The General Election Review: The Missing Sections

This morning, a version of the Lib Dems’ General Election review was finally published.  At some 23 pages long, it is a fuller document than many in the party will have feared; however, it is still not the full version (which it is believed will be circulated on a limited basis).

At a first read it appears to be aimed at offering reassurance for campaigners that the rigid, dirigiste approach of the Campaigns and Elections Department will be dropped.  The successor to the outgoing Hilary Stephenson will presumably welcome this clear steer.  However, in many other places the report (or rather the sanitised, published version) lacks something.

Here is a quick guide to some of the missing sections.

The first section contains this fascinating finding:-

‘The Federal CEO should be directly answerable to both the Party President and the Federal Executive’.

No supporting text is given to explain this.  However, in the aftermath of the 2014 election debacle Party Chief Executive Tim Gordon was charged with implementing the findings of the [still unpublished] report summarising the failings of that campaign.  Whatever the Federal Executive was told was sharply at odds with reality, the results of which can be seen in the blurred reporting lines and lack of feedback loop in the 2015 operation.

Secondly, although it is probably outwith the group’s remit, the report nonetheless refers to ‘wider policy issues’, and names three fiascos of ‘Secret Courts’, cuts to legal aid and the ‘Bedroom Tax’.  What it does not then outline is how these were tackled; while the report talks about positions taken by the leadership out of step with party policy, it does not tackle how to reconcile this.  It does refer, though, to the blurring of lines between Special Advisors and party staff.  The most egregious example of these, the appearances of a Clegg SpAd at FCC to try and suppress debate of critical motions at Conference, is only hinted at.

There is then a strange section about the relationship between party volunteers and staff.  It alleges in a general way that ‘committee members’ are regularly abusive to staff, which is nonsense.  It apparently relates to issues with the candidate selection process and demands placed by English Party and regional officers on staff.  The wording seems to reflect pressure from HQ to assert their supremacy over the democratic parts of the party.

Other sections, such as the section on polling, are interesting especially when read alongside other contemporary accounts.  The campaigning sections are admirably frank.  The absence of a successful political narrative is freely admitted.  The story of the ‘Wheelhouse’ organisation comes across as a product of organisational weakness, rather than a cause of it.

But to go back to the first point.  It is evident that while the big mistakes by the leadership were done, the failings of 2014 could have led to change and not repeated.  It is evident reading through the report that the failures in messaging, the lack of feedback and the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to campaigning were retained despite being widely known, and accountability was sidestepped.  One person was responsible for failing to change the organisation.  For this reason, it is now absolutely time for Tim Gordon to step aside as party Chief Executive so the party can move forward.  Indeed, he should already have accepted responsibility and led by example by stepping aside in the restructuring he orchestrated in the autumn.

Sunshine – The Best Disinfectant

This week has seen public discussion of various leaks associated with the Labour General Election inquest. Less publicly, the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Executive having discussed the key action points is due to discuss the full document at its next meeting.

Both will have had the opportunity to pick up on accounts of what made the Tory campaign quite so successful.  See this video from Lynton Crosby for an example..

Labour suffered from a lack of gravitas, partly due to having the wrong people in the wrong roles. None of the lessons from 2010 had been learned; so it was hamstrung on the economy and more importantly had lost much of its historic working-class support characterised by the immigration debate, but in reality going much deeper than that. The sort of uncoupling of the Labour vote that had benefited urban Lib Dems before 2010 was now helping other parties – or creating a vacuum.

In my time in Keighley for the General Election I saw at first hand Labour confidence in picking up this traditionally bellwether marginal seat evaporate. Their candidate was former Selby MP John Grogan, upbeat throughout the hustings. By the Sunday before polling day his mood had changed; we had a live hustings on the BBC Politics Show’s regional slot, filmed in the Stygian surroundings of the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway’s engine shed at Oxenhope. Freezing cold, John’s mood can’t have been helped by reports of his leader’s reaction to the infamous Edstone.

The Labour reviews will no doubt be used to confirm pro- or anti-Corbyn theories as Labour’s internal debate rages on.  (You may need a Scribd free app or account to read the whole thing). But at least they have published.

So what about the Liberal Democrats?

They have a problem in that their review remains totally shrouded in secrecy. It is highly unlikely that it will be published. The 2014 review was outrageously kept secret – I am told that even members of the Federal Executive were not trusted by party chief executive Tim Gordon with a copy. Yet someone – presumably Gordon – told the FE the lessons learned from that report had been implemented when they evidently were not. As a basic principle of accountability, the party should be told whether Gordon or others were responsible for that deceit – and if still in post, those responsible should be summarily removed.

I understand that in December the summary findings of the 2015 review were made available to FE members at the start of an awayday – but without any of them being able to retain a copy or make notes. Indications suggest that only selective parts of the report will be made available to members. If it says merely ‘Nick Clegg wasn’t popular’ it will be an utter waste of time. The party deserves to know in some detail what happened and what state (including financially) the party is now in.

We do know from the revelatory account by Nick Harvey (which I would urge you to read) published in Liberator magazine that the results of polling were ignored as part of the chaotic shambles that masqueraded as the Lib Dem election campaign. Some parts functioned relatively normally: the party’s campaigns department, barely treading water for a decade, produced bland and content-free literature templates that most of the 7 then-held seats I helped in followed. None of the literature would have persuaded anyone to change their vote – except in Leeds NW where Greg Mulholland tore up the rulebook and won.

Meanwhile the much-maligned and unaccountable ‘Wheelhouse’ with its six-figure PR professionals came up with the worst and least inspiring slogans on record – from ‘Look Right, Look Left… Then Cross’ to the sub-Fascist ‘Decency. Unity. Stability’. It evidently failed to see the oncoming Tory juggernaut and according to some reports threw good money after bad at hand-picked seats, particularly that of Clegg whose seat saw over ten times the expenditure of South West seats lost by a smaller amount.

I have written elsewhere about the dismal failings of the strategy and the now existential need for Tim Farron to find both strategy and vision that give the Liberal Democrats an identity and a point.  But without the facts – and honesty on just how bad a state the party’s finances are now in – then the Lib Dems will remain unfocused, disorganised and unelectable – with an orbit satellite trying fatuously to deny all reality and blame the election result on ‘leftists’.

Thanks to attention by Michael Crick the absence of a Lib Dem autopsy is now reaching a wider audience. Paddy Ashdown, true to form, has jumped in very quickly with a classic diversionary tactic; try and pre-empt the verdict by blaming an entirely irrelevant third party. Paddy of course has form on this note.

Ultimately the Lib Dems risk a failure of their much-vaunted accountability if the report into the party’s General Election catastrophe is hushed up to protect the guilty – with the party unable to hold those responsible to account. It would be hypocritical for the party of freedom of information to practice the opposite of what it preaches and operate what would only be seen as a cover-up.

Lib Dem Conference Loses A Day

As it has not been announced yet despite prompting, and people are booking travel and accommodation….

As part of a range of cuts imposed on the party’s conference, the Federal Conference Committee has had to decide to close Autumn Conference a day early, on the Tuesday afternoon rather than the Wednesday.
The precise timing has yet to be decided.

Assurances have been given that the conference will not lose debating time – important at a conference that will be dominated by grinding constitutional amendment debates to wrap up the party’s long-overdue governance review.

The Conference Committee was given a reduced budget and a range of options prepared by party HQ.  In the interests of transparency, others were:-

  • Scrapping the exhibition at Spring Conference.  After a predictable outcry by party bodies whose shop window this is, a lower-cost exhibition will now take place, taking up a suggestion I made.
  • Scrapping Spring Conference altogether. Given that this was rejected by the party very recently, Conference Committee rejected this outright.  Its reappearance says something about the determination of persons unknown (my educated guess is party chief exec Tim Gordon) to curtail party democracy.
  • Scrapping the crèche.  This has also proved unpopular but numbers using the subsidised facility are almost at zero.  It raises a much wider issue of access, especially for a party which has to debate its spectacular failure at electing anyone other than white men.
  • Further cuts to support for disabled people.  Given the equality impact I insisted that user consultation take place on this.  As a result this cut will not be going ahead.
  • A range of cuts to back office functions.

The budget for staging Federal Conferences has now been cut by half since around 2009.  Last summer a number of cuts were made without approval by the Conference Committee; on investigation it became clear that the bean counters of FFAC – the party’s finance committee – were not given information about cuts imposed in their name.  It highlights a gap in accountability in the party that leads to the top of the organisation at HQ to the detriment of hard-working party staff.  It is a cause, not a symptom of the mess the party is in.

2016: Still crucial work to do on the campaign to reform the pub trade

My Bank Holiday Monday was partly spent advising a friend who wanted to stop her local pub closing. At the same time I was lending a hand with another pub campaign.
2015 was genuinely an historic year for Britain’s pub trade. But licensees and consumers cheering the new legislation for England and Wales still have a job to do to ensure that the Fair Deal for your Local enshrined in law is actually delivered. And while Britain’s pubs are in the hands of asset-stripping vulture pub companies, there is still much work for the activist to do.  The first part of that job is responding to the Government consultation which has less than three weeks to run.

The helpful tweak to the Asset of Community Value designation made by then-Minister Stephen Williams has already proved hugely valuable in saving dozens of pubs and stopping the rush of pub-to-supermarket conversions. Though it needs to be written up in simpler language accessible to those who find their boozer under threat, there is now a list of helpful steps people can take. CAMRA’s major strategy review in 2016 will hopefully at last acknowledge that real ale no longer needs to be saved, but the place in which it is served – the pub – does as a top priority. And again, after a while, we’ve a Community Pubs Minister who is engaged, engaging and seems to be pro-pub. Marcus Jones will be tested more in 2016, though.

For those of us at the forefront of the campaign for pubco reform, we have a busy few months ahead as the Government finalises the detail of the Pubs Code.  What appeared to be an underhand attempt to weaken the Code was ripped apart in the House of Lords by Labour and Lib Dem peers, who in an unlikely move overturned the Government by amending the Enterprise Bill in order to see the Small Business Act strengthened – it was only granted Royal Assent in March!  The Minister has acknowledged the ‘genuine concerns’ and revised some of its original proposals; there are signs that some of the concerns are. Due more to cock-up than conspiracy.  Freedom of Information requests, though, have confirmed that the old BIS revolving door for pubco mouthpieces has been brought out of storage; mandarins are attempting to block other FoI requests that may uncover attempts by pubcos to undermine the rules.  Either way, we know the pubcos are still at it.

In Scotland the CGA Strategy study into the sector for the Holyrood Government will get under way in 2016. Given that we know that in 2013 Punch Taverns (Scotland’s biggest pubco) wrote letters to the UK Government consultation on behalf of its licensees, the outcome of this study will deserve close scrutiny. Either way, from May Scottish tied pubs will get a worse deal than those in the rest of the UK, with not only no statutory code of practice but any investment being concentrated south of the border as pubcos try and trade it off – one unfortunate consequence of a concession thrown by the Tories to their pubco mates.
So the long-term future of the British pub remains the subject of hot debate, with little sign of a thaw in relations between pubcos and campaigners many of whom would like to find ways of working together if only the pubcos had any interest in giving licensees and consumers a better deal.

At the fringes remain the tobacco lobby and a diminishing gaggle of idiots who support them, pretending that nothing has happened to the pub trade bar the smoking ban and that no other law needs to change (bar repeal of protection for pubs in planning law). Of course, the evidence of ever more successful community pub reopenings, the trail of destruction left by the pubco scam and the microbrewery explosion is unfortunate for them.

More relevant, and more dangerous is the anti-alcohol lobby whose campaigns discourage pub use at the most difficult time of the year for publicans – January. How ironic that these puritans end up promoting unsupervised drinking from supermarkets which by its nature is more likely to be drinking to excess, while actively damaging community facilities which provide places for otherwise lonely, often elderly people to socialise. The charities pushing such initiatives should be ashamed of themselves. Two great initiatives that promote a better way emerged during 2015. Anyone wanting to limit or quit drinking should back the excellent Club Soda campaign which is getting wider recognition. Those who don’t, should support Tryanuary and use the month as a celebration of Britain’s amazing diverse microbrewery scene.

(Tryanuary has earned the ultimate accolade – its slogan has been nicked by industry mouthpiece the Publican’s Morning Advertiser, which would rather we all drunk boring mass-produced booze instead.)

So see you down the pub in 2016.  To try something new.

Minimum alcohol pricing outlawed; what should replace it?

Few will shed a tear at today’s news that minimum alcohol pricing has been ruled illegal under European competition law.  While it was a legitimate attempt to deal with a serious problem of alcohol-related harm and cheap supermarket sales, it was a messy solution that would have caused as many problems as it would have solved.

However, there are other solutions needing to be discussed.  Some relatively unheralded research has taken place by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), highlighting some of the inconsistencies in taxation and suggesting solutions.  Their work isn’t perfect – in particular, it doesn’t seem to grasp the different challenges faced by the on- and off-trade.  But it is generally pointing in the right direction.

Among the key facts to be grasped are:-

  • Alcohol sales in the on-trade (pubs) have faced real-terms price inflation including tax over the last quarter century.  By contrast, off-trade sales, exacerbated by supermarket deregulation, have seen price reductions as well as the tax burden fall
  • Beer, a key product for the on-trade (and produced more by local or small-scale businesses, going through a renaissance at the moment), is taxed higher than other forms of alcohol (hence wine and spirits facing the brunt under minimum pricing)
  • Beer is the only drink to be taxed at a relatively steady amount per unit.

The IFS suggests reforming tax on wine and spirits to be by unit.  This would not affect the price of most products, particularly Scotch whisky, but (they think) would have a beneficial overall effect on excessive drinking.

There is something in what they are saying, if only they would address the disparity between on- and off-trade tax too. Alcohol consumed in a supervised environment (a pub) is less likely to lead to health or crime concerns, after all.  But the UK Treasury doesn’t understand that.

There is one last catch.  Just about any change to alcohol tax needs a change to EU law.  So why not not bite the bullet and deal with all these problems together?  Reform the tax system *and* reduce the tax disparity between the supermarket and the local, thus reducing harm and protecting jobs at a stroke.