Is it right to expand a Local Party by a third?

Following changes to the English Party’s rules regarding the formation of Local Parties, in a number of places, local Liberal Democrats are being asked to decide upon new boundaries in their area. Here, our former day editor, Paul Walter, raises some of the issues that members will need to consider.

On December 7th, Newbury local party members will have a proposed constitutional amendment before them at our AGM, which I think other local parties have also faced. If passed, this motion would expand the local party area to include the six West Berkshire Council wards (Birch Copse, Calcot, Pangbourne, Purley on Thames, Theale, Westwood) within the Reading West parliamentary constituency. So, no longer would the Newbury local party be exactly contiguous with the Newbury parliamentary constituency, as it has been over decades of boundary changes. On 7th May 2015 we would be fighting on five fronts: Newbury and (part of) Reading West parliamentary elections, West Berkshire Council elections and two political Town Council elections.

Are we ready for this vast expansion?

Within the current dearth of explanation for this change and mindful of historic rejections of this move by respected campaigners, my own view is “no”. I am writing this article in the hope of ventilating the issue so that the membership can mull over the key factors before the AGM. I welcome further explanation for the proposal. I am ready to listen and learn.

The mooted increase comprises 11 council seats and an electorate of 23,871, causing an increase in our local party’s responsibilities of 31% – a third, effectively. It also massively expands the already huge land area covered by our party, making it a 41 minute journey of 26 miles from one corner to the other.

I am concerned that this will stretch our modest people resources too far, taking our eye off the rural/urban Anti-Tory ball of Newbury while we fight a different three cornered fight in what are, despite essential village hearts, suburbs of a nascent city – Reading. It changes the essential nature of our local party.

I also believe that this is counter to our principle of localism. Allan Macro in Theale, for whose campaigning skills I have the utmost respect, is the way to go. Local Liberal Democrats working their socks off for decades getting elected. We can’t expect miracles through control from a distant party HQ. Liberal Democracy is not about control. It’s about decisions and work at ward level.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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16 Comments

  • It’s good that we’ve changed the constitution to allow local parties to have the flexibility to decide between themselves where their boundaries should be drawn.

    Here it sounds like the redrawn Local Party’s boundary would match the Local Authority’s boundary rather than the Parliamentary Consituency’s. In general, it’s always struck me as odd that we, the party of community politics and localism, use national consituency boundaries to organise around. There may be specific reasons why it’s not right for Newbury, and that’s not my place to decide. But given the way we generally build our local parties from the grassroots up by winning wards and districts and taking over councils before eventually getting the MP, it would generally make sense to organise around the LA boundaries that give us the foundation upon which further successes are based.

  • David Evans 15th Nov '13 - 1:59pm

    The key question, and I’m not at all sure how the constitution deals with this, is what about Reading West constituency? Unless it is derelict, surely it must have a veto on such a land grab? When I was in Reading 30 years ago Reading West was a thriving area, with Jim Day and others whose names sadly I can no longer remember holding Tilehurst and Norcot and a lot of other sound branches working away. Has Reading decided to form one local party around the borough council, taking in the rest of the wards? If not what will happen to the potentially unloved remainder?

  • David Evans 15th Nov '13 - 2:01pm

    Having asked the questions, it would however be better if this were discussed in the members arena.

  • James Moore 15th Nov '13 - 2:12pm

    Speaking as an Officer of the Greater Reading Local Party, I would first of all say that this is not the place to have this sort of discussion. But, as it is here I will comment as such. The area of Reading West moving from the Greater Reading Local Party into the Newbury/West Berkshire Local Party are only the wards that exist within the West Berkshire Council area. They are absolutely not suburbs of Reading, and doubt anyone in those areas would consider themselves as such, especially those in areas such as Pangbourne. The wards in question, with Theale as the notable exception, have been largely moribund due to lack of resources in the Greater Reading Local Party, and the fact that West Berkshire Council has all-up elections every four years, where as Reading Borough Council elects by thirds, as does Wokingham Borough Council (Reading East has three wards from that LA). The move as such was to support Council-wide elections in West Berkshire with a view to eventually taking control of West Berkshire Council. The decisions have gone through the members, the Local Party Executive, the Berkshire Lib Dem Leaders meeting, and the Regional Executive. The way that the Berkshire Lib Dem group has been moving forward also means that there will be more cross-boundary campaigning to be able to support each other (in lieu of there no longer being a Berkshire County Council to bring together such a group of people).

  • Caracatus – that mileage gives an idea of the expansion of likely journies for the agent, organisers, candidates and for “roving deliverers” like myself etc.

    Caracatus: “An increase in membership”? It would b einteresting to know how many members that is in some forum – perhaps in the private forum. I think the density is rather low judging from trudging round Pangbourne, Calcot and Tilehurst trying to get signatures for my nominations as a candidate over the years. I usually had to resort to knocking on random doors.

    I have now started a thread regarding this article in the Private Members Forum under the heading “Party Organisation” and then the title of this article – should anyone want to post anything in that forum on the subject.

    James Moore, I really, really appreciate that explanation! You have told me more about this subject than I have been told about it locally in the year since it was mentioned at the last AGM.

  • James Moore 15th Nov '13 - 2:56pm

    Glad I could offer an explanation Paul! I’ve posted in the Members Forum to continue this conversation to offer even further explanation if needed.

  • paul barker 15th Nov '13 - 2:57pm

    On the more general point, organising around Local Authorities seems a good idea to me. Where I live in Southwark, we have 2 very weak Parties which mostly only campaign in a few target wards & 1 very strong Party with a National figure for an MP. Organising as Southwark would be simply recognising the reality on the ground.

  • Lucky Newbury – I wish my Local Party was so compact ! (we cover 3 parliamentary constituencies with about 50 miles border to border of winding roads over mountains and not all dual carriageway). Apart from praying for divine intervention to bring us more members so that we can divide into more workable units, we adapt as best we can to our geography. To cut back the expense of travel as well as time taken that inhibits some members attending meetings we have learned do as much business as is practical over the internet and to delegate decision making whenever possible Despite a tiny membership and only a handful of dedicated activists we manage but I sympathise with the writer of this post : the slogan “big is beautiful” is not universally applicable

  • James Spackman 15th Nov '13 - 3:36pm

    I think this post would have been helped by an explanation of the historic objections to local party constitutional changes.

    To put it simply, a constituency-based local party prioritises constituency campaigning, a council-based local party places greater emphasis on local council campaigning.

    Since Newbury lost it’s MP and began facing a local tory party with substantial financial backing, the growing demands of local town councillors to retain control of Newbury and Thatcham Town Councils has pushed the local party in this direction.

    So Paul proposes two contradictory arguments, that this move is unsupported in the local parties concerned, and that is stretches resources unnecessarily. In fact it was proposed to support local targetting decisions.

    Of course it is always a challenge to balance the demands of competing for council seats and trying to get an MP elected, but as ordinary members we should be mindful of our national party strategy to advance our political aims and do so within the wider political context.

  • Leekliberal 15th Nov '13 - 7:04pm

    Let’s be honest. We are not going to win the Parliamentary seat unless we are first successful at the local government level so the rational boundaries for effective campaigning are the local government ones.

  • A C McGregor 16th Nov '13 - 9:14am

    Form a local area branch for the wards and give them the license to carry on campaigning in the local area elections (and encourage them to co-operate cross boundary with whichever parliamentary constituency they are in).

    Problem solved.

  • In Kingston we have had a local party based on the council boundaries, with a total population of 160k, for as long as I can remember. It has been a stable set-up which has survived the redrawing of constituency boundaries. The area is suburban and relatively compact so travelling is not an issue.

    We contain one complete constituency (Kingston & Surbiton) and one third of another one (Richmond Park). For us, winning the Council took precedence and we had held it, on and off, for some 13 years before we won the two parliamentary seats in 1997.

    Of course, the decision must depend on local conditions. Most local parties (unless you are Sutton where the local council exactly contains two constituencies) are going to have to work with neighbouring parties for either the local council or the council seats. The important thing is good communications all round.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 16th Nov '13 - 10:53am

    Last night, my Local Party voted to reorganise on District Council boundaries, as has every other one in Suffolk. We felt that it allows us to co-ordinate our campaigning more effectively, given that the Parliamentary boundaries meander randomly across local authority ones. As we haven’t held a Parliamentary seat here since 1951, a General Election campaign has less immediacy than securing our local government base at this stage.

    We ensured buy-in by talking to members and Local Party Executives in advance, through a paper written with an aim to addressing the issues that affecting each of them, and it worked.

    It isn’t for every area though, and any change has to reflect local circumstances as far as is possible if it is to work.

  • Dave G Fawcett 16th Nov '13 - 12:01pm

    The re-organisation in Gateshead has worked out very well for us. We have always run as a town-wide metropolitan party with two constituency branches (Gateshead and Blaydon, both within the town boundary. However two wards in the east of the town, one of which we held until recently, were in Jarrow constituency. These we have now incorporated into the Gateshead party, making life just a little easier organisationally.

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