with a very negative view of what is going to happen. However, if the papers, academics and experts are getting it wrong then why are people still listening to them? As essential ingredient of the solution focused approach is finding ‘what works’ and in this case it would be not listening to these sources and finding sources which have been correct. Nadeem Walayat is someone who have been consistently correct on the UK house pricing (including the crash), the UK stock market (with scarily accurate predictions) and UK inflation and as he has been consistently correct then he is someone worth listening to.

He has released his predictions of the UK GDP forecast from 2010 to 2015 and makes interesting reading (as does his stock market predictions)

This contrasts with the Governments forecasts (OFBR) UK economic growth:

  • 2010-11 : 1.8%
  • 2011-12 : 2.4%
  • 2012-13 : 2.9%
  • 2013-14 : 2.8%
  • 2014-15 : 2.7%
  • 2015-16 : 2.7%

Time will tell who is correct but Walayat has a better track record than most and so is a more realistic view of what we are dealing with as a country and a party. But what really matters is the unemployment rate, or people with jobs.

This is where the Lib Dems need to start making some progress with a clear stamp that the party has helped reduce unemployment in the long run.

Cleggmania to punchbag – How Clegg inadvertently set this up himself

42 Days: Nick Clegg - 1

Image by lewishamdreamer via Flickr

The 1945 general election has taught us many things and it has much to teach us about leadership and the reason why the perception of Nick Clegg has plummeted, why he inadvertently contributed to this before the General Election and what future Lib Dem leaders should do instead.

Many people believe that those who become leaders do so because they are somehow superior people, that they possess personal traits such as stamina, decisiveness, and composure, which make it their fate to reach positions of leadership. This is known as the “great man” theory of leadership. In 1945 Winston Churchill was that ‘Great Man’, in cabinet meetings Ministers would comment that they had not achieved anything but felt like they had been involved in a historic moment. The Conservatives’ campaign in the 1945 General Election was based on Churchill as the great man who won the war, yet he lost the election decisively.

The Great Man cannot deliver as politics is about what is possible and so becomes about practical compromise. Clegg jumped on the Cleggmania bandwagon and the vision of this new politician became the central theme of campaign, ditching Vince Cable. He tried to live up to being the ‘great man’ by making promises he could never keep and saying he would not break these promises. The moment this became the Lib Dem strategy for the election was the moment the Lib Dem poll ratings started to go down.


While it may be seductive to build the reputation and expectations of one man, it does not bring success. When Wall Street Journal/NBC pollsters asked voters (in the US) recently what qualities they were looking for in a leader, their top three choices were: the ability to work well with leaders of other countries; having strong moral and family values; bringing unity to the country. Those are cooperative qualities that require good listening skills, openness and the ability to compromise – They are not the qualities of one ‘Great Man’ but a man who can bring people together.

Ironically, the attraction to Nick Clegg in the first place was due to his ability to appeal to a wider audience and bring people together. But once the polls raised, the strategy changed. When Gordon Brown became prime minister he appointed a ‘government of all the talents and his poll ratings went up, this approach changed and his poll ratings went down.

So Clegg contributed to the notion that he was the man of the moment. This is a failed political strategy and an unsustainable one. The fact that Nick Clegg is one of the most talked about politicians says something in the way the strategy set this up. When things were good it was Cleggmania, now things aren’t so good he is a punchbag. They are different sides of the same coin.

The strategy for any leader should be one of the values of the Liberal Democrats. No ‘great man’, no superhero, just an honest party, with an honest leader; open to doing business with anyone who believes in what we believe.

Lessons from successful politicians: How Clement Attlee used collaboration to succeed

Clement Attlee, British Prime Minister 1945-51

Image via Wikipedia

Clement Attlee is considered to be one of the most successful UK politicians of all time yet was considered a potentially weak leader and a poor communicator at the time. Much has been written about his premiership from 1945-51. However, how Attlee was successful is often buried deep in analysis of his time in office. Yet it is how politicians are successful, not what they do, which we can learn from.

Attlee’s approach was a managerial one seeking consensus. He acted as a chairman rather than a president, and this quality has won him much praise from historians and politicians alike.

Every time you have a Prime Minister who wants to make all the decisions, it mainly leads to bad results. Attlee didn’t. That’s why he was so damn good

Despite Attlee’s overwhelming mandate for change and the pressure from his own party to introduce wholesale socialist change, he instead opted for cautious reformism which allowed him to bring the country and other politicians with  him in the changes he was making. He couldn’t have done this from a more extreme position that many people wanted him to take. Attlee therefore had to be an expert party manager, capable of controlling difficult and wilful colleagues.

It is said that his personal attributes allowed him the ability to let things happen and not allow worries to get on top of him. He believed that a leader needed to trust people to do their jobs and said that no one can lead who is afraid of losing his job.

If [a politician] doesn’t display courage, the chances are that he will never become the leader, or that if he does, he won’t last very long. Attlee

It was his approach to politics which produced perhaps his greatest achievement, that of a political and economic consensus about the governance of Britain that all parties, whether Labour, Conservative or Liberal subscribed to for three decades.

When Wall Street Journal/NBC pollsters asked voters recently what qualities they were looking for in a leader, their top three choices were: the ability to work well with leaders of other countries; having strong moral and family values; bringing unity to the country. Those are cooperative qualities that require good listening skills, openness and the ability to compromise – The qualities that Attlee such a good politician.

New Page: Recommended

A new page has been added for a chronological order of the posts from Solution Focused Politics that have been recommended by others.

An acknowledgement to others applying the solution focused approach to politics

I must give a mention to a site also called Solution Focused Politics as this site was started 2 years before this one, however, that site has only managed to have one post about school reform but at least they identified that the approach could be applied to politics. Its tag line is

As opposed to “party politics” and “identity politics.” These perspectives too often lead to groupthink that results in bad policies. Commonsense solutions mostly ignored by mainstream academic and media analysts are highlighted.



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