Tim Pickstone writes… 45 gains must only be the start

For the first time in quite a few years Lib Dems in many areas have spend the post-election weekend in a good mood. 45 net gains in the English council elections ain’t bad, the first time we’ve made gains in local elections since 2008. Coupled with some great results in Scottish constituencies, many Lib Dems have spent the weekend smiling.

The good news is far from universal. I know that colleagues in London and Wales will be devastated by the results and losses. Behind the gains in many areas are colleagues who lost seats or missed out on gains. Many places we didn’t win will have moved forwards as a springboard for future gains.

Thursday’s success is down to the hard work of Lib Dem activists up and down the country. Small teams working long and hard to win individual wards with an enormous amount of dedication, time and energy given freely to the party. Thank you to everybody who contributed to this success.

45 gains is great, but it must only be the start of a bigger regrowth in the Party’s success. Understandably, for a Party that has been fighting in very difficult times, we have retreated into fighting fewer wards than we used to. Activists were urged to ‘pick a ward and win it’ and mostly you did. We now need to win the next seats, and the next wards.

We have some great opportunities coming up. In 2017 we have local elections throughout Scotland and Wales, and in the county or shire areas in England. We should be aiming for gains in all three. London and areas like the English Mets now have two years to build for their next local elections in 2018 – that two-year campaign needs to start today.

At ALDC our only priority is to make sure that there are more Liberal Democrat councillors, at every level, every year. Here are a two ways we can help you win:

–       bring a team to our Kickstart weekends (2-4 September, 25-27 November) to plan for your 2017 and 2018 elections. Kickstart is the best volunteer campaign training in the Party and a must if you want to be part of the gains to come. Find out more at aldc.org/events

–       let us know what worked in your area. We’ll be sharing best practice in our publications and at special sessions at Conferences starting with the Local Government conference in June. I’m expecting this year’s ALDC Campaigner Awards to be hotly contested with so many good results.

45 gains has been a great first election for a Party that only a year ago was reduced to just 8 MPs. It is our job, as activists up and down the country, to make sure it is only the start.

* Tim Pickstone is Chief Executive of ALDC (the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors) and is National Spokesperson on Grassroots Campaigning

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • paul barker 10th May '16 - 2:02pm

    As well as the seats gained we also saw a substantial rise in vote share from 10% last year to 14% on Thursday.(figures from Rallings & Thresher)
    That makes up about a third of our loss since 2010, a great start. At this stage we should not be making any assumptions about how long a full recovery will take.

  • Thanks for the mention David. The latest edition of Lib Dem Newswire which you refer to is here in case anyone else would like to give it a read: http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=4761a1f83089fd89eba4fef19&id=81536c15f4&e=%5BUNIQID%5D

  • David Evans 10th May '16 - 2:22pm

    Paul, the reason our vote share is up is because last year was a general election, and so lots of extra Tory and Labour voters turned out. They didn’t bother this year (except Scotland and London to an extent). You need to understand this or you will continue to encourage people to underestimate how much we need to change to put right the damage done over the last five years.

  • Bill le Breton 10th May '16 - 3:17pm

    Of course David is right – it is dangerous to compare a local election with a general election turn out and one where there is only a local government turn out.

    That is also why everyone who possibly can should send their best local campaigner to Kickstart, as Tim urges above.

    Perhaps the Party cd find some savings centrally and use the funds to pay for one person from any applying group (or LA area where we have no representation).

  • It would be worth taking a look at the situation in Coventry to show the real problems that the party faces in the future. The Lib Dems could only find eight candidates to stand when eighteen wards were up. The party was soundly beaten by UKIP in the three wards they faced each other and the share of vote City wide is hair curling. The party cant get a hearing with so many ex voters like myself because as I have said many many times it refuses to fully address the awful dreaded Bedroom Tax. I am shocked that some members brush away the consequences that that sickening act has had for the party it really has stained you in many voters minds. Time to talk about the Bedroom Tax and you may get a second chance with voters like me again but you best hurry.

  • paul barker 10th May '16 - 3:37pm

    I dont want this to turn into a dialog – that just clogs up comment threads & discourages others from joining the debate.
    However, since David Evans raises a reasonable point – wouldnt his argument suggest that our vote share in 2015 should have been sharply down on that of 2014 ? In fact it was down by 1%, compared to a fall of 2% the year before.
    We should not be making any assumptions at this point, either optimistic or pessimistic ones.

  • Stephen Howse 10th May '16 - 3:52pm

    We lost two seats in Newcastle to Labour.

    Both of these are seats we held in 2014 but lost last year at the time of the general election. Both had new candidates (of which I was one). Both are inner city wards with lots of students and young professionals.

    What this tells me is that we have a *lot* of work to do in Newcastle (and in other similar cities, e.g. Manchester) to rebuild our national brand and to regain the trust of younger people who don’t have that connection with local Lib Dem councillors and activists. With a Corbyn-led Labour, if we don’t find a way to connect with these groups, we will simply keep shedding votes to Labour as they pile up votes and seats in ‘heartland’ urban areas.

  • Neil Sandison 10th May '16 - 4:07pm

    SILVIO has a point but its not down to one policy we are missing the boat on other more recent issues for example the development of free schools in areas where there is no identifiable educational need to the detriment of the areas where there is a shortage of school places. imposition of policy by centralists like Osbourne to the detriment of local communities where their concerns are being silenced by the manipulation of the planning system .Mayors in imposed in combined authorities where they are not required or wanted. The Localism Act still born by treasury rules that are impractical .Pay to Stay in your council house or brake up your family by throwing out any other member of your household who happens to be working.
    A sharper focus on the fault lines in tory policy could help us appear more relevant. But SILVIO also highlights another problem black hole constituencies where we have limited organisation and few members perhaps we need to take a leaf out of the old SDP book and get the regions to organise local area parties to act as a support mechanism for those local parties or in some cases a handful of local members.

  • In my area it seems that our failure to field a full slate of candidates was not the lack of people willing to stand but the time and effort it takes to get the nomination papers completed especially now it is so much more difficult to get people to sign them.

    There is a problem of how to let the electorate know we have changed our policies in areas where a particular voter had an issue with our position during the coalition as these can vary so much. In a target ward this can be possible if we get to talk to that voter, but would even having a series of articles over the last 9 months setting out where we have changed our policy have made any real difference? There is the “from doormat to bin rule” and the need to repeat our message many times.

  • Peter Chegwyn 10th May '16 - 6:56pm

    I echo the 1st para. by Michael BG above. In Gosport we took a conscious decision not to field candidates in all 17 wards as the considerable time and effort involved in collecting 10 nomination signatures in ‘no-hoper’ wards could be better spent campaigning in areas we could win.

    We fielded candidates in 8 of 17 wards in Gosport. We targetted 5 wards to win. We won all five, 2 holds and 3 gains, 2 from the Tories and 1 from Labour. We achieved those 5 wins through a ‘literature-only’ campaign, no door-knocking, no telephone canvassing, no Connect, no Polling Day organisation, just good, hard-hitting Focus newsletters with clear, effective messaging. For a small local party with only half-a-dozen activists we used our limited resources to maximum effect.

    One of our new councillors missed election by 55 votes in 2012 and 16 votes in 2014. This time she won by 136. The lesson is that if you don’t win first or even second time round, keep campaigning and eventually you’ll get the win you deserve.

    In two of the three wards we didn’t target this time we still put down a marker for next time and will win those wards in two years time. Tim is right in his article to say we now need to win the next seats and the next wards. We will.

    The results across the country were mixed last Thursday but with many positives. More of the people who deserved to win did win and I suspect even more will do so in the years to come.

    The Lib Dem fightback will take time but as Tim so rightly says at the end of his article:

    “45 gains has been a great first election for a Party that only a year ago was reduced to just 8 MPs. It is our job, as activists up and down the country, to make sure it is only the start.”

  • Having now had the chance to take a long close look at last Thursday’s results, it seems to me that the gains we made were in wards that we used to hold comfortably before the coalition. Moving back into territory only briefly and temporarily yielded to the enemy seems to me to be the right approach. Breaking out into virgin lands will be much, much harder.

    If you look at the three seats that we won in Liverpool, they were all strongholds until a few years ago. And the same is true of the four other wards where we achieved a more than derisory vote. That accounts for about a quarter of the city. Taking control of Liverpool Council will require us to win many seats where our vote was on the floor last Thursday (most of them with high levels of deprivation, unlike the three we hold). Clearly, it is not going happen overnight. Similar stories can be told in Manchester, Sheffield and Hull.

    Peter Chegwyn describes the kind of campaign that Eric Flounders used to run in Tower Hamlets. It worked for a while, until Labour got its act together. If Labour drafts in a team of canvassers from Southampton, door-knocking in addition to foci will become a necessity rather than a luxury in Gosport. Still, Peter and his team did a great job with limited resources, and in no way do I wish to detract from that. Having increased the size of his Council group, he can now work on the infrastructure.

    Commentators have focused on the difficulty in winning trust in Labour leaning areas because of the coalition and the influence of the Orange Bookers. Less noticed is the similar problem we face in Tory-leaning areas, on account of “libertarian” calls for relaxing planning controls, denouncing people as “nimbies”, and the enthusiasm for so-called “green energy”. In that respect, our gains in Winchester and Maidstone are just as notable as our achievements in Liverpool and Hull.

  • I have to agree with David Becket in that our websites are often out of date. Links that don’t work, candidate sites from last year, no actual policy information or clarifications, news that is party not constituent focused. With resources so stretched that even Focus deliveries are impossible, the Internet is cheap and effective, but it must be current and voter focused. As Peter Chegwyn illustrates, you can win with virtually nothing more than an effective message.

    Silvio – Tim Farron voted against the Bedroom Tax. Tim Farron also voted against the rise in tuition fees. I’m not sure why we’re not shouting this from the rooftops but please pass on the message!

  • James Graham 10th May '16 - 11:08pm

    Further to the point the Sesenco makes about making gains in areas that we were previously strong that is certainly the case with 2 seats gained off the SNP here in Scotland.
    NE Fife and Edin West are both places which have long tradition of voting Lib Dem and with 2 very focused campaigns we were able to regain the seats. The next step must be to look to try and win back some of the seats that we use to hold in the Highlands and also in Aberdeenshire but that may well take more than 1 more election to happen. Unfortunately it looks like for the time being that the Borders of Scotland things have gone down so much that it is going to take a lot longer before we can look to make gains.
    The key in the short-term is as the article notes the local elections in 2017 throughout Scotland. It is only if we can start to regain seats in various wards up and down the country that we can realistically start to think about making any progress in the next Westminster and Holyrood elections.
    As for the websites, I would have to agree with general sentiments of the comments above that they need a lot of work on to make them more user friendly to make finding information and be kept more up-to-date. For example the lead article on the Scottish version at the moment is telling people why they should vote Lib Dem on Thursday.

  • We are not necessarily toxic in Labour-facing areas. We made gains in Sunderland, Hull and Burnley. It’s been a few years since we had anything to celebrate in such areas. Even in 2010 we lost ground against Labour locally. It is, though, harder against Labour than Tories . This is what you’d expect when the Tories are in government. Coventry has long been a difficult area for us, way back to the Liberal surge of 1974. But I would like to see the party thinking and acting about how to revive in areas where we’re in danger of disappearing. Now is the time to do that.

    I’m sure the Bedroom Tax is a big factor in some places, but I didn’t hear anyone mention it when I was canvassing in Wivenhoe, a Colchester-edge new ward merged from two former wards to create a new one with Labour the obvious lead party. This is an area packed with young professionals and academics and includes the University of Essex, though few students are registered there (but our student activists were a key factor in our campaign). I didn’t hear the student finance pledge mentioned either until I was chatting with a sympathetic Labour teller. We achieved our aim of holding one seat and are well placed to target a Labour seat. The Tories were beaten into third place though a prediction based on voting figures from the two previous wards would have had them second. It did help a lot having a well-known, hard-working councillor as our lead candidate, but our second, new, candidate wasn’t that far off.

    There is not yet any surge of excitement about us, and Labour-leaning voters in Labour-facing areas see little reason in local elections not to vote Labour, but we are now able to stand up to Labour blow for blow. The Tory vote is soft but Tory defectors are going all over the place – in Wivenhoe mainly to us but often to UKIP, Ratepayers, Independents or crypto-Independents. Come the general election, though, my bet is the Tory vote will harden and Labour will be in trouble.

  • Sue Sutherland 11th May '16 - 4:25pm

    Simon, I think voters don’t always mention the reason why they have gone off our party, they just get noticeably cooler on the doorstep, even though they may even say they intend to vote for us. We just have to address these issues before they will get warmer. The party has voted for a leader who voted against the bedroom tax and breaking our pledge about tuition fees, a man of the people, we have learnt our lesson the hard way but we have learnt it.
    It may be that some people who voted for us recently have realised that we did act as a brake on the Tories in Coalition. Can we do a survey of our voters to see why they changed their minds about us? We can then use that information in thank you Focuses or a newspaper. In view of Caractacus’ comments about the Tories in Scotland, perhaps part of local literature should be written centrally to get these points across in the best possible way. We then need to repeat them in every piece of paper between now and 2020.
    It’s great that activists want to get out there and persuade people to vote for us but we urgently need to find our common hymn sheet before they can get going to greatest effect.

  • Donal O'Hanlon 12th May '16 - 8:41am

    We need simplicity. Short, sharp policy straplines (backed up by detail); leaders who can be clear and different; and a method of getting OUR news into the mind of the electorate. With Ukip, Tories and Labour (even SNP) having major press backing, we look as weak as the Greens. If we work out how we can address this (the Internet sounds ideal) then we have a chance of surviving. But survival is not good enough, we need to flourish by bringing in new members with fresh new ideas too.
    Our Lords must really earn their keep now. They have the opportunity to get on telly, where few Cllrs do (unless they go off party line)
    I fear for the future, as things stand, but I’m optimistic that something significant will change soon…

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