Local election results

Broadly speaking, I sat out this year’s local elections. I did a tiny bit of campaigning in Lewisham (where we won a council seat), but generally speaking I’ve been busy and stressed at work and a little disaffected, with the Lib Dems and politics generally but my local party (Barnet) specifically.

Let’s start with Barnet. Before the elections, I was hearing a lot of stuff about how the Lib Dems and Labour had already begun negotiations about carving up the administration after May, so confident were they that the Tories would self-destruct. And they had good reason to: the Tories here in Barnet are a dreadful bunch who nearly bankrupted themselves after regaining control in 2002 with their barmy “pull up all sleeping policemen” policies. No Cameron Conservatives they, and six months ago the High Barnet by-election (immediately after Cameron’s leadership election victory and when the wheels were coming off the Kennedy drinks-trolley) suggested the public had had enough.

Personally however, I wasn’t convinced we were offering a viable alternative; and I was certainly convinced we weren’t offering an alternative that I had any time for. I live in a safe Tory ward (indeed, I was a paperless candidate), so no Lib Dem literature here, but the stuff being put out in neighbouring Mill Hill managed to combine poor design and dreadful populist scaremongering in a way that left me very disinclined to help out (leaving aside the fact that there were no organised action weekends or other schemes aimed at encouraging people to turnout). The two main issues being campaigned on in Mill Hill were outrage over a phone mast that is to be built in the middle of green belt land (why this is a problem has yet to be explained to me) and some ridiculous nonsense about Mill Hill East tube station closing, despite the fact that TfL are upgrading it. I can’t be associated with such mendacious nonsense.

One factor which had an impact on the Labour and Lib Dem votes here seems to be the Green Party strategy. I have no problem with other parties exercising their right to stand in local elections, but at least be clear about outcomes. The Greens opted to field one candidate in each Barnet 3-member ward. As any psephologist will be able to tell you, that is a way of guaranteeing you won’t get anyone elected: every person who votes for you will also vote twice against you. In numerous wards, the Green vote made a difference between who won and who lost: I have no doubt that in Mill Hill for example the Lib Dems would have won all three councillors if the Greens had not stood (or if the Lib Dems ran a decent tactical voting campaign). In this area, if was not so much a case of Vote Blue, Go Green, but Vote Green, Go Blue.

Overall, the results in London were actually relatively good for us. Brent, Camden, Haringey and Lewisham were all step forwards for us in areas where there has hitherto been barely any Lib Dem presence. The GLA elections in 2008 will be a real opportunity for further Lib Dem breakthroughs in my view.

Islington was, quite frankly, bizarre, and an almost exact repeat of the General Election performance in 2005. Last year, the Islington Party opted to fight two Parliamentary seats rather than one and as a result failed to gain either of them. This year, the party hubristically attempted to GAIN seats when it already had a majority and as a result completely fell apart. There were certainly lots of local factors, but it does looks as if the local party has simply forgotten the basic rules of targetting.

It’s a shame, because Islington is in many ways an example of a Lib Dem-controlled authority that has got a lot more things right than wrong. They have managed to turn around an authority that Labour had run into the ground and much of the criticism has mainly focussed around Steve Hitchens’ firm smack of authority than much of substance. The best local resident Nick Cohen can do to criticise them is opine about their beastliness to Kate Winslet which in my opinion sums it up. The first mistake that a lot of Lib Dem administrations make when they first take control is sack the marketing department and assume they can get along fine without political advisers or any other kind of support. They then find themselves coming unstuck the first time they attempt to do something even vaguely controversial. Islington (and Liverpool) bucked that trend and were rewarded. Although they technically lack overall control, they still have as many councillors as Labour and the Greens combined and thus are in a stronger position than 1998; one hopes they will be able to weather the storm.

Looking more broadly, the simple fact of the matter is that the Lib Dems did not have a good night. I am getting really tired of Lib Dem politicians attempting to spin that “more councillors since 1994” means anything other than “no progress in 10 years”. Politics is all about momentum and in this respect we failed utterly.

Is it fair to pin the blame on Ming Campbell? Yes and no. On the one hand, had Kennedy remained in post I am quite sure we would have had just as bad a night, possibly worse. From the central party point of view, our problem is twofold: our inability to develop distinctive national messages, and our inability to spread best practice and develop a coherent Lib Dem nationwide approach to local government.

Compare our dreadful “litany” of “safer, greener, fairer” with the Tories’ “Vote Blue, Go Green”. Cameron had clearly thought this one through: his slogan was intended to convey the message that the Tories had changed but also that the Tories had a good record in local government with regard to the environment. Our slogan was just a jumble of things we thought people thought were important: it said nothing about the Lib Dem record in local government, or about our relevance. We might just as well had used the slogan “Vote Lib Dem for motherhood and apple pie”.

Cameron managed to develop a strong national message that complimented both the narrative he is developing and local campaigns; we should have done the same. The fact that we failed to do so is because we lack any coherent “narrative” about what we have achieved in local government. I should point out here that I strongly suspect that if Clarke, Prescott and Hewitt hadn’t nobly sacrificed themselves for him, Cameron would probably had had a much rougher ride: the other important thing about a message is that it has to resonate with the truth, and it was increasingly becoming clear quite how shallow this green Tory image really was. This is not to contradict my earlier point though: as with Blair in the 90s, Cameron may have been lucky, but luck would only have got him so far if he hadn’t also been astute.

The problem the Lib Dems face is not our new leader, but the senior team that he has inherited from his predeccessor. This is his problem. When Tory leaders take charge, the change at the top is palpable: people are challenged to either shape up or ship out, new people are brought in, old people are pensioned off. Change happens quite quickly; in Cameron’s case, change happened extremely rapidly. When Lib Dem leaders take charge, generally speaking all they do is set up a review or five (in Campbell’s case, Kennedy had even inaugurated reviews on most areas anyway). Such reviews, dominated by the people with a vested interest in the status quo, end up concluding nothing much. Thus far, that is all that Ming Campbell has offered us.

The latest local elections ought to tell him that the status quo will not be good enough; that we need to raise our game; that the same old plod doesn’t work any more. Because of the mechanisms of our party and the short amount of time he’s had, I’m happy to let Ming off the hook for now. But I sincerely hope he learned the lesson on Thursday that something is very badly wrong, and that changes need to take effect sooner rather than later.


  1. Hi there,
    Quite a good analysis – although I think there’s one factor that’s missing. Even where the Labour vote did splinter, quite a decent proportion of it went to the Conservatives as well as us (this is certainly what happened in our two target wards here in Merton). This is something that we need to be aware of – we shouldn’t just assume that any votes which don’t go to Labour anymore will come to us instead . . .

  2. James, what you say resonates with me. At a local level in our district we could put over a clear message, but it’s not quite there at a national level.

    One point though: the “having only one candidate in a multi-member ward’ needn’t be a hopeless situation. We had a case a couple of years ago in Rayleigh. Our candidate was in a straight fight with a Tory for a District seat, and simulataneously in a contest for one of three Town Council seats, up against three Tories. A line we took in our leaflets was roughly that it might be a fair result to have two Tories and on Lib Dem elected, and that one Lib Dem could make a real difference.

    The end result was that we lost the district by over 200 , but missed out on the town council seat by just 3, after a couple of recounts….

    Anyway , if you’ve nothing going on next election day you are welcome to come down to Rayleigh! We are already targetting and hope for one or two gains in ’07.

  3. “It’s all their fault” in other words. Why not get involved and lead activity yourself? If you don’t like the local Focus then get involved and write your own. If there are no organised action weekends, organise your own. The party needs people like you to run things.

  4. James, I agree with much of what you say. Our performance was poor to patchy, certainly when set against the expectation of continued advance.

    The steady recrudescence of Tory support in the English suburbs, small towns and countryside is very alarming. We must devise effective strategies for countering this. As a party, we have always been good at garnering rural and suburban support, but rarely enough to win.

    Against Labour, the message is mixed. In places, we have stalled (Manchester, Sheffield, Oldham, Kirklees, Southwark), in others we go ever forward (Brent, Haringey, Camden, Derby – and don’t forget that gain of 5 seats in Burnley).

    A fresh menace is the Green Party. A vastly increased Green vote cost us control of Islington, and probably other places, too. We need to know why people vote Green and what we can do to get them to support us instead.

    Then there are the tactical issues: like over-targeting (Ealing), and lack of a clear, coherent message (what you describe in Barnet). Chris Rennard cannot micro-manage every local party’s campaigning. They have to learn to get it right themselves.

    Why is it that so many Lib Dem councils become unpopular after short periods of office? What went wrong in Milton Keynes, for instance? Or in Norwich?

    Conversely, why do others get it astoundingly right? Dorothy Thornhill was relected as Mayor of Watford with more than 50% of the vote. Quite a spectacular achievement in a 3-way marginal.

    Oh, yes. We need the right national message. And we have to promote it with a single voice.

    Civil liberties, absolutely. The international rule of law, ditto. But what about health and education? And the economy? What is the distinctive Lib Dem message?

  5. What worried me more than the Lib Dems standing still (ish) across the UK was that Labour were actually increasing their seats (at LD expense) in quite a few Northern / Yorkshire councils. Despite the hellish fortnight they’d just had.

  6. Chris (2), your anecdote proves my point. If you had fielded two or even three candidates you would have won easily – possibly even taken all three seats: every person who voted for you, voted AGAINST you twice. It may be a handicap that, with a lot of campaigning, you can overcome, but it is still a handicap.

    David (5), the result in Leeds this time is roughly comparable to the last campaign in Leeds I was involved with (2002). That last thing you want is me coming back and making things worse!

    Paul (6), this is definitely of concern, and there is a pattern. Look at Sheffield and Hull. We are generally very bad at retaining control of councils once we seize power. Islington, as I discussed above, appears to be a different case. If you want to see a truly nightmarish vision of what can happen after taking (admittedly coalition) control, look at Bromley’s results from last week. ALDC and the Party need to be taking this issue on, instead of simply talking about the need to take this issue on (which is all I ever saw in my three years on the FE).

  7. Paul (3), fair comment and worthy of an explanation. The fact is I have a pretty good record of “having a go.” I was a full time party organiser from 1998 to 2004. That, however, bankrupted me, lead to me moving every two years and screwed me up in lots of other ways I won’t go into here.

    I took a deliberate decision not to get involved in my party locally for three reasons: one, I genuinely don’t know if I’ll still be living in the area in six months time, and I definitely know I won’t still be here in two years. So, if I did get involved (and I would have to get heavily involved, its my nature), I would be moving out before I’d really got started. Secondly, I have a cross-party political job these days which takes up a lot of my time. Thirdly, I just needed a break. And, lest I forget, against my better judgement I did offer to get involved in a local campaign which promised to be more than the usual phone-masts-and-potholes campaign, but it fell apart.

    I served on the party’s FE for three years, from 2002-2005. I eventually left because it became increasingly clear I had a conflict of interest with work. But also, after three years, it became clear that not only was I not achieving very much but it was all starting to get too personal. When senior people in the party start referring to you as the “Next Donnachadh McCarthy” it is time to move on.

    In short, I’ve done my mileage, I’ve taken things as far as I can, and I’m content, for now, to simply carp from the sidelines. I’ll get more directly involved again when I’m good and ready.

  8. w.r.t. not being able to hold on to power, I suspect a fair amount of this is not having had power for so long, whilst we have run excellent campaigns in opposition, what to do when you’re in power is more diffiicult.

    We do desperately need a national narrative: I get ‘what to the liberals stand for?’ and I get told we’re a left-wing tax raising party.
    Some of this comes from the other parties, Tony Blair is always keen to say the challenge comes from the Tories and the ‘right’ not the LibDems and the ‘left’.

    And where do we stand on education? We seem to be more conservative than anything else, opposing change for the sake of opposing it. The same with healthcare.
    The same with economic policy, the great cry of liberals of the past, free trade, is rarely heard today. We should make our case as to why free trade is preferred, why protectionism is bad. In some cases this needs to be made to the party membership.

    I can’t help feeling that liberalism is somewhat neglected by the party in our campaigning and our talk. We seem scared to talk of general ideas and try to focus on specifics. I think we should place our flag firmly in liberalism, state what we believe broadly, and then construct specifics around that, otherwise we do risk becoming another managerial party who say what we think people want to hear (although for us it seems to be membership not the public…)

  9. James

    Thanks for that explanation which is worthy. And I admire your honesty: “and I’m content, for now, to simply carp from the sidelines.”! Reading your history I could see a paralell with me. I went hyper on party activity for 7 years and then went into complete LibDem manic overdrive in November 2000 and had to take six weeks off work for depression (even though I was under-employed at work at the time). After that I resigned or stopped doing all my LibDem tasks, jobs or roles (I counted up that I had 27 LibDem responsibilities at the time from being local delivery wholesaler, deliverer to being constituency chair) bar one – being a town councillor.

    My therapy (with a counsellor) was very useful in that it identified precisely what I hated about the LibDems (going to meetings and listening to things I have heard 39 times from the same person) and what I very much enjoyed delivering leaflets, canvassing, doing council casework. So on the advice of the therapist I just do what I enjoy now. I deliver and canvass and do casework but NEVER attend meetings and if someone asks me why not, I say, “for health reasons” which they always find amusing! I would encourage you, when you feel ready, to come back into the activist fold and do whatever you like (there must be something?), and refuse to do what you don’t like.

    All the very best to you

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.