Opinion: Countdown to 2012 has already started

Harold Wilson’s phrase that a week is a long time in politics was never more true than the dramatic developments that took place last week.

The creation of a new Government, with Liberal Democrats at the heart of it and with so many of our policies built into the coalition agreement, has quite rightly dominated the media. I am sure these events will not easily be forgotten by many Liberal Democrats.

Against such as background it is far from surprising that changes that have taken place in town halls across London and at City Hall have not received a huge amount of attention.

For the first time ever, Thursday 6th May saw full council elections taking place across all 32 London boroughs on the same day as a general election.  Although the Liberal Democrats made gains in four boroughs (and with some brilliant results in particular in Sutton) it has to be said that it was not overall a good night for the party across London.  Despite keeping Kingston and Sutton councils we lost control of Richmond, four other councils where we were the largest party in joint administrations and one other council where we had been the junior partner in a joint administration. To put it bluntly, whereas 2006 was generally a good year for us across London’s town halls, sadly 2010 was not.

The high turnout of these borough elections and the hardening up of the Labour vote in the last few days of the general election led to some big and unexpected gains for Labour, some mixed results for the Conservatives, generally a loss of seats for the Liberal Democrats and almost the total wipe-out of the Greens, who now have just two councillors across the whole of the capital.

Of course this is just the overall picture.  At an individual level some brilliant and hardworking Liberal Democrat councillors lost their seats, often for reasons totally unrelated to their record of service.  Combining local elections with a general election certainly creates some very cruel casualties.

As to the future – in London there will be no elections next year (except for by-elections), which means we have now entered the inevitable two-year countdown to the London Mayor and London Assembly elections.  As the new leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group these elections are clearly my number one priority!

Yet before looking forward it is always important to properly learn some lessons. A really detailed ward analysis of voting patterns and trends across London will take some time and it is certainly important not to jump to too many conclusions. However even at this stage, even before all the number crunching has been done, I think two quick comments can be made.

Firstly, in any areas where turnouts for local elections are normally very low the implications of local elections coinciding with a general election, especially an exciting general election, can be immense.  Put bluntly if the turnout for local elections is routinely below 30% (and this is quite common in some wards in many London boroughs) the implications of suddenly having a 65% or higher turnout can be immense.

Secondly the alphabet can be incredibly cruel when three councillors are being elected at the same time and where there is a wide range of candidates on the ballot paper.  It can be even crueller in the cases where people have as many as six votes for three different set of elections as they did in Hackney, Newham and Lewisham (these boroughs had additional Borough Mayoral elections as well).  When standing a slate of candidates in a ward election we must never overlook the much tougher fight that someone with a name at the end of the alphabet inevitably faces, especially in a tight fight.

So what can we expect in the next two years?

At a personal level at City Hall it is obviously wonderful for the London Assembly this year to be chaired by my colleague Dee Doocey. She will be entirely impartial and professional at all times, while equally ensuring that evasive and long winded answers by Boris Johnson at Mayor’s Question Time will not be tolerated.  Both London Assembly Members and the Mayor need to get ready!

The Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group are determined to ensure that the effective scrutiny of the current Mayor continues.  We will work hard to hold the Mayor to account and not hesitate to speak out when he is failing Londoners.  As a group we also intend to keep pressing forward on key issues facing the capital, especially the need to protect police numbers, build more affordable homes, tackle London’s appalling air quality and ensure public transport is improved.

However I am very aware that it is what takes place outside City Hall that really matters in terms of ensuring that the Liberal Democrat vote increases across the capital.

Looking at our local council groups and local parties across the London boroughs I am far from demoralised, especially after having spoken to a good number of councillors and former councillors in the last week.  Many have seen an influx of new members during the General Election. And in relation to council groups, while it is true that going from control of a council to opposition can be a painful process many council groups have in the past found that it can be a time of renewal.

It should also be added that by-elections are set to become even more important.   Already three are set to take place on Tuesday 25th May in Camden where due to the death of Councillor Syed Hoque the people of Haverstock have still not elected their three ward councillors.

However across London I expect a steady stream of by-elections, with the number between 2010 and 2014 being far higher than the case between 2006 and 2010. Already there are reports of a number of Conservative and especially Labour councillors who were unexpectedly elected on 6th May.  Over four years I expect a good few of these will throw in the towel.

However while winning by-elections and engaging with our members are absolutely vital they will not be enough for a Liberal Democrat renaissance. I accept we need to find new ways to raise the profile of Liberal Democrats across the whole of London and ensure our campaigning becomes more integrated. We need to use the media, including specialist media, much more as well as the new electronic media.

I don’t promise to have all the answers, but I certainly know where we need to get to. Most crucially I am keen to ensure that we start preparing and planning for a real break through at City Hall in 2012 and to ensure that we are ready to bounce back in town halls across London in 2014.

Caroline Pidgeon is the new Leader of the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Group in City Hall. She retains her role as transport spokesperson. Mike Tuffrey retains his roles as spokesperson on housing, environment, planning and the budget. Dee Doocey remains spokesperson on policing, the Olympics, the economy and culture.

(Please help if you can in the Camden Haverstock ward by by-election being held on Tuesday 25th May. Canvassing is taking place during the day and in the evenings.  Leafleting and clerical help is also needed.   Help on election day is obviously needed as well. Please call Phil at the office on 020 7485 1735 or Nick on 0790 181 5362 if you are able to help.)

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This entry was posted in Local government, London and Op-eds.

One Comment

  • Dinti Batstone 20th May '10 - 2:23pm

    Lots of good points here… but don’t forget that 2014 is also the date of the next Euro election, and we should be more determined than ever to elect 2 Lib Dem MEPs for London.

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