MP for Hornsey and Wood Green
To start, three pieces of promising news: in six of the last seven annual rounds of local elections, the number of Liberal Democrat councillors has gone up. Secondly, the change in our vote in Crewe & Nantwich was pretty much the same as in Dudley West, South East Staffordshire and Wirral South – the three big Labour gains from the Conservatives in the run-up to 1997 – a general election at which we then made huge gains in the numbers of MPs we had.
Add in to that the steady but very clear improvement in our poll ratings since Nick Clegg became leader, and there’s plenty of cause for quiet optimism about our electoral prospects – provded we put in the hard work necessary.
But we shouldn’t be complacent that just any sort of hard work will deliver the right results, and there are two signs in that news that we need, in particular, to broaden our strength across the country. Whilst we have been gaining seats at local elections, our overall share of the vote has tailed off in recent years. And in addition the Crewe & Nantwich result reminds us of how much harder work it is to win when we start in third rather than second. More strength across the country will not just deliver us more councillors and councils, it will also up the odds of a Parliamentary by-election being a real chance for a breakthrough for the party.
We also have the prize of overtaking Labour as the second party of local government hanging tantalising in front of us – Labour has only 600 more councillors and on The Guardian’s figures after this May they have only three more councils than us.
The challenge, therefore, is to do at the council level what we have done so successfully at the Westminster election level. Over the last few elections, and carrying on since 2005, we have managed to combine both a very clear and strong targeting strategy (having to persuade along the way many who are tempted to spread efforts thinly to little effect!) whilst also growing the list of seats where we are in serious contention at the same time.
Yes, we put a far higher proportion of our resources into the key Parliamentary seats than we used to – but also, the number of such seats has grown. It’s this mix of focusing efforts on the key battleground constituencies whilst also increasing the size of the battleground that has allowed us to continue to grow in the number of MPs and win places where we were nowhere ten years ago – such as my own Hornsey & Wood Green where in 1997 we were on 11%, with no councillors, not even any second places in any wards and no delivery network.
I have personally been particularly struck by the increasing numbers of fellow MPs and would-be MPs I meet at the party’s training weekend for key seats – each time we seem to have had a bigger and better team.
But how do we replicate that on a local level – so that we continue to build on the hugely powerful impact of careful targeting and focusing of resources on those areas where they can make a difference, but at the same time make a much larger number of seats and councils competitive so that we are expanding our base across the whole country?
Too often those are seen as conflicting aims. But whilst it is certainly true there is some tension between them, I believe we have been at our most successful where we have found ways to achieve both at the same time.
Those with an interest in American politics may notice the parallels with the “map changers” strategy of John Edwards and the “50 states” strategy of Howard Dean – both wanting to concentrate on the really winnable races whilst also growing the breadth of the party so that it doesn’t end up just hunkered down in a small number of redoubts.
As if that isn’t a hard enough circle to square – we also need a strategy that can actually be turned into specific concrete steps. Too often in the past plans to build up weaker areas, reduce the number of black holes and so on have turned out to generate lots of fine words but very little actual action.
This is an issue we need to address with some urgency because 2009 will, almost certainly, see local and European elections on the same day. And in those areas what message will it send to voters in the polling station when they see the Liberal Democrats on one ballot paper but not the other? That could rather undermine our otherwise very strong message about how we can win right across the country under the European voting system and how we are in a period of genuine three-party politics.
Indeed, I’ve been told that the most strident feedback the party has received via its website after both this year’s and last year’s local election has been from people angry that they went to vote – and didn’t find any Liberal Democrat candidate on their council ballot paper.
So – what should we do? I think we should set ourselves the following challenges.
First, to stand a record number of candidates in the 2009 elections. In 2005 we had candidates for 89% of the seats – around 260 short of a full set. That is a number that should be possible to crack next time – break it down per regional party, per MEP or Euro candidate, per MP, per whomever wants to help – we can make that a manageable individual target.
Second, to run an earmarked fundraising operation to allow people to “adopt” a ward where there has been no Liberal Democrat candidate for the last eight years and donate towards running a campaign there for the first time – and gather in the pledges in advance so local parties can see what is on offer to encourage them to stand a candidate! I suspect that in some cases there is a lack of ambition when it comes to standing candidates from local party committees, so here would be a really powerful way of helping to raise people’s ambitions.
Third, I loved the “Community Canvass Week” initiative the party ran for the first time last autumn to encourage people to get out on the doorsteps talking to the public. So let’s run it again – but with a big publicity and training drive in advance so that we get more people trying door-knocking for the first time – and so that we provide people who are in areas of very weak Liberal Democrat organisation “self-starter kits” so they can get going even if there isn’t a working local party organisation to run things. More people knocking on more doors in more areas – that is crucial to expanding the number of wards in which we are competitive, and will also do our European election prospects no harm at all.
Fourth, we need to lower the barriers for someone to move between thinking they want to do something to improve their area and finding that there is only a very weak party organisation and having read and followed everything in Chris Rennard’s How to win local elections book and ending up a local councillor. So my fourth suggestion is that the party should produce a more general self-starter kit, one that takes you through an easy to follow series of steps that help build up the party’s presence and strength – but short of running to win a council seats, because that isn’t for everyone – and if that’s the only option on offer, it will also put off those who might be willing to end up being councillors, but only after a more gentle introduction. Recruiting a couple more donors for the party, writing regularly to the local newspaper, using your own website to promote the party’s online campaigns – there’s a myriad of steps you can take, so let’s make it easy for people to take them.
And fifthly, we should ensure that we have at least a modest local internet presence covering every part of the country, helping point the public at more news about the party, how to join, how to get in touch with the local team etc. With the number of existing sources of news and information about the Liberal Democrats, I am sure it can’t be beyond the wit of a clever programmer or two to be able to put together an effective mini-site system that covers our internet black holes at a minimum of cost and effort.
There are I am sure many other ideas, but I’ve deliberately picked up a relatively small number that, when broken down, would require any individual to do relatively little – at low cost of both time and money. Collectively though – it could make a huge difference to our ongoing battle to establish ourselves firmly as a major political party in all parts of the country – and to persuade people that British politics really is a three (and in Scotland and Wales, four) party system.
And how do we make it happen? Well – I’m sending a copy of this over to Ed Davey, chair of the party’s Campaigns and Communications Committee – because this seems to me to all be about campaigning and communicating better.
But – particularly in our party above all – it’s not about waiting for someone from on-high to impose a decision. Instead – it’s about what you do in your area. I wouldn’t be MP for Hornsey & Wood Green if I’d waited around for someone from on-high to decide I should be. I’m an MP because I and my colleagues locally made it happen: we got the ball rolling and in due course got help from outside. But the key was us wanting it to happen and taking our fate into our own hands.
So if you agree with any of what I’ve written above – take fate into your own hands too. Oh, and don’t forget first to go help in Henley!
This article first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice, where you can also read the subsequent discussion.
(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2008