Joint Letter to Mark Pack: Cllr Paul Hodgkinson and Tom Parkin on the Liberal Democrat’s long-term strategy

From: Cllr Paul Hodgkinson,

            Tom Parkin

To:      Mark Pack

Dear Mark,

We hope this finds you well and safe. Here is our joint submission to you on the Liberal Democrat’s long-term strategy.

Why a joint submission?

Paul has been a Liberal Democrat member since 1992 and serves as party leader on Gloucestershire County Council in a Conservative-facing constituency. Tom on the other hand, defected to the Liberal Democrats in early 2019, and is a first time prospective Sheffield City Council candidate in South Yorkshire – a Labour-facing constituency. Our experiences are wide ranging, yet we have come to agree on the following points as being essential to the party’s long-term strategy and survival.

But before the party is able to develop this strategy, it first needs to elect a leader and within the next six months. The coronavirus crisis has unexpectedly created a fallow period for us all. We must use this opportunity to better engage with the membership, who, although resilient, have taken a significant battering in recent months. Since the election, party members have had a chance to reflect and regroup. A leadership race would boost grassroots morale and is ultimately, a prerequisite for the successful implementation of any long-term strategy.

Our suggestions are divided into external and internal matters:

External matters

The new Liberal Democrat message – whatever we choose – must be positive, upbeat and inclusive of the whole country. ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ may have cut through, but it was a reaction to an offer made by other parties. Without a positive purpose, the Liberal Democrats will only continue to follow a narrative preset by Labour and the Conservatives. Should we continue to trail their areas of focus, we have no hope of shaping a distinct role of our own. We all warm to energy and optimism, so let’s seize the agenda with a more positive message of our own.

Last year’s general election results show Labour retreated to London and the larger cities. The Liberal Democrats cannot afford to follow suit. Our strength and resilience comes from the diversity in our support. In practice, this means prioritising digital campaigning resources for rural constituencies and better targeting rural communities with bold policies on housing, transport, agriculture and digital connectivity. In many areas of the country, we are the only opposition to the Conservatives. Now is not the time to narrow our pitch. We must lead as the party for the union of the United Kingdom and organise our electoral targeting accordingly.


The Liberal Democrats ought to continue its pragmatic approach when engaging with other parties. With a base of eleven seats and a Conservative majority of eighty, we believe, with the resources at hand, our party should seriously target thirty parliamentary seats at the next election.

To do this, the Lib Dems must adopt an ambitious and distinctive long-term goal for the country. We are not a single-issue party, but we are most effective when the messaging and energy of all elements of our organisation orientate toward reaching a specific outcome. This links back to our earlier point on the need to shape a distinct role of our own.

Internal matters

The Lib Dems must also adopt an ambitious long-term goal for itself too – something beyond Westminster. We could, for example, aim to overtake Labour by measure of elected councillors, win contests for directly elected mayors, or exceed 200,000 party members as part of a large scale recruitment drive. The next general election may not take place until 2024. A set goal of this kind could collectively challenge and motivate our volunteers, regardless of any further alterations to the election-cycle.

At present, the Liberal Democrats have no centralised system to record the skills of its membership. Not all members want to or are able to engage with large social gatherings and may like to contribute in some other way. Our membership includes graphic designers, legal experts, accountants, editors, businesspeople etc…and we must be prepared to ask for their expertise, record responses and request their skills when needed. If planned successfully, this could lower costs for central and local parties and improve member engagement.

To improve the diversity of our candidates, the party must offer stronger financial support to those candidates in need. Travel, accommodation, conference passes, child care and leave from work are expensive, and not all party members can cover the costs on their own. The costs of being a parliamentary candidate often act as a barrier for carers, parents and younger people, thus limiting the pool of potential parliamentarians. The potential income generated from a drive to expand the party membership, coupled with a better utilization of its skills could help, in part, fund this new source of financial assistance.

As coronavirus is set to disrupt political activity for at least the next eighteen months, we must be prepared to organise substitutes for traditional physical conferences. Once lockdown restrictions are over, this could include the leader and/or spokespeople taking part in high profile (possibly virtual) ‘town hall’ debates across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.


We also propose the party slim down the number of committees and reduce any overlapping responsibilities. At present, the size and scope of many internal committees causes confusion and poor communication.

Our younger members are essential to the party’s growth and future success. We must continue to include all our younger members at every level of party activity – from branch to Federal Board. Whilst Young Liberals membership is automatically assigned to all party members under twenty-six, many want to use their skills beyond this student organisation and even stand for office in their own right. It is important they are encouraged to do so.

We offer these suggestions as activists ambitious for our party and in the spirit of goodwill.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Paul Hodgkinson – Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Gloucestershire County Council (Member – Cotswolds)

Tom Parkin – Prospective Sheffield City Council Candidate (Member – Sheffield)


Thank you! Election as Sheffield Young Liberals’ Campaigns Officer for 2020/21

Sheffield Young Liberals @ Sheffield Students' Union

On 26th March, I was pleased to have been elected Sheffield Young Liberals’ Campaigns Officer for the year 2020/21.

There is a lot of work to do to build up our student base, but I am looking forward to the challenge.

Many thanks to all the other candidates who stood in this election and congratulations to those others elected.

Want something to read? Here’s 5 liberal books to keep you going!

As the UK heads into at least three weeks of lockdown, here are some suggestions for Liberal Democrats in want of a good book.

British Liberal Leaders (2015) – Edited by Duncan Brack, Robert Ingham and Tony Little

British Liberal Leaders - British Leaders (Hardback)

The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics – New Directions in Critical Theory (2014) – Adrian Parr

The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics - New Directions in Critical Theory 48 (Paperback)

A fascinating case put foward by Adrian Parr. Here, Parr argues that only when we understand the dominating role played by capital in international diplomacy and environmental politics, can we begin to truly reshape our economy to support a stable and flourishing environment.

The End of History and the Last Man (2012 Penguin; 1st Edition) – Francis Fukuyama


The End of History and the Last Man (Paperback)

Fukuyama’s 1992 classic text proclaiming the victory of Western liberal democracy makes interesting reading in a decade of Brexit and Trump. A reminder of how quickly the global political landscape changes. Liberal democracy is fragile and needs constant work and protection.

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2016) – Philip E Tetlock and Dan Gardener


In what now feels like decades ago, Dominic Cummings told journalists waiting outside his London home to read Philip Tetlock’s book ‘Superforcasting’ to better understand sacked Downing Street adviser Andrew Sabinsky. Well…now you can!

Capital and Ideology (2020) – Thomas Piketty

Capital and Ideology

Following the success of Piketty’s first international bestselling tome ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ (2013), he has returned. This time, the French economist presents a volume almost twice the size as his initial bestseller. I can’t say I’ve finished this new volume, but it certainly is a work in progress!

Crookes Canvassing Session – Sheffield Lib Dems

On a very rainy Wednesday afternoon, the Sheffield team were out again, this time in Crookes, canvassing to get Bex Atkinson elected to the City Council in May.

Bex runs a zero-waste shop on Crookes high street and runs as a Green Liberal Democrat. Her experience as a local business person and environmental activist is much needed at City Hall.

Beighton Canvassing Session – Sheffield Lib Dems

The Sheffield Liberal Democrats had another successful canvassing session in Beighton yesterday evening.

Well done to the Lib Dem team for going out on the doors!

We even managed an action shot! (Featuring THREE Toms)


Thank You! Selection as the Lib Dem Candidate for Manor Castle – Sheffield City Council Election 2020

On Tuesday evening, I was selected by the Sheffield Liberal Democrats as the candidate for the Manor Castle ward for May’s Sheffield City Council election.

These are challenging, yet exciting times for our city. With more Liberal Democrats elected to City Hall, Sheffield can move forward with the right kind of leadership, that is inclusive, brave and ambitious for all in our city.

Another Sheffield Lib Dem Action Day with Layla Moran MP

WhatsApp Image 2020-02-16 at 14.06.42I had an excellent morning door knocking in Sheffield with Layla Moran MP. The Lib Dem team were met with a really positive response on the door step.

Residents fed up with a complacent Labour council.

Some of the major issues that came up time and again are trees, air pollusion and traffic congestion in and around the city.

Massive thanks to Layla for coming to the city and helping out with our local election effort.

Election day is 7 May.

WhatsApp Image 2020-02-16 at 14.35.23

Action Day – Sheffield Lib Dems

1 February 2020: Action day with the Sheffield Liberal Democrats. Source: Laura Gordon (@LibDemLaura)

Out on the doorstep this morning to help elect two excellent candidates, Alan Woodcock and Ann Whittaker, to the council in May.

On the UK’s first day outside the European Union, it is more important now than ever to campaign for a liberal UK. That campaign starts with local politics and local councillors.

Shutting down the Lib Dems is not the answer. Let’s work together.

A brief reply to Simon Jenkins’ Guardian op-ed.

In a Guardian op-ed published on 16 December, Simon Jenkins called on the Liberal Democrats to disband and for its members to merge with the two larger parties. Jenkins sets out three reasons for this:

  1. To dilute the influence of Momentum activists within Labour circles
  2. Restrain the Conservative Party as they begin another term in office
  3. Unite the centre-left.

Whilst I share Jenkins’ frustrations at the splintering of the centre-left vote last week, there are a number of reasons why I think his conclusion is wrong. I shall set out each of these below.

First, Jenkins writes only of the national picture. In local government, the Liberal Democrats have an influential role and strong presence in holding councils of all colours, majorities, minorities and coalitions, to account. The Liberal Democrats can reach significant portions of the United Kingdom that Labour simply has no hope in and I am sure the reverse is true as well.

One further electoral reality Jenkins did not mention was the continued shift of Labour’s core support, not just from the North to the South, but from towns and rural areas to the big cities. What use was Labour’s promise of free bus passes for under twenty-fives when only two buses a day ran through my home village in Gloucestershire? A real change for commuters in London, Manchester and Birmingham I am sure, but a half-baked gesture of support for the rest of the country’s young people, even with the offer of free-wifi thrown in. 

With longstanding support in rural areas, the Liberal Democrats are better placed to understand and respond to these issues.

Second, the internal culture of Labour and the Liberal Democrats is fundamentally dissimilar. This I know from experience, having spent nine years as a Labour activist from 2010-2019 and three national elections and an annual conference wearing a Lib Dem rosette. 

So what do I mean by internal culture? The Liberal Democrats pride themselves on a policy of one-member, one-vote (OMOV) in leadership elections and on the conference floor. Policy debate on the main stage and at conference fringes is well-mannered, purposeful and measured.

The conferences are different because Labour and the Liberal Democrats were built for a different purpose. This is no bad thing.

Unlike Labour, the Liberal Democrats do not elect delegates to represent the needs of ordinary members at conferences. Rather, individual members apply directly for a ticket, giving them greater independence. For the 2017 Labour conference, I was sent as a constituency representative for Young Labour members. In this role, I felt pigeonholed and pressured to attend Young Labour events, debates and votes. By no means did I feel free to be something other than an apparent spokesperson for all young people from the constituency. This was not the fault of the constituency party that sent me, but the entire design of Labour’s conference system.

In short, the Labour Party is too big. I understand the need to appear ‘broad church’ and build lasting internal coalitions, but the layout of Labour’s internal institutions make coalition building near impossible. Let’s be honest, Peter Mandelson and Jon Lansman will never both be satisfied. Why add more to the mix? 

To illustrate Labour’s size problem, let’s examine its policy making process. The National Policy Forum, as of 2018, consists of 204 elected members. In contrast, the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee is made up of thirty-one. Both aim to represent all sections of the membership and the country. Even for a team of thirty-one, forming a manifesto can be a challenge. But 204, it is just a nightmare. Such large numbers encourage conflict. This is not the same as debate.

By no means do I claim Lib Dem internal structures to be the absolute ideal. But the pressure on factions inside Labour ‘broad church’ to put on a face of unity at conference, impedes open and frank debate and actually facilitates the general proliferation of further factionalism. These conditions were well exposed during the attempted coup of 2016, where the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was at clear odds with the majority of Labour members. Since Thursday, these factions have re-emerged as strong as ever, with blame for Corbyn’s leadership or the party’s Brexit position as the new fault lines.

Third, Jenkins’ view reflects a certain complacency within Labour circles that the party deserves support and will always exist. Between the parties of the centre-left, Labour stood out as the only one unwilling to stand candidates aside for a Plaid, Green or Lib Dem alternative. As an outsider to Labour’s strategy planning, it seemed as if the party was hoping to simply repeat 2017, but in the hope the ‘Never Johnson’s’ would come flocking to their side, thus boosting the ‘go it alone’ and ‘final push’ attitude at the top. I don’t pretend this to be an exhaustive summary of Labour’s operation, but this refusal even to engage in talks with other parties represented a change in Corbyn’s outlook. And anyway, what of the ‘kinder, gentler politics’ he espoused only two years earlier? To add to the frustration, these kind of cross-party talks, with Labour included, are not uncommon in local government.

Jenkins is right to highlight the sorry state of a divided centre-left as the reasons for Thursday’s results. With Johnson’s new government promising to revisit changes to constituency boundaries, this may only get worse. This time, the ‘remain alliance’ failed. But to sacrifice democratic diversity is not the answer. Serious, well-intentioned and long-term cooperation is.

The Lib Dem Leadership Post-Brexit

On Thursday night, two devastating political realities emerged for the Liberal Democrats. First, we had lost our leader, Jo Swinson, far too early. In office for just 144 days, Jo’s premiership was dominated by the unexpected: defections, prorogation, membership surges and finally, a Brexit election. The second reality is that Britain will leave the European Union in just over one month.

Of course there will be time to assess the pros and cons of our unusually presidential campaign and our ambition to put forward a ‘Liberal Democrat candidate for prime minister’. Under Sal Brinton and Ed Davey’s joint interim leadership, this moment of reflection is sure to be full and frank.

But what is clear, from my time campaigning in Sheffield, Cheltenham, Worcestershire and East Dunbartonshire is that, as with every election, the party membership is the passionate, committed and disciplined driver of our liberal movement. It is the Liberal Democrat’s strongest asset.

But as we look into a post-Brexit future, what kind of leadership can we expect over the course of the next parliament?

After the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems were widely derided for returning eight white male Members of Parliament to the House. (Another cruel feature of our First-Past-The-Post electoral system). And yet today, nearly two thirds of our MPs are women and eight were first elected after the coalition.

At the spring conference in York earlier this year, Vince Cable’s proposed leadership reforms were defeated at vote. Part of the package was to give non-MPs the chance to run for the top job. Alongside a new supporters scheme, the thinking behind this proposal was to transform the party into a broader political movement, encouraging new talent to emerge from beyond Westminster. In light of Jo’s defeat, some elements of this package could well be reconsidered at the next conference in March. By then however, the party will have already elected a new leader. 

With many of our MPs having relatively little parliamentary experience and time to establish a strong reputation in the party, Jo has no obvious successor. As deputy, Ed Davey clearly has some advantage over other potential candidates. But as a fellow member of the coalition government, Ed risks receiving the same criticism aimed at Jo these past six weeks for her voting record on welfare and austerity. 

Of course we mustn’t underestimate the immense burden that comes with leading our party. But I hope a wide and diverse field of candidates put themselves forward.

The primary challenge for whoever takes over in the new year is to redefine our purpose in a post-Brexit Britain. The 2016 referendum helped reshape our role in British politics and move on from five years of coalition. But should we make the wrong choices in the months ahead, our prior determination to ‘own’ the Remain brand could seriously backfire. We must find a way to move beyond the slogans of ‘bollocks to Brexit’ and ‘stop Brexit’ we embraced so strongly just a few months ago.

At heart, we are the natural party for pro-Europeans. This will not and should not change. But in wiping out the centre-ground, Thursday’s election is evidence that our existence at the front of the British politics is by no means guaranteed. 

In the run up to the election, I had been critical of the lack of a strong narrative behind our campaign. What tied our policies together? What story could we as Liberal Democrats tell about our country’s future and people’s role in it? But all of this is sure to form part of our election review. Now is not the time to go into detail. 

The next few months are critical for Britain and British liberalism. We may become the party of the (UK) union. We may well roll back on our refusal to change the party’s core structure. We know this country needs strong and rational liberal voices as we approach a new political, economic and cultural era.

But we need to convince this country that it still needs the Liberal Democrats.

We can. We must. We will.