6 lessons from North Shropshire
As well as having a great new MP in Helen Morgan, the by-election result also gives the Liberal Democrats the chance to learn about what can work to boost our fortunes in other elections to come.
So here’s my first stab at those lessons, with the proviso of course that as more data is crunched these may evolve.
1. Helen Morgan – Helen was an excellent candidate, not only in the by-election but in her work with a growing local party prior to it. She highlights the importance of candidates in non-target Parliamentary seats who are willing to work with and lead a local team over more than just one election cycle.
Our support for candidates focuses very heavily on target seats. We need them to be successful for our next general election to be a success.
But for a successful, broad-based recovery in the party’s fortunes to continue, we also need more Helens. There’s a lesson for the party, myself included, about the required breadth of our candidate support.
There is also a lesson about the need to improve the party’s diversity. We’ve concentrated very heavily on improving the diversity of our Parliamentary Party in Westminster, with significant success. But it’s because Helen was the candidate last time, in a then unwinnable seat, that we had such a great local female candidate this time. Implementing the work of our diversity review carried out over the summer will continue to be a priority for me and, I hope, for everyone else holding posts in the party.
2. The absence of a Conservative message – in a repeat of Chesham and Amersham, it was notable how the Conservatives did not have a message other than ‘vote Conservative because you always have’. For the Red Wall, they have a (contested!) message about levelling up, but for the rest of the country? There’s no positive vision of the future, post-Brexit.
Hence the repeated doorstep conversations I had with life-long Conservatives where they only had Lib Dem messages to discuss with me. Our discussions were about their political habits versus the Lib Dem messages, without Conservative messages to consider.
The lesson for the Liberal Democrats is not to repeat this mistake ourselves. We need to continue to develop those themes of a fair deal and redistributing power that Ed Davey set out in his autumn conference speech.
3. A Lib Dem message based on voters – as in Chesham and Amersham, Helen Morgan’s campaign in North Shropshire focused on the most appealing messages to win over soft Conservative voters. Focus on the voters – and the votes you need to win in particular. Find the common ground between what concerns them and what we believe, and then go to town campaigning on that. In Helen’s case, for example, that meant talking a lot about the NHS and ambulance service failures.
Focusing on what voters are concerned about may sound obvious, but it’s often not how political campaigns work. Instead – as with parts of the Lib Dem 2019 general election campaign – it’s easy to end up insular, detached from what the voters are thinking and ending up hectoring them about what they should think, rather than persuading them by engaging with what they do think.
That’s a particular risk in more democratic parties like ours as what most motivates activists often isn’t what best moves voters. I’ll happily confess to this too. What gets me out of bed early to catch a train to go campaigning is often not what’s on the leaflets we’re then campaigning with. At least in the Lib Dems it’s much less of a problem and comes in more benign forms than it does in Labour. As Rafael Behr recently wrote, “to win an election [Labour] must appeal to Conservative voters, which does not come easily to a party that struggles to imagine why anyone in their right mind would be a Tory.”
It’s a tension that is best to explicitly recognise and to manage – such as acknowledging that what gets talked about in internal newsletters for members and what goes in public leaflets for voters can play to different emphases. There must be a consistency, but they don’t have to be identical.
The wonder and flaw of a democracy is that in the end it’s the voters who get to cast the verdict. What they think is what counts. What we have to do is to be smart about how to change their minds.
4. Tactical voting worked, but… – in Chesham and Amersham, the Labour vote fell from 13% to 2% and in North Shropshire it fell from 22% to 10%. In both cases, that was an important part of the Lib Dem progress, but in both cases also it wasn’t enough on its own.
Soft Conservatives have to be won over. Every vote won over from the Conservatives counted double (one on to our total, one off the Conservative total) compared with a vote won over from Labour (one on to our total, no change to the Conservative total)
In both by-elections one of the reasons for that strong tactical voting was the speed with which the Liberal Democrat campaign got going. That’s a fast start that wouldn’t have happened in either case if the early stages of the campaign had been taken up the necessarily complicated and difficult process of trying to negotiate a seat deal in detail. Instead of spending time trying to stitch-up an election behind closed doors, we were fast out of the blocks spending time on the doorsteps.
So we should be grateful to those who voted tactically to us, and grateful too to the wiser and calmer heads in Labour who either passed up on campaigning in these by-elections or at least campaigned against the Conservatives.
Not everyone in Labour, true, as we had the bizarrely implausible antics of their local press officer, whose Twitter account was full of attacks on the Lib Dems and very light on any criticism of the Tories. He even produced figures claiming Labour was in a strong second and closing fast on the Conservatives. Though the strangest tweets were those from another Labour activist, again declaiming that it was really Labour in with a shout of winning before going on to complain that the Lib Dems had delivered 11 leaflets to a mere 3 from Labour.
But as with Chesham and Amersham, note that once again it was a case of zero visits from Keir Starmer and very few visits from his other senior colleagues. That’s a choice of where to campaign that’s to be welcomed.
5. The wonderful Lib Dem help – people came from all across the country to get Helen elected. The mobilisation of thousands of people, with many others on the phone and reaching for their wallets, was essential.
This can only happen and be sustained in future contests if we’re honest with people about our chances in an election. There’s still a lot of understandable cynicism from the over-hyping of some contests years back. Which is why such an effort has gone into being honest with members about our chances and how they’re changing – and supporters have returned that with trust that if they’re being asked to really go and help, it’s because it’s worth the punt.
And thank you therefore to those who waved the Lib Dem flag in those by-elections which we didn’t push in the same way. We should be very grateful to our colleagues who did useful things to lay the groundwork for future success, and to help remove the Conservatives from power, even while most of the party’s attention was elsewhere.
6. One thing it wasn’t – the Christmas party scandals have gone done really badly with voters in North Shropshire, as elsewhere. But remember how many people vote by postal vote these days and how early they vote. This was about much more than the parties or otherwise those postal votes would have seen the Conservatives through to a far better result. The lessons from this by-election are not about a transitory political moment but about something deeper.
That’s my take on the lessons. Do hit reply and let me know yours or join the conversation on Facebook.