We must not be complicit in fighting local elections on national issues

The old adage “Be careful what you wish for” could be reworded as “Be careful how what you wish for actually comes about.” No, it doesn’t flow easily off the tongue, I grant you, but we do need to be wary of willing the ends without paying some attention to the means.

As the 5 May local elections rapidly approach, the media is full of what a bad result for the Conservatives could mean for Boris Johnson’s future. Both media people and politicians are full of “Voters have a chance to make their feelings felt in the local elections” about Johnson’s fate, and other national issues. It makes my blood boil to hear such statements, even though I’m as keen as anyone to see the back of Johnson.

The reason is that I have seen countless top-quality councillors do a brilliant job for four, eight or more years but then get unceremoniously bundled out of office because their party is out of favour nationally. It’s heart-breaking and a real disincentive to stand in the first place. It happens because elections that should be about dustbins and council housing are made into faux referendums on the popularity of the party in power nationally.

In goes without saying that most people do vote on national issues, whatever the level of election. But as a party that believes in local government and has its core strength at local level, we must not be complicit in encouraging this abuse of elections to make a protest that has nothing to do with what’s at stake. And we are complicit when the national situation encourages us to be.

So what is a Lib Dem leader to do? Given the need to maximise the oxygen of publicity, it would be foolish not to have a local elections launch event. But instead of making council elections a vote on national issues, or even a vote that blindly assumes that every Lib Dem councillor is competent, honest and hard-working, how about a Lib Dem leader opening the local elections campaign press conference with this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to be launching our campaign for the local elections, but I will not be setting out any policies here. That’s for our local leaders and candidates to do based on local issues. My job is to stress that local government is of vital importance, so we, the Liberal Democrats, are encouraging every voter to vote for the candidate or candidates who will serve your community best. That may be a Conservative, Labour, perhaps an independent. If you look closely, I think you’ll find your Lib Dem candidates will be almost without exception hard workers and good listeners, because that’s our party creed – and that’s why we punch above our weight at local level. But vote for the person you think will sort out your local issue, don’t vote to try and kick the national government, as it’s not about them – it’s about you and your community.”

This approach may probably only be usable once, but it would be absolutely in tune with liberalism and our commitment to localism. Sure, we can attack the national government for emasculating council funding to the point where really only statutory services can be provided and room for manoeuvre for parties that run councils is severely limited. And our party leader and senior figures can still go out campaigning – but really only in areas where they know some candidates and can say with credibility that they are recommending our people because they know they’re good.

Strategists will say we will be missing a chance to improve our position nationally. But if we want to build up our base on the foundations of localism and integrity, we need to establish the fact that we want people to vote for their local councillors on local issues. And at a time when anti-political sentiment is running high, it might even win us some grudging respect, especially from voters who are drawn to those highly politicised ‘independents’ who shamelessly tap into ‘anti-politics’ sentiment.

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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17 Comments

  • Interesting, but the exact opposite of what I and some others in the post-referendum intake would advise. Voters already know that Lib Dem councillors work harder because we are not in power nationally, but that is no reason to say what will be interpreted as an admission that we have no policies, and are not bothered about having MPs in Westminster. With a dysfunctional Conservative administration in power, and given the first past the post obstacle, we should be telling people a Lib/Lab coalition is the answer, and that our record in local and national government means they should vote for us in May and in the next general election.
    Everyone knows Conservative MPs see the local elections as a barometer, and will ditch Johnson if the results show that he’s going to damage their chances of another five years of an MP’s salary. Liberal Democrats are untainted by the sleaze which sickens so many voters, and as we showed in the previous coalition, are the party of fairness and decency, locally and nationally.

  • Chris is broadly right. Over the years I have delivered zillions of leaflets in April saying “warning keep it local” and this year the leaflets are saying these elections are a chance to tell the government what you think of them.

  • Steve Comer 28th Apr '22 - 8:28am

    Surely you tailor you message to the local area you are campaiging in?
    Unlike Labour we do not have centrally directed political campaigns at local level. I’m sure most campaigns in Counci electrions are based on the work done by the Focus team in the area, but if you can get a boost from what is happening nationally then surely that is a help? The converse is that when the party is unpopular nationally, then that will effect you too.

    I’ve experienced both scenarios in my former ward I turned a Labour majority of 36 into a LIb Dem one of 600 in 2005, it was a relentlessly local campiagn, but the national popularity of the party did help. Yet we lost both seats in my old Ward during the coalition years, in 2011 and 2013, though by just ONE vote in the latter contest.

  • nigel hunter 28th Apr '22 - 11:03am

    Alas, national issues do intervene in local issues. Homelessness and lack of housing involve both. Homeless, not enough facilities hostels,houses, to sort their problems out and no funds for it. Homes– not enough for those wanting to get away from mum and dad to start life and that costs.Not enough ,cheap, starter homes (modulated, quick to build),Social housing for reasonable rents,planning, to get these homes built. Land for councils to build them on and planning to put them into operation involve both Councils and Govnt. Councils have to put pressure on govnt to change things.Getting a Tory Govnt ,who do not appreciate such things,to do a u-turn I would appreciate.
    On a lighter note how about councils pushing alcohol free beer on draught into pubs!? Could reduce drunken driving and allow more customers. There are enquiries into this going on . For example a plan to show alcohol free in Eastenders and Coronation Street.

  • Malcolm Todd 28th Apr '22 - 1:10pm

    So everybody goes out and dutifully votes “on local issues”. A mixed bag of results ensues for everybody, with no obvious trends nationally. The media report “much better results than predicted” for the Tories, Downing St breathes a sigh of relief and we’re all stuck with the Johnson sh1tshow for another two and a half years.
    Be careful what you wish for, indeed!

  • Chris Moore 28th Apr '22 - 2:54pm

    My honest feeling is unless Ed personally knows an LD councillor and has compelling documentary evidence that she is equal to the splendid offering from other parties, he should warn the voters against wasting their vote on a pig in a poke. Not endorsing does not go far enough.

    Secondly, it’s very low-minded of LDs to take advantage of the unfortunate mishaps of other parties at national level to increase their support locally. If the other parties do that to us (Coalition years) that is their loss and they go a low road. And should know better.

  • Alex Macfie 28th Apr '22 - 9:30pm

    Chris Moore: No, it’s not “low-minded”, it’s just politics. It’s pointless making any value judgements over standard-issue campaign strategies. Parties tend to campaign on whatever they think gains them most advantage at the time. So when the government is unpopular nationally, of course any national opposition party worth its salt is going to make something of it. A party that’s unpopular nationally will want to focus on local issues, hence many Tories in these local elections fighting as “Local Conservatives”. Sadiq Khan went around telling voters “Jeremy [Corbyn] isn’t on the ballot paper”. We really should have done the same sort of thing in mid-term elections during the Coalition era, but mostly we did not. It was a particular error to put Clegg at the forefront of our 2014 Euro-election campaign, which should have focused on our MEPs and the European Parliament being a “Coalition-free zone”, meaning our MEP team were in a position to advocate and implement undiluted Lib Dem (or ALDE) policy. I appreciate that it was always difficult to get people interested in what the EP ever did (as the media always conscientiously ignored) but a strategy of distancing the party in the EP from what was happening at Westminster could well have saved us a few more seats than the single one we got. Our failure to play the game properly cost us dear.

  • Alex Macfie 28th Apr '22 - 9:41pm

    Here in Kingston our campaign is mostly on local issues (i.e. our record running the Council), and we are attacking the Tories on their record when they were in power between 2014 and 2018, as well as on the national picture. Partygate is actually relevant for locally for us, because one Tory candidate for Kingston Council (Ben Mallet(t)) is the bloke lounging on the floor in red braces with a glass of wine in THAT photo. This isn’t some kind of low-brow attack, as it is relevant: would you trust someone like that to have a hand in running a town Council? For their part, the Tories are also focusing on local issues, which is what one would expect given their national unpopularity, and specifically on an agressive disinformation campaign about our recent record and plans, going beyond the usual “fair comment” to straightforward untruths.

  • Alex, I was being ironic……

  • I was rejecting Chris’s argument!

  • Chris Moore 29th Apr '22 - 3:01pm

    BTW Chris, I note the Labour Party are running on-line ads attacking the LDs for being soft on drugs, soft on crime and for wanting to disarm unilaterally.

    So they clearly think national issues are relevant.

  • Mick Taylor 29th Apr '22 - 7:51pm

    Sorry Chris Bowers, idealistic, but wrong.
    National issues ALWAYS play a role in local elections, however we might wish it otherwise. To ignore that simple fact and to not mention national issues, alongside local issues of course, is ensuring we don’t do as well as we can.
    We have to use the whole battery of arguments in any elections.

  • I was chatting this evening with a former Labour councillor who said (approvingly) that the Liberal Democrats differ from Labour and Conservatives in the way they run their campaigns locally, with no central control. That of course allows us to build our campaigns around issues that matter to the local residents – whether they are to do with plans for a local park or concerns about refugees or Partygate. The important thing is that local campaigners own the local campaign, and they weave together the local and national issues that they hear on the doorstep.

  • Peter Watson 30th Apr '22 - 9:30am

    This topic does seem to be something of a dilemma for Lib Dems, probably more so than for any other party, and means the party appears to have a bit of an identity crisis. On the national stage, the party can sound quite radical but in local campaigns, the party looks very small-c conservative with NIMBY tendencies.

  • This article from BBC is unlikely to help Party’s reputation.

    All-party groups: Foreign influence could be next scandal, MPs warn:

    “MI5 said Ms Lee had a key role in setting up the Chinese in Britain APPG and made donations to MPs, including Labour’s Barry Gardiner and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey.”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-61271058

    This ties in with their ‘Chinese Magic Weapon’ documentary on iPlayer from August 2021.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000z2yt/chinas-magic-weapon

  • Peter Hirst 1st May '22 - 1:37pm

    It’s inevitable that people vote on non-local issues during the local elections. This is due to our outdated electoral system where they can only vote nationally every five or so years barring by-elections. If we had a system where politicians and the government were accountable continually there would be less reason for this. More direct democracy in the form of referenda, recall procedures and obligatory petitions would help as well as electoral reform.

  • This time round the emphasis of the incumbent Lib Dem leaflets and letters in my ward have been entirely on bashing the Tories, mainly nationally – partygate, cost of living etc. thoguht also reminding us how Tories nearly drove the Council to bankruptcy last time they were in power. By contrast, the Tories put out what I thought was a fairly impressive A3 leaflet with focus on local issues. It feels like a total reversal of what we’ve been used to and to me suggests that Lib Dems would rather not talk about local issues. I’m not surprised – we have a range of contentious planning decisions, controversial cyclepath schemes and the highest council tax in London. We’ll see.

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