Friday, 20 May 2016

A Zip for Europe....... in England

Recent arrivals to the Liberal Democrats might have thought that the conclusive vote at Federal Conference on remedying inequality in candidate selection had resolved things.  However, one of the party's less transparent bodies, the English Council, is debating a series of resolutions as to how the party's candidate selections in England will be run.

For the uninitiated, the English Council is a body of around 160 representatives, normally elected by regional parties [and the renamed Young Liberals].  The obscureness of the electoral procedure ensures that party bureaucrats are best placed to attend.  Nonetheless it takes decisions on substantial issues including membership and candidate selections.  Its next meeting is in early July.

The English Candidates' Committee has put forward proposals on candidate selection for Westminster and Europe.  The proposals for the latter reserve places in the top 2 of the lists for women and in the top 4 for BAME candidates, provided 'sufficient' candidates apply.  [No definition of 'sufficient' is given].  The motions don't take up the full range of measures passed in the York motion, which may give rise to some debate. News of the Welsh Party's position is awaited with interest given its historic opposition to any positive action measures.

One proposal that will attract significant opposition, however, has been tabled by Liberal Democrat Women chair Liz Leffman, Belinda Brooks-Gordon and Kirsten Johnson.  It proposes full 'zipping' for women candidates.  However, it proposes nothing to address other under-representations in the party addressed in the York motion, and merely asks that some provision be made.  It is also worded in a gender-specific manner.

The motion is very unlikely to be received well by those campaigning for the party to meet the non-representation of people with disabilities or from BAME communities, or for LGBT+ campaigners seeking to improve current representation levels; scathing comments from members of Ethnic Minority Lib Dems [EMLD] have already started to appear.  Its submitters have evidently not learned from the behind-the-scenes row between the movers of the York diversity motion and those from EMLD and others furious that the original motion effectively proposed positive action only for white middle-class women.  It seems some Liberal Democrats still think that equality doesn't apply to all protected characteristics.

The 'zipping' motion reads in full as follows:

The English Council notes:
1.       The passage of the Electing Diverse MPs Policy at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference 2016, and the agreement to adopt a range of measures to improve the diversity of our Parliamentary Party;
2.       The need to ensure the diversity of our candidates for the European Parliament elections in 2019;
3.       That the European Parliament has recently published draft legislation calling on member states to take all necessary measures to promote the principle of equality between men and women throughout the whole electoral process, emphasising in this connection the importance of gender-balanced electoral lists;
4.       That in the same draft legislation, member states are encouraged to take measures to promote adequate representation of minorities;
5.       That the Equality Act (2010) enables parties to take action to promote diversity.
Council believes:
1.       That the diversity of our current elected representatives at Parliamentary level is unacceptably low;
Council calls for
1.       All regional lists for the European Elections to be zipped, as in the 1999 European Elections, with the gender of the candidates alternating down the list.
2.       50% of regional lists for the European Elections to be topped by a female candidate, with regions paired with others of similar winnability to determine whether the list is topped with a man or a woman.

3.       Provision to be made for candidates from under-represented groups (those with disabilities, BAME, LGBT+) to ensure adequate representation.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Liberal Democrats to scrap Nationbuilder?

Note: posts on this blog are published by a small team. Therefore the name listed as the author of the post is not necessarily the person who wrote it, but rather is the person who was responsible for publishing it.

Sources inform Liberator that Liberal Democrat HQ has decided to scrap its arrangement with Nationbuilder at the end of the year.

Nationbuilder is an American company which provides campaign websites for organisations like political parties which include features such as mass emails, event management, volunteer recruitment and online donations. The national Lib Dem website and the SNP national website, for instance, are both built with Nationbuilder.

In place of Nationbuilder, LDHQ apparently intends to build its own in-house replacement with the help of volunteers. How well this goes will remain to be seen - not least given the disastrous experience of previous in-house projects like the membership system.

While this will no doubt come as an annoying disappointment to the local parties and activists who have spent a lot of time and money setting up Nationbuilder websites and learning how to use them, one key an upside to an in-house website system is that it will actually be able to talk to the party’s Connect election software and its Salesforce membership database. This was one of the big drawbacks of Nationbuilder which is a major rival of the company behind Connect.

Of course, the real reason for this decision might just be cost. The off-the-shelf price of Nationbuilder for an organisation wanting to store and use up to 81,000 email addresses is almost $1,000 a month - with an additional charge of $20 a month for every extra 2,000 email addresses. While this is quite steep even for the cash strapped Liberal Democrats with a large national email database it’s even steeper considering that this same monthly charge was also applied to every single local party with a Nationbuilder website.

So is this a case of common sense cost-saving coupled with a new willingness to use tools that actually meet the party’s need rather than the latest slick, high-price American product?


It’s worth noting that the company Prater Raines, which was set up by Liberal Democrats for Liberal Democrats in 2002 to provide affordable websites, has long provided a service which, if not quite as slick as Nationbuilder, is significantly cheaper and can do most of the same things that Nationbuilder can and a few it can’t, such as checking whether someone is a paid up member of the party or not.

Indeed, it’s telling that the party leader, Tim Farron, uses Prater Raines for his constituency website rather than Nationbuilder. Some might wonder if, rather than creating something new from scratch, HQ might be better off working with Prater Raines to improve what’s already available.

Nonetheless, scrapping an expensive system far too sophisticated for most local party’s needs and replacing it with a system that actually talks to the party’s other systems is in itself a promising step. Whether this change of approach will actually last is something which can only remain to be seen.

UPDATE: While we have no reason to doubt the truthfulness of our sources, Jake Holland from Lib Dem HQ has made the following statement in response to this post on facebook:

"Contract is up for renewal later this year, but there is no plan to ditch it. It's still the best platform out there for local parties. 

We are looking at how we can build a platform for volunteers to develop new tools and apps on, that is true, but so far we are looking at building out a set of (for the technical out there) APIs. For example, we worked with a few volunteers (thank you Fred Fisher) to build a telling app, which we'll be looking to test out soon, based on an API we made available."

Monday, 18 April 2016

What chance of a radical welfare policy?

Sources who’ve had sight of documents for the Lib Dem working group developing welfare policy report real cause for concern to Liberator.
After Tim Farron’s oft-repeated comment that the party shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for what it believes in, even if it makes 75% of the population hate them, as long as it makes the other 25% love them, there had been hope that policymaking would break from recent trends and seriously consider radical ideas.  Alas, this appears to have been a hope too far according to our sources.
With the draft policy paper due by the end of the month, the agendas for the Social Security Working Group, chaired by Jenny Willott, are dedicated to multiple examinations in detail at specific areas of the current welfare system to consider how best to manage things.
Rather than consider a big idea as to what a Liberal welfare state would look like, the working group seems destined towards making many small suggestions on how to improve different benefits. But, while proposals to tinker with childcare provision and eligibility requirements for JSA might be worthy, they will inevitably be so detailed that no one will pay any attention to them. Once again, Liberal Democrat welfare policy will be without a big idea capable of grabbing attention.
Apparently big ideas such as Negative Income Tax, Basic Income and a Social Insurance system were considered at earlier meetings. However, no concrete decisions were made either way and all subsequent meetings have focused on tinkering with the existing system.
This is particularly concerning given the substantial levels of support in some sections of the Liberal Democrats for the concept of Negative Income Tax/Basic Income - one of the few issues that people on both the left and the right of the party can agree on. And certainly the concept of giving every citizen a minimum level of income with no strings attached is a radical one which would meet the “big idea” criteria.
Given the idea’s popularity it would be an absolute travesty if the party conference didn’t at least get a chance to discuss the concept or not. Unfortunately, however, given the working group’s current direction of travel it seems very unlikely to feature in the policy paper. If so conference won’t even have the option of discussing it.
Of course, in pre-coalition days one solution to this kind of issue where opinions were divided was for a working group to present two policy papers to the Federal Policy Committee so that the membership could make a genuine choice between two options. While this practice was largely abandoned under Clegg’s leadership in favour of insisting on a single, uncontroversial report from working groups, it is ripe for being revived.
If the working group were to do so then they may well be able to present party members with a choice between the tinkering-around-the-edges approach it seems to be on the verge of recommending and a radical, ‘big idea’ on welfare reform. That would certainly be best in terms of democratic policy making and escaping the old working group problem of only producing policy recommendations acceptable to their most small-c conservative members.
Whether this actually happens or not remains to be seen. But given the current schedule of meetings for the working group we wouldn’t hold our breath.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Ralph Bancroft

It is with great sadness that we share news of the passing of our friend Ralph Bancroft: head of the Liberal Whips' office during the Lib-Lab Pact, member of staff for the party in local government for many years, member of the Liberator Collective and Liberal Revue team, for many years compère of the Glee Club and above all an instinctive Liberal.  Ralph was in his mid-sixties.

Based in Harrow for many years, Ralph was a Young Liberal and went to Sussex University before being employed in Parliament, in the heady days of there being 14 Liberal MPs.  He rose to work in the Whips' Office during the 1977-8 Lib-Lab Pact.  He subsequently used his considerable political acumen to advise Liberals and Liberal Democrats in council administrations, and was particularly proud to become Head of Office of Andrew Wiseman's administration in Harrow in the 1990s.  Ralph was also a champion on online engagement and of the cix online conferencing system that was an integral part of party activity at that time.

Together with his good friend the late Liz Rorison, Ralph and his ever-present pipe were also for many years the linchpin of the Glee Club as it transformed from an informal gathering around a hotel piano to the unique event it is today.  He also appeared in many memorable sketches at the Liberal Revue.

In recent years Ralph had suffered from ill health and in particular severe visual impairment.  Friends and colleagues had asked: 'How is Ralph?'.  The answer was that he was spending time listening to Radio 4 and keeping pace with current events.  Thanks to Liberator colleague John Bryant, Ralph had been able to join Liberator Collective members from time to time at social events and relished talking about politics with friends over a pint of ale.  The most recent occasion was barely a fortnight ago.

Funeral arrangments will be advised later by the family.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Jim Gave The Land To The Landlords

Land reform and support for the rights of crofters and tenant farmers has for over a century been a keystone Liberal value; a symbol of what the party has stood for.  "The Land" with its clarion call for reform is the anthem of Liberalism.  Since the days of Gladstone, the party has stood up against landowner vested interests, backed invariably by the Tories.

Until now.  This week in a Scottish Parliament committee on the Land Reform Bill, Jim Hume MSP for the Liberal Democrats voted with the Tories against enhanced protection for tenant farmers.  As Scottish commentator Lesley Riddoch put it, "shameful for the party that introduced land rights for crofters in 1886".

Hume has form, having recently voted against introducing Marine Protection Areas.

But what this serves to emphasise is not only the disastrous decline of the Lib Dems in Scotland and in particular rural Scotland; but the party's total lack of vision and direction.

Since at least the 2014 referendum, the battle of ideas in Scottish politics has been vacated by Labour and the Lib Dems.  Astonishing in a country with a proud history of radicalism, the work of groups like the Liberal Futures group is sadly ignored by too many.  Radical politics is alive and well; but exclusively on the pro-independence side of the divide through groups like Common Weal.  As Riddoch points outthe opportunity even exists for Scotland to deliver the Liberal holy grail of a Land Value Tax; it was one of three options set out by a cross-party commission on local taxation which reported in late 2015, alongside a local income tax.  The Scottish Lib Dems have been silent on the subject.

With only tentative steps taken towards the reform of Scotland's land laws (the land is in the ownership of fewer people than in any country in the developed world) under the Lib-Lab government in Holyrood from 1999-2007, the Nationalists have moved from inertia to strengthening legislation.  It appears this political territory has been entirely ceded by the Lib Dems, in spite of the party's consistently strong support in rural Scotland through the darkest days of the last century and until the recent SNP landslides.

Liberals have since last May's catastrophe talked (though not always acted) about clarifying and defining Liberal values in order to give the Liberal Democrats an identity and detoxify the party from association with hated Tory policies.  In Scotland where the party alienated 45% of the population by identifying itself as 'unionist' and where the Tories are hated even more, learning from past mistakes is at least as important.

Instead - and with the right wing political market crowded and a relatively popular Scottish Tory leader in Ruth Davidson, the mistakes are being compounded and repeated.

The party in Scotland has an opportunity to partially redeem itself in March by voting the right way.  However, the obituary for its abject performance in May's election and possible wipeout could be written now.  It urgently needs to present a coherent picture of what it stands for.