Hundreds of tales of heartbreak and two numbers

The story of May’s election results is not one that can simply be told with numbers. There are too many tales of personal effort and loss for statistics to do justice to the crushing disappointment suffered by many who had worked hard for so long in hundreds of communities across the country.

Nor do statistics do justice to the brilliant resilience in a precious few places – those with amazing gains such as in the Cotswolds and those largely unsung heroes in areas such as Eastleigh and Three Rivers who have got on with running councils and winning elections year after year.

Two numbers do, however, show the pattern in all those personal stories. One is 1993 – for the party’s local government base across Great Britain (measured in terms of the proportion of councillors who are Liberal Democrat) is roughly back to its 1993 levels. We will know the exact date when all the figures have been collated, but the broad picture is clear.

How you react to that date depends, I suspect, in part on your age. For those who have lived through the horrors of the late 1970s or the fiascos of the late 1980s, being back to 1993 is bad – but far better than where we’ve been in the past. For newer activists, it’s the worst in their political lifetime.

Either way, the future needs to be about us recovering rather than slipping further. On that the second number tells the story. On the Thursday and Friday of election week YouGov, amongst many other questions, asked people whether the Liberal Democrats should pull out of coalition. Amongst those who voted Liberal Democrat in last May’s general election the answer was a resounding no: by 71% – 21%. (Amongst current Lib Dem voters, it was even more emphatic: 84% – 9%.)

What Liberal Democrats (current or recently departed) told YouGov is the same as they told many canvassers. Yes to being in coalition, but yes also to arguing the our corner more strongly and more openly. For amongst both last year and this year’s Liberal Democrats in favour of staying in coalition, there was a majority who said the party should stay in coalition but refuse to back policies the party opposes. Turning that easy polling answer into actual day by day political decisions is no easy task, but the overall direction our voters want from the party in Whitehall is clear.

But the party has always been about much more than those at the top or in London – and there is a further lesson from that 1993 figure. The largest part of the reason we are back to 1993 is the 2011 elections. But it is not the whole reason, because since our mid-1990s peak, the local government base has been flat or slipping for many years.

Alongside the stagnating electoral results has been stagnating political thought. The phrase “Community Politics” is almost never spoken by our ministers in Parliament or their ministerial speeches, with instead the vocabulary of other parties being adopted to fill the gap where our thinking – and our pride in our own beliefs – should be.

Alongside this has been the pernicious spread of the idea that campaigning in a community just means fighting elections and that fighting elections just means delivering leaflets. Yet good election agents and candidates know that weight of leaflets alone does not make a good election campaign and good community campaigners know that the five weeks of an election does not alone make a good community campaign.

Reinvigorating a local base when in government has never been easy for the other two main parties, but then the need to be better than either of them is a challenge not a reason to give-up, isn’t it?

A slightly different version of this piece first appeared in Liberal Democrat News, the party’s newspaper. Ironically it appeared on the page next to a piece from Tim Farron which did indeed use the phrase”community politics”.

You can get a subscription to Liberal Democrat News here.

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This entry was posted in Local government and Op-eds.
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6 Comments

  • 1) Community politics is just going to be seen as code for the ‘Big Society.’ With the best will in the world, it won’t resonate. And in any case, wasn’t the Orange Book the great leap forward in Lib Dem thought over the past ten years?

    2) But the question is why people want to stay in the Coalition. Because they belive in it? Because to pull out would mean oblivion? Somewhere in between? I’d be more relaxed about these arguments about being distinct from the Conservatives if their polls went South too. The fact that they seemed to do OK suggests that the voters are quite able to draw a distinction.

    3) ‘Turning that easy polling answer into actual day by day political decisions is no easy task’ This is a very good point, and points to the fact that the answers are effectively contradictory – wanting the advantages of both government and opposition with none of the downsides. For this reason, I believe that the time to start thinking and being explicit about how the party envisages working with both the major parties in the event of another hung parliament is now. The time has come to stop, ‘we are going for an absolute majority.’ It is disingenuous and, as we have seen is a terrible hostage to fortune for any red-line policy. What will those day-to-day political decisions look like? This may, of course, upset some people.

    I would add though – good article

  • Hmmmm

    2012 – the cuts will actually start to bite – third- fifth place in the london mayoral election ?
    2013 – County Elections – mid term, two years of pay freezes
    2014 – Euro elections and local elections on the same day
    2015 – General and local elections on the same day

  • Just a though but have you considered that some voters might be actually voting on local issues? Lib Dems now have a track record in local government, with some long standing councillers – who might not actually have been as good as some think.

    The story where I live is that most candidates took a pounding, with one honourable exception.

  • Andrew Suffield 17th May '11 - 7:33pm

    Community politics is just going to be seen as code for the ‘Big Society.’

    Well that’s obvious, because it more or less is. To be precise, “Big Society” is just an attempt by the Tories to claim a fundamentally Lib Dem concept.

  • “And in any case, wasn’t the Orange Book the great leap forward in Lib Dem thought over the past ten years?” The Orange book is crap…

    Anyway, can someone please tell me are the Lib Dems centre left or centre right economically? Tell me. Pick one or the other, not neither and not both.

  • Community Politics is much more than the Big Society, and its really irrelevant whether the term resonates, its doing it that makes the impact (‘Actions Speak Louder than Words’ to recall one of those well-used phrases).

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