Opinion: Learning lessons from London – two and half quick reflections

Let’s start with the facts….

  • Overall turnout was down to 38%, from 45% last time.
  • Two Liberal Democrat Assembly members elected, compared to three in 2008 and five in 2004.
  • Mayoral vote was 92,000 (4.2% – and deposit lost), compared to 236,752 (9.8%) in 2008.
  • Our Assembly list vote was 150,447 (6.8% – just over the threshold), against 275,272 (11.4%) in 2008.
  • The Greens “pushed the Lib Dems into fourth place”: actually their Assembly vote flat-lined at 8.5%, although their Mayoral vote was up a bit, from 3.2% to 4.5%.

First off, a big thank you to Brian Paddick, his brilliant deputy Caroline Pidgeon, and the core team of staff and truly committed volunteers for a well-organised, well-financed and professionally run central campaign – always on message, very active and assertive despite media disinterest. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Brian (certainly I and my family do – the last six months could have been very different for us!)

The overriding feature, yet again, is the remorseless squeeze that a personality-driven mayoral contest puts on the whole ticket. Brian did phenomenally well in confidently, convincingly, calmly and consistently setting out his powerful case to be Mayor and elected Police Commissioner.

However in a personality-led contest, it’s hugely difficult to get across individual policy pledges and win votes in the traditional way. A PR list election is all about the ‘brand’, and we must be frank: our Lib Dem brand, always weaker than the other main parties, is damaged by confusion over what we now stand for, and undermined by policy U-turns nationally. Fixing that is lesson number one.

A second feature is that, again, we were not able to turn out even our reduced core vote. A Populus poll in the Times a few days before Thursday gave Brian (pretty accurately) 5%, while recording Westminster voting intention at 11%. Securing that on the list vote would have increased our Assembly numbers.

That points to our local parties – outside a few well-run hot spots – not knowing enough about who our supporters really are and organised well enough to get them out. Fixing that before May 2014 is lesson two.

My ‘half lesson’ is the low turnout, despite the media barrage. Disenchantment with the old way of doing politics continues to grow, and we must adapt. Social media and new ways and places to engage are part of the answer here.

So what is my prescription, in a nutshell?

On the first lesson, nationally, we have to rebuild the ‘brand’. This is massively urgent and important at the half-way mark of this Parliament. The recent focus on getting the low paid out of tax and opposing NHS privatisation is good but nowhere near enough. We need a change of policy, with a new distinct alternative economic strategy.

We must offer light at the end of the austerity tunnel and lift the dead hand of the Treasury. Elements include a massive programme of house building (from pension funds and institutional investment), increased small business lending and more skills training for young people. (Followers of the London scene will know I’ve been banging on about this before; in fact you can find the details in our London manifesto.)

We must stand for jobs and business growth, not just fiscal responsibility.  It’s the economy, stupid, and without a powerful economic platform our ‘brand’ is going nowhere.

Second, locally, we have to rebuild our ward, constituency and borough parties. Let’s remember people join political parties not to fight elections but to change the world. And you change the world not just by getting elected and joining the Council allotments sub-committee; you help the PTA at the local school monitor air pollution from nearby roads; the community group setting up a freecycle scheme; the church, mosque, temple or synagogue helping the homeless; the residents’ group running their estate; and the small business bureau encouraging entrepreneurs.

Our local parties must not just be a whiz at efficient leaflet delivery. They must also be champions of their areas, as our community politics commitment tells us.

With low turnouts, loss of trust but a thirst for authenticity, and no lack of things to do to fix our great city, there really is no alternative. We’ve seen what is happening to council colleagues outside London. Our own test is only months away – just 24 to be precise.

* Mike Tuffrey is chair of London region Liberal Democrats. He was an Assembly member from 2002 to 2012 and won his first election back in 1985 representing Vauxhall on the Greater London Council.

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27 Comments

  • Very good points Mike. Brian deserves a huge amount of thanks and credit for his commitment, enthusiasm and professionalism in very difficult circumstances.

    Some things I would add:

    – in many areas Brian’s vote was lower than our List vote (as was Jenny’s for the Greens). Billed as “Boris v Ken”, people felt they had to vote for one of these two and the opportunity to transfer their vote to a second preference was not sufficiently understood or appreciated to overcome the squeeze. Perhaps we should have argued this rather technical issue about how the voting system works much more strongly? In reality I suspect many people see the second choice as a sort of “half a vote” consolation prize and their ability to give this to Brian probably reduced the number of first preferences he would otherwise have got

    – in our stronger areas particularly in the SW our constituency candidates were able to pull in thousands of votes more than we got in the List vote from the same areas. Whereas in reality we would have been hugely better off with this the other way around. We clearly find it easier to attach the merits of community campaigning to a named individual than we do to the Party’s brand

    – in a squeeze situation we were right to play our best card strongly, but there are issues other than crime where we should be more distinctive. In particular housing and the treatment of private tenants by landlords and letting agents is a big issue, particularly for younger Londoners priced out of the housing market, which in the event I think only the Greens gave prominence.

    – given a knife edge contest between two such high profile well-known candidates, the big drop in turnout is particularly surprising and concerning for everyone involved in politics. Even Labour celebrating its midterm boost might stop and think that only every eighth person gave them their support.

    – Londoners deserve huge credit for resisting the lure of the BNP, UKIP and extremist far left despite very difficult economic circumstances. We of course have particular reason to celebrate UKIP’s failure to poll more highly in the Capital.

  • Rabi Martins 6th May '12 - 7:09pm

    Good Analysis Mike – Looking on from the outside as it were – I thought Brian did a good. However he did come across a liitle as a one issue – Crime and Policing – person This did not help his cause.
    The mayoral contest was really about the personalities not their Parties We should have known that is what it would be and packaged Brian differently or even selected a more media friendly personality We knew we were not going Surely in the circumstances we should have focused our campaign on our assemby members first and on the Mayoral candidate second

    I would also be interested to know what proportion of the Asian and African Carribean voters supported Brain and the GLA candidates. I suspect not very large.
    Given the size of London’s BME population we are unlikely to make much headway until we increase our Party’s appeal to this constituency We have till 2014 to come up with a strategy to reach this group The other two Parties appear to be have invested the time and effort to do just this and are reaping the rewards. One thing that could help is Lynne Featherstone responding to calls from the community to address their concerns that Equalities Legislation is being watered down and leading to a rise in discrimination and disadvantage in housing, education and jobs reminiscent of the 1970’s when racial discrimination was at its highest. Lib Dems need to be seen to be championing this cause Instead I hear Alun Michael is expected to table an EDM on the subject which will allow Labour to take the initiative

  • Mike – I agree that Brian, Caroline etc worked really hard and deserve our praise. And I agree that we have a national problem. But we did much worse in the London elections than any other, even though London is generally a pretty liberal place. So I think our GLA team need to ask how London is different because of LD representation on the GLA and how it will be less different now that there are only 2 of them, rather than the previous 3 or 5.

    The reality is that I know what Ken (and thus by implication Labour) stand for in London – high council tax and lots of spending to cut transport fares. He also hates bankers and the like. Boris (and thus the Tories) stand for no rise in council tax, and higher fares, as well as a relatively tolerant approach to cars. Boris is also willing to stick up for London in terms of supporting tax cuts for the rich, a new airport, etc. Even though I have never met Jenny Jones, I have a gut feeling that she stands for a fairly aggressive approach to cars, and is very keen on giving bikes priority. I imagine she is also keen on recycling, plastic bag taxes and that sort of thing. I also perceive her to be very left wing – I would expect council tax to rise, and more money spent on a limited number of people, e.g. via social housing. I don’t agree with any of these three approaches, but I know what they stand for, and what they stand for is in keeping with their parties’ overall positions.

    I know what good local LD councillors – such as the excellent Frances Moseley in my ward – stand for, and what they deliver (empowerment, particularly in this case on the Alpha Road council estate). I know what Ed Davey stands for, and our parliamentary team (liberalism on traditional liberal issues, plus social mobility via education, plus decency towards those in need, and great local service).

    Yet for the life of me I just don’t know what the LDs stand for at GLA level. It is too big for the personal touch, in a way that both Frances Moseley and Ed Davey deliver in my area. It doesn’t have control over ID cards, prison sentencing, or other touchstone LD issues. So while I agree that a 60 minute bus ticket is probably a useful idea, it is a managerial policy, not the definition of what we stand for.

    I hope that over the next 4 years Caroline and Stephen will come up with an answer, so that I know why I am out in the pouting rain delivering leaflets, and so that voters will have a gut sense of why we are worth voting for. If they can’t do this, then they don’t deserve to do any better.

  • Isn’t another conclusion to choose a personality if, as stated twice it’s a personality-led contest?

  • emsworthian 7th May '12 - 11:15am

    100% Mike but I wonder who is listening-cetainly not, I suspect, NC and even less Danny who is firmly identified with Osbornomics and it’s anti public services ethos. How do we get off the Titanic when there are no lifeboats left?

  • “Billed as “Boris v Ken”, people felt they had to vote for one of these two and the opportunity to transfer their vote to a second preference was not sufficiently understood or appreciated to overcome the squeeze. Perhaps we should have argued this rather technical issue about how the voting system works much more strongly?”

    You should have rammed home the message that a vote for Paddick couldn’t be a wasted vote, because people’s second preferences would still have been counted. The voting system wasn’t so much as mentioned in the glossy A3 leaflet I received from the Lib Dems. It might as well have been a first past the post election. There was just a bar-chart (for an irrelevant parliamentary constituency, of course) with a ludicrous “Labour can’t win here” caption. Of course, Labour comfortably outpolled the Lib Dems in every category.

    It’s no good saying that admitting Paddick wasn’t going to win would have somehow diluted the message. Everyone knew he wasn’t going to win, and pretending otherwise was just an insult to the intelligence of the electorate. Treating voters like fools isn’t doing you much good. You should try crediting them with a bit of intelligence.

  • adrian slade 7th May '12 - 12:06pm

    Perceptive as ever, Mike! Remember folks, Mike was once as good a GLC member as he was a GLA member and leader. Sadly, in London it is hard to find reasons to be cheerful. Apart from a general feeling of discontent about their own situations, in so far as individuals think about party politics and allegiances at all it is still only in terms of ‘blame’. There was obviously a personality factor in the mayoral vote but otherwise those who bothered to vote at all made no differentiation between the Tories and Lib Dems because they saw them both only as ‘the government’. The niceties of differential policies within coalition simply did not, and do not, feature in their minds at present. Mike rightly reminds us about what needs to be done locally but even more important for the party nationally is his crucial point about ‘the light at the end of the tunnel.’ If that is not soon defined in Liberal Democrat terms, and if we don’t soon start painting a picture of what we aim for AFTER coalition, the prospects for 2015 will remain grim.

  • Richard Macmillan 7th May '12 - 1:59pm

    A great analysis Mike and as a candidate in the GLA elections, I can see where you are coming from. I stood in City and East – never an easy area for the Liberal Democrats, but it is also an area that is woefully neglected by the party in many respects. Here are some immediate thoughts from me on the campaign:

    Positives:
    1. This was a much better resourced campaign than ever before. Praise in particular for Chris Butler – his organisational skills are superb and contributed to making the campaign more ‘joined up’ than in the past.

    2. Brian was a superb figurehead for the campaign. He worked hard and appeared so much more confident on issues beyond policing than in the past. He had a great team around him, especially with Caroline Pidgeon.

    3. We had a great team generally with the list candidates and constituency candidates working together more in unison than in previous elections.

    4. Our manifesto was full of some great ideas.

    Problems:

    1. The National scene continues to dominate – the amount of times I was called a liar and having sold out to the Tories when knocking on doors was substantial. It was hard to convey our London message when many people remain angry at our party nationally. This is not just a London problem – the local elections across the nation show that the voters are disappointed in us as a party and are confused about what we stand for – hence why it looks like we will be wiped out in Scotland except for the Shetlands. This is understandable – we are a centre left party in government with a centre right party, of course that is confusing and there are no easy answers to this. Unless the economy turns around, we will be continuously hit. Tuition fees has also affected trust in our party and I hope we have a sensible policy on this by 2015. The difficulty is I do not see a great improvement in the economy. As Vince Cable has highlighted, there is no real strategy for growth or a sense of what this country can be economically. The tories seems to think it will happen by the magic of the market. Liberals know differently. My view is that there is a strong argument now for a Liberal to be Chancellor in exchange for abandoning constitutional reform.

    2. Our party can still not get its head around PR elections (which is a surprise given how much we want PR). We did not sufficiently campaign on a few messages across London. Local parties are still able to campaign purely on local issues, which makes it difficult to establish our branding across London. That is fine for the local or parliamentary elections, but no good for the list elections for the assembly. Data shows that we were scoring higher for constituency candidates than the list in many constituencies. I got over 1,000 more votes for me personally than for the list in City and East. This may be good for my ego, but not good for our overall performance in London.

    3. The campaign did not start early enough. Labour have been working for 2 years effectively, especially with the re-building of some of their neglected local parties. More help needs to be provided to weak local parties in the next few years to re-build. No easy task given our party is not loaded with funds, but there is a tendency to leave weak parties and just concentrate on the stronger areas. That is not good for our long term future.

    4. Am sorry to say this to all the parties in the South West, but London is bigger than Richmond and Twickenham. We still keep to our comfort zone and campaign hard in areas that are already well resourced. Out in City and East, it was pretty much left to me and 5 or 6 others to cover 4 boroughs. We were fighting a London wide campaign not just the South West, which Caroline Pidgeon, Shas and the great Bridget Fox appreciated completely. In City and East, we managed to keep the BNP at bay thankfully, but we are ignoring a hell of a lot of voters! For the list, it doesn’t matter where the voters come from as long as we get them. Going forward I would suggest that list members ‘buddy’ some of the constituency candidates with a more equal spread of foot soldiers, so that we have strong teams across London – this will help establish our London wide brand. This will require a change in approach from the party, but it needs to happen. My experience was that the vote is soft in many respects, but due to the organisational machine of both Labour and the Conservatives, they are able to tap into it better.

    5. Whilst we are great at producing manifestos and techy ideas, unfortunately the general public don’t read this. We need to work harder at what our overall narrative is. Why Liberal? That should be the question. We had it to a degree with Brian and the need for a strong commissioner in light of the riots, but Labour were better at promoting an over arching narrative. People do not always understand what we are for.

    Although the result was disappointing, we can have faith in that we have two excellent assembly members. Going forward, we must all work hard to support them in their roles and rebuild our London wide brand.

  • Aimery de Malet 7th May '12 - 2:41pm

    Whether or not we want to admit it, I still believe the single factor leading to our decline was the decision on student fees. Whether the policy was fairer in reality did not matter, but sent a significant message to the public that we would go back on what many people rightly or wrongly believed was a core policy promise.

    Brian was a great candidate but doomed to fail. The fact of the matter was that this “re-match” was always going to be about personality. Being the middle party in times like this always mean that we are the most vulnerable to be squeezed.

    I agree about the comments that a rebrand is definitely in order. Let’s hope we start the process soon as the next general election is really only just around the corner.

  • No Offence Alan 7th May '12 - 5:08pm

    I agree with Richard Macmillan’s “problem 2”.
    Next time around I suggest the Mayoral candidate is also number #1 on the list for the Assembly and that we don’t contest the constituency Assembly seats, just the list.
    We can then run a consistent campaign across London, saying “Elect and his/her team for London”.

  • No Offence Alan 7th May '12 - 5:10pm

    Sorry I had the word “Candidate” between less than/greater than marks in the previous comment but I assume the html read it as something else.

  • Mike – I really appreciate your responding, and with good humour. Let’s take the points your raise: “house building, job training, youth opportunities, London keeping its tax revenues” What are the common themes? Do they fit with LD policies more generally?

    As a party we are not known for supporting more housing. By and large we are nimby as anyone else.
    Job training we might claim as part of our long standing pro-education stance.
    I don’t think we have a long history of being pro-youth – we seem very pleased with the triple lock for pensions, but are willing to go along with pretty drastic cuts to housing benefits, many of which will hit the young.
    Finally London keeping more revenue locally is localist, but until we say which revenues, and what responsibilities we would take over, it looks more like a slogan than a principled position.

    That is why I hope, over the next four years, that Caroline and Stephen can develop a coherent sense of what we stand for at GLA level.

    I also agree with others that we need to focus our attention on the list vote, not the individual assembly votes. Given our polling position, we were never going to win an individual seat, so emphasising “Vote LD assembly” surely makes more sense than “vote for Munira Wilson locally”. The campaign may have had many good features, but getting more votes in the bit that doesn’t matter, and fewer in the bit that does is not a desirable outcome. We would have got 2 seats either way, but instead of only just getting the second one, we would have been over half way to the third one.

  • James Blanchard 8th May '12 - 12:31am

    …and the elephant in the room: all Mayoral races inevitably become focussed on personalities at the expense of policies.

    Such a shame then that the party membership roundly rejected the personality candidate at the selection stage (and I ain’t talking about Mike)

  • Patricia Leighton 8th May '12 - 8:20am

    I agree with so much that has been said about the focus on the two main candidates but that does not explain really why we did relatively badly comparted to other minority parties. I live in East London and it was as if the election was not really going on I agree that it was difficult to identify policy issues from all the clashes, allegations etc. I don’t in any way want to detract from all the hard work and committment but looking at the trends since 2004 we will cease to exist by 2020 or thereabouts. There is something fundamentally wrong when UKIP, Greens and an Indepemdent do as well or better than us. A few crumbs of comfort, yes; but surely there must be some fundamental things going wrong so that we are ujable to make a bigger contribution to the work of London. I am a bit weary of’ punching above our weight’, so I think an urgent analysis of where it went wrong is required.

  • Neil Stockley 8th May '12 - 9:53am

    Mike and Tim –

    I’m not trying to drag things down, or have a go at anyone, but the point about the need for a London Lib Dem message has been made before:

    http://neilstockley.blogspot.co.uk/2008/11/london-liberal-democrats-need-story.html

  • Malcolm Blount 11th May '12 - 4:30pm

    A letter in LDN criticized our piece in the mailshot booklet. Too many photos, not enough text. I agree. I think our piece was inferior to literally everybody elses

  • Malcolm Blount 11th May '12 - 8:31pm

    The London electorate 4 mayor clearly does not understand the second preference system in that 2nd pref is not looked at until 1st is defeated. This is a public education matter. Should our assembly members press 4 an information campaign next time? We should state the position in our literature and maybe suggest 2 other acceptable affected parties that they do likewise.
    Our party is not presenting the deficit properly. We should say as its an xs of expenditure over income , its a ginormous mega Keynesian stimulus the like of which has never been seen. If a100 billions+ of carrots wont get the economic carthorse 2 move Y should an extra bunch of spendthrift socialist carrots make a difference?? We should sock it 2 them: Yshould those under 40 repay this extra borrowing?
    Sadly the truth is sombre:our economy is shafted 4 structural reasons. Since 1922 successive con and lab govts failed 2 address our deep seated problems. Out of office “it was nothing to do with us ,gov”We should say so.

  • Malcolm Blount 11th May '12 - 8:45pm

    The suggestion we dont fight the huge 1st past post seats is tempting:the greens did that once i believe. However we must fight all seats cos we need 2 train the electorate that there will always b a LD on the ballot.
    Some £ should b spent on market research 2 find Y we do better on the 1st past post seats vs list ballot. Its bewildering.

  • I like the point above about a house building programme.

    A decent thought through housing policy would improve the stability of and experience of society. It is also a good way that some growth can be encouraged in a sustainable and controlled way. Sustainable and Green technologies can also be supported as well.

    Decent social housing where people have an opportunity to buy their houses with the funds reinvested to build new social housing would produce a stable mix, and help prevent social housing enclaves with a high percentage on benefit. If there were enough housesbeing built, it would allow space for policies whereby family connection, or community work schemes, would contribute and be considered to be part of eligibility . The builders as well could be encouraged to have properly organised apprenticeships for unemployed to gain skills. Tenants should be able to let the properties back to councils so that homeless families can be housed and escape B+B costs and shipped out of the area away from their support networks.

    There is an interesting piece in the independent about the chronic lack of housing being built and how this has contributed to the double dip recession.

    http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/05/11/how-spending-cuts-delivered-the-double-dip/

    Stable and rooted communities is surely much better than the current situation we see with massively expensive rents supporting buy to let expansion, a shortage of houses, big housing benefit bills and councils considering shipping the homeless out to areas where they have no support network.

    An integrated and considered policy which includes social and private housing provision from the Liberal Democrats would impress me.

    (BTW. I voted the Independent Siobhan Benita – who I thought was a very clear sighted candidate. Bryan Paddick is obviously a very decent man , and it is to his credit that the Liberal Democrat Mayoral vote held up as well as it did).

  • Malcolm Blount 14th May '12 - 2:03pm

    It is a legitimate function of govt 2 have contra cyclical policies. Housing is prob the best example of a boom bust industry. We should try 2 do something 2 smooth the building cycle.

  • Martin Curry 31st May '12 - 3:59pm

    Surely the reason that we did better on the first past the post consituencies than on the list is the fact that there were more choices on the list!

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