Matt Withers meets Mark Pack – the man technically in charge of the Liberal Democrats – to get a sense on where his party is headed.
Here’s one for an episode of Pointless in 10 years’ time: name any leader of the Liberal Democrats, permanent or acting.
No-one, I suggest to him politely, is likely to name Mark Pack. But the Lib Dems’ constitution says that, upon a leader losing their Commons seat, the job of acting co-leader is shared between the deputy and party president – meaning that Pack assumed the co-leadership with Ed Davey when taking over the latter role at the start of January, Jo Swinson having been ejected from parliament.
‘Absolutely, yeah,’ he says of being a star answer. ‘I think me and Sal Brinton [his predecessor as president who briefly held the co-leadership] will be the two obscure answers.’
Pack won the presidency by beating MP Christine Jardine in a poll of members. Swinson losing her seat was ‘a shock’, he says.
We meet in a Westminster pub. This was before the enormity of the coronavirus had hit, and a day after the party should have just finished their now-cancelled spring conference (in a very Lib Dem way, such a decision required a two-and-a-half hour conference call).
The pandemic has thrown the party’s leadership election plans up in the air. A race should be under way now, concluding in early summer. But if nothing else, it has given it longer to review its poor general election result last year. A formal independent review is under way.
Pack, as president, is careful not to give too many personal views in the interim but he clearly does not want the result to be attributed, as many have, to the controversial policy of unilaterally revoking Article 50.
‘I think quite rightly we’ve taken the decision, pre-coronavirus, that we need to do things like review the election and the lessons from last year properly before we get stuck into a leadership election campaign,’ he says.
‘There were certain decisions that were made and certain things that happened that were very specific to that election.
‘So there are some broader questions. If you look at the trajectory of the party’s opinion poll ratings last year, there wasn’t a sudden downturn at the point which the party adopted the policy of revoking Article 50.
‘Even though that was at the party conference, it got widespread media coverage – and, if anything, you could argue there’s a bit of an uptick in the party’s poll ratings around that conference.
‘So whilst it’s undoubtedly the case that there was a lot of negative feedback on the doorstep, given it wasn’t the one dramatic turning point in the party’s opinion poll ratings in the past year, it’s very unlikely, really, that you could fully explain what happened to the party simply on ‘well, let’s blame that’.
‘And therefore what we need to understand is what else happened, because what else happened may well be things that are very applicable to future elections.’
Another factor may well be a ‘very strong traditional two-party squeeze’ on the Lib Dems, he says. ‘We can’t simply say, ‘OK, it was all to do with one policy decision we made in the past, let’s not do that again’.
‘If there’s a two-party squeeze problem we need to come up with better ways of overcoming that in future contests.’
So where now for the Liberal Democrats? Where now for a party that has defined itself, at least in the public eye, in its opposition to Brexit – a Brexit the public appear to believe has been ‘got done’?
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‘Politically how Brexit will play out is a very big unknown, still,’ says Pack.
‘And it may be therefore an issue that, yes, is a long-run issue that the Lib Dems will return to at some point in the future as a major plank of our platform, or it might be that it’s an issue that becomes politically salient much more quickly.
‘But one thing, actually, that coronavirus illustrates, is questions about how best to cooperate internationally and how best to provide high-quality public services and which, in a way, are part of what underpinned the Brexit debate – those are still very relevant issues.’ But an immediate ‘Rejoin’ position, one suspects, is not on the agenda.
Currently standing to replace Pack are Davey, who lost out to Swinson last time, and Layla Moran. Daisy Cooper, a new MP but widely known in the party, may throw her hat in the ring.
With the greatest of respect to their entire parliamentary party (there are now 11 MPs), I suggest, there is no Macron among them.
‘Obviously I think that there are several Macrons that the party members will have to choose from,’ says Pack.
‘Our number of votes went up by half. So there is some good news in there, and some really good individual constituency results.
‘That said, our overall level of support is still at half of where it used to be. And obviously the number of MPs massively smaller. So although first-past-the-post played us a tough hand, it would be foolish for us to simply blame the outside world, in that sense.
‘You know, there’s clearly a lot that we didn’t get right and we need to figure out what went wrong, why it went wrong and how to get more of it right in the future.’
One relative triumph is the size of the party’s membership which, with its unambiguous stance on Brexit, has all but trebled since its low point in 2014. But more than one Lib Dem has said to me that the large new influx joined on a single issue and most have not got involved. Pack differs.
‘I think I would politely disagree with my colleagues there,’ he says.
‘The two things that have struck me about the influx of members into the party… the first is that, attitudinally, the people who have joined are very similar to those of longer-standing members. The views on things like public service, the economy, where people place themselves on the left-right spectrum etc – the huge influx of people are very much in tune with longer-standing members like myself. And that’s very different from the Labour Party’s experience.’ It’s also very different from the Iraq War, he says, ‘where we did pick up a whole load of anti-Labour, anti-Iraq War, but not very liberal’ members.
‘The other is – and this is particularly from my experience of going round a lot of local party events and regional events and so on in the last year, especially in the run-up to the presidential election – is just how many of them have got involved in the party.’ If three out of 10 members get involved, that’s probably little different to 20 years ago, he says.
He has a book out, Bad News: What The Headlines Don’t Tell Us, in which Pack, not a journalist, attempts to walk the layman through understanding the way news is written. It’s very readable, admirably unpreachy and a rarity, a book by somebody in (relatively) frontline British politics.
Pack agrees (on the last point). ‘If we were in US politics, there would currently be a whole batch of Liberal Democrat MPs who would just have had books out setting out their stall,’ he says.
‘And I think that’s a real shame. There is a real virtue in writing in terms of actually helping coalesce your own thoughts, even if no-one else reads the book.
‘One of the things that really strikes me very often when reading news stories is there’s a whole load of semi-code in a story which once you know how to decode can make it much easier to figure out what the truth is, and whether you know whether to trust the story or not.
‘To give you an example: quote marks. So normally a quote mark around some words in a news story is a sign of quality. It means that you’re directly quoting the words that somebody has said. And that feels like, a) you’re directly quoting them and b) it means you’ve actually spoken to them. So quote marks are a good sign.
‘Except in headlines. Because in headlines they mean the exact opposite. In headlines they mean that the news outlet has decided it’s not quite willing to stand by the words in the headline. So the quote marks are basically there as shorthand for ‘somebody has said, but we’re not quite sure if we’re going to say if that’s quite true or not’. And so they mean diametrically opposite things.’
A communications consultant by profession with a PhD in 19th century elections (‘which, given the way election law still operates in this country turned out to be a surprisingly vocational PhD’), the 49-year-old Londoner is well-known in the party as both a blogger and for running the party’s digital and data operations in two elections.
But unusually, apart from two long-shots at York Council many years ago, he’s never sought to stand for office outside the party.
‘Being elected to public office has never particularly appealed to me,’ he admits.
‘And part of that was my experience once, while campaigning with Shirley Williams many, many years ago – it was actually when I was in York and she was travelling between different target seats and so she had about half an hour between changing trains.
‘And so she agreed to a little bit of walking up to members of the public, which she was really good about. And I remember being struck by her enthusiasm for bounding up to complete strangers and talking to them about their medical ailments. And I think the very best of public office holders have a little bit of that about them. And that’s just not me. I’m more interested in the backroom side of things.’
Remember the name. For Pointless, at least.