Lessons from the Stalham (North Norfolk) byelection loss

As the fantastic team of over forty volunteers recovers from our collective disappointment, it’s worth saying how proud I am of the way people rallied around our fabulous candidate in the depths of winter, against a cynical and purposeful Tory opposition.

Disappointing though our loss is, had this not been the case we may not have learnt a vital lesson that I now feel ought to be shared – in particular for the benefit of areas where we are in control of the local council.

My reflection is that we lost, not to the Tories, who got nearly the same number of votes as they did last time, but to motivation. With only a 22% turnout (and a target pool that included soft conservatives on polling day, and was canvassed in full nearly twice), we know our supporters did not switch to the Tories, but it quickly became apparent that they lacked sufficient motivation to go out and vote.

To solve this, firstly, we need all our supporters and potential voters to understand that core Tory voters will turn up whatever the weather.

Secondly, we need to give people a better reason to come out and show their support; to battle the other life distractions which currently mean our core vote is less likely to come out than the Conservatives.

I believe this reason needs to be based not a single-issue policy or three-worded slogan, but on a long-term, strong, collective reputation. All too often that reputation has been based on an individual – we need look no further than our brilliant former MP Norman Lamb for an example of this. Or when our national polling has been strong because of a single issue like the Iraq war. But we must choose a more lasting, resonant reputational attribute around which we can all unite if we want to scale our movement sustainably, for the long term.

I propose that this new reputational attribute should be: competence.

Competence is about delivering what we say, when we say it. It is presenting an image of togetherness and coherence. It is being decisive but able to change course when the facts change. It is being unapologetic but purposeful in the way we go about our business and make our decisions.

Competence is also highly compatible with the outstanding capabilities of individuals with a strong personal following, and yet can enfranchise a movement beyond this and create the sort of lasting momentum behind a brand that individual endorsement or even relentless promotion alone cannot.

I believe this is the reputational attribute we should seek to build in the long term because:

  1. There’s a clear gap in the market in the current British political landscape, in particular in the minds of soft conservatives who we can switch to our cause.
  2. It is entirely compatible with the battles we’re currently fighting in Parliament, in North Shropshire, and in any local campaign where we’re either making things happen with the benefit of elected office, or campaigning to hold power to account.
  3. We do not need a big media soapbox upon which to position this claim; we can focus on demonstrating it in the way that we do what we do at every level, now.

But to do this, there are implications ranging from candidate selection to local messaging content. Above all, we have to step up our communications. Politics is a communications business, and competence therefore requires us to be outstanding and professional in how we communicate.

At the moment our reputation – our shop window, our image, the words and ideas people associate with us – is too ragged and rough around the edges. It smacks of politeness and being fearful to confront and be direct. Modern effective communications require messages across all levels of our voter engagement – and our own organisation – that are strong, clear, and meaningful.

The is about the outcome of our communications, not the content. It is not a strapline or a message to voters, but an association to build our reputation on, as we go about doing what we do – whether that’s angrily demanding justice, passionately pursuing the change we want to see, or steadily solving the day-to-day challenges in our constituencies.

We are blessed in North Norfolk to have a District Council under our leadership that has demonstrated exemplary competence, in particular over the last two years during the height of the pandemic.

Our first task when we return on Monday morning will be to look at how we can significantly step up our communications to focus on competence: highlighting how we have delivered our promises since gaining three quarters of the District Council seats in Summer 2019, as well as the individual successes of our many excellent councillors.

* Steffan Aquarone is a member of the Party Bodies Review Group and is the Parliamentary Spokesperson for North Norfolk.

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  • Helen Dudden 4th Dec '21 - 12:53pm

    I think an enormous amount of trust, has been lost in politics and politicians. Until, this is restored the Conservative government will carry on.
    There are so many failings it’s incredible, one of the sadest is the very sad loss of a 6 year old child, he died alone. Like many other’s last December, they died alone.
    Some will find it difficult to recover from such terrible times.

  • We had a lovely week In Stalham last August on holiday. First time visitor to the Broads and a beautiful area. It felt like an area that *should* be very receptive to the Lib Dems.

    I wouldn’t panic about one by-election, particular where we were defending a resignation. Without knowing the reasons it’ll always be harder to motivate our supporters after they backed us previously.

    Yes competence matters, but will it get people to the polling stations on a wet November evening in Stalham? I have my doubts; a core retail and offer and convincing people you are fighting their corner against the faceless establishment seems firmer ground to me.

    Very jealous of where you are campaigning though!

  • John Marriott 4th Dec '21 - 1:55pm

    It only goes to re enforce my view that Lib Dems need to run just to stand still while Tories often just need to turn up to win. Steffan Aquarone’s elegant and spirited ‘mea culpa’ may be justified. However, as Elvis famously sang, perhaps what is needed is ‘a little less conversation, a little more action’.

    I gather that this was a District Council by election and that the Lib Dems are the controlling group. Well, things like this happen when you are in theory pulling the strings. In any case, if I had my way there would be no District Councils or County Councils but only Unitary Authorities. The fact is that, in many people’s eyes, local councils are largely an irrelevance and District Councils in particular. There is now clearly too much duplication and overlap between the first and second tiers scrapping over an ever diminishing cake.

    Local government in England at least needs a major overhaul. I see that the author of the piece styles himself as a ‘Parliamentary spokesperson’. Perhaps he should concentrate on the bigger picture, namely winning back the seat held with distinction for many years by the ‘brilliant’ Sir Norman Lamb.

    Sorry to sound so negative and indeed cynical, Steffan; but I spent thirty years as a local government councillor so I reckon I know a bit about what goes on at that level.

  • Graham Jeffs 4th Dec '21 - 2:47pm

    There is a lot in this article that makes sense. To have a reputation for competence is to build towards a trusting relationship.

    The vast majority of electors do not share our interest in politics in general. Whilst they may be well informed about some things, in my experience that seldom extends to ’cause and effect’ in matters political. Like it or not, much of so-called local democracy has ceased to be genuinely influenced by the philosophical perspectives of the dominant party other than in the contexts of openness and communication.

    For example, locally, I believe that the quality of highway repairs provision is totally inept. This is a management issue – my perspective is that the best an alternative political administration can offer is indeed much greater competence in terms of policing the quality of work performed and the re-prioritising of what is done (i.e. does it make sense to poorly repair potholes that wash out in six months rather than doing something more comprehensive that shall last years longer).

    But competence is a product of the quality and abilities of candidates and then councillors. I’m not convinced that these qualities necessarily follow party lines – where local authorities are ‘incompetent’ the bar in terms of candidate quality (irrespective of party) may in itself be lower. Or it might just be luck!

  • Phil Wainewright 4th Dec '21 - 6:21pm

    Commiserations on your defeat. Winning in Conservative areas is always such an uphill slog – they hardly seem to be around throughout the campaign and then suddenly on polling day they turn out and vote.

    However I don’t think competence is sufficient to motivate your supporters. Incumbents often make the mistake that voters will reward them for doing a good job, but in truth voters expect their council to be competent, whoever’s in charge.

    More importantly, competence is not in itself a value. I think you need to dig deeper. Your administration is competent *because* of its LibDem values of working with the whole community to solve problems and build a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable future for all. To motivate your supporters, I suggest you identify projects or initiatives that are at risk because you can show that Conservatives don’t share the LibDem values driving them.

  • Christopher Burden 4th Dec '21 - 8:05pm

    Thanks, Steffan Aquarone. IMO The essence of motivating voters is that they should feel part of something bigger, a ‘great national movement’, perhaps, or even just a dedicated and competent group of local people who will act and get things done, doing what they say they will.

  • Jane Ann Liston 4th Dec '21 - 8:08pm

    I fear you are right about the Tories being highly motivated to vote.

    At the last election in St Andrews, the Conservatives stood a final-year student, who was one of the two councillors who achieved quota on first preferences (modesty forbids me to name the other!). He had, of course, during a hustings, assured voters that he would serve the full 5 years. However, after becoming more and more ‘missing in action’ over the past 2 years, he finally resigned a few days ago, holding on just long enough to avoid a by-election.

    While one might have thought that erstwhile Tory voters would feel entitled to feel let down by this, I would lay a small wager that in May they will happily vote for whomsoever happens to be sporting a blue rosette, so we will have our work cut out. But then, we are used to that.

  • Peter Chambers 5th Dec '21 - 12:04pm

    So, competence is necessary but not sufficient.

    There are two distinct issues, competence and values.

    For the first, it can be important to start with competent leaders. Tone comes from the top and competent leaders attract competent followers. If you want a competent group or cabinet, start with the competent and carry on. You can read more in Steff’s book as he explains the approach of leading by example. Possibly the opposite example would be a cabinet of clowns. Ideal for those who do not want a functional state.

    Values and voting are tricky for us. An important base for the right is right-wing authoritarian followers (see The Authoritarians) who are highly anxious. Liberal supporters tend to have lower anxiety about politics, so perhaps feel it is OK not to vote this once, if the weather is bad. It is what it is.

  • Neil James Sandison 5th Dec '21 - 1:27pm

    Competence is all well and good your candidate may be the most respected candidate or Councillor on your local authority however profile comes out of campagning all year round not just at election time . You are only as good as your last successful piece of casework or your leadership on an important local issue.

  • John Marriott 6th Dec '21 - 10:32am

    I agree with much that Neil Sandison has written. Living as I have done for over forty years in Conservative Lincolnshire and having managed to stay an elected Lib Dem councillor on various councils for thirty years until 2017 I am fully aware that, in order to survive, you really have got to push yourself in front of the electorate on a regular basis. I often say that, around here, a non Tory candidate needs to run just to stand still.

    What I found was that the mere fact that I and my fellow Lib Dem councillors kept in touch with the voters via FOCUS and were seen to be trying to do something, even if we were not always successful, was what made the difference. Mind you, it was bloody hard work, especially as, in my case, you had a young family and a job that also required your attention.

    I like to compare our Lib Dem efforts to weeding the garden. While you are out there regularly you can keep the Tory weeds at bay. However, as soon as you slacken, as I did towards the end of my ‘career’, they come flooding back, as they have done now. I’m sorry to be critical of my former local party yet again; but it appears to have lost this campaigning zeal and prefers instead to put up candidates (often the same candidates) to fly the Lib Dem flag, who come crashing down after the votes have been counted, as was witnessed in two recent by elections.

    It’s not a problem for the Tories in most of the county and for Labour in the City of Lincoln. All you need is a blue or red rosette to garner a respectable number of votes. For the other parties, it’s clearly attitude and personality that counts and, even then, success cannot be guaranteed, especially if their national parties don’t step up to the plate.

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