Peering into the details and the patterns behind the Liberal Democrat performance in this May’s local elections, one intriguing political opportunity presents itself. The party did best in shire district elections up against the Conservatives. There appear to be rich pickings for the party from Remain voters in such areas who are unimpressed by Brexit and unimpressed by the government’s wider record.
The good news? These are the sorts of contests that are coming up in spades next year. The opportunity and yet also the reason for the headline’s question is that the local election – including in this most promising territory – are taking place on a far larger scale than this year.That’s good news for the size of the opportunity. It opens up the possibility of the scale of headline seat gains that, in the same cycle of elections in 1991, gave the party a net 531 gains – the biggest headline seat gain number the party or its predecessors ever achieved as far back as records go.
Some of the broader political context is similar too – a troubled Conservative Party in government with controversial headline policies and a Labour Party doing not disastrously, but also not especially well and certainly short of the sort of performance scored by an opposition party about to go on to win a general election.
Those 1991 results were also an important part of the party’s overall recovery from the depths of merger, alongside the fuel given to that recovery by spectacular Parliamentary by-election results (and oh look, we have one of those pending too). Together, they helped firmly establish the party as being back from the near-death of the Liberal/SDP merger.
The not-so-good news? The 1991 triumph required effective campaign organisation on a very broad scale. That was something the party was far better placed to deliver then than now as the party went into the 1991 local elections with around five local councillors for every three the party currently has.
There was therefore a much stronger local campaigning base and, although party membership was lower, it was growing much more quickly than currently – helped by widespread grassroots membership recruitment which looks to have been much greater then than comparable efforts now.
What’s more, 2019 is organisationally much tougher than 2018. Just to stand a full slate of candidates would require around 1 in 10 of all the party’s members to run for council. The number of councils, and the smallness of their wards, in the most promising 2019 territory also means many more agents, campaign managers, Connect operators, volunteer coordinators, social media editors, email managers and sundry other roles need to be filled than if, say, the big opportunity for the party was in large urban wards.
(There are also some very promising prospects for further progress, and even taking council control, in the areas with larger wards and outside the district councils. My reason for emphasising the smaller wards in district councils in this piece is that’s where overall the most promising territory is. Without success there the party won’t be able to record the sort of result that makes a real difference to our rate of recovery.)
So if we need a huge growth in the scale and quality of the party’s organisation to match the scale of the opportunity available, will it?
The risks of self-delusion and inertia
That growth won’t magically happen as next May nears. We need to make it happen.
There are two particular dangers in the way of that. One is to believe too much of the results this May. It’s absolutely right that the party’s press team and Parliamentarians did their best to squeeze out as much positive media coverage for the party about this May’s results as possible – and they did a good job at that (even helping propel Vince Cable ahead of Jeremy Corbyn and tied with Theresa May in the latest Opinium poll). But that’s not the same as cool analysis to understand where the party really is at – including the falling overall vote share.
The other, linked, risk is to carry on doing much the same as we’ve done previously as if that’s enough to seize such a rare opportunity as next year offers. That organisational inertia can come from thinking nothing needs changing because this year was amazing. It can also come from discussing without deciding. If we’re not making deliberate decisions about what to change and what to prioritise, then we’re letting inertia win out. We need to be always asking, ‘how do we up our game to match the scale of the opportunity next year?’.
How do we crack this opportunity?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, so consider the following list a set of initial ideas to build on.
It’s also worth emphasising that thinking through what to write below has made me think of things that have passed me by before. That the things below haven’t happened so far shouldn’t be a reason for negativity; rather that such options are available (and better ones you have too, I’m sure) is a sign of what we can achieve if we determine to raise our game.
- Training: how does the party squeeze the absolute most value from training sessions at federal conference? Extra room hire at conference is expensive, but the basics of how we do conference training – start times, ends times, session lengths, the sort of venues used, the almost complete reliance for party HQ training on staff to deliver it, the absence of web streaming of training and so on – have remained the same for decades. Is everything really fully optimised? For example, have we really thought through whether shorter training sessions would end up with more training happening overall? Or whether using the staff-volunteer mix to deliver training that works so well for ALDC across a wider set of training would free up precious staff time? Time that can then be used on more small group mentoring sessions which needs chairs but don’t need rooms? Is web streaming either too hard or too unpopular such that it isn’t practical to get more people through training without having to be there in person? I strongly suspect that a really determined bit of self-examination would find us ways to deliver better training outcomes with requiring significant extra cost.
- Telephone canvassing: a great way for those in areas without elections to help those in areas with elections. Yet getting new members into the habit of phone canvassing, and taking part in winning campaigns, thanks to the ready supply of council by-elections each week is not something the party really does. We do a little bit here and there, but the basic idea of inducting members into the how and why of campaigning happens very little (and hence, for example, some of the issues around targeting at the last general election).
- Party data: the party has a lot of data which could be used to win elections, but which isn’t used to do so. That isn’t quite as eccentric as it may sound, but it does illustrate an opportunity. The party’s online campaigning brings in huge numbers of people into a process that ends up with a decent proportion of them becoming members. But much of the data for this funnel of activity is kept isolated from local campaigners. That helps make managing an effective recruitment process easier – a far from trivial benefit. But it’s not the same as thinking that we need to give every extra piece of help possible to the grassroots campaigners on the frontline. So again, I strongly suspect that a really determined bit of self-examination would allow us to do better than we currently do.
- London: there are no local elections due in London next year, and this area is home to around 1-in-5 party members. In addition to the greater good of the party, there’s a particular incentive for London Lib Dems to help neighbouring areas win next May: with council elections only ever four years, many parts of London see a huge dip in activity for several years after council elections, resulting in members dropping out, activists slipping away and organisations crumbling. Being part of winning campaigns next May is a great way to help avoid that dip.
- Messaging: the party’s been getting many of the right building blocks in place to have messaging that is based on evidence and an understanding of how voters decide (clue: they don’t spend hours pouring over policy details). Now we need to move on to the next stage – which of all the points listed here, I’m most optimistic about as that’s already underway. Success is not guaranteed of course, but we’re going to give it a go.
More to come I’m sure as either I think of it or you tell me I’m daft for having omitted it…
UPDATE: This turned out to be one of my better predictions.