Rebuilding the Party – a short term fix or a long-term dilemma

My team’s manager, Arsene Wenger, had a short-term problem to replace the players who left in January and a long-term problem because we haven’t won the league since 2003-04. Arsene repeatedly called on us to have faith in him because young upcoming players would strengthen the team to make Arsenal serious contenders for the title. He thought he could do what Manchester United did with “Fergie’s Fledglings” – which included players like Beckham and Giggs. Regrettably, it was not to be. Arsenal has no significant long-term solution and the focus is on short term fixes. But short-term fixes don’t morph into long term solutions.

During the coalition, we lost hundreds of local councillors, election after election. Many of them had been councillors for years and, when they lost, a lot of them took a step back or even retired. The trouble with that was the support structure they built for themselves and their local party over the years was severely compromised without them.

The smart people in the party (and there are many of them) must have known this and its consequence. But they seem to have taken the view that the good work our ministers were doing in Government (and there was plenty of that) would enable more parliamentarians to be elected and eventually councillors. This did not happen.

We lost parliamentarians; we continued to lose councillors.

As Liberals, we all fancy ourselves as radical – so let’s really be RADICAL. Democrats ‘66 and Trudeau in Canada give us hope and optimism for the future. But their resurgence may or may not apply to our circumstances. We have to create our own stable and long-term opportunities for change.

My radical idea is that we should focus to make the Liberal Democrats in the next 6 to 7 years the largest local government party in Britain. We seriously fight with the vigour we bring to General Elections to win council seats in Towns, Cities, Counties and Mayoral elections; so that Lib Dems, will lead local government to last a generation.

To state the obvious – this doesn’t mean the focus on winning parliamentary seats is any less but it’s an acknowledgement on what is, currently, strategically required. We are not going to develop our base top down but developing local parties who win increasing number of council seats will develop sustained support. Good delivery at local government will eventually turn residents voting preference to us in the general elections (enough to make us serious title contenders!). To state another obvious point – the party does support local parties and wants more councillors elected. My suggestion is for a major strategic shift backed by significantly more party resources allocated to achieving this objective.

We have lurched between success and disappointments on topical issues: the test of time shows we have not secured additional voters from fluctuations in our popularity and the party has been unable to make headway in the growing ethnic minority communities. We need to build a long-term base from which we can seriously challenge parliamentary seats across the country. This suggestion will be anathema to the quick fixers in the party, but what’s the alternative: more of the same?

We seem to have accepted we are a small third party; we need to change; think big; be RADICAL – because tinkering with the same old approach will only keep us in our place.

* Tahir Maher is a former Chair of South Central Liberal Democrats and lives in Wokingham.

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30 Comments

  • This is really a rehash of old thinking. The reality is that running a local council these days is not likely to win you many votes. It is not likely to give you many opportunities to do anything particularly liberal. That is not to criticise the work being done by councillors, council groups and the lib dems on the LGA, but they are constrained by the lack of funding, lack of financial control and ever increasing pressures on council budgets.

    The Liberal Democrats do not even sell a vision for local government. Where does the party stand on unitaries ? metro mayors ? combined authorities ? Council Tax ? Local Income Tax ? Police and Crime Commissioners ?

    In most places our councillors are elected despite being liberal democrats, not because they are liberal democrats, they might as well be progressive resident associations.

    Yes we need to build from the bottom up, and increasing the number of councillors needs to be part of this, but just shoving a few more leaflets out isn’t by itself a recipe for success. As the article almost states, losing councillors was seen as a price worth paying, it wasn’t. But then the people running the party had a contempt and condescending attitude to councillors.

    If you want to win again, the party has to learn to campaign on issues that matter to people.

  • I think this a perfectly logical, sensible way forward.

    But I really question whether it is big and radical. It is hardly headline-grabbing, is it?

  • Virtually all Governments face mid-term blues. So, I am not sure that Lib Dem MPs “chose” in the way you describe.

    While never the biggest fan the coalition, a reality where we didn’t enter the coalition might have been equally difficult for us – what is our point if we chickened out?

    Frankly we suffered unpopularity from our time in Government as many political parties have before – even if it was undeserved.

    Clearly a lesson for the future is to think how you form a coalition as a minor party where you have to compromise and also maintain your brand for the future. (Hint: Do not say you are going to abolish something and then triple it!)

    Football clubs surely also invest in both the long term (such as academy programmes and youth teams) and the short term. Your region of South Central has some notable success stories even after the coalition was formed – councils such as Eastleigh and Portsmouth bucked the trend during the coalition, Winchester increased its parliamentary vote significantly in 2017 and we won back Oxford West and Abington.

    Any football team needs grit, hard work and some flair and often “grind out” results in some tough matches. An imaginative centre forward, a solid defence and a good back room team. So too does a political party!

  • Laurence Cox 29th Jan '18 - 11:19am

    @Matt Burch,

    Yes, it is sensible and radical doesn’t have to mean headline-grabbing, which is the very epitome of a short-term solution. The one point on which I would disagree with Tahir is that it isn’t sufficient just to get councillors elected; what we have to ensure is when they retire the voters elect another Lib Dem councillor to replace them. In too many places Lib Dem councillors get elected and re-elected on a personal vote which disappears when they retire. They do a really good job for their residents, which is where their personal vote comes from, but succession planning isn’t necessarily their first thought (or even their last thought). Effective succession planning means that you bring the replacement in to the Focus Team not a few months before the election but, ideally, a couple of years before the election (this is a problem for those local areas that have all-up elections). It is also worth thinking about the strategic use of by-elections where we can flood a single ward with campaigners, rather than waiting for an all-up election when many of the campaigners will be having to fight in their own wards.

  • “The smart people in the party (and there are many of them) must have known this and its consequence. But they seem to have taken the view that the good work our ministers were doing in Government (and there was plenty of that) would enable more parliamentarians to be elected and eventually councillors.”

    Well, they can’t have been that smart then, can they ? Nor did the general public think much of the ‘good work’.

    As for Arsenal football supporters, the view from real supporters of Premier League clubs with genuine community support such as Huddersfield and Burnley (both of whom nearly went out of existence in recent memory) is “for goodness sake stop moaning and just reflect on how spoilt you have been over the years”. I don’t in the least feel sorry for Arsenal supporters – they should count their blessings and think outside their well upholstered metropolitan comfort zone.

  • Support Spurs instead!

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 29th Jan '18 - 1:10pm

    @ Tom just to be clear under no circumstances do I feel losing councillors was good. As a regional chair I brought this up as a concern as it was not being addressed and we were losing local support. If the impression is as you say then it was not intended.

    I agree with you re local government policies. I generally feel we are not brave to put our policies forward and then fight for them and explain them to residents

  • Tahir, you were wrong to think the leadership of the party had a plan during the coalition and you are wrong to think the public think we did anything worthwhile in that government. We may wish to claim credit for somethings but the public didn’t notice.

    You have presented no evidence that winning control of Councils leads on to winning Parliamentary seats. I can’t think of any examples in our region.

    Newbury we won control of the Council afterwards the by-election. Romsey we won most of our council seats after the by-election. Eastleigh we won control after the by-election. Portsmouth we won control of the Council after holding the Parliamentary seat for years.

    I don’t think we managed to take control of Oxford City Council.

    To be clear people do not vote for us in local elections and then vote for us in enough numbers in Parliamentary elections for us to take the seat. This is because the turnout in local elections is about half of that in general elections.

    The way to win Parliamentary seats seems to be either via a by-election or long-term building of the Local Party which will include increasing the number of our councillors. But we need to have national policies to establish a base from which to win seats. We had a national base of above 16% from 1992 to 2010. We need to get it back. This will mean changing all of our policies from those we pursued during the Coalition and getting back to Social Liberal values and being an alternative to the Conservative Party.

  • chris moore 29th Jan '18 - 1:57pm

    Getting councillors elected creates a pool of committed activists locally; which means there’s more campaigning at a General Election; more members and so on.

    Having councillors on the local council also creates publicity for and awareness of the party.

    It’s not the be-all and the end-all; nor is it set in stone; but there are many examples of parliamentary success following the building of a base in local government.

    Tahir’s strategy is not new or radical, but it is cogent.

  • paul barker 29th Jan '18 - 2:10pm

    As far as I can see this already is part of the The New Consensus in our Party, rebuild from the bottom up, keep it simple & build a core Vote.
    We are already having a lot of success in Local Byelections & things are looking hopeful for May; as long as The Government doesnt collapse & we get another General Election.
    Keep calm & carry on.

  • John Marriott 29th Jan '18 - 5:05pm

    Making the Lib Dems “the largest local government party in Britain” (might be a bit tricky as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, though) is possibly feasible because, thanks to its progressive emasculation by successive governments, certainly since WW2, most people don’t think it’s very important any more, so, with the right candidates, it might prove to be a softer opinion. However, the real power lies at Westminster, which, as has been shown over the past thirty years or so, has been a much harder nut to crack.
    Now, if part of that campaign could be linked to devolving more power to local government it might be worthwhile. In order to do that local government has to be fit for purpose. As someone else said, has the party got a position on Unitary Authorities? I see that the author of the piece is a councillor. Of what kind of authority, I wonder? If it’s a District, its days ought to be numbered.
    There are too many councils already, where you have County and Districts overlapping and too many councillors sitting on both and drawing two lots of allowances. Making all first tier Authorities Unitary has got to be the way forward if we are going to get real devolution to the english regions. So, to succeed you need a plan. The status quo is only an opinion if you want to be a big fish in a small pond.

  • @Michael BG

    “You have presented no evidence that winning control of Councils leads on to winning Parliamentary seats. I can’t think of any examples in our region.”

    I think Winchester City Council we controlled (either overall or minority) before 1997 – we certainly led it at one point. (We won 9 of the 19 seats up for election in ’96 – winning 41% of the vote) But it is a good general point that you make.

    In general there tends to be a synergy being winning parliamentary seat, being in a good position as regards councillors should a by-election come along and increasing our councillors after a parliamentary by-election win and then subsequently holding a seat.

    From memory in Eastleigh we were in a relatively strong position in councillors before the ’94 by-election. In ’93 in Eastleigh Borough we won 5 of the 7 Hampshire County Council seats – winning 49% of the vote.

    And may well have been on the way to winning it at the 97 the General Election even if the by-election hadn’t come along.

    And Portsmouth South had seen some success for the Alliance before the ’84 by-election after having been a near desert for the liberals in the 70s.

    We also won minority control of Hampshire County Council in ’93 which probably helped these Hampshire seats in ’97.

    (Stats from the elections centre – http://www.electionscentre.co.uk/?page_id=3755 )

  • Julia Ewart 29th Jan '18 - 5:32pm

    Gentlemen – forgive me but I find the energy of this thread perfectly dreary. The LibDems are sitting on the lottery number and the bonus ball right now. With the issue of many UK residents and voters wishing to remain in the EU and the party being one of the only two pure supporters of this – and with the Conservative party having zipped off into the unknown – this is not a time to have a seven year plan but is a time to sharpen & shape up, get the membership whipped into action and the message from the interior on track. I am creating a visual for Suffolk so that new members can see what being a member looks like – and often with their skills – how they can make themselves useful. At a time when politics as a subject has taken over from interior design and cooking (I kid you not) this is a time to up brand, invigorate and put the tiger into the tank once and for all. To go back to authors comments – the loss of team members is difficult, but there has to be a new pace and style to politics so as to attract the membership and therefore if you wish new members to take up the challenge – which many are very capable of doing – then let’s take the party into a new and appealing direction – right now and that means be it in the House of Commons/Lords or out here on the streets – everyone knows what value they carry to work as one. This party is the party of the ‘reasonable’ – of which there are millions that simply need signposting to a new solution – we have the left leaning right and the right leaning left – also looking for new homes – so lets put super efforts in NOW and not in 7 years time – especially as the Libdems have the winning ticket – to remain in the EU.

  • Further to the above the Lib Dems were in OVERALL control of Winchester City between 1995 to 2004

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winchester_City_Council_elections#Political_control

    and Eastleigh from 1988-1990 and from 1994-present (the 1994 local elections occurred during the 1994 by-election)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastleigh_Borough_Council_elections

  • Katharine Pindar 29th Jan '18 - 6:33pm

    Well said, Julia! We have much to offer, both nationally and locally, and every reason to fight with energy and passion and with sufficient confidence in what we stand for in this crucial year.

  • @ Michael

    I well remember that in 1993 together with Labour we controlled Hampshire County Council. When Southampton and Portsmouth left the county the Conservatives regained control. I don’t recall where he had councillors.

    I well remember how good May 1994 was for us, as I won my council seat and we gained another 5 seats that year on the Borough Council (great considering we elect by thirds).

    I don’t recall us having control of Winchester from 1995, perhaps Mark Oaten didn’t present this fact very well at Regional Executive meetings. And of course the 1997 general election result was a draw hence the by-election.

    It is likely that some of the Eastleigh gains of 1994 were part of the by-election campaign as the previous MP had died in February 1994. The Conservatives had a 17,702 (23.3%) majority in 1992.

    You are correct we (SDP) won Portsmouth South in a by-election in 1984 but lost it in the 1987 general election before re-gaining it in 1997

    Of these examples it was only Oxford West and Abingdon which was won at a general election (1997) rather than a by-election after we had increased our share of the vote in 1987 and 1992.

  • OnceALibDem 29th Jan '18 - 8:28pm

    “Newbury we won control of the Council afterwards the by-election. Romsey we won most of our council seats after the by-election. Eastleigh we won control after the by-election. Portsmouth we won control of the Council after holding the Parliamentary seat for years.

    I don’t think we managed to take control of Oxford City Council.”

    Well lets have some historical accuracy….

    We controlled Newbury before the by-election (winning in 91). We took majority control of Eastleigh before the by-election technically but after Stephen Milligan’s death. Though we had controlled the council (though not IIRC with an outright majority) prior to then. Test Valley (most of Romsey) I think had a LIb Dem led admin post 1995 but my memory may not be exact on that and OXWAB includes a large part of the Vale of White Horse which had a Lib Dem majority from 1995 to 2011.

  • liberal neil 30th Jan '18 - 1:08am

    Re. Oxford West & Abingdon – electing more councillors was a key part of our strategy to regain the seat, though not the only part.

    Michael BG is right that we don’t run Oxford, but only five Oxford wards are in the constituency and we do hold three of them.

    By this year’s County elections we were fighting 80% of the constituency to win, and that helped give us the momentum, and capacity, to win the parliamentary seat.

    Winning local elections isn’t enough in itself to win parliamentary seats, but the capacity, skills, people and monentum that typically come with it are all important building blocks.

    Also, more Lib Dem councillors is a good thing to aim for in its own right.

  • Lester Holloway 30th Jan '18 - 7:38am

    How are you going to be the biggest party in local government when LibDems are terrible at reflecting Britain? The last councillors census found just 4% of LD cllrs were from an ethnic minority, compared to 14% of the population in 2011, and even further behind present population estimates and the direction of demographics (eg BME secondary school pupils). ALDC has not shown much interest in correcting this imbalance over the past decade. A recent bootcamp for future leaders underlined that lack of racial diversity remains critical. We will see what happens in this years metropolitan and London borough elections.

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 30th Jan '18 - 7:48am

    Thank you all for your comments. It’s a good debate when members put their ideas forward. I would like to take the point about being radical. There are two things:- 1)I am slightly sorry to say this but try to get the party to seriously build bottom up will be very difficult. The strategic vision is not there. 2) as lib Dems we are disappearing in Wales, in Scotland we are marginalised and showing little sign of recovery, we don’t have a message that works for the working class, we are almost extinct in the north east and effectively no presence in the growing ethnic minorities communities. We do appeal to educated middle classes in the south. That isn’t good enough. One way to develop the party in all these areas is to become relevant to them locally. This may not be new but actually doing it across the country will be a radical change for us. I also believe it builds a foundation for future lib dems to win seats for parliament

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 30th Jan '18 - 7:54am

    Lester – I agree and that is one of the reasons why I say we need to develop in local communities that should be inclusive. As a party we are being left behind other parties and before it’s too late we need to start to attract not only ethnic minorities but also the broader working classes (horrible categorisations). This will take time now. We need clear policies, we need to be inclusive

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 30th Jan '18 - 7:56am

    Rick – glad you feel my pain !!!

  • Sue Sutherland 30th Jan '18 - 2:21pm

    Wonderful contribution Julia! What I am wondering is whether the party has a mechanism for sharing good practice, policy development, how to involve new members etc. You’re developing something in Suffolk and that would be good for other local parties to know about. The only way to share this I can think of would be through ALDC but I’m not sure if this happens.
    The other thing I’d just like to mention is that while I wholeheartedly support the concept there is something rather Monty Pythonesque about the phrase a bottom up party!

  • Peter Hirst 30th Jan '18 - 5:13pm

    My own view is that we should continue to develop our infrastructure in terms of strategy, policy and local parties and encourage those who agree with us to join us. As long as we possess a credible springboard, there must come a time when opinion tilts our way. For the moment high profile defections seem our best bet.

  • Perhaps I was not very clear. Taking control of the council does not lead automatically on to taking the constituency.

    I was not aware that we had control of Newbury in 1991 onwards. David Rendel had been working it since at least 1987 and I don’t know its target status in 1992 when the Conservatives had a majority of 12,357 (18.6%).

    Test Valley had no overall control from 1995 to 1999 being Conservative controlled both before and after these dates. The Romsey by-election was in 2000. I remember Romsey and Waterside being a target of sorts in 1992 when George Dawson was our candidate. Our vote share decreased in 1997 on the new boundaries down to 29.4% giving the Conservative a 8,585 (16.57%) majority. It was not a target seat then. In 1999 I think we only had 15 councillors out of I think 43 including some from the Andover area which was not and is not in the Romsey seat.

    However, I know Eastleigh was not a target seat in 1992 even though David Chidgey had been working it since at least then. He might have had it in his sights when he stood in the European Parliament by-election which covered Eastleigh in I think 1989.

    I hope Eastleigh was a target in 2017 as I think we still have all the councillors for the area, but we lost to the Conservatives who now have a 14,179 (24.7%) majority. Portsmouth South was a target in 2017, I think we still have a majority of the councillors for the area (but if not we have the most), but we came third with only 7,699 votes. In 2016 we held 5 of the 7 seats up for election and had 8,577 votes in those wards.

    Therefore it is very clear, having a majority or even all the councillors in a constituency does not mean we will win the constituency in a general election. This is because as I pointed out earlier the turnouts in local elections are about half of that in a general election.

  • A bit late to this debate, but 2 things : First of all @paul barker, I note you refer to the New Concensus in our Party. The capitals suggest this is the name of an actual document. If it is, no one sent me a copy.
    Secondly, I like the sporting analogy. We can always learn from other disciplines. My favourite coaching mantra is “focus on the process not the result “. Think about what means in politics !

  • Simon Banks 21st Mar '18 - 9:41pm

    With respect to Tom, a list of policies on the things he mentions does not constitute a vision. Insofar as there’s a Liberal Democrat vision for local government, it’s to push power down to the people, communities, streets, individuals and to help people to co-operate to take power. I could cite numerous local authority policies that do follow that line. I do agree with him, though, that what local authorities can do nowadays is severely and undemocratically constrained. They have to drop popular, locally-determined services because they’re not statutory, in other words, not ones central government says they must provide. The record of the coalition in that respect was pretty bad and yet there weren’t a lot of protests within the Party.

    So I agree with Tahir, but go a stage further back: rediscover that we’re the party of radical devolution.

    I don’t entirely agree with Tom that we gain little by electoral success and power locally. At the very least, we gain credibility, something we severely lack right now. By winning locally, we also get our activists in the can-do, winning frame of mind.

    To Tahir’s list I add Police and Crime Commissioners. We don’t approve of them, fine, but we don’t approve of first past the post. The turnout for PCC elections is incredibly low. Run a vigorous campaign, and who knows? In one small town in my area, we put out one leaflet, no-one else put out anything and reportedly we actually headed the poll there!

    Actually, thinking about Tahir’s football analogy, I can see a link to the fortunes of my team (QPR) a few years back. The management achieves success, joining the big boys at the table, and tries to cement its position by bringing in well-paid experts who don’t understand the club or the league and see the club as a good thing, but not as something they care about passionately.

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