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.