A regular refrain in my coverage of council by-elections is the importance of standing Liberal Democrat candidates as often as possible – and to raise our game so that the limiting factor becomes more how many seats are up rather than our capacity to put up candidates.
To recap the benefits of standing even when winning looks impossible, it’s about the opportunity to persuade more people that we’re relevant (far more people will see the absence of a Lib Dem logo on the ballot paper than ever know the details of the result), to help people get into the habit of regularly supporting us (there’s no surer way of breaking that habit than forcing people to vote for someone else as we don’t have a candidate), and it’s about the opportunity to practice and to learn.
The many varied local circumstances mean criticism is by no means always fair if a local party does not run a candidate. It is also fair to add, however, that there are good reasons for believing the Liberal Democrats are not as good at running candidates as we could be. Think how rare it is, for example, to see a message saying “Help! We’re a tiny party caught by surprise by a council by-election. Can anyone come door knocking with us on Saturday to help get the nomination paper sorted?”. Or “We are struggling to get nominations for a candidate in a ward we last held in 1863*. Does anyone know the best filtering to use in Connect to get a good list of names to call on?”
There is scope for us to up our game. In that spirit, here’s a suggested list of preparations any local party can take to be ready for the next surprise council by-election. They should be useful for local parties of any size, but perhaps particularly for the smaller and less experienced teams.
Step one: once a year, dust off and update a by-election contingency plan. Always have a plan ready to roll.
Step two: identify who could be the agent in (a) a winnable contest, and (b) an unwinnable contest. The latter will often best be a different person from the former as the latter are the best occasions – lower risk, lower stress – for a newer person to learn how to be an agent.
Step three: have a pool of approved local candidates always on the go, ready for emergency use in a by-election. Aside from the inherent benefits of this preparation for a sudden by-election, it’s also a good example of a wider organisational theme: early preparation makes it easier to involve more people and so build a larger team. It is tempting for a small team to think that something like this step is an extra burden they cannot shoulder. Rather, the opposite should be the case: a smaller team needs all the more to grow, and creating such a pool is another way to get more people more involved. Asking people to be an emergency backup for a rare event is a good next step for people for whom the full plunge to commitment to stand in a target ward is too much, at the moment at least.
Step four: have up-to-date contact information for neighbouring local parties and your regional/state party. They are your backup source of emergency help; think of those example unasked questions from above.
Step five: make sure you know about ALDC’s Fighting Fund – there to provide financial help to weaker teams. Make sure also at least one of you is a member of ALDC and so have access to their full set of by-election leaflet templates. Add this to step four and between colleagues and templates, you can even be ready to get by-election leaflets done without any artworking capacity in your local party.
Step six: by-elections are a great opportunity to learn more about how to use Connect and to get more data into it. So make sure you know who will be the Connect chief for a by-election. Best to have at least two names in case of holidays and the like. If one or both aren’t experienced with Connect, then make use of a regional, state or federal conference to get them trained – or indeed a helpful colleague from a neighbouring party. (Very few people in the party are asked to go and help train neighbours. Yet many are willing to say yes and know what they’re doing. Don’t fail to get help just for want of asking.)
Step seven: add to your plan the blindingly obvious I have omitted by mistake.
And with that good luck, and do share the plans you come up with. It’d be great to see how people improve on this to produce plans that mean when a by-election suddenly occurs, it can more often be a bonus opportunity to build the party rather than another burden to bear.
P.S. Oh, and of course there’s this.
* The last time I picked a year at random to illustrate a similar point I got a long list of detailed factchecking responses pointing out why that year was an impossible choice. Who knows that this year will bring forth?