The story of May’s election results is not one that can simply be told with numbers. There are too many tales of personal effort and loss for statistics to do justice to the crushing disappointment suffered by many who had worked hard for so long in hundreds of communities across the country.
Nor do statistics do justice to the brilliant resilience in a precious few places – those with amazing gains such as in the Cotswolds and those largely unsung heroes in areas such as Eastleigh and Three Rivers who have got on with running councils and winning elections year after year.
Two numbers do, however, show the pattern in all those personal stories. One is 1993 – for the party’s local government base across Great Britain (measured in terms of the proportion of councillors who are Liberal Democrat) is roughly back to its 1993 levels. We will know the exact date when all the figures have been collated, but the broad picture is clear.
How you react to that date depends, I suspect, in part on your age. For those who have lived through the horrors of the late 1970s or the fiascos of the late 1980s, being back to 1993 is bad – but far better than where we’ve been in the past. For newer activists, it’s the worst in their political lifetime.
Either way, the future needs to be about us recovering rather than slipping further. On that the second number tells the story. On the Thursday and Friday of election week YouGov, amongst many other questions, asked people whether the Liberal Democrats should pull out of coalition. Amongst those who voted Liberal Democrat in last May’s general election the answer was a resounding no: by 71% – 21%. (Amongst current Lib Dem voters, it was even more emphatic: 84% – 9%.)
What Liberal Democrats (current or recently departed) told YouGov is the same as they told many canvassers. Yes to being in coalition, but yes also to arguing the our corner more strongly and more openly. For amongst both last year and this year’s Liberal Democrats in favour of staying in coalition, there was a majority who said the party should stay in coalition but refuse to back policies the party opposes. Turning that easy polling answer into actual day by day political decisions is no easy task, but the overall direction our voters want from the party in Whitehall is clear.
But the party has always been about much more than those at the top or in London – and there is a further lesson from that 1993 figure. The largest part of the reason we are back to 1993 is the 2011 elections. But it is not the whole reason, because since our mid-1990s peak, the local government base has been flat or slipping for many years.
Alongside the stagnating electoral results has been stagnating political thought. The phrase “Community Politics” is almost never spoken by our ministers in Parliament or their ministerial speeches, with instead the vocabulary of other parties being adopted to fill the gap where our thinking – and our pride in our own beliefs – should be.
Alongside this has been the pernicious spread of the idea that campaigning in a community just means fighting elections and that fighting elections just means delivering leaflets. Yet good election agents and candidates know that weight of leaflets alone does not make a good election campaign and good community campaigners know that the five weeks of an election does not alone make a good community campaign.
Reinvigorating a local base when in government has never been easy for the other two main parties, but then the need to be better than either of them is a challenge not a reason to give-up, isn’t it?
A slightly different version of this piece first appeared in Liberal Democrat News, the party’s newspaper. Ironically it appeared on the page next to a piece from Tim Farron which did indeed use the phrase “community politics”.