Rebuilding our campaigning base in York

Image courtesy of freefoto.comYork is a classic example of an English city where the Liberal Democrats developed a strong local base as voters became disillusioned with both the Conservatives and later Labour in the 1990s and 2000s. After two decades of Labour control we won a landslide victory in 2003 and formed the administration on City of York Council for eight years. As elsewhere, in 2011 we took a hammering from the voters, our first electoral test as a party of government.

The unitary authority of York is split into two parliamentary constituencies including the marginal (famously ‘doughnut-shaped’) York Outer, a seat that the Conservatives won with a majority of less than 7% over us at the 2010 general election.

Within months of a disappointing general election result, we rightly anticipated a tough fight in all-up local elections in 2011, especially against the unfavourable national picture. A resurgent Labour Party took eight council seats from us to win overall control, including five seats in York Outer that they won from third place.


In the aftermath of our defeat it was clear that the local party needed a period of serious self-reflection. Many of the problems that we were to identify are not particular to York – indeed some pre-dated the formation of the coalition. Crucially, we had not adapted our campaigning for the coalition era and we were hampered by a characteristically Lib Dem weakness for forming new committees.

With all-up council elections on the same day as the general election in 2015, ‘integrated campaigning’ has now become our byword! York Outer was one of the first local parties to select a prospective parliamentary candidate, international lawyer Nick Emmerson and our membership numbers are now consistently up for the first time in three years. We are also undertaking long overdue reforms including working towards a single local party to cover the whole council area.

Our younger activists, including those who arrive every year via the strong University of York branch (as I did!), have helped make sure that we are using Connect to its full potential and also making better use of the data that we already hold. Following the example of fellow Lib Dems in nearby Hull, we have increased our voter contact rate, with 14,000 households surveyed last year and even more ambitious targets agreed for 2013 and 2014.

Looking to the future

Like their colleagues across the other northern cities, York’s Labour Cabinet blame their problems on the coalition, whilst taking the wrong decisions locally – increasing the council’s debt burden and wasting taxpayers’ money on lavish projects in the city centre. Their draft Local Plan would see 22,000 houses built over the next fifteen years, mostly on green belt land in York’s rural fringe.

Our hard work in the last six months is already beginning to pay off. Last week a former Labour councillor who is a well-known campaigner on disability issues joined the Liberal Democrats, slamming the Labour Council’s record, especially poor consultation on cuts to the social care budget. The defection means that we are now edging out the complacent and disunited Tories to cement our position as the real alternative to Labour in York.

So if you’re reading this and you live in or near York, don’t just be a spectator – we want to see you on the team! Please visit our website to find out how you can get your free coffee and croissant this weekend.

* Keith Aspden has been the Councillor for Fulford Ward in York since 2003 and for Fulford and Heslington Ward since 2015. Since 2019 he is the Leader of City of York Council, and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Chair of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee.

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This entry was posted in Campaign Corner and News.


  • “Their draft Local Plan would see 22,000 houses built over the next fifteen years, mostly on green belt land in York’s rural fringe.”

    Just a reminder that it’s Liberal Democrat policy to build 300,000 homes every year. York is one of the most unaffordable cities in the North. Young adults and families struggling with high rents and even higher house prices desperately need new homes to be built.

  • Attacks like this on the council’s plans to build new housing are what I dislike most about the pettiness of local government politics (and practised I might add by all political parties)

    The council have put forward these plans to meet a need – the need to build houses to house the 4,000 plus families on the council waiting list and enable private buyers and renters to obtain a house in the local area. Given that there is only limited land available inevitably some greenbelt land is likely to be needed. I think a Lib Dem Council would have promoted the same or a very similar plan to meet the need for housing.

    Meeting the need for housing should not be a party political issue – if anything we should be celebrating the expansion of the city, the recognition that we need new houses and the new people that it will bring in to York creating prosperity – who knows many of these new residents of York may turn out to be Libderal Democrat voters!

  • Well, I cannot comment on the housing issue, but I can say it sounds like an effective rebuilding scheme, so well done. 🙂

  • Cadan ap Tomos 5th Jun '13 - 1:41pm

    The situation in York isn’t what you’d think. Yes, I agree that some green belt building may be necessary, but the way the Local Plan is structured is rubbish. There are a number of brownfield sites in the city centre and elsewhere which are ignored, and there’s nothing in the plan that will prioritise these over green belt sites – something I think we can all agree is sensible. Not only that, but certain areas earmarked for development already have large infrastructure issues – York’s roads are already packed – and there’s nothing in the Plan to address these, nor to allow for more amenities in the areas that will be developed. It’s not nimbyism – it’s thought out objection and a thought out alternative.

  • David Evans 5th Jun '13 - 2:32pm

    “Please visit our website to find out how you can get your free coffee and croissant this weekend.”

    When I find something on the Website that refers to this, I might even help!

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Jun '13 - 4:05pm

    Their draft Local Plan would see 22,000 houses built over the next fifteen years, mostly on green belt land in York’s rural fringe.

    This really is a key point. It has become a political truism, endlessly repeated by so many, that a massive house-building programme is an instant solution to Britain’s economic problems.

    People glibly say it, as if that is enough, but rarely follow that up by concrete plans as to where the houses will be built. Instead there’s usually vague hand-waving, but if you really push and propose places, it’s always somewhere else.

    I’m afraid if we really did go in for a massive house-building programme – and it’s a favourite policy of those to the left put as a no-brainer alternative to austerity on the right – we would soon find huge opposition to any practical proposals which get as far as naming sites. I suspect this is something the likes of UKIP would exploit mercilessly for their advantage, with emotional lines about “Britain’s green land” and the like.

    Glibly saying “brownfield sites” is not an answer either. By their nature it tends to be more expensive to build on them, and difficult to do so on a large scale. Throwing up a big estate on a greenfield site is much easier. But also it tends to be the case that one person’s “brownfield site” is another person’s pleasant piece of open land, those scrubby weeds those from afar think can be concreted over so easily turn out to be a precious wildlife resource. I’m sorry, but I’ve sat on planning committees giving permission for “brownfield” sites to be built on, and almost inevitably there’s a big local campaign against it, and when you give consent to the developers, it’s to cries from the locals of “Judas – how can you ignore our wishes like this? You must have been bribed by the developers. You are just another politician, in it for yourself, and caring nothing for the people you are supposed to represent”.

    I am not saying we should not build, but just saying it’s nowhere near as easy as most make out.

    Note that the biggest opposition comes from people who are comfortably housed. They want it both ways – they want both to enjoy their green views, but they also want no sort of penalty for occupying land beyond their immediate needs. I think we need to be brutally honest abut this, that is why I stress there is no easy solution. The alternative to massive new building is a system of land taxation that will in effect serve to ration use of existing housing land. We know that any attempt to talk about such things also brings out howls of anger – that is what we had with even the tiniest attempt at it we called the “mansion tax”.

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