The connection between standing local election candidates and the AV referendum may not seem obvious at first, so imagine this scenario…
It’s quite likely that the referendum will be held on the same day as local elections, such as the May 2011 local elections.
The arguments over electoral reform will attract to the ballot box some people who don’t usually vote in local elections. If the pro-AV campaign goes well (and it starts with a lead) many of those people will be well disposed towards Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.
And what will they find when they get handed another ballot paper, this one for the local elections?
If the answer is no Liberal Democrat candidates, that will immediately send them a strong message about how the party isn’t a serious party around their way. That may not be a fair view all the time, but it’s the obvious one to take.
Not only is it the obvious one to take, it’s one that many people do take and do feel very strongly about. During my time working for the party, there was voluminous and strongly expressed feedback each spring via the party’s online channels as people expressed their disappointment / disgust at turning up to vote and finding no Liberal Democrat candidate on the ballot paper. Cue complaints about party not being serious, having let them down, not being worth supporting in the future and so on.
It’s a problem when local and general elections are combined – and I’ve a strong hunch that missing local election candidates often cost us votes in that Westminster constituency because we’ve sent people such a negative message about ourselves just before they mark the ballot paper. But at least in those circumstances there is a Liberal Democrat on the other ballot paper that the person is given (Speaker’s constituency etc excepted).
There won’t be that safety net in England in May 2011. (In Scotland and Wales we’ll be there on the devolved ballot papers, but there won’t be local elections).
The problem is more than just likely lost votes or certain damaged credibility – it also puts people off offering to help.
Put up more local election candidates.
Finding people and putting together the paperwork takes time. It can be tough, but where we really put our minds to it it is often possible to put up far more candidates than we’ve done for a long time previously – witness the success in putting up more candidates to challenge the BNP this May.
So if your local party has council elections next year, why not start your planning now? You can even plan to start collecting signatures for nomination papers from 1st December when the new electoral register comes out. You’ll have to watch out for people who subsequently drop off the register, but having to make up some gaps in your lists of 10 signatures in March is much better than starting with a completely empty slate in March.