If we get an elected second chamber, what can we do before its election?

The good news: the Liberal Democrat have secured a commitment to introduce elections by PR for the Upper House. The bad news: the Liberal Democrat record at fighting PR records is decidedly mixed. So what should we do?

There plenty of campaigning still to be done to ensure that an elected Upper House happens, but that needn’t stop thinking about the elections too.

As with the AV referendum, one of the most important acts of preparation is upping the number of local election candidates we stand because of the impact that has on the public’s perception of whether or not we are a party that can win things.

As I wrote about the AV referendum, if people go to vote in a local election but find no Lib Dem on the ballot paper:

that will immediately send them a strong message about how the party isn’t a serious party around their way. That may not be a fair view all the time, but it’s the obvious one to take.

Not only is it the obvious one to take, it’s one that many members do take and do feel very strongly about. During my time working for the party, there was voluminous and strongly expressed feedback each spring via the party’s online channels as people expressed their disappointment / disgust at turning up to vote and finding no Liberal Democrat candidate on the ballot paper. Cue complaints about party not being serious, having let them down, not being worth supporting in the future and so on.

That’s damaging when it happens with stand-alone local elections, but it’s even more damaging when it happens alongside other elections where we hope to do better (as it may well do for the Upper House).

It is also a specific example of a wider question: how do we develop the party on twin-tracks, strengthening marginal and target seats at the same time as building up new areas to join them? Overall the party has done much better at this than some assume; the number of seats the party fights seriously to win at general elections has doubled in a decade. Just because some of the extreme pessimists who haven’t noticed this doubling are wrong, though, doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue here.

It’s a problem we’ve often been much better at handling within constituencies than between constituencies, where local targeting wards hasn’t stopped wider development so that more wards are targets in future. For example, I’ve no doubt that it was rigorous targeting that took us from zero to sixteen councillors in Hornsey & Wood Green in 1997-2005, but it was also the simultaneous build-up in the areas covered by the other fifteen councillors that delivered Lynne Featherstone’s victory in 2005.

So here are five other suggestions based on that experience and similar efforts elsewhere:

  1. Wherever possible deliverers live, whether in a target ward or a ‘wrong’ area, give them regular leaflets to deliver. This begins to build the broader roots that supplement rather than detract from targeting.
  2. But don’t just have leafleting as a way for people to get involved. Whether it’s letter-writing, street stalls, demonstrations, policy discussions or social events, there are plenty of ways to get people involved and make them active.
  3. Develop your internet audience, especially email lists – because this is campaigning which can reach out to scattered interested people in a way that delivering leaflets really can’t.
  4. Work on the local media – a nice photo op that gets in a local paper can take plenty of time to arrange, but still be very efficient in time taken versus people reached.
  5. Follow the tips on what to do with new members from Lib Dem Voice’s archive

All five of those points, and the point about local candidates, are familiar. I’ve often said them before. You may well have thought of them before. But not nearly enough places strive to do them.

With elections for the Upper House there is now an added incentive to change that – so why not give it go (or help someone else give it a go) and have some fun trying out a new thing or two?

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