Will the Liberal Democrats take their biggest opportunity for recovery since 2010?

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 opportunity

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.

Two important patterns behind the Lib Dem local election results

As I analysed in some detail in the last Liberal Democrat Newswire, the Lib Dem performance in this year's local elections is a mirror of last year. more

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 challenge

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


15 responses to “Will the Liberal Democrats take their biggest opportunity for recovery since 2010?”

  1. Mark,
    These are all excellent points. I hope TPTB are listening.
    Under point 2, you mention how to utilise local parties in areas that don’t have elections, getting them to help those who do. This is a really important point – I’m sure we could mobilise so much campaigning effort in this regard but we never do. One of the reasons is that there is no organised way of doing it. People are not asked, so we have to rely on individuals taking the personal initiative. e.g. I have done some phoning for friends of mine in campaigns at the other end of the country and I suspect you have, but how many of our members have those sort of personal links? So many are new and haven’t had time to build up these friendships.
    I’ve often wondered if the party could introduce a ‘twinning’ system: a local party in say Scotland could ‘adopt’ one in say a shire county, and get its activists to spend a couple of nights phone-canvassing there, with that local party returning the favour at the next Scottish elections. They could exchange donations as well. This would take a bit of organising but I feel it would increase our campaigning effort and would be good ‘real-time’ training/experience too for the activists in the non-election area. (It could also lead to some good socialising when the two parties get together at conference!)

    • I guess I am one of TPTB these days 🙂 (And that was part of what spurred me to writing the post at the weekend – getting my thoughts a bit sorted via writing ahead of some internal party meetings coming up.)

    • Excellent points and I suspect that we don’t use telephone canvassers in totally ” unwinable ” seats at the best of times certainly not all the time . We must have many members in solid Labour / Tory areas that could be utilised and provided with all the ” local ” issues of their surrogate areas almost as if they actually lived there – I’m talking about a canvasser say from Doncaster being given a pre-prepared set of bullet points when ringing round say the residents of Twickenham.
      Here I’m suggesting both Party and local bullet points even algorithms to download for each and every area / seat / constituency where we CAN win .

      • Apologies that should read ” canvassers that live in totally unwinnable seats “.

    • I had the same thought about twinning local parties. Choose areas that have out sync local elections. After a while friendships and sympathies to the problems of the others will arise.

  2. What I have found is a wider support system is needed. We don’t have an Ashcroft to buy every constituency party a full colour riso, so we wind up using others kit, which becomes less available and busier near elections. We book local printers solid. And there are lots of people who want to know how to campaign. They need help and assistance, and if they’re on their own, telling them to buy a riso, set up a print society, raise funds, canvass every door, phone canvass, get the messaging right, just demotivates them. We need a system where 1:1 guidance and support is provided. Neither HQ nor ALDC provides that, unfortunately. I am trying in Herts, but I am really stretched already. Next year will be a lot harder.

  3. The big one not covered, Mark, is candidate selection. Don’t just moan that no local members want to stand. Rural areas with smaller single seat wards, often have local community champions who are well known and quietly been supporting us for years. Make a list of all of them now (incl school governors, nonaligned parish councillors, village hall committee, leaders of any local campaign). Check any info on them and get someone who knows them to make an approach. The worst that happens is they’ll politely decline and say no. Some will want to talk, join and become involved especially if there is a good local campaign to hel lead.
    This needs doing now not next march!

  4. From my experience, people who have a learning disability, or who cannot read or have limited reading skills do not receive information in a way they can understand. Items based on clear photos / pictures with few words and clearly laid out contact details would help address this. They could be made available when deliverers take out a regular Focus and at events / public stands.

  5. Your not daft for omitting anything. I think you scoot over a key point regarding what holds the Party back when you say, “The other, linked, risk is to carry on doing much the same as we’ve done previously…”

    I believe that there are many (not all) people in the Party who are more content bickering over tiny differences in policy and who seem to think that if they explain a complex idea more slowly then only a fool could not understand. The fools out there don’t get too much complexity (look at the main parties messaging, look at Trump and Brexit fer chrissakes) but they do know when they feel spoken down to, thus reminding them that they are fools. No one likes to be called stupid, especially in a clever and peripheral way they don’t get.

    You are bang on with the data remark. There is an element of spending money to get good data analysis. More importantly, knowing what one is after from the data and having the strategy first and then using the data to help achieve the agreed goals is the way to go about it.

    I am not sure many people in the street can articulate the LD goals. The LDs know them yet seem to forget that most people don’t.

    • Dominic , I appreciate the points you are making but it’s as important if not more important in my opinion to be conversant with all the local issues in local elections . There should be ‘ prepared ‘ crib sheets to counter- act the usual ” thorny ” issues like student fees , too small to make a difference, backed the Tories in the past type stuff that always comes up now .

      • I agree – local and national are far often apart from one another in the minds of the voters.

        As for tuition fees and coalition government, I am a 100% supporter of both, and, anytime I have explained it to someone making off the cuff remarks, they have understood. Providing, of course, that their mind is not closed and they are just looking for a stick to beat us with.

        Rather than lecturing them – who likes that? -=I have merely asked them to describe to me what the problem is and what they know about it. One can usually see then penny drop when it is wheedled out of them.

        I believe are both defensible and worthy of defence.

  6. While we have some excellent campaigners in the Party we need to pull in fresh perspectives and new expertise to train party members at conference as well as sharing learning from familiar faces. There should be external speakers and safe spaces/campaigning innovation slots at conference where people can share their ideas and new voices can be heard. Else we risk being slow to evolve and there will be too much of the same old same old…

  7. training needs to be on the ground, very few attend conference. Lets say we aim to elect 2000 councillors next year, that means probably having 4000 proper campaigns, which needs 10000 people who can use connect, 4000 people who can run a committee room etc

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