Alright, assuming we get an elected second chamber, what can we do before the election that follows?

The good news: the Liberal Democrat have secured a commitment to introduce elections by PR for the Upper House. The bad news: the Liberal Democrat record at fighting PR records is decidedly mixed. So what should we do?

There plenty of campaigning still to be done to ensure that an elected Upper House happens, but that needn’t stop thinking about the elections too.

As with the AV referendum, one of the most important acts of preparation is upping the number of local election candidates we stand because of the impact that has on the public’s perception of whether or not we are a party that can win things. As I wrote about the AV referendum, if people go to vote in a local election but find no Lib Dem on the ballot paper:

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 members 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.

That’s damaging when it happens with stand-alone local elections, but it’s even more damaging when it happens alongside other elections where we hope to do better (as it may well do for the Upper House).

It is also a specific example of a wider question: how do we develop the party on twin-tracks, strengthening marginal and target seats at the same time as building up new areas to join them? Overall the party has done much better at this than some assume; the number of seats the party fights seriously to win at general elections has doubled in a decade. Just because some of the extreme pessimists who haven’t noticed this doubling are wrong, though, doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue here.

It’s a problem we’ve often been much better at handling within constituencies than between constituencies, where local targeting wards hasn’t stopped wider development so that more wards are targets in future. For example, I’ve no doubt that it was rigorous targeting that took us from zero to sixteen councillors in Hornsey & Wood Green in 1997-2005, but it was also the simultaneous build-up in the areas covered by the other fifteen councillors that delivered Lynne Featherstone’s victory in 2005.

So here are five other suggestions based on that experience and similar efforts elsewhere:

  1. Wherever possible deliverers live, whether in a target ward or a ‘wrong’ area, give them regular leaflets to deliver. This begins to build the broader roots that supplement rather than detract from targeting.
  2. But don’t just have leafleting as a way for people to get involved. Whether it’s letter-writing, street stalls, demonstrations, policy discussions or social events, there are plenty of ways to get people involved and make them active.
  3. Develop your internet audience, especially email lists – because this is campaigning which can reach out to scattered interested people in a way that delivering leaflets really can’t.
  4. Work on the local media – a nice photo op that gets in a local paper can take plenty of time to arrange, but still be very efficient in time taken versus people reached.
  5. Follow the tips on what to do with new members from Lib Dem Voice’s archive

All five of those points, and the point about local candidates, are familiar. I’ve often said them before. You may well have thought of them before. But not nearly enough places strive to do them. With elections for the Upper House there is now an added incentive to change that – so why not give it go (or help someone else give it a go) and have some fun trying out a new thing or two?

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Firstly we need to know exactly what kind of PR system it’s going to be. Is it going to be multi-member STV or some kind of regional or national party list system? Targeting is completely pointless if we end up with party lists.

    I hope Nick Clegg is really pushing the STV option and avoids the temptation of party lists. It might be desirable to protect party elders like Shirley Williams or Paddy Ashdown but if they’re not individually accountable to the electorate it’s not really all that democratic. In addition, STV for the Lords will create all the infrastructure needed to introduce it into the commons in future parliaments. We really must take this opportunity to show the electorate that the right PR system does not “break the constituency link” or, in practice, have any of the disadvantages put forward by opponents. Lords reform could be the real legacy for the Lib Dems in this coalition.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 22nd Jul '10 - 1:54pm

    All of the above appears to take as a given that the second chamber has the same role and functions as the first chamber. Perhaps there is a need for much more clarity as to the prupose of the Second Chamber before anyone starts thinking about how the elections and campaigning should be contacted. Perhaps if the Second Chamber is to operate as a reviewing and revising chamber then its members will need to something other than party hacks who failed to get into the HoC and the public will want something other than the usual party political campaigning?

  • I have similar concerns to toryboys[…] – though am still a card-carrying Lib Dem.

    The best current feature of the upper chamber is its wealth of expertise across a wide range of areas. If some new recruit who couldn’t make it as a PPC wanted to stand as a senator/Lord then I don’t think I’d be swayed by my party affiliation as much as I would be by their intelligence and experience.

    I’m worried that electing an upper chamber will pave the way for the pointless partisan debates that we currently have in the Commons and force representatives to spend time and money campaigning rather than scrutinising policy.

    We should just have an independent appointment body that vets party lists and appoints representatives in a proportional manner. And outgoing MPs should go to the bottom of the list, not the top!

  • toryboysnevergrowup 22nd Jul '10 - 6:15pm


    I don’t think that there should be a problem in trusting the electorate to make the right choices (and for that reason I wouldn’t support an independent appointment body) – there just has to be a proper debate about what the purpose and powers of the 2nd chamber should be first as there clearly isn’t a clear consensus. As things stand the party machines will just put forward a mixture of those working in the machines and celebrities so as to increase their power of patronage and the poor electorate will have little alternative – and anyone who thinks the LibDems are any different from the two youngest parties obviously hasn’t been watching recent events.

  • Lib Dem candidates are chosen by the membership, so there is less risk of “packing” or indeed of putting up inexperienced “party hacks” but then – if we do succeed in getting STV for the upper house – the public will be perfectly at liberty to not vote for such unsuitable candidates and vote for others from the same party.

    It will, of course, depend what sort of approval criteria we adopt for Senate candidates as well – will there be extra hoops would-be candidates will have to jump through?

    Personally, I tend to favour using STV with two parallel ballots, one for constituency Senators on party lines and one for regional crossbenchers so as to keep an element of the expertise we currently have in the Lords.

  • Daniel Henry 25th Jul '10 - 1:15am

    Although I’m a fan of STV for HoC, I’d prefer lists for HoL.
    We already have a directly elected chamber that determines government and has the last word on bills.
    The House of Lords has a different role – bringing in the opinions of experts.
    I’d rather see Lords appointed for their expertise rather than for their campaigning abilities.

    I think that the election should purely be to determine the proportion of the house that each party gets to control.
    (And ofcourse the public will be able to vote “independent” to see a proportion of the house go to non-partisan independent candidates)

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