London needs a liberal narrative

Last week’s elections in England overall were rather encouraging, with a modest but heartening rise in the number of councillors and the gain of Watford Council. But one relative black spot, in which the Liberal Democrat decline of recent years continued unabated, was London, where Mayoral candidate Caroline Pidgeon polled less than five per cent in first preferences – a third of the average vote in the country.

That is no reflection on the quality of Caroline as a candidate. No-one could have worked harder and many non-LibDems said they thought she performed the best among all candidates at hustings. After eight years on the London Assembly, she really knew her stuff, and she had some attractive specific policies, such as a one-hour bus ticket and continuing the Olympics precept but channelling it towards the building of affordable homes. Nonetheless, Caroline is now the sole LibDem member of the Assembly (out of 25). Once we had five.

This is all the more disappointing when one considers that London did particularly well out of the post-May 2015 surge in members and that London Liberal Democrats fielded the most diverse and talented list of Assembly candidates ever. They really looked like our multicultural city and most of them worked their socks off. So what went wrong?

The answer, I believe, is that despite the fact that London is in many ways a Liberal city, the Party lacks a narrative that speaks to the city’s condition. The Greens, not for the first time, beat the LibDems (as did UKIP, disturbingly), not because they had more money or a more dazzling array of candidates or even a particularly coherent platform. Rather, the public are aware what the Greens’ core narrative is and a significant number of people find that attractive.

The challenge for London Liberal Democrats is to use the next four years to fashion and then communicate a Liberal London narrative that is based on principles and values, rather than merely specific aspects of public policy. London is an open, cosmopolitan city and Liberal Democrats are the most open, outward-looking party, but again and again I hear voters complain that they have no idea what we stand for.

Of course, the top priority for the next six weeks must be to win the EU Referendum. That will mean working together with other pro-EU groups as well as promoting our own IN campaign. It should also reinforce the electorate’s understanding that the LibDems believe in international cooperation, not only within the EU but also in an increasingly unstable, globalised world – something that resonates with a high proportion of the capital’s population.

But core Liberal values such as fairness, justice, tolerance, civil liberties and environmental responsibility need to be part of the new Liberal London narrative. The federal party, Tim Farron and the rest of our (sadly depleted) band of MPs all have a role in articulating those. But the prime responsibility for fixing the disconnect between a predominantly Liberal London and poor Liberal Democrat electoral results must fall on the regional party.

* Jonathan Fryer is Chair of the Federal International Relations Committee.

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  • Agree. + we need to speak to the growing army of younger London tenants who shouldn’t be working themselves into the ground just to pay off the mortgages of their middle-aged landlords.

  • Absolutely 100%

    And without throwing away the small number of voters who are still galvanised by pavementism, we absolutely have to speak a liberal language in this supposedly liberal society. And it not simply London; this demographic, including me, is often found fleeing the great city for a return to the shires. If my similarly liberal friends think I’m a little mad for being a Lib Dem, we are a million miles away from where we need to be.

  • paul barker 8th May '16 - 4:01pm

    These are good points but we have to remind ourselves that we have been weak in London for a very long time, the 5 AMs were an unusual peak. The fundamental problem is that both Labour & Greens have marketed themselves as liberals, with some justification.
    We have to respond by being more ourselves & no apologising.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th May '16 - 5:23pm

    Historically Labour does well in London for, amongst other s , two reasons at the base of its support .
    Firstly they have been the party of the urban working class.
    Secondly they have been the party of ethnic minorities.

    All this , with regard to demographic vote can and does change , yet remains at the heart of London Labour, to an extent.

    Unless we engage with this , we stagnate.All the emphasis on women ,admirable and necessary though it is , if it is white middle class women , does not advance us as a party in the way it could if we also have strong candidates from diverse socio economic and ethnic backgrounds too.We have many such talented people .We must promote them.

    I have for years wanted Floella Benjamin to be our candidate for Mayor of London.A missed opportunity .She has everything we need .Intelligence , compassion, passion, a diverse range of experience , and a high recognition .She should , be a candidate for national office within our party , a future President after the terrific Sal Brinton, perhaps, or Deputy leader , the role is vacant , lets change the rules and bring her in !

    We need to promote excellent individuals such as Maajid Nawaz for office , within our party and electoral forums .

    We also need to buck up on crime and punishment .Caroline was good on this , as was Brian Padick and Simon Hughes and Susan Kramer .But nationally and regionally , we need to get with it.I did not even have a police and crime commissioner candidate in Nottingham !

  • Merlene Emerson 8th May '16 - 5:29pm

    We also need a better strategy for winning over the BAME vote. Lester Holloway and others from EMLD have tried to get this message across over the years but being Liberals we often prefer to be colour-blind in our policies and approach. However if we are serious about winning in London then we can’t ignore half of Londoners who are non British white. Some communities and boroughs face greater inequalities and challenges that need to be taken into account. Our manifesto has to address these and our methods of communication has to cater to different audiences. It means recognising that our media team has to be more diverse and we will need a medium to long term strategy for recruitment of new members and training of the next generation of candidates.

  • I sort of agree, but I feel there is some important nuance missing.

    It isn’t just that our narrative wasn’t clear, but it is that our party’s identity isn’t clear enough in voters’ minds. As far as perceptions go, we don’t have a monopoly on fairness, tolerance and environmental conscience, especially in London where Labour are so strong and we’re on similar footing with the Greens. Our brand needs to mark out how we are different from them. At the moment the main thing that differentiates our brand from Labour and Green is a sense of untrustworthiness that we inevitably picked up during the Coalition. Shedding that will be a hard slog.

    On the LibDem Forum Facebook group I’ve been talking more about this and how we are and could present ourselves as The Party of Geeks. That persona won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it would give us a thoughtfulness, intelligence and competence which we use to contrast ourselves with Labour.

  • Yellow Submarine 8th May '16 - 6:31pm

    As I’ve long argued London is too liberal to vote Liberal Democrat. The pavementism works in communities and Electoral areas small enough to notice. The London list is one of the biggest and most complex ele total areas on earth. You need to paint in broad primary colours which appeal to actual demographics. Those demographics are there and as recovery in this context is getting a second or third seat you don’t even need big demographics. The blinding obvious one to start with as Duncan above states would Renters vs Rentiers. It even has the advantage of being distinctively liberal and beded in centuries of liberal thought.

  • Stevan Rose 8th May '16 - 8:31pm

    Gimmicky name change aside, the reason given to me by my elderly mother as to why Goldsmith got her mayoral first preference was that building huge numbers of new homes when existing services and infrastructure is at breaking point would be an absolute disaster. None of the remaining reasons why the Lib Dems would make London better had any relevance to her and her demographic. Electric buses and taxis are fiddling whilst the transport system groans. The practical realities of London living seemed to be missing and people were just not buying grandiose dreams. If we want to win in London then you have to address local infrastructure and services capacity first before proposing to overburden it further. That and all the boring but practical local stuff that this party does so well. Floella Benjamin is an inspired suggestion for Mayor I have to say. I suspect Khan will follow a very moderate, centrist and independent path that will make him very difficult to budge though. It will take a lot of inspiration.

  • Richard Underhill 8th May '16 - 8:57pm

    Stevan Rose 8th May ’16 – 8:31pm Driverless cars will be a boon to the elderly.

  • Peter Watson 8th May '16 - 9:00pm

    I agree with this article but it is unnecessarily London-centric. All of the points raised need to be addressed by the national party / parties. It is important that the Liberal Democrats’ principles and values are translated into an identity, a narrative, and policies which are consistent throughout the UK.

  • Stevan Rose 8th May '16 - 10:21pm

    “Driverless cars will be a boon to the elderly.”

    That wasn’t on the list but to my mother that’s pure science fiction and would be another reason to laugh at and dismiss the Lib Dems had it been. She’s happy with her Freedom Pass and a bus that already stops on request at her gate (yes in Gtr London) any time, not just at night. She credits Ken and Boris with her transport perks. But the tube in places is ridiculously overcrowded, same with many commuter trains. London Lib Dems said nothing at all about that but want to add 200,000 more homes, making it worse not better. Never mind bigger planes, what about the trains, tubes and buses, and trams with free park and rides like in Manchester.

  • I agree with Merlene. Time and time again I see Lib Dem candidates with good intentions support the need to focus on issues relevant to ethnic minorities, but after they are selected it all gets forgotten about.
    A typical Liberal would have voted for Sadiq Khan and would be excited to see London elect it’s first Muslim mayor. I notice this on my Facebook feed from European liberals.
    Our problem is that we need to recruit a large number of BAME and get them elected councillors before we even have a decent number to choose from that could stand for mayor.
    Anyway, lets make sure we make the first step before we take the next step. Lester has some practical suggestions on his blog and we should implement them.

  • does anyone think that the ‘caroline pidgeon’s liberal democrats’ moniker probably helped to confuse voters and lose votes? to my mind it sounded a bit monty python …

  • Peter Davies 8th May '16 - 11:15pm

    Our major problem in targeting BAME voters it that the vast majority of them do not live in target seats. The seats where they do live are not target seats partly because we do badly among BAME voters. The logic is circular and we need to break it.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th May '16 - 11:38pm

    Did you read what I wrote above , I think it should have been us this time and in 2012 with the first leading BAME for mayor candidate , and now , as I imply and for good reasons alluded to later by Stevan , we blew it !

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th May '16 - 11:55am

    @ Jonathan Fryer,
    I think that your post sums up something rather important. In some areas the party was the natural opposition to Labour, in some it was the natural opposition to the Conservatives, but that does not answer the question that many of us are now asking. That is, what does the party stand FOR.

    Reading Liberal Democrat Voice, I am still unsure. Until the party has a clear view of what it stands for and how it will achieve its aims, I can see myself voting for good local candidates who will work for my particular area, and happen to be Liberal Democrats but not voting for the national party at general elections.

    The Preamble is worthy but would any party be prepared to claim that they believed in none of those aims? What previous voters like myself need to know, is how freedom of the individual will be balanced against the freedom and security of others, how much the state should be allowed to intervene to stop the weak being exploited by the strong etc. The message is all too ‘waffy’ and at times contradictory for poor souls like me.

    I also think the time in coalition demonstrated that the party is not equidistant to the Conservatives and Labour. This came as a belated wake up call to default, custom and habit, Liberal Democrat voters like myself.

  • Peter Watson 9th May '16 - 11:59am

    I just want to echo everything that Jayne has written in her post. She describes my own position perfectly.

  • Robert Cannon 9th May '16 - 2:04pm

    The route for the LibDems in London is to target the very large chunk of the electorate that is ignored by the two big parties. The majority of the non-British electorate in London elections are not black or Asian – they are French, Italian, Irish, Australian, German, Turkish, Cypriot. Yet, none of the parties currently speaks to that electorate.

  • As others who live in London might have already realized, the Liberal Democrat voter is now largely found inside the enlarged tent of supporters of Sadiq Khan. I’m looking again at the last letter circulated by the new mayor – for affordable homes, investing in transport services but frozen TfL fares, staying IN Europe, restoration of community policing, being inclusive of minorities, “the Mayor for all Londoners”.
    Sure, I voted for our excellent LDs but added my vote for the new mayor via the limited transfer of vote we have in London. Now Caroline Pidgeon has that difficult task of warmly supporting so many of the mayor’s policies whilst holding him to the high road of the task ahead. It’s not easy being a LD in London when another party has so many ideas we hold dear.

  • Jonathan Brown 9th May '16 - 6:52pm

    I agree completely with Merlene and Geoffrey Payne – it’s not just about the message but the messenger. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Caroline; there’s something wrong with the party and that is we don’t look or sound anything like modern London.

    For too long we’ve paid lip service recruiting *and promoting* BME members.

    We need not just to recruit new members but to listen to them and be lead by them. It applies to the whole party but nowhere is this a more obvious and a more urgent problem than London. We have to accept that we need to look and sound different to the way we do now. We have to accept that ethnic minority members will bring a diversity of views, opinions, priorities and ways of expressing themselves. And this is good!

    The ‘but what can we do in practice?’ argument is one that has been wheeled out on this subject at least as frequently as it has been on the issue of gender balance, so I highly recommend Lester Holloway’s blog post on the subject here:

    We aren’t just missing out on the ~45% of the London vote that is BME. We’re missing out on a huge chunk of the white British liberal vote that takes one look at us and doesn’t see a party that reflects the reality of modern Britain.

  • This is what was said 4 years ago – by the then Regional Chair. What has changed?

  • David Evershed 9th May '16 - 7:44pm

    I agree with you Jonathan that there is a desparate need for Lib Dems to have a narrative or message which means people will get to know what we stand for.

    This needs to be distinctive from other parties. So just saying we believe in international cooperation, fairness, justice, tolerance, civil liberties and environmental responsibility does not differentiate us from the other parties.

    People need to understand what we believe in that the other parties don’t believe, even if we have to compromise on these beliefs in the real world.

    This is where the party needs to decide if its narrative is based on economic liberalism or social liberalism. We have been rightly criticised for trying to give one message in the northern Labour areas and another message in the southern Conservative areas.

    We should not aim to be either Conservative lite or Labour lite but distinctively Liberal, freedom for businesses and individuals alike with only necessary protections.

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th May '16 - 8:18pm

    @ Geoffrey Payne,
    The election of Sadiq Khan, the Muslim son of a bus driver , raised on a London council estate , and the election of Marvin Rees, a young man who also had to drag himself up by his own bootlaces, and against the odds, as Mayor of Bristol, has made people like myself unbelievably ecstatically happy.

    It makes me proud to be British. I still haven’t come down to earth, and judging by my facebook correspondence I am not alone.

  • Sue Sutherland 9th May '16 - 8:32pm

    I’d like to thank Geoffrey Payne for convincing me that I am a typical Liberal. I don’t live in London (though I have in the past) so I didn’t vote for him but I have found myself rejoicing that in the middle of all the hatred stirred up by terrorism, Londoners found it in themselves to vote for the first Muslim Mayor of a large city in Europe. I rejoiced even more that one of his first steps was to show friendship to the Jewish community and that the son of a bus driver could out class the son of an outrageously wealthy family.
    To me these are all the things that we Lib Dems should be fighting for.
    Now that the party has taken a big step towards diversification by establishing all women shortlisted, surely we should be seeking to do this for BAME candidates. I think we are not allowed to do this by law and if this is the case then shouldn’t we be fighting to get the law changed? All of the arguments for AWSL also apply to BAME candidates. We have to show ourselves to be the party of inclusion in order to become it.
    Finally, this is not just a London issue, it applies to all our big cities and for me it is also an issue of fairness, that fairness which is central to our beliefs.

  • Sue Sutherland 9th May '16 - 9:04pm

    Peter Davies, you are correct in identifying our circular problem concerning target seats and BAME voters. Surely the answer is to extend our definition of a target seat so that we include at least one seat which can be targeted for reasons other than winning, like increasing our BAME representation. Or to target a ward in local elections with the sole aim of identifying BAME voters with a view to diversifying membership and identifying more BAME candidates. We need to practise positive discrimination in order to right historic wrongs.

  • Stevan Rose 9th May '16 - 11:06pm

    @Jayne Mansfield. Don’t forget Sajid Javid is also the son of a bus driver of Pakistani descent and Stephen Crabbe from a single parent council estate home in Wales, both senior members of the Cabinet. Even the Tories beat us for candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th May '16 - 1:46am

    Jonathan Brown

    Did you see my points , I raised the issue on here and barely got it noticed !And no interaction from others who made similar points after , it would be good to be involved in the debate developing with regard to the approach to this that I have regularly emphasised !

  • Stevan Rose what you say (about other parties doing better in recruiting candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds) rings true. But how do we know? As someone approved as a parliamentary candidate in 2001I don’t remember ever having been asked about my background and I am sure my largely nice, largely elderly, largely genteel local party in the home counties would have found it most uncouth for their candidate to reference aspects of her disadvantaged background!

  • Matt (Bristol) 10th May '16 - 12:08pm

    These comments echo the conversation I had in the pub last night with a Labour friend about the situation here in Bristol which is very similar to London; in a liberal city where most people expect in some way a liberal approach from their politicians, particularly on the centre-left, what is ‘liberal’ politics, why should we assume we hold the monopoly on it, and what do we do apart from that?

    I accept that not all our rivals are as liberal as they might seem, but attempting to evidence that moves us into the world of negative attack politics, which needs to be carried out carefully and intelligently and used sparingly in my opinion.

    The ward I live in includes one of the historically poorer housing estates in this city – Duncan’s Party of Geeks therefore (whilst I can see its basis and it might effectively describe us now in some ways) would risk excluding a lot of people around me. Also, one would expect a Party of Geeks to prioritise electronic communication over paper. Is this how we communicate with our voters? I don’t think this is the case…

    (these opinions not necessarily representative of the LD group in Bristol)

  • Note that 2 in 5 of Caroline’s second preferences taken into consideration in the final round went to Zac Goldsmith.

    Our voters are not as our members and activists are…we forget this at our peril.

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