Opinion: Simple, liberal ideas for London

london by Harshil ShahLondon is widely regarded as a liberal city. It is not, however, a Liberal Democrat city.

The party now controls just one council and has only 6% of the councillors, as well as 2 London Assembly members. And yet, at least anecdotally, London should be our city. It’s diverse and often cosmopolitan.

One of the most striking aspects of the 2014 British Social Attitudes survey was that over half of Londoners welcomed immigration as good for the economy – almost double the number of people who did so in the rest of the UK. In Merton, a losing UKIP councillor blamed the “more media-savvy and educated” Londoners for her party’s lack of success. Although she was widely mocked for this statement, the results would suggest that large parts of London are not natural UKIP territory.

So why do we do so badly in London given the potential (does this analysis of the demographic inclined to vote Green sound like anywhere you recognise)? Partly, I think, for the same reason that we are not doing so well in large parts of the country. Our party’s reaction to coalition difficulties has often been to fall back onto the hard work of our councillors over the years. But the truth is that any good councillor from any party would work hard. And how many people will vote just on the basis of who’s good at getting casework sorted? If we’re honest, probably not enough people to win many elections. And is this really liberalism? The Liberal Democrats is a political party not a loose collection of residents association councillors. Most people join political parties to change the world, not to report ‘grot spots’ to the council – no matter how creditable that is.

July saw the centenary of the death of the man who ensured that Birmingham was “parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas-and-watered and improved” – radical, ‘municipal liberalism’ under Joseph Chamberlain was the launchpad for so-called ‘new Liberal’ thinking that revitalised the Liberal Party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The agenda of devolving powers to cities and regions (especially following the Scottish referendum) gives us a new opportunity to re-establish urban liberalism as a force within the party.

2016 will see the fifth elections for the Greater London Authority – the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

We have previously fought these elections on the basis that it’s easier to get those who vote for us in local elections to turn out for us in regional elections – and so we have concentrated on target wards.

Frankly, this has not worked. So we need to do something differently this time.

Liberal Reform is launching a commission into radical ideas for London, to put together a publication for late 2015. We need simple, liberal ideas. Exciting ideas that inspire people. Ideas that show people what we’re about as a party and as liberals; so that when they cast their vote, they at least have a conception of what we’re about. An openness to new ideas will hopefully attract thinkers and idealists to the party – as well as spark debate as to the kind of London we want to live in.

We’ll be publishing the results next year, but we’re looking for the best ideas and potential contributors now – email me on [email protected]. We’ll also be beginning the debate on Twitter and Facebook, using #LRLdnIdeas.

I agree with blogger Matthew Green that there is “a basic human need to understand the world in terms of simple stories“. We need to start telling Londoners what we’re about.


* Anthony Fairclough is Vice Chair, Merton Borough Lib Dems and is writing in a personal capacity

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  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Sep '14 - 5:45pm

    If London is an economic liberal City, then why was Ken Livingstone mayor for eight years? Bill de Blasio became mayor of New York, a similar City, on a message of fighting inequality.

    I don’t think economic liberalism is a winning electoral strategy. People should fight for what they believe in, but they should consider more the good that government intervention can do.

  • Anthony Fairclough 22nd Sep '14 - 5:51pm

    Where exactly did I say London was an ‘economically liberal’ city, or that economic liberalism was a winning electoral strategy?

  • Phil Beesley 22nd Sep '14 - 6:17pm

    My guess is that if you are presenting a liberal candidate, you have to argue for liberalism and find the liberals who are voting for other candidates. This is rocket scientist analysis: get liberals to vote Liberal.

  • “In Merton, a losing UKIP councillor blamed the “more media-savvy and educated” Londoners for her party’s lack of success. ”

    Based on the false premise that Londoners are better educated than the rest of the population. I would suggest the may that their lack of success there is associated with the following: 55% of the population of the city describe their ethnic background as being other than ‘White British’ and the percentage of immigrants in the population is three times the national average. Perhaps not surprising either that such a diverse city would avoid voting for a party dominated by white middle-class men.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Sep '14 - 6:23pm

    Hi Anthony, you said you wanted radical policies and I am presuming you didn’t mean things like rent controls, so that is why I assumed you meant economic liberalism.

  • Anthony Fairclough 22nd Sep '14 - 6:37pm

    Why presume! Interested in any/all ideas

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Sep '14 - 6:46pm

    Scrapping the mansion tax would be a good idea for London. It might have support in London, but it is divisive among liberals and creates no go areas in London. I think it is unfair because it penalises property wealth above other wealth. It probably costs members and donors too.

  • Joshua Dixon 22nd Sep '14 - 6:50pm

    “so that when they cast their vote, they at least have a conception of what we’re about” – you mean what Liberal Reform are about or the party? Because I’m not too sure a pamphlet put together by a small group of people in the party is what people will think about when they vote for us 😉

    Good luck though, I just hope the ideas are fed back into the party as well so it can be an open discussion for all 🙂

  • From the post: “The Liberal Democrats is a political party not a loose collection of residents association councillors”.

    Are you sure? Yes, I know it has this cosy mythology about being a political party but an impartial observer newly arrived from Mars would note that its success is almost entirely down to groups of councillors and local activists and that in the more than two decades of it’s existence the national Party (as opposed to multiple individual members) has never managed to articulate a coherent vision of what it wants to do and why. When it comes to national elections or other elections on a scale larger than councils (e.g. EU or London Assembly) it massively underperforms; in government it has fallen flat on its face.

    I strongly agree with the sentiment of this post but creating a workable strategy is NOT primarily about assembling a portfolio of good and radical ideas although it must include that. Good strategy starts by looking inward and ensuring that the organisation (company, political party or whatever) is fit for purpose. The existing Lib Dems organisation simply isn’t and until it is all efforts will come to nothing. Unfortunately, that’s a tough call for a comfortable Party establishment to make but it must be made or we really are wasting our time.

  • Stephen Hesketh 22nd Sep '14 - 9:47pm

    I’m with John Tilley on this one.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Sep '14 - 10:30pm

    John Tilley

    We used to control councils, or took part in joint administrations all over London from Tower Hamlets in the east end to millionaires row in Richmond, from Harrow to Southwark, Kingston, Camden, Hacney and others used to have dozens of councillors.

    In Lewisham we went from 3 councillors in 1994 and a poor third place in Parliamentary elections, to 18 councillors in the borough in 2010, and a good second place in all three of its constituencies. In 2014 we went down to 0 councillors.

    What happened between 2010 and 2014? Clegg was leader and he imposed his personal image on the whole party and squeezed out everything else. That’s what happened. There are NO VOTES in Cleggery. There is no significant proportion of the people who want the sort of right-wing economics and elitist interpretation of liberalism which Clegg is associated with.

    What used to work was when the party was a party of the economic left, but pragmatic and lacking the arrogance of the Labour Party. When the party had a good local image, not a top-down national leader oriented one, because then voters could see it was composed of people like them, people who knew what ordinary life was like, and so who could be trusted to make the right sort of decisions. Clegg and the Cleggies have deliberately thrown all that away.

    Anthony Fairclough writes:

    “Frankly, this has not worked. So we need to do something differently this time.”

    Yes. How very true. We need to try what we tried when we were winning increased support.

  • Stephen Donnelly 22nd Sep '14 - 10:31pm

    Good article. An initiative to be welcomed and repeated outside London. There is no way back to the days of ‘where we work we win’ and much of the support that we attracted during the last labour government has deserted us for a generation. We need to be open to new liberal ideas from inside and outside the party. It is not going to be easy, but this approach is much more constructive that allocating blame, finding scapegoats, and imagining plots.

  • @Geoff, I live in Tower Hamlets, so I agree with your view. What I notice is that many parts of London (outside of the millionaire ghost town sections) have many people from around the UK, who move here following their degrees for work. They are often, therefore, reality young and educated to at least degree level in subjects such as Economics and /or the Arts. They often consider themselves to have a high sense of moral duty. These things are also mixed with the fact that London, like many universities, exposes them to many diverse communities.

    Due to these things, it is not surprising that turn out many liberal thinking people, who are left of centre (myself being one of them). It is also not shocking, therefore, that they would not vote for the Tories, but would also not consider themselves Labour supporters.

    Such people, therefore, were one of the groups who were our ‘natural’ supporters. Sadly, I suspect the coalition – and things such as tuition fees – has somewhat soured their views, which means it also not shocking they turn to the next green loving, pro-social justice, left wing party, the Green, even if the Greens are clearly not a Liberal Party.

    I say this because I am one of these people and – for better or worse – spend much of my time around them.

    However, one weakness of this group is that is often a politically aware group, not a politically active group – this means that their support does not always turn into a vote.

  • People who vote based on liberal values (i.e., not tribally) are going to be discerning enough to look for a party that best expresses those values. They are not simply going to vote for a party because it has “Liberal” in the name. The author of the article doesn’t seem to consider that liberal-leaning people might not be voting for Liberal Democrats, not because they lack information or are unmotivated to vote, but because they don’t see the Party as being liberal enough.

  • @Stephen Donnelly

    “There is no way back to the days of ‘where we work we win’ ”

    I ******** well hope not. For in only method there is madness. But in a handful of places in this country we have actually moved forward despite the national lack of leadership. Where we work and work sensibly and present ourselves truthfully to our comunities as honest human beings we can win.

  • Anthony Fairclough 23rd Sep '14 - 7:56am

    Just to come back on some of the comments:
    @Joshua Dixon – you’re right, it’s a bit more diffuse than that 🙂 We hope that it would help spark debate. And I think this works amongst local groups as well. If they can get a clear message across as to what they stand for locally, I think they’ll find other things easier.

    @GF – interesting point about strategy. I think for regional elections, the main strategy is having a clear, widely known narrative. I think there’s a reason that we did out best in the London Assembly elections in 2004, when the most commonly known thing about the Lib Dems was that we were opposed to the Iraq war.

    @Matthew Huntbach – I think the party leadership can definitely be criticised on the message/strategy we have and the impact on our polling and election results, but I am not necessarily convinced that things were much better under Charles Kennedy. Looking at Council election results, Lambeth, Islington were on the way down during the early 2000s, and for places like Camden and Lewisham, 2006 was the big year, with 2010 (with 12 councillors, not 18, in Lewisham?) being much better than in the 1998/2002 elections – even if 2014 has seen the wipeout.

    @Liberal Al – I agree – and @David-1, we agree! I don’t think most people know what the Lib Dems stand for.

    Coming back to @Eddie Sammon – you’re right about Ken Livingstone and Bill de Blasio – what has our narrative ever been in London elections? I’m not convinced we’ve ever really had one particularly.

  • Anthony Fairclough 23rd Sep '14 - 8:04am

    @John Tilley – I don’t think the election results from London necessarily back up your thesis. We spiked in 2006 because of the Iraq war, and we also seem to Yo-yo following periods in power locally. In Lewisham there were only 3 or 4 councillors up until 2006, when they went up to 17 (I think they then won a by-election or two). 2010 saw them return 12 and 2014 none (although given our national polling has more than halved since 2010 this is perhaps not surprising). As I said above, places like Lambeth, Tower Hamlets and Islington were losing councillors before Clegg and coalition. We even lost 2 councillors in Southwark in 2006 (and another 3 in 2010). We came relatively close to losing control of Sutton in 2006. In Merton we had 3 in 1998, nothing in 2002 or 2006, 2 in 2010 and now 1 in 2014.

  • Anthony Fairclough 23rd Sep '14 - 8:05am

    @John Tilley makes a good point about enthusiastic activists and members; having a clearer national and regional narrative would help with that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Sep '14 - 8:44am

    Anthony Fairclough

    for places like Camden and Lewisham, 2006 was the big year, with 2010 (with 12 councillors, not 18, in Lewisham?)

    Yes, we had 18 councillors in Lewisham until 2010, but dropped to 12 in the 2010 local election which came at the same time as the general election. The general election happening at the same time as the local elections meant there were people voting who didn’t pay attention to what was happening locally, and so still had a tendency to vote on Labour-Conservative lines. Some drop was bound to happen.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Sep '14 - 8:47am

    Anthony Fairclough

    We spiked in 2006 because of the Iraq war,

    No, that is nonsense. Among the intellectual elite the Iraq war may have been a big thing, but among ordinary people it hardly figured as an issue. It may have helped pick up a few votes here and there, but I certainly wouldn’t put it as the major factor in why we did well at that time.

  • Jenny Barnes 23rd Sep '14 - 8:47am

    Most voters think they now have a pretty good idea of what the LDs stand for. Unfortunately, it’s the record of the coalition government. If you liked that, why not vote Tory? And if you didn’t…
    Many of the party members don’t believe the last 4 years is what the party should stand for, but that’s not going to win many votes, whatever story we tell.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Sep '14 - 8:52am

    Anthony Fairclough

    but I am not necessarily convinced that things were much better under Charles Kennedy

    Well, there you go, Westminster Bubble thinking. To you, politics is all about the national leaders, what happens in Westminster, what the lazy journalists who can’t be bothered to find out what is happening at ground level report.

    No, Charles Kennedy was an irrelevance. And that’s the point. We did well BECAUSE of that. Because for reasons we now know, he didn’t dominate the image of the party, he didn’t do much, the party prospered. It enabled the party to be seen as more than its national leader, it enabled us to better put across the truth that we have (or had) a wealth of talent. We escaped that problem which we also experienced with Ashdown as being seen merely as the fan club of the national leader, and that did us well. That was all reversed following “Cleggmania”, and Clegg and the Cleggies have pushed it still further since the general election. With the disastrous consequences we now see.

  • Anthony Fairclough 23rd Sep '14 - 8:55am

    @Matthew Huntbach – an interesting stat is that “yes” won 49.35% of the vote in Lewisham at the 2011 AV referendum (much higher than the 32.1% national “yes” vote).

  • Paul in Wokingham 23rd Sep '14 - 9:01am

    In 2002 in Islington the Lib Dems won 39 of the 48 seats on the council. This year we won zero. The campaign in 2002 centred on the slogan “Islington’s getting better” which reminded voters of the incompetent Labour administration that had recently been ejected while at the same time expressing optimism for where the borough was moving.

    But in 2006 we lost a number of wards and retained control on the basis of the mayor’s casting vote. We cannot blame Nick Clegg for that. Instead it was simply the normal ebb and flow of support, perhaps amplified in this case by a re energised opposition that used a hostile local press to good effect.

    By contrast the complete obliteration of the party in many boroughs this year is in my opinion a direct consequence of the rightward shift of the party in Westminster and the legitimate perception that the Lib Dems are enablers of a Conservative agenda.

    My suggestion mirrors that of others: get rid of the Clegg coterie, reestablish the party’s traditional role as a party of radical innovation rather than triangulating mediocrity, and work hard for 20 years to reestablish the trust of the electorate. Because frankly that is how far back the party has been set back by this disastrous flirtation with neo – liberalism.

  • Anthony Fairclough 23rd Sep '14 - 9:06am

    @Matthew Huntbach – nice of you to tell me what I believe (given I’ve spent a decent chunk of my time for the last nine years just campaigning in 2 particular wards, ensuring we once again have councillors in Merton). As far as I can see, the party under Kennedy and Clegg has the same problem, a lack of national narrative. The difference in coalition is – as @Jenny Barnes says – being in government, and being in government with the Tories (which undermines a lot of our tactical vote). Our vote in parliamentary and council elections comes from 3 categories – “core” liberals, those who vote for us because we’re local champions who work hard, and those who vote for us because only the Lib Dems or the Conservatives/Labour (delete as appropriate) can win here. Candidates have (understandably) concentrated on the latter 2 categories, as they feel they’re the ones they can influence. Coalition is making it more difficult to squeeze and perhaps showing us that the local champion stuff is not always as important as we hope. Maybe we should try to do something to attract the (left) liberally-inclined to us? For me, this seems even more important in regional elections like the Euros and London Assembly, where the votes that are important for us are the ones for the party, not the individual (I notice that the GLA Constituency candidates often get more votes than the list, but this is precisely the opposite of what we want).

  • Anthony Fairclough 23rd Sep '14 - 10:06am

    Of course the picture in 2006 was more sophisticated. But it’s worth noting that in several “left-leaning” boroughs, were we’d previously had small groups we did extremely well in 2006, Haringey (+12), Lewisham (+13), Brent (+18), Camden (+12), Waltham Forest (+6) – whereas in most places we’d been in the administration we lost seats. So 2006 saw us suddenly come from nowhere in many formerly Labour-dominated areas, where we had a suitable infrastructure to take advantage of it. Those places where we’d been running the Council (Lambeth, Kingston, Sutton, Tower Hamlets*) saw us lose ground.
    Of the ones we gained ground in 2006, we went significantly backwards in 2010 (ie pre-coalition).

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Sep '14 - 12:54pm

    Anthony Fairclough

    But it’s worth noting that in several “left-leaning” boroughs, were we’d previously had small groups we did extremely well in 2006, Haringey (+12), Lewisham (+13), Brent (+18), Camden (+12), Waltham Forest (+6) – whereas in most places we’d been in the administration we lost seats. So 2006 saw us suddenly come from nowhere in many formerly Labour-dominated areas, where we had a suitable infrastructure to take advantage of it.

    We didn’t come from nowhere in Lewisham, it was something we’d been steadily building up. My own role during the time the party grew was as Leader of the Council group. I wasn’t heavily involved in the local campaigning, since I had a full-time paid job as well as the councillor role, I had to limit what I did, and therefore left that to others. However, as Leader of the group, I was part of building the public face so that even in those parts of the borough where we weren’t actively campaigning people became aware of our existence, felt that we seemed to be sensible people on their side form what we were doing, and so were willing to give us a chance when we felt we had the resources to extend the campaigning to their ward.

    What worked in Lewisham was that people there wanted a party which was moderate left and was not Labour. People didn’t like the Tories and their right-wing economics, so had felt stuck with Labour and longed for an alternative – and we gave it to them. Labour in Lewisham became known as a Blairite flagship, wanting to privatise things, and with the top-down arrogance of the Blairites. My own moderate left approach to politics came out as somewhat to the left of Labour’a leadership there, but I was always pragmatic and down-to-earth. I’m not one who goes in for fancy ideological lines. I do, however, believe that poverty, ignorance and conformity are all barriers to true freedom, and they need to be challenged, and that can be done through the democratic state. I think there is a lot of call for that sort of political message.

    I don’t think there is a lot of call for the political message being pushed by those who interpret “liberalism” as meaning a shrieking “the state is evil, put everything out to private business” approach and claim that is “authentic liberalism”. Such people seem to have come to influence at the top of the Liberal Democrats, and used the Coalition to push that sort of thing even further. I think a lot of the criticism of the Liberal Democrats under the Coalition has been unfair, because it has ignored the real dilemma we have faced in dealing with a situation where we have five times as many Conservative MPs as LibDem ones, not enough Labour MPs to form an alternative government and a Labour Party that didn’t really want to stay in government anyway. However, those at the top who’ve been trying to push the party anyway down a more right-wing economic direction have made things far worse by giving the impression that the difficult compromises we’ve had to agree to are really secretly what we wanted to do anyway. Every time right-wing pressure groups who call themselves “liberal” put out this message, and right-wing economic liberal types get quoted in the press, as they seem effortlessly to be able to do, it kicks our party down further.

    So, I don’t think there’s a future in going that way, and I disagree deeply with the line “The coalition has forced is that way, now we have to stick with it”. Well, if that’s the case, we’re showing that coalitions can’t work, because it means we’re saying that once you join one you are forced permanently to change in the direction of your coalition partner.

    In order to deal with this, I think we need to do the opposite: something dramatic to show that no, we haven’t changed, we haven’t moved to the right, we stand for what we stood for when we were winning votes. I’ve said elsewhere what that dramatic thing should be. Sack him and those surrounding him.

  • Anthony Fairclough 23rd Sep '14 - 1:14pm

    I think to go from 3 or 4 to 17 is pretty much coming from nowhere. It doesn’t mean that there didn’t have to be work on the ground before that. And from the sound of it, you were able to do in Lewisham what I hope we might be able to do in London – to give people a reason to vote Lib Dem that goes beyond “X is local and works hard and is not a Tory”.

    As for the other stuff about right-wing economics; I don’t necessarily disagree. And nowhere do I suggest the things you’re concerned about.

  • Jonathan Brown 23rd Sep '14 - 10:41pm

    I wish Anthony good luck with this, and like Geoffrey Payne note that “this article is clearly not intended to start a debate about free market economics or to settle scores between factions in the party.”

    I hope that whatever party members’ views of the goals of Liberal Reform are, they will contribute to this. (And I hope that Liberal Reform – as this article and your comments suggest you intend – will seriously consider ideas from those who aren’t normally fans of the organisation.)

    I’m busy right now organising a freshers’ fair, but would like to contribute, so it would be helpful if you could post updates on how it’s going – perhaps writing about some of the ideas you’ve received so far, provoking reactions, thoughts, etc. and generally keeping this project on the radar. I’ve no doubt that party members have lots of good ideas, but it can be hard to get people to find the time to write them down and submit them to this kind of consultative process.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Sep '14 - 10:29am


    I have been reading Jeremy Browne’s race plan – apart from the lack of any plan ! (its just a jumble of ideas) it comes across very much as social liberalism means support for same sex marriage and nothing much else whereas economic liberalism means out torying the tories on the liberation right.

    Yup. It wasn’t easy to “come out” against same sex marriage, but I could see through it from the start. It was quite obviously a thing whipped up so that Liberal Democrat right-wingers could wave it about and say “look, this means we aren’t Tories, oh no” in order to justify being thoroughly Tory on economics. The objections that used to be widespread in the gay community to the idea that gay people had to be forced into a heterosexual norm to be fully accepted were forgotten, instead anyone who didn’t agree with the way this token issue had been whipped up was denounced as a homophobe, and so shut up. People who had had what they called a “gay marriage” before, that is legally a “civil partnership” were made to feel bad about it, as if it was a second class thing. Before May 2010, the consensus was that “civil partnership” WAS “same sex marriage”. What was needed was to move it forward so that any remaining differences between legal civil partnership and legal marriage were removed, and also I think to allow people of different sexes to have “civil partnership”, so leaving “marriage” and its historical baggage to those who wanted that historical baggage.

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