It’s a long game, revisited

Disappointment, even despair, was the general reaction by Lib Dems to the 2019 General Election results. But some of us saw a different picture. A week or so after that election I wrote a post for Lib Dem Voice under the headline “It’s a long game” in which I said:

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.

Since Thursday the media have been speculating on which other blue wall constituencies are now fair game for the Lib Dems – exactly the ones I was addressing in that extract. It’s worth looking at the map in this article in The Guardian, which shows those seats in the southern half of the UK that could be vulnerable to the small but powerful orange mallet.

Too often we imagine that we win in general elections through smart national campaigning in the last few weeks, and that all seats will reflect the mood of the day. That is simply not true. Seats are won on the back of long campaigning, which itself is dependent on building the capacity of the local party. Given Thursday’s result we can safely assume that Boris Johnson will not be calling for a general election soon, even if the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is rescinded, so we have the luxury of three years to build on the energy generated by Chesham and Amersham.

Speaking of which, back in 2019 I also wrote:

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.

Sarah Green knows that her top priorities over the next three years are to make herself highly visible in the constituency and, crucially, to build the local party. As part of the latter she will be energetically supporting the campaigns for any council elections that come along.

In the next general election, many of those hundreds of activists who loved helping out in the by-election campaign will be concentrating on their own blue wall seats. Chesham and Amersham Liberal Democrats will have to be entirely self-sufficient by then. Fortunately they already have some highly experienced and effective local activists (some of whom can be seen in the video below), but they will need to recruit more. The afterglow of the by-election will present them with ideal conditions to do just that.

* 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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15 Comments

  • Excellent article Mary. All LibDems in Blue Wall seats please read.

  • Dear Mary,
    Like many I live in a seat where the Lib Dems could not field a single candidate in the County elections and where one fully expects a lost deposit at the General, as has been the case since 2015.
    Kindly advise what I should do when it comes to voting in the General Election.

  • Dear Theakes – I am not sure why you are asking me that question. If you fully support the Lib Dems you know what the answer is: join the party, get involved and stand yourself. If not then I’m sure you can decide for yourself whom to vote for.
    But you highlight a good general point. We are a smaller party and do not have enough activists in every constituency.

  • Andrew McCaig 20th Jun '21 - 5:51pm

    Good article Mary, you are entirely right that the 2019 election restored our position as main challengers in many seats.

    However it would be very dangerous to assume we have three years before a General Election. The Tories may very well win in Batley and Spen, and it is their position vs Labour, not us, that will determine the date of the next General Election. Post Covid and post Brexit austerity will start to bite in the “red wall” seats next year and will not be getting better by 2024.

  • Andrew McCaig 20th Jun '21 - 5:59pm

    Also I believe there will be no Local Council elections of any sort (barring perhaps some Parish and Town Councils) in Buckinghamshire until 2025. The move to abolish District Councils in favour of Unitary Authorities with a 4 year term is a quite deliberate move to suppress us as a Party.

  • John Marriott 20th Jun '21 - 7:43pm

    By elections, if successfully fought, certainly give the winning party a boost. However, General Elections are not won on the doorstep; but in the media. If you can’t get and hold the media’s attention in a positive way you stand little chance of making much progress in terms of seats.

    Andrew McCaig is showing signs of paranoia in his comments about District Councils. No Council should exist simply to give any party a chance to shine. It should be there to provide effective services not to play electoral politics. I have been convinced for many years that the most cost effective way of delivering local services in any area is to have a Unitary Council in conjunction with a Parish/Town Council. That’s what they have in NI, Wales and Scotland as well as some areas of England, where the number is increasing.

    I know, after thirty years as a councillor, that there is massive duplication, complication, waste and confusion between County, District and Parish Councils. If Mr McCaig really believes that any restructuring of councils in his area is actually a dastardly plot to get at the Lib Dems, he’ll be telling us next that COVID vaccination is another form of state control!

  • Katharine Pindar 20th Jun '21 - 8:29pm

    It’s interesting to think what we must do nationally as well as locally, Mary. The Times gave us much less coverage on Saturday than the Guardian did, but there was a worthwhile article as so often from Matthew Parris, writing about liberal conservatives and how our party will need to stay centrist, he assures us, to continue harvesting their votes, despite the disgust of liberal Tories such as himself with Boris Johnson. (He voted Lib Dem in the GE for want of ‘better’ choices. )

    At the same time we have Neil Lawson of Compass pointing out that the ‘progressive’ parties must work together and now wanting a formal pact, which I am sure we should not have – other than perhaps one supporting electoral reform. Matthew Parris complains that we Lib Dems don’t make brave decisions, but as he thinks Messrs Clegg, Alexander and Laws did so rightly, radical Lib Dems can’t follow his advice either! But there must surely be careful choices to be made nationally now.

  • Andrew McCaig 20th Jun '21 - 10:13pm

    John, it is not having unitary councils that I object to (I am quite used to the unitary Kirklees Council), but to restricting local elections to once every four years and reducing the number of councillors below about one per 5k electors as has happened in some places.

  • I didn’t think that 2019 was as disastrous as many people thought. The result is a solid base to build on. Although the revoke policy was mistaken I am concerned that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water and the USP of being pro-European lost.

    A recent You Gov poll had the Greens receiving 11% of the remain vote and the Lib Dem’s 10% of the remain vote. The Greens I think favour rejoining the EU. We don’t want them to become the party of choice for staunch remainers.

  • I half agree Marco. It is tempting to be hard on ourselves, and we don’t want to come across as having our heads in the sand about the challenges, but congratulating ourselves for moving up into a viable 2nd place in so many constituencies wasn’t just softening the blow – it was valid progress that needs to be acknowledged.

    On the other hand, according to Prof John Curtice in the LibDem Pod, the polling data showed that the Revoke policy wasn’t the reason we lost votes by the 2019 general election, it was (and you should listen because he said loads of interesting stuff and I’ll not get this 100% right) because Labour were now offering a 2nd referendum and the people who voted for us in the EU elections didn’t know what else we stood for. He thought we were being over-reactionary to blame it on revoke and that we shouldn’t be shy to be pro-EU, but it should be just one of our policies.

    I know it’s been said that we didn’t campaign on being anti-Brexit in C&A, but I’m sure the voters there know we are pro-EU and think Brexit was a bad idea and that would have been a factor in softening up voters thinking of switching from Conservative to someone else. However, as the disastrous Brexit process continues we need to make sure we are reminding people we want something better. Not crowing about being right, just holding the government to account and suggesting a closer relationship with the EU will help.

    Mary, your point about local activists is vital. The people of C&A were rightly angry that the Conservatives had ignored them until the final stages of the by-election. We know Sarah will be a great MP and hopefully the media interest will help her to stay visible, and build up a great local team, but I would like to think there will be some return visits from activists to make sure it doesn’t look like we were only interested because it was a by-election.

    @Theakes – it is tricky when there’s not a bit local team, but I echo Mary’s suggestions if you want to help. It’s not practical for everyone to stand, so if you can’t put yourself forward perhaps you could help find someone who could?

  • Maureen Rigg 21st Jun '21 - 8:47am

    Andrew McCaig complains about the change to local elections happening every 4 years. In over 50 years of being able to vote in elections in this country I have never lived in an area which had elections more frequently than 4 years. I have envied from afar that ability to campaign to improve a position year on year. I have also felt the huge relief at the end of a count, of knowing that I don’t have to restart next day but can have a little rest. Swings and roundabouts!

  • John Marriott 21st Jun '21 - 9:08am

    @Andrew McCaig
    Call me a heretic if you like; but, frankly, we have too many councils AND councillors already. Now, if you staggered the elections to Unitary and Parish/Town Councils so that there was some form of election every two years, as is the case now, would that satisfy you?

    Lincoln City still elects its councillors by thirds, that’s one each year in three member wards with the fourth year devoted to County Council elections. The city is not ‘parished’ so that’s it; but surely that’s overkill as well. No wonder turnouts are so low. Maureen Rigg’s sentiments are mine as well. Continuous ‘campaigning’ requires a strong constitution and plenty of free time that not all of us possess. Give us a break, please!

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Jun '21 - 12:02pm

    @John Marriott
    “Lincoln City still elects its councillors by thirds, that’s one each year in three member wards with the fourth year devoted to County Council elections…..
    ….. No wonder turnouts are so low”
    Do you have evidence from past election results that turnouts are higher in similar (size, prosperity etc.) urban council areas with all-up elections?

  • @ Fiona

    Yes I read that and your summing up of it was correct.

    The reason I thought revoke was a mistake was that although it might not have been bad for our national vote share, in many individual constituencies such as Eastbourne, St Ives, Carshalton & Wallington it alienated soft leave voters who could have accepted with a second referendum but not revoke. So it was a bad policy for turning votes into seats in my view.

  • The big surprise for me is how quickly the C & A result has affected The Polls.

    There are only 3 New Polls so far, all putting us on 10% – these are up 1%, 2% & 3% on the previous Poll for each company, not in that order. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, The Byelection has on the companies that usually give us 5%.

    We should get a bunch of Polls at the weekend.

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