A new year – time to take stock: What Opinion Polls teach us from being in Government and what it says we should do in 2012

As we say good bye to 2011, it is time to take stock and look forward to what we need to do in 2012. As politics is all about the poll on polling day lets have a look at what we can learn from the polls since we have been in Government.

Polls are relative to the opinion poll company undertaking the poll so if you look at polls, make sure you compare like for like i.e. the same poll against the same poll. Also look at the poll that gets it right most often as a comparison to the actual vote. For this reason I use ICM and I have written about using the ICM polls to chart how we are doing here.

What we can do from historical charts is see how we are doing from a historical perspective (good poll ratings in green, poor in red):

We can then use the opinion polls since being in Government to have a look at patterns of when we are doing better and worse in the polls to see if this helps inform what we need to be doing:

I have put the events that were happening at the time next to where it happened so we can look for patterns and what we can see if this:

I’m not sure there is a distinct pattern for falling opinion polls but there are lessons. In the first year we had the budget, spending review and the tuition fees to deal with. In all of those cases the general perception was that we were ineffectual. While we know that there have been some Lib Dem gains and improvements to the proposals, the major issue in all of them was the shock at the extent of the cuts and rise in the fees. We failed to get a Lib Dem headline through the shock and we generally came across as very defensive, particularly Clegg (to be mocked for it). From February 2011 to June 2011 we were seriously attacked by the Tory machine in the run up to the referendum and elections and the extent of the cuts continued to create fear. The Lib Dems failed to show we were making a difference.

Interestingly, the attacks on the NHS reforms didn’t really give the Lib Dems a boost. Only once the issue had gone away did things start to improve. Equally, September to October saw falling poll ratings too, despite the conference. This was a relatively quiet period for the party and we failed to get many headlines which showed we were making a difference. The conference generally came over as defensive of our record (not easy, but right) and if there is anything to learn from the down periods in poll ratings it is that being defensive on our record does not work.

The upward poll ratings are more interesting. January 2011 to March 2011 saw the largest improvement in poll rating since we have been in Government yet this was perhaps the period where the leadership was least in control. Lord Oakeshott made significant criticisms of the Government and resigned from the Government. He was making regular appearances on the TV and radio and had a knack for easy one liner. At a similar time there was a lot of criticism of the cuts from local Lib Dems and Shirley Williams and others in the Lib Dems started to give serious criticism of Lansley’s NHS reforms. Together this seemed to give a sense that the Lib Dems were different from the Tories and had influence in Government – even if Clegg didn’t want them to be making these criticisms.

The phone hacking and the response to the summer riots saw the Lib Dems assert our more distinct identify which stood out from those of the Tories and from Labour, although I notice that Miliband did try and copy the Lib Dem positions (a new threat). And more recently we have seen a new assertion of Lib Dem values from vetoing the Beecroft proposals on employment law changes, attacking the eurosceptics and setting out the open society i.e. liberal society, which has benefited our poll ratings.

So what have we learnt?

  • Owning all decisions the Government makes does not work. This has been the biggest mistake we have made since the formation of the Coalition.
  • On big decisions announced by the Government, there needs to be at least one major Lib Dem concession, directly attributable to the Lib Dems, which shows our influence.
  • Asserting how we are different to other parties, including attacking the Tories, works.
  • Having the leadership attempt to control the party does not work. When other people have set out Lib Dem positions, even when it has been against Clegg, the message has got through.

So what does this mean for 2012?

  • Lib Dems should disown what we don’t like that the Government is doing.
  • Lib Dems should aggressively promote policies we have implemented.
  • Lib Dems should speak with more than one voice.
  • Lib Dems should continue to set out independent values.
  • Lib Dems should not be defensive of decisions we have had to take.

Good luck.

Changes to Clegg’s inner circle needed for success

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of th...

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There has been talk for a long time about the divide between the ruling elite in the Lib Dems and the grassroots. There have been mistakes taken by those at the top of the Lib Dems, in direct contrast to Party policy. There has been a growing unease by many in the Party which has sprung new factions in the Party to rebalance the dynamic (see here or here). Others have been faced with similar challenges, some have failed while others have succeeded, and there are lessons there for the Lib Dems.

According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Abraham Lincoln was one of the rare presidents who understood the importance of surrounding himself with people willing to disagree with him. Lincoln created a cabinet that included four of his political opponents, three of whom had run against him for the Republican nomination in 1860 and who felt humiliated, shaken, and angry to have lost to a relatively unknown backwoods lawyer. Although all shared Lincoln’s goal of preserving the Union and ending slavery, this ‘team of rivals’ (as Goodwin calls them) disagreed with one another furiously on how to do it. This way Lincoln avoided the illusion that he had group consensus on every decision. He was able to consider alternatives and eventually enlist the respect and support of his erstwhile competitors.

Since Clegg made his mistakes in the previous year by going against Party policy and wishes, he has sought to rectify them by standing up for what the Party believe in. He has perhaps not taken all the opportunities which are open to him either as a result. However, he could learn a lot from Lincoln to improve his situation and that of the Lib Dems.

There are many in the Party who do not agree with him yet he surrounds himself with those who do: Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, David Laws. While there is some disagreement between them they are very much on the same page. There are others in the Party who he could use to enhance his decision making, policy production, and strategy which would benefit him and the Party. There are 2 previous leaders who have been on the sidelines who would offer the leadership a great deal: Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell. Bringing others in who may not necessarily agree with him may offer him some valuable advice.

Doubt is not the enemy of justice; overconfidence is – Elliott Aronson

And Clegg often comes across as extremely confident in his statements, which is no bad thing, until it is the wrong decision and then we get a situation like the one we had with the tuition fees debacle. For there to be justice to the Party and those who voted for them, there needs to be multiple voices who represent these in the inner circle. Maybe this would be a good lesson for the Lib Dem leadership?

Sharon Shoesmith: a case of incompetent government, incompetent minister, and all the reasons I voted Lib Dem (and lessons for good government)

Sharon Shoesmith is a product of the system created by an incompetent government incapable of asking the right people the right questions who then became a scapegoat to cover up for the government’s incompetence. Everyone in the Lib Dems should know the details, particularly if you are in a Council controlled by the Lib Dems, so that we can learn some very basic and simple lessons of how to run a government.

The New Labour Government peddled their agenda for a change in the Child Protection system coming across the tragedy of Victoria Climbie and milking it for all its worth to achieve this change. There were already about 70 reviews into child deaths with lessons for the government to learn, and unsurprisingly many of these lessons are the same. So what did the government decide to do? That’s right – have a review.

They could have decided to listen to the many people who prevent children dying at the hands of their carers every day or even the experts but no, the government ignored the voices of the majority who know something about the subject. They decided in their wisdom to listen to a single man who would then decide on how to change the whole system for the whole country, no matter how well an area was doing.

So who did they choose? A man with great knowledge and skill in the area who would change the system for the better? No. A man who was the head of a Local Authority which had made serious mistakes in a child abuse case resulting in the Local Government Ombudsman making a finding of “maladministration with injustice” of his authority, the strongest criticism open to him. This is currently worse than what Sharon Shoesmith has against her name.

So the government held the most expensive enquiry into a child death in British history (£3.8m) and headed it with a man who had shown his own incompetence in the area. So what did he propose? No, it wasn’t a beautifully designed system which ensured that children at risk were kept safer – in fact it was the total opposite. He proposed a system so bureaucratic and cumbersome that it reduced social workers time with families to 20%, with 80% of their time being spent on a new multi-million pound computer system that was not fit for purpose and took Local Authorities years of complaining before they started to dismantle it – this is still on going. So with such small budgets for at risk families, high workloads and then a new authoritarian and bureaucratic system in place it became more difficult for authorities to manage.

To make sure that authorities were using the system correctly they had Ofsted go in and give inspections. The inspection regime looked at how well the authority ticked the boxes and as the system taught professionals how to tick the right box, authorities became very good at leaving a very good paper trail. Sharon Shoesmith’s authority got an inspection of rating of good i.e. a good paper trail, not good social work practice so the poor practice was not picked up.

So was it a surprise that there was another child death? No, it was inevitable, and there have been many, it is just that this one caught the media attention. So what did the government do on finding out that the system they created, at a great cost, didn’t do what it was supposed to do? That’s right, first they got Ofsted in to reinspect to change their finding and get the ‘right’ answer – which was poor. Then they got the same man in to review his own system who then concluded that people are not using his system correctly and this is the reason the child died. If you create a system that cannot be used properly it won’t be.

Ed Balls waded into a debate he had no idea about, seemingly in complete ignorance of the fact that it was his own government and his own department that had created a monster of a system which created less time for professionals to do their jobs and an inspectorate which was designed never to pick up bad practice. He then blamed everyone except the system they had created and Shoesmith was gone. Now we have him saying he would have done the same thing if he were in that position again. It is therefore not a surprise to hear Shoesmith say

I’m still staggered by how irresponsible the secretary of state was. He almost demonstrated his lack of knowledge and understanding of children’s social care … This was his department yet he took steps that led it into complete disarray.

Mistakes were made and it is a tragic and sad affair when a child dies. We have a responsibility to create a system that works and put people who know how to do their job in the system well. The cases of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connelly at the beginning of the Labour Government and at the end show how not to create the system we need. Ed Balls shows everything that was wrong with the Labour Government: he did not trust the professionals, he ignored the voices of the majority, he was too susceptible to lobbying (particularly IT companies), he created an authoritarian and bureaucratic system, he was unwilling to accept responsibility for his mistakes, he had no knowledge of the brief of what he was supposed to be doing, he thought the law did not apply to him and he could do what he liked, and his department spent all the money in the wrong places at the wrong time in the wrong way.

Good government is the opposite of Ed Balls:

  • trust the people we train to do the job we train them to do (we do not need to then create a system which takes more time proving they are doing their job than it takes to do the job)
  • listen to the voices of the majority of people who work in the area (they have lots of skills and knowledge and will know better than anyone what needs to be done to get the system to work)
  • Use technology requested by the professionals not by the lobbyists who say it will help the professionals
  • be willing to accept responsibility for mistakes in government
  • ensure ministers have some knowledge of the area of their brief
  • always remain within the law
  • money does not solve problems, well researched, advised, and consulted plans solve problems and the money helps create the right system. Sometimes money makes the problem worse.

See here for how Australia created a child protection system now being taken up by the world.

This practice in government was not isolated to the inappropriately named ‘children, schools and families’ department (only a Labour Government would out a state institution between a child and their family) and this was why I could not vote Labour and why  I believe in the Lib Dem approach. Thankfully Gateshead Council have just been given the go ahead to do it as they see fit – a good start.

Lessons from successful politicians: The hidden secrets of Lloyd George

David Lloyd George practised as a solicitor in...

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There have been many pages written about David Lloyd George and a search on the internet will bring up pages of very similar information. Many will know him for his success and personality, or even his position in the Liberal Party and his part in its decline. However, he is considered to be one of the most successful politicians the UK has ever had. But what isn’t so obvious is how he achieved this success and this is something we can all learn from.

Lloyd George was chosen by a majority of the governing coalition to replace Asquith as prime minister and is attributed to the UK’s part in winning the First World War. He is also very much associated with reforms that benefited the majority of society such as the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 and the National Health Insurance Act of 1911, which did much to aid the poorest in society.

Many look at why Lloyd George produced his success and conclude that this was due to his flouting of established conventions and his irresistible combination of charm, energy and ruthless determination. However, this attributes much of his success to his personal characteristics, which undermines a larger and more important part of how he achieved success.

Lloyd George also had a huge capacity to forge partnerships and energise the process of government. Until the collapse of his coalition, he got big things done. With Asquith, he launched the welfare state and emasculated the peerage. With Bonar Law, Arthur Balfour and Douglas Haig, he won the war. With President Wilson, he negotiated a peace settlement. Lloyd George became a government man adept at compromise, constantly looking for coalitions and combinations to co-opt the very Conservatives and monopolists he condemned in public.

Lloyd George played the politics game but to be successful in politics you have to build support outside of your natural base. As Clement Attlee showed forming coalitions, formal or informal are crucial, and being able to collaborate with others is a key leadership attribute and one anyone can learn and something Lloyd George demonstrated well but often gets forgotten in the annals of history.

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

Clement Attlee, British Prime Minister 1945-51

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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.

Lessons for the Lib Dems: New ways of marketing will increase voter base

Social Influence Marketing (SIM) is a growing concept in business which states that the purpose of a business is to create a customer, who creates customers. It focuses marketing on a community rather than on individuals and so has a very different way of marketing as it sees the relationships in the community as the key. This has many attractions for political parties as communities are what politics is about.

Positive narratives are hard to create and SIM can give some good lessons to political parties in how to influence this. Here are some lessons for the Lib Dems and some simple ideas of what we can do.

Lesson: Parties must socialize with voters. It won’t be enough for parties to craft powerful messages and push them through different media channels. They will need to participate directly in conversations with voters and provide more meaningful exchanges.

Solution: Nick Clegg’s Town Hall meetings are good examples. We can build on these and extend Town Hall meetings for MPs as part of constituency business.

The Lib Dems have been good at recruiting from specific issues and we can build on this so local parties are more involved in specific issue campaigns.


Lesson: Parties must develop a credible social voice. These voices will need to be more engaging, personal, humble, authentic and participatory than traditional advertising messages.

Solution: Getting famous people to champion our cause does not work. We need people from the public talking about how Lib Dem policies or work has directly improved their life i.e. promoting genuine stories through TV adverts, youtube videos, newspaper stories.

All party members should be given information by central office as to good examples of stories to use face to face with people. Or local parties can collect good stories and use them in local campaigning (as can the national party then).


Lesson: Parties must provide a return on emotion to their consumers. The more voters sense a symmetrical relationship, the more loyal they will be. Social media is a great tool for building symmetrical relationships, in which both the party and the voter reap equal returns from their relationship.

Solution: The government has conducted some good crowdsourcing initiatives (only to ignore them) and this could be extended to the party – A Lib Dem crowdsourcing site for people to submit ideas and suggestions. This could also be used to provide the good examples of stories which can then be passed to members for campaigning.

Everyone in the party has suggested that the party needs to stick to party policy and commitments. Hopefully we can learn from recent difficulties in this area.

Any ideas welcome and I can add them to the list.

Lessons from the Dutch Social Liberal Party

Logo of Dutch party, Democrats 66

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Democrats 66 is a Dutch progressive, social-liberal and radical democratic political party. It is a well-established party with parallels with the Lib Dems in its position in the political spectrum. It has had some success over the years which offers lessons for the Lib Dems.

In the 1989 election the party increased its number of seats but was excluded from the Coalition that was formed. Although in opposition, D66 adopted a constructive approach towards the government for which they were rewarded in the 1994 elections when the party doubled its seats. D66 was then able to form its ‘dream coalition’, the Purple coalition government and initiated legislation which the D66 has always advocated, such as the referendum, same-sex marriage and the legalisation of euthanasia. The centrist economic policies of the cabinet were also seen as a great success.

Following that they had a decline in support but since 2008 the party has performed quite well in the polls: ranging from 10 to 26 seats in the polls, compared to only three in parliament. In the 2009 European Parliament election the party won 11% of the votes and three seats, compared to 4% and one seat in 2004. Many see this increase as a result of the leadership of Alexander Pechtold, who has been called “the leader of the opposition.”

D66 did suffer from being a junior party in a Coalition even though they were seen as bringing in effective economic policies which may not be very heartening for Lib Dem members. However, they have shown a constructive approach to opposition to be successful  as well as having a credible distinctive voice while in opposition. Maybe little consolation at this stage?

Lessons from the Swedish Social Liberal Party

The Swedish Liberal Party (FP) has many parallels with the Lib Dems as it became the junior partner in a coalition government with the right-wing party (Moderate Party) following the 2006 election despite having an ideology of social liberalism. Their poll ratings dropped, as did the coalitions, only for the Liberal Party to recover their poll rating and the coalition increasing their vote share overall in the 2010 election. The Liberals gained 7.5% in 2006 and the table below shows some poll ratings through the parliament:

Obviously there are stark differences to the context and specifics but it may still be worth looking at what helped them maintain their vote share at least.

  • Sweden was experiencing economic growth
  • There was competence of the leader of the largest party who managed to keep the government together and avoid the parties from falling out with each other and feuding amongst themselves as they had done in the 1970s and in the early 90s.
  • Social Democratic Party had an incompetent leader
  • The success of the right-wing party was much to do by the transformation of the right rather than the transformation of voters. The Swedish right has accepted the modern welfare model and has understood that any talk of abolishing it or radically altering it is not a vote-getting strategy. The right has just placed more emphasis on jobs and finances, introducing popular and rather successful tax policies to encourage work.

An interesting pattern in the results here is that the senior government party picked up votes based on the popularity of its leader with the swing voter, but it didn’t squash the smaller parties. Many had thought that, as sometimes/usually happens with junior coalition partners, the largest party would pick up votes from the smaller parties. That may say a lot about the remarkably stable (overall) bases of party support in Sweden, but it also does say something about the competence of the smaller parties’ leaderships and their ability to find a voice in government. That being said, none of the smaller parties in the Alliance performed spectacularly and in fact M was the only party not to lose percentage wise (FP (Liberal Party) picked up 2,129 votes but lost 0.48% – higher turnout is the main culprit). See here.

I leave many of the obvious comparisons to you. Clearly the need for the Lib Dems to find their voice in the government would be seen as an important lesson. Lets hope 2011 and the new strategy will help.


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