Lessons from May’s elections

To start, three pieces of promising news: in six of the last seven annual rounds of local elections, the number of Liberal Democrat councillors has gone up. Secondly, the change in our vote in Crewe & Nantwich was pretty much the same as in Dudley West, South East Staffordshire and Wirral South – the three big Labour gains from the Conservatives in the run-up to 1997 – a general election at which we then made huge gains in the numbers of MPs we had.

Add in to that the steady but very clear improvement in our poll ratings since Nick Clegg became leader, and there’s plenty of cause for quiet optimism about our electoral prospects – provded we put in the hard work necessary.

But we shouldn’t be complacent that just any sort of hard work will deliver the right results, and there are two signs in that news that we need, in particular, to broaden our strength across the country. Whilst we have been gaining seats at local elections, our overall share of the vote has tailed off in recent years. And in addition the Crewe & Nantwich result reminds us of how much harder work it is to win when we start in third rather than second. More strength across the country will not just deliver us more councillors and councils, it will also up the odds of a Parliamentary by-election being a real chance for a breakthrough for the party.

We also have the prize of overtaking Labour as the second party of local government hanging tantalising in front of us – Labour has only 600 more councillors and on The Guardian‘s figures after this May they have only three more councils than us.

The challenge, therefore, is to do at the council level what we have done so successfully at the Westminster election level. Over the last few elections, and carrying on since 2005, we have managed to combine both a very clear and strong targeting strategy (having to persuade along the way many who are tempted to spread efforts thinly to little effect!) whilst also growing the list of seats where we are in serious contention at the same time.

Yes, we put a far higher proportion of our resources into the key Parliamentary seats than we used to – but also, the number of such seats has grown. It’s this mix of focusing efforts on the key battleground constituencies whilst also increasing the size of the battleground that has allowed us to continue to grow in the number of MPs and win places where we were nowhere ten years ago – such as my own Hornsey & Wood Green where in 1997 we were on 11%, with no councillors, not even any second places in any wards and no delivery network.

I have personally been particularly struck by the increasing numbers of fellow MPs and would-be MPs I meet at the party’s training weekend for key seats – each time we seem to have had a bigger and better team.

But how do we replicate that on a local level – so that we continue to build on the hugely powerful impact of careful targeting and focusing of resources on those areas where they can make a difference, but at the same time make a much larger number of seats and councils competitive so that we are expanding our base across the whole country?

Too often those are seen as conflicting aims. But whilst it is certainly true there is some tension between them, I believe we have been at our most successful where we have found ways to achieve both at the same time.

Those with an interest in American politics may notice the parallels with the “map changers” strategy of John Edwards and the “50 states” strategy of Howard Dean – both wanting to concentrate on the really winnable races whilst also growing the breadth of the party so that it doesn’t end up just hunkered down in a small number of redoubts.

As if that isn’t a hard enough circle to square – we also need a strategy that can actually be turned into specific concrete steps. Too often in the past plans to build up weaker areas, reduce the number of black holes and so on have turned out to generate lots of fine words but very little actual action.

This is an issue we need to address with some urgency because 2009 will, almost certainly, see local and European elections on the same day. And in those areas what message will it send to voters in the polling station when they see the Liberal Democrats on one ballot paper but not the other? That could rather undermine our otherwise very strong message about how we can win right across the country under the European voting system and how we are in a period of genuine three-party politics.

Indeed, I’ve been told that the most strident feedback the party has received via its website after both this year’s and last year’s local election has been from people angry that they went to vote – and didn’t find any Liberal Democrat candidate on their council ballot paper.

So – what should we do? I think we should set ourselves the following challenges.

First, to stand a record number of candidates in the 2009 elections. In 2005 we had candidates for 89% of the seats – around 260 short of a full set. That is a number that should be possible to crack next time – break it down per regional party, per MEP or Euro candidate, per MP, per whomever wants to help – we can make that a manageable individual target.

Second, to run an earmarked fundraising operation to allow people to “adopt” a ward where there has been no Liberal Democrat candidate for the last eight years and donate towards running a campaign there for the first time – and gather in the pledges in advance so local parties can see what is on offer to encourage them to stand a candidate! I suspect that in some cases there is a lack of ambition when it comes to standing candidates from local party committees, so here would be a really powerful way of helping to raise people’s ambitions.

Third, I loved the “Community Canvass Week” initiative the party ran for the first time last autumn to encourage people to get out on the doorsteps talking to the public. So let’s run it again – but with a big publicity and training drive in advance so that we get more people trying door-knocking for the first time – and so that we provide people who are in areas of very weak Liberal Democrat organisation “self-starter kits” so they can get going even if there isn’t a working local party organisation to run things. More people knocking on more doors in more areas – that is crucial to expanding the number of wards in which we are competitive, and will also do our European election prospects no harm at all.

Fourth, we need to lower the barriers for someone to move between thinking they want to do something to improve their area and finding that there is only a very weak party organisation and having read and followed everything in Chris Rennard’s How to win local elections book and ending up a local councillor. So my fourth suggestion is that the party should produce a more general self-starter kit, one that takes you through an easy to follow series of steps that help build up the party’s presence and strength – but short of running to win a council seats, because that isn’t for everyone – and if that’s the only option on offer, it will also put off those who might be willing to end up being councillors, but only after a more gentle introduction. Recruiting a couple more donors for the party, writing regularly to the local newspaper, using your own website to promote the party’s online campaigns – there’s a myriad of steps you can take, so let’s make it easy for people to take them.

And fifthly, we should ensure that we have at least a modest local internet presence covering every part of the country, helping point the public at more news about the party, how to join, how to get in touch with the local team etc. With the number of existing sources of news and information about the Liberal Democrats, I am sure it can’t be beyond the wit of a clever programmer or two to be able to put together an effective mini-site system that covers our internet black holes at a minimum of cost and effort.

There are I am sure many other ideas, but I’ve deliberately picked up a relatively small number that, when broken down, would require any individual to do relatively little – at low cost of both time and money. Collectively though – it could make a huge difference to our ongoing battle to establish ourselves firmly as a major political party in all parts of the country – and to persuade people that British politics really is a three (and in Scotland and Wales, four) party system.

And how do we make it happen? Well – I’m sending a copy of this over to Ed Davey, chair of the party’s Campaigns and Communications Committee – because this seems to me to all be about campaigning and communicating better.

But – particularly in our party above all – it’s not about waiting for someone from on-high to impose a decision. Instead – it’s about what you do in your area. I wouldn’t be MP for Hornsey & Wood Green if I’d waited around for someone from on-high to decide I should be. I’m an MP because I and my colleagues locally made it happen: we got the ball rolling and in due course got help from outside. But the key was us wanting it to happen and taking our fate into our own hands.

So if you agree with any of what I’ve written above – take fate into your own hands too. Oh, and don’t forget first to go help in Henley!

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Heigham 26th May '08 - 3:56pm

    Excellent. I get the feeling tha the party is at last about ready to take this sort of advice about how to make the breakthrough effort we need.

  • Very good.

    As ever it is necessary to learn how walk a tightrope at a low level before we can gain the confidence to cross between mountain peaks and climb up to the highest summits.

    No over-extension, but also no poverty of ambition.

  • Lynne you say nothing about the elephant in your room. The performance in London in May.

  • Tony Greaves 26th May '08 - 7:36pm

    I really think this kind of discussion should be in the private members only part of this website. Would we really discuss all this kind of thing in a local newspaper?

    Tony Greaves

  • Has there been any research about how much a website improves the chances of a local party to reach voters and potential new members? The piece of Chris Black from April, which went almost unnoticed, suggest that it is efficient use of resources especially for small local parties.

  • Tony Greaves 27th May '08 - 12:18am

    Hm. I remember the vitriol some of us got for having this kind of debate in the private parts of cix not long ago (or longer ago in ALC publications, Radical Bulletin etc – which were available to anyone who really made the effort but hardly at the click of a button). Now it seems we carry on regardless in the full glare of anyone who wants to read – and join in. How about asking how many of the people who join in here are not actually Liberal Democrats?

    Tony Greaves

  • Quite right, Darrell. I think Chris Rennard ought to publish on here his top secret plans for winning Henley too…..

    It wouldn’t matter if all the Tories came along to read them and to implement them before we do.

    Their most recent campaigns are pretty good imitations of Lib Dem camapaigns anyway, and I am sure you will agree that we ought to make it easier for the Tories to win.

  • Tony Greaves wrote: “How about asking how many of the people who join in here are not actually Liberal Democrats?”

    I for one am not a member of any party, though I symphatise Liberal Democrats. Does that mean, that anything what I say should be ignored? Should the Liberal Democrats take in consideration only those ideas, which come from card carrying members of the party?

  • Aaron Trevena wrote: “something else that would be nice to link to from the lib dems members page (along with LDV and libdemsblogs.co.uk)”

    Actually LDV and libdemsblogs.co.uk are linked from the public page of the Lib Dems, see here.

  • Aaron says…

    What’s more I think it’s crazy to really think that by-election tactics like how to emphasis that our candidate is more local than theirs, or some other candidate is a toff (or in henley a chav), or how many leaflets can be stuffed in how many letterboxes or how many poor sods get cold called by people the other end of the country with no interest in henley beyond gaining another yellow seat in the commons, really make us more electable.

    Agreed Aaron. Let’s talk not only about techniques, but national policy, and not shy away from European issues either…

  • Tony Greaves 27th May '08 - 1:07pm

    Okay, I have thought a bit more about my concerns. Putting aside the dual standards, it’s not so much that things are being debated or that other people might get to see them, but that it is not a debate within the party.

    I (rather obviously) believe in vigorous discussion and debate within the party but I think it should be within the party. The whole blog thing seems to me to have got out of hand in the other parties and we should try not to let it get out of hand in our party.

    For instance I simply refuse to try to debate the future of this party in a serious and constructive way with someone like Yasmin Zalzala. The way we debate with political enemies is different from the way we debate amongst ourselves. Or it should be.

    Yet here who knows who is which?

    Tony Greaves

  • Doesn’t it show quite a black and white vision to say, that anybody who isn’t “one of ourselves” is a political enemy?

  • What Lynne doesn’t say is that in her own patch the Lib Dems did very badly (relatively speaking) and seemingly had no campaign presence until the final week.

    Nothing seemed to be done to support Brian Paddick and while Labour were out for the month before 1 May, the Lib Dems only seemed to be active in the final week.

    The result was enough to suggest that Lynne’s personal bubble is slowly deflating and that H&WG Lib Dems have lost members and momentum.

    In my ward, which we (Labour) lost to the Lib dems by 700 votes in 2006 we topped the poll.

    No doubt someone will be along shortly to rebut all this in a second, but it is not just meant to be a bit of pro-Labour propaganda but a warning to Lib Dems that chasing the Tory vote exposes Lynne and co to a Labour revival.

    Obviously that seems like a strange thing to say now, but the Tories are not going to be 20% ahead on polling day at the next GE and lots of centre-left voters will be galvanised by the prospect of a Tory government.

    I was talking to a former member of Lib Dem staff at the weekend who was regretting the death of “the project” and the failure of key Lib Dems to recognise what a threat the Tory revival is to them. I fear she had a serious point.

  • passing tory 28th May '08 - 4:03am

    MatGB: “We had a much more vibrant and useful set of blogs way before the other two parties did”

    You really must be a bit delusional if you think this is true. Compare the trajectory and impact of this site vs ConservativeHome.

    Of course, if you define only Lib Dem blogs as being useful to you then your statement might be correct, but that would be a bit myopic.

  • PT, Tories have ConservativeHome (which seems to me be full of fanatic zealots, for whom even David Cameron was still a while ago a dangerous socialist) and Iain Dale’s Diary, and what else? MatGB was talking about a set of blogs, and indeed, if you take a look at LibDem Blogs – Aggregated, you’ll find a real spectrum of views from about 200 or so different blogs. The Conservatives doesn’t have anything like that, or if they do, they sure have hidden it well.

  • passing tory 28th May '08 - 8:35am

    Not so much well hidden as not looked for by the average Lib Dem.

    If you bother to look for them you will find they are there aplenty and have been for some while.

    Sure Iain Dale and ConservativeHome hog the limelight, although Guido is broadly sympathetic and it seems a bit mean of you to miss off Dizzy. Then it depends a bit what you are after. Coffee House works well (although may be a bit formal for your taste, also the rest of the Spectator stable). A large number of MPs and PPCs blog (e.g. I know John Redwood is a bit of a bete noir in Lib Dem circles but his blog is particularly well maintained IMHO). Then there are the more personal blogs (e.g. Daily Referendum, Letters from a Tory etc etc).

    This is not to say that I expect you to agree with the views expressed in these blogs or necessarily feel the need to read them at all, but they are most definitely there. Iain Dale used to keep a fairly comprehensive and well-maintained list although it seems slightly harder to dig out in his new format.

  • Passing Tory wrote: “…by the average Lib Dem.”

    As I said previously in this thread, not for you or any other Tory, nut for Tony Greaves who wouldn’t like to discuss with people who aren’t members of the Liberal Democrats, I am not a member of any party, though I symphatise Liberal Democrats. I don’t even agree with all of them, but still I’m interested to read many of their opinions, like I am interested to read those of Labour and Conservative blogs, if they are made easily available.

    Liberal Democrats have “LibDem Blogs – Aggregated” and Labour has Bloggers4Labour, which make following the political blogs easier for an independent interested in politics like me, but the Tories haven’t made any such effort, so I understand that as them not being interested to make themselves visible for outsiders, and therefore probably not even very interesting to read.

  • passing tory 28th May '08 - 9:33am

    NN, I guess you simply hated serendipidous discoveries in old-style bookshops then.

    In terms of blog aggregation then to an extent you have a point, although both ConservativeHome and IDD compile content (although it is clear that this takes an editorial stance in each case). I suppose it comes down to whether you want all your information through one, centrally organised (and therefore controlled) feed or whether you prefer something a little more distributed.

    Although, given the tone of your comments you strike me as the sort of person I meet canvasing who says “well, I’ll never vote Tory now” when you know full well they have never voted Tory in their life and even if you let them write the manifesto they still wouldn’t.

  • PT, I didn’t hate the old-style bookshops, but in a modern information society there’s so much information available, that an aggregator makes following what’s happening (and picking the interesting bits) much easier for a busy reader like me, and therefore also enables those who participate to the aggregator to make their voice heard.

    Aggregators are automated, and therefore it’s unlikely that they would be controlled, it’s all about making things easier for those who want to read blogs. Of course you can keep the Conservative blogosphere “more distributed”, but don’t expect me to spend more time for searching the good bits from it just because the Tories seem to be too old-fashioned to adopt modern technology.

    I’m not pretending; I said I’m not a member of any party, but I symphatise the Liberal Democrats. I didn’t claim that I had voted the Tories, or ever would. (Maybe I could, if they had a much better candidate than the other parties, I actually stress the personal qualities when choosing who to vote.) But to be frank, I don’t care what you think about me and my political views, and actually they are none of your business. But with that tone you sure aren’t making me any more favourable to the Tories.

  • passing tory 28th May '08 - 10:20am

    Well, NN, you have more or less made my previous point for me. For someone who has previously written

    “Conservative Home does provide a vital function because it reminds us just how awful a Conservative government was and will still be….”

    to then go on to say

    “But with that tone you sure aren’t making me any more favourable to the Tories.”

    is a bit comical. Just who do you think you are kidding?

  • You are confusing me with someone else. Your first quotation wasn’t from me.

    Personally I don’t think that ConservativeHome represents all Tories, just the kind of Tories I don’t like, and it seems you are one of them.

    [Abusive comments edited out – mod.]

  • passing tory 28th May '08 - 10:51am

    what charming language, NN.

    apologies for the misquote; yes I had you confused with Darrell.

    It was far from clear that MatGB was talking about aggregators when he talked about a set of blogs (or rather, it seemed clear that he wasn’t); I rather assumed you were deliberately winding me up and reacted accordingly.

  • I’m not sure the Lib Dems did win the constituency vote in Hornsey and Wood Green because we don’t have a proper breakdown of the postal vote. But I’m notr claiming Labour stormed the place, merely that the Lib Dems were in retreat – as they clearly where.

    Some Labour members (not me) were surprised by how well the Lib Dems did in 2005 and 2006 blew away the last cobwebs of complacency for many. What I was surprised by was how far the Lib Dems slipped back from 2006.

    But my point is not one of electoral banter – it is about the Lib Dems as a party of the left. The further Nick Clegg moves from that the more difficult it will be not just to hold Hornsey and Wood Green but lots of other places too.

    The Lib Dems won all those west country seats in 1997 because they were a party of the moderate left. It is a mistake to think that they can change their spots now and not suffer.

    You are entitled to hate the Labour Party but don’t make the mistake of many in Labour who’s hatred of the Lib Dems blinds them to what is really going on with the electorate.

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