Opinion: Replacing Labour in four easy steps

A few days ago, a dashing young Liberal Democrat leader suggested that Britain’s third party could overtake Labour. Clegg (for it was he) affirmed his belief that “the Liberal Democrats can replace Labour as the progressive party in British politics”.

Nick talks of the Lib Dems as the dominant political party of urban Britain – debatable, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. He speaks of the Lib Dems winning the battle of ideas across a range of areas, something most Lib Dems at least are likely to concur with, even if our opponents might not be quite so convinced.

But it will take more than ideas to establish the Lib Dems as one of the big two parties, staying ahead of Labour not just in local elections in times when our left-wing friends are unpopular, but in General Elections and during a Tory government’s mid-term slump.

Luckily it can be done, and here’s how.

Step one: double the number of strong local parties
We know what it takes for the Lib Dems to win and hold a parliamentary seat. A pre-requisite is an organisation capable of delivering around half a million pieces of literature – leaflets, tabloids, pool mailings, christmas cards and magazines – to the good people of the constituency each and every year, pretty much forever. And that’s before we’ve talked about voter ID, community involvement, casework and petitions.

I don’t want to shatter anyone’s illusions, but that’s not going to happen if the sum total of your activists are an ambitious young parliamentary candidate, three well-meaning-but-clueless old ladies, someone who’s campaigning techniques haven’t advanced since 1974 and an odd bearded chap in the corner who keeps on muttering about Land Value Tax (no-one knows who he is, but you’re scared to ask him to leave).

So let’s suppose we want to have a chance at winning 300 seats (Labour currently have over 350 MPs,in 1997 they won over 400, so 300 seems like a decent, if low, target if we want to replace them).

That’s 300 local parties delivering all that literature, knocking on all those doors, doing all that casework and campaigning, month after month, year after year.

How many local parties are in that position today? Maybe a hundred?

So step one is to massively increase the number of activists – and make sure they’re trained, supported and feel just a little bit loved.

Step two: raise an additional four million pounds every year
This one’s so trivial I almost didn’t include it, but what the hell. In those years when Michael Brown didn’t shower the party with his (as it later turned out) dodgy money, the party pulls in around ÂŁ3 million in donations every year.

As a bare minimum, we’ll need to more than double that and attract seven or eight million a year. That won’t get us a paid constituency organiser in all those target seats, but it will pay for the literature and a reasonable amount of central and regional support.

Step three: bigger, happier families
Over the last quarter century, the Lib Dems have got much better at fighting First Past the Post elections (thanks in no small measure to Chris Rennard). Compared to the Alliance in 1983, the party has well over double the number of MPs on a smaller proportion of the vote.

Unfortunately, this has presented a problem for proportional representation elections, especially the European elections and the London mayoral contest, where the constituencies are far larger. The party’s national coverage hasn’t prove strong enough to make up for the weak parliamentary constituencies. So, for example the Lib Dems polled below 10% in 118 areas in the recent European elections: far more than either UKIP or the Conservatives.

If we are to replace Labour, we need to be better at filling in the gaps. Not everywhere, but across large areas if we’re to hope to win.

That probably means having local parties in an area working together more closely than many do at the moment (including sharing resources and targetting across constituency boundaries) and having stronger regions that play an active role in campaigning in those weak areas all the time, not just at Euro election time.

Of course, it’ll also mean losing some the precious autonomy our constituency parties enjoy.

Step four: winning the air war
Finally, replacing Labour is going to continue to be tough as long as big sections of the media largely ignore the Lib Dems. The national party has a much smaller (and cheaper) media operation than Labour or the Tories. That needs to change. The good news is that, if the party wins more MPs and challenges in more areas, the media will take us more seriously. The bad news is that winning more seats isn’t an alternative to spending lots more money on winning the national air war – we need to do both.

Not easy, but possible
So we need more than warm words if we’re to replace Labour as the main progressive party of British politics. We need lots more activists, lots more money, and stronger regional and national organisations. Nick suggests that if Labour could replace the Liberals a century ago, we can replace Labour now. Our task is much tougher – we don’t have millions of newly enfranchised trades unionists to count on.

But tough isn’t impossible. Clegg talks about a transition over a couple of decades. That might be realistic, but only if winning the war of ideas goes hand in hand with a well-funded step-change in the party’s organisation on the ground.

* ‘Costigan Quist’ blogs at the Himmelgarten Cafe

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24 Comments

  • Mark Littlewood 14th Jun '09 - 3:00pm

    Some interesting ideas, but quite a few questions begged too.

    All of the points put by Costigan are about infrastructure and organisation.

    On membership, if I had a pound for every time a LibDem had advocated a need to increase our membership base, I could probably be one of the big party donors you’re looking for. The truth is that our membership has halved in the last twenty years and continues to be on a gentle, downward trend. We therefore need to find new ways of engaging people in the party and its activities that may be radically different to the traditional membership structure.

    Raising big money is becoming harder too, not just because of the recession, but because of the increasingly strict rules governing party donations (I generally approve of these, but it does make raising cash harder).

    The air war isn’t especially about resources, but about having something interesting, newsworthy and (presumably) popular to say. This goes to the need for the party to develop a narrative that isn’t (a) so open-ended that 95% of people can agree with it and (b) not merely a slogan. At the moment, the two parties with the clearest narrative are probably the BNP and the Greens.

    Finally, we need to have a sense of which demographic we’re seeking to appeal to, which needs to be more sophisticated than a simple “target seats” strategy.

  • To compete with Labour there has to be a dramatic cut in the union funding of Labour. That action would bring about an immediate change in the balance of power for the “progressive” vote.

  • This is a good summary and some excellent points are made.
    The other important strand is that Liberal Democrats need a narative to comapign on from now to the General Election. Any volunteers to write one to get our Leaders going?

  • “That probably means having local parties in an area working together more closely than many do at the moment (including sharing resources and targetting across constituency boundaries) and having stronger regions that play an active role in campaigning in those weak areas all the time, not just at Euro election time.”

    Indeed. A friend of mine wrote a paper explaining exactly how to do this 3 years ago. He, I and another party member met Ed Davey to show him this paper.

    Result … ?

  • David – surely our narrative needs to be about jobs.

    We have, in the form of the Green Road to Recovery, a credible economic alternative to the Labour government’s VAT cut. It is easily explicable; it is Keynesian; it offers a means of appealing to voters who have drifted to the Greens during the European elections; and it puts us on exactly the right side of the political argument if (or when?) Cameron’s Conservatives take office.

    Let’s have the courage of our convictions and have a summer and autumn campaign on job creation. We could even ask Lib Dem councils to start badgering the government for stimulus cash.

  • Johnny Boy John 15th Jun '09 - 12:43pm

    All the people you’ve on the ground are a bit shit at everything they do, that’s the problem.

    “Hi, I like the Lib Dems nationally – would like to get involved locally, see what I can do to help”

    “Brilliant, I’ll drop off the leaflets next week. Cya!”

    Therein lies the problem. Joe Public with good intentions is nowt more than a deliveryman. & all the leaflets are shit.

  • Andrew Chamberlain 15th Jun '09 - 4:23pm

    Johnny Boy John: What would you have liked have happened when you got in touch and asked to help out?

    Also, what’s wrong with LVT?! It’s a perfectly sensible policy and works well in other parts of the world.

  • If you want a narrative that makes sense, it starts with not going on about replacing Labour or the Conservatives. First, you have to accept that even if by some miracle the number of Lib Dem MPs doubles, it makes no difference to third party status. A three way split on a straight swing equals.

    CON 30.00% 210 MPs
    LAB 30.00% 306 MPs
    LIB 30.00% 102 Mps

    Secondly, you have to accept that even if the Lib Dems out poll Labour (unlikely) they will not replace them. The public at some level understand this.

    Thirdly, you have to talk about the difference the Lib Dems would make. At the moment it could be being sold as a “keep Cameron straight” message. We know voters are nervous about the Conservatives, we need to explain how a Lib Dem presence would keep him on track doing the popular things he and the lib dem propose and not ending up a repeat of Gordon Brown/Tony Blair.

    Fourthly, we ought to accept that tosh about radically re engaging with people is just that. Utter Tosh. People don’t want to be radically engaged with. What an irony – people who don’t vote anyway not voting in the Euro elections as a protest. So rather than searching for the Holy Grail, just accept that there isn’t one.

  • We need to attract people who may have supported single issue campaigns such as no to the war or ID cards or tuition fees to get on board. A lot of people are more ‘political’ than they think, and being an activist needn’t consume your life.

    However we do need a proper effort from local party organisations to get people involved from the outset. Not replying to requests to get involved, not contacting new members, not inviting new / current members to meetings are all symptoms of lib dem local parties across the country, many in urban areas which are lib-dem controlled.

    If it’s going to be so much effort just to get to the stage where you’re given a few leaflets to put through doors, we’re going to have trouble retaining those with real ambition for activism.

    Labour have some great activists. Deluded, I believe, but enthusiastic, passionate and a good advert for political campaigning. Similarly UKIP got a lot of people out onto the streets and even the BNP bothered to knock on my door in the weeks leading up to the euro elections.

    I don’t know if we’re focusing on just marginal seats too much, but in areas we control at council level, we must fight the anti-incumbency feeling that many people have. The party seems rather distant at the moment, and this is probably the one issue where we could take a leaf out of labour’s book.

  • The Lib Dems can replace Labour by attracting support from ethnic minorities EU citizens resident in the UK and commonwealth citizens. These form a huge voting bloc that Labour have repelled. The Left’s future is now with the Lib Dems, not Labour.

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