It’s a long game

If you are recovering from a hard fought campaign which did not produce the results you were hoping for, then you do not want to read ‘how we did it this time’ from one of the few successful constituencies. And this is not one of those posts.

Instead I want to offer encouragement and hope, reflecting on our history. In Kingston & Surbiton, we’ve been there before and we got through eventually, but it was a long game.

We first took the Parliamentary seat in 1997 on revised boundaries, which had worked in our favour. Lib Dems (and the Alliance before that) had spent many years building up our seats on Kingston Council.  I should explain that the constituency of Kingston & Surbiton covers 12 of the 16 wards on Kingston Council.

Until the early 80s we had no seats at all on the Council. The Tories had always won, with Labour always in opposition.

Our breakthrough came in 1982 when the SDP-Liberal Alliance won 7 seats. In 1986 we pushed that up to 20 seats and the Council went into No Overall Control for the first time. By 1990 the Tories were once again in control but we held a healthy 18 seats.

But in 1994 we took control for the first time with an encouraging 52% of the vote. It was in that context that Ed Davey won Kingston & Surbiton by a tiny majority of 56. It was not one of the party’s 50 target seats; we won with no help at all from outside until the last weekend of the campaign when it started looking close. The legendary Belinda Eyre-Brooks was convinced we could do it on our own.

Since then the Council has swung between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats interspersed with periods of NOC. There are currently no Labour councillors. Although we now have a huge majority on the Council (38 seats out of 48) we know just how easy it is to fall from grace and are not complacent.

There are two lessons to be learnt from our experience. The first, as is generally acknowledged,  is that it is almost essential to win control of the local council before we are in with a chance of winning a Parliamentary seat. There are all sorts of reasons for that, not least that the task of winning ward after ward builds your activist base. St Albans knows that.

The second lesson is that it is a long game. I’m absolutely delighted to see the progress made in so many seats, and it fills me with such hope for the future. Do not give up. What you have done is to lay the foundations for future successes. Keep building your teams and keep targeting Council wards. Get all the advice you can on how to do that. Hold long term ambitions, and do not become dependent on external help.

That last point is particularly important. There is a good reason why by-election gains are often lost at the next general election. Hundreds of people piling into to help in a by-election can produce exhilarating results, but unless the infrastructure of the local party is seriously strengthened it will be struggling when it is left to its own resources.

As a footnote, I do want to respond to some comments made on Lib Dem Voice and on social media soon after the election. They were along the lines “You must have known that you were going to win in Kingston & Surbiton, in Richmond Park and in Twickenham, so why didn’t you help nearby constituencies who narrowly missed?”

Well, we did help. During the campaign Kingston & Surbiton provided support to Wimbledon, Esher & Walton, Guildford and Kensington (I spent the Monday evening before polling day writing blue envelopes for Kensington) and to other constituencies as well. Richmond Park and Twickenham did the same.

On polling day itself we were advised to stay within our constituencies for several reasons.

First, the spectre of 2015, when we helped other constituencies and lost our own, hung over us all.

Second, this election was very strange, with a volatile electorate, so we could not fully rely on data from the past, or even, to a certain extent on our current canvassing.

Third, our voters tend to turn out quite late in the evening, so we would not reach a point early enough where our analysis would show that we had won.  In the end, the size of the majority (and indeed the turnout at 75%) genuinely was a surprise.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Richard Underhill 21st Dec '19 - 11:10am

    I remember a candidate who became a peer addressing federal conference carrying a bucket. The Tories had said that votes for us were only protest votes.
    I am sure of the numbers because of the emphasis in her speech, 33 councillors out of 36, 3 Tories, no Labour.
    She emphasised that the majority group behaved well in respect of the 3 Tories, who were put on all the committees and had difficulty attending them all.
    She made other points, such as a sticker worn by a deliverer “Stop the Bloody Whaling” (I have a record of whale songs on a 33 rpm LP sent from USA by my brother, I can still play it),
    Strangely the red light at conference did not come on.

  • Probably the most useful article on Lib Dem Voice this year, if not several years.

    I’m not going to labour Mary point about how crucial solid party infrastructure is to achieve a breakthrough at parliamentary level. Well actually I am.

    The core vote strategy (i.e building from bases where there are voters who consciously or subconsciously identify with liberal values and party policies) is useful but it is limited by 2 factors. One is that even in the most natural of “liberal” constituencies, this vote is probably not more than 35% max. Secondly even though it’s a core vote, because it’s liberal, it’s therefore pragmatic as opposed to dogmatic and so very vulnerable to being squeezed/induced to vote tactically come election.

    That’s why solid and sustainable infrastructure is necessary to;
    1. Add to that core vote enough to take it over the line. This can be bread and butter community initiatives or campaign communications that win over unaligned and floating voters as well as soft supporters of the main opponent party (a basket of votes that is probably at the very least 25% of the electorate). It can also be about identifying and squeezing 3rd and nth place party supporters.

    2. Campaign inside and outside election time to firm up the core vote to withstand the brutal national squeeze of the Lib Dem vote by the big parties (a problem even where LDs hold or are in 2nd place a seat)

    It’s telling that in the London targets where Lib Dems were very poor 3rd in 2017, the only seat where the Lib Dems seriously threatened and came close to winning was Wimbledon. That had the best infrastructure (6 councillors, small but something to organise from, as well as continue the work until the next election). Cities/Westminster, Kensington, Finchley and GG, and Chelsea and Fulham had 1 councillor between them.

    Building up the councillor base is crucial. The more it grows, as well as building organisational and infrastructure prowess, it also reduces/deprives opposition parties capacity to organise.

  • That’s a good analysis of what targetting means in practice – and a counterpoint to the Monday morning quarterbacks of targeting strategy.

    But “(I spent the Monday evening before polling day writing blue envelopes for Kensington)” doesn’t speak volumes about the organisation that had gone in there

  • Richard Underhill 21st Dec '19 - 12:45pm

    One other occasion when the red light did not come on was when former leader Charles Kennedy spoke passionately about Europe. He was followed by the chair of the session warning us that no-one else should expect to be allowed to speak at the same length.
    Charles’ constituency was in Scotland, including the Isle of Skye (and its bridge). Quite a long way away from Edinburgh. Is there a case for more devolution within Scotland?

  • Nigel Jones 21st Dec '19 - 2:05pm

    This message about local government is so important. We did not make enough about it in the election campaign, where we could so much have stressed the need for locally accountable public services, with a properly resourced local government system. I did this in my campaign and it brought me a few messages of support from constituents I have never met.
    It goes to our core values, because localism complements our internationalism, as indeed it does in principle in the EU treaties.
    I suggest that we do not rush to elect a new leader, but give support to those who have May local elections so that they are not distracted by national change. In any case, I think national change needs much long thought and discussion both among ourselves and with the general public before we start choosing a new leader. We have the time to work things through, while engaging with people outside the party for the local elections.
    Mary, if you agree, please pass this message on.

  • @James Pugh – thank you for developing some of my points. In the end what matters in an election is having enough local people door knocking, delivering, phoning, plugging social media, writing blue envelopes, telling etc. One minor joy of the campaign in Kingston (across both Kingston & Surbiton and Richmond Park constituencies) is that we now have an active team in a ward where we have never held a council seat. They significantly helped Sarah Olney’s campaign and have their sights on our next local elections in 2022.

  • @Mary

    ……and somebody to organise all these activities, inside and outside election times…….

    And great to hear about ward level organisation. Ill look forward to hearing of Lib Dem gains in Coombe Hill. It wasn’t much fun canvassing there in for the 2016 Richmond Park byelection, and I’m sure so much has changed in 3 years

  • Sue Sutherland 21st Dec '19 - 4:30pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with most of what Mary says because a strong team of local Councillors usually relies on teams of leafletters and putting out literature all through the year. She also says it’s almost essential to have control of the council before you can win the parliamentary seat. I’d like to emphasise the word almost.
    We first took Bath in 1992 when we had a strong team of local councillors but were no where near taking control. However, that team contained people facing Labour and facing Tory in their council seats which meant we knew how to squeeze the Labour vote as well as decrease the Tory vote. We also had a period of No Overall Control which we used to introduce changes in the council, such as opening up the council and introducing an equalities policy so we showed what we stood for. In addition 3 previous GEs had been fought decreasing the Tory majority. A good technique adopted was to report how the incumbent, a very prominent Tory, had voted on various issues in Parliament. We finally took the council in 1996 on a great surge in our vote after 4 years of local elections following our General Election success.
    In the early years we did rely on outside help in both local and national elections but the need for that declined. So I think that it’s essential to have a strong and active Councillor base in order to win the parliamentary seat but not essential to be in control of the council. What this means is that people who enjoy canvassing can do so while those who enjoy a good walk can do leafleting. Obviously now there is a need for those who enjoy social media to be able to focus on that. I would also emphasise the need to be consultative with voters and try to implement their suggestions and to tell them why you can’t if it’s impossible to do what they want.
    We now have several years in which to improve our council bases and build up teams of active supporters which would mean that we have a good chance first of solidifying our vote in constituencies where we came second this time and then of taking those seats when the full disaster of Brexit becomes apparent. NB never forget that we have to tell people about those Brexit disasters because the popular papers will pretend its a rousing success, whatever happens.

  • nigel hunter 21st Dec '19 - 5:29pm

    Keep building up council seats for success in the future. Those 91 2nd places.Have we the ability to campaign in all of them or will we need to be selective in ,say, 50? Campaigning in between elections is a must to become known . That is informing the voters of policies and leader in our leaflets and social media for they are our main source of communication. We must find ways of wooing the papers and tv channels.

  • @James Pugh – it doesn’t have to be a paid organiser. We have managed things in Kingston on a number of occasions without a full time campaigns organiser. It does make the wards more self reliant. It also means that when a paid organiser is in place then they can bring added value knowing that many tasks are already under control.

  • @Sue Sutherland – yes, I did say ‘almost’ because I am aware that there are exceptions like yours. But the fact remains that you need a) enough people who have voted Lib Dem in the past and b) plenty of activists. That normally goes with having a majority on the Council, but can sometimes be achieved without – it depends on local demographics.

  • nigel hunter 21st Dec '19 - 5:40pm

    Brexit and the NHS. Yes the papers will bleat about how good it is. I have heard talk that Amazon has got in thru the back door and obtained patient information where they can target medicines If this is true patient confidentiality is breached for the purposes of opening it up f or’ better medical care’ ,code for profit making.

  • Ruwan Kodikara 21st Dec '19 - 6:55pm

    Excellent article Mary and indeed gives hope and something to focus on in the coming months and years. Thinking long term 🙂

  • Though I agree that building a local government base and infrastructure is essential in winning parliamentary seats, it limits our objectives to imply one is not possible without the other. We simply do not have the time to save the planet and methodically build up our core vote. We must also trust the British people and know that with the right priorities, the electorate will flock to us when the time is right.

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