On Saturday I was in Bedford to speak and train at the Bedfordshire Liberal Democrats conference – a new and excellent idea which hopefully will become a regular fixture in the calendar.
No surprises for guessing the topic of my talk to open the event: why the Liberal Democrats need to build a larger core vote and how to go about doing it.
It is a subject I’ve also written about recently for ALDC. Here is that piece.
We have more than five years of damage to our local council base to undo – and we need a larger core vote to do it
It has become commonplace to talk about how many local council seats the Liberal Democrats lost in our years in coalition at Westminster. But that is to miss the bigger picture, because our local council base was shrinking well before the party went into coalition in Westminster.
Yes, the local election rounds in the coalition years cost us a net 1,924 seats, but over the previous four years we had already been on a downward trajectory, losing a net 390 in total. Not nearly as bad, but it shows that the party’s problems started pre-coalition and pre-Nick Clegg. Moreover that pre-Clegg loss of 390 seat itself followed a previous decade in which years of gains and losses had netted out at a loss of 151.
That is important to understand because it means we have no automatic right to expect a recovery in local government results now we are out of coalition. Even the promising by-election results since May 2015 should be put against the periods of apparently equally promising council by-elections during the last Parliament – which of course sadly did not herald recovery.
Finding a solution to that long-term problem is important both because local government power is a valuable objective in its own right and also because it is so often has been the bedrock of success at other levels of election too.
The answer, as former Cambridge MP David Howarth and I have argued in a newly updated pamphlet setting out a strategy for the party, is to build a much larger core vote for the Liberal Democrats.
There is a large slice of the electorate which shares our values but does not currently vote for us. Although we have a core vote down around 5%, if we can win over more of those who already share our values we could build a core vote of 20%.
That sort of core vote would set us up to do well in the various list PR elections we now have. For first past the post contests it would also help massively – because the closer you start to the winning post, the more your effort can be smartly targeted at a slice of the electorate to get you over the finishing line. It also makes it much easier to survive the many swings of local popularity and levels of activism.
A larger core vote for the party is therefore a necessary condition for a successful long-term restoration of our local government strength.
In our pamphlet we look in more detail about how to do that – who it means winning over and how to win them over. You can get the Lib Dem core votes pamphlet online here.
Do take a read – and let us know what you think.
UPDATE: A couple of people commenting on this post on social media have queried whether my figures stack up with changes in the total number of councillors there are. They do. The figures for gains/losses take into account boundary changes, and if you look at the proportion of councillors in total who are Liberal Democrat, the percentage peaked in 1996. It then bobbled up and down over the next decade, before a lower peak in 2005 followed by consistent decline. So the long-term rise stopped in 1996 and the long term fall started before Clegg and before coalition.