London elections – the Libs Dems need to rally the base

After the Lib Dems shocked the world by going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, plenty of commentators threatened the party with oblivion.  At first glance this week’s results in the local and London elections show this prediction to be comfortably on course.  In fact the Lib Dem vote held up well in the party’s strongholds (including in their vilified  leader Nick Clegg’s Sheffield constituency), so extinction is not beckoning.  Some very challenging questions are being posed for the party’s leaders and campaigners, though, especially here in London.

The London results look particularly bad.  Brian Paddick, the mayoral candidate, managed a deposit-losing 4%, and was behind Jenny Jones of the Green party, and only just beat the independent Siobhan Benita, advocating a new runway for Heathrow.  In the Assembly the party mustered a mere 6.8%, leaving it with just two Assembly seats: the peerless Caroline Pidgeon and newcomer Stephen Knight.  These results represent a big fall in the results achieved in 2008, which was already a very bad year for the party.

But it gets worse.  This time the party had the best funded and best organised campaign it had ever put up across the capital.  The results acheived did not match the Greens, who who were barely funded and organised at all, having a much smaller base of activists and donors to draw from.  It wasn’t that the Greens did particularly well – the Lib Dems did very badly.  A repeat performance would mean that the party will lose its London MEP at the Euro elections in 2014.

The London elections are an awkward challenge for the party.  It’s entire campaigning wisdom is based on going after floating voters to win first past the post elections.  This already makes the party vulnerable in proportional representation systems, such as that used for the Assembly.  And yet the attention of the electorate is drawn to the parallel mayoral race (rightly, in view of the office’s powers), which is (near enough) first past the post.  This draws the party in a floating voter campaign for Mayor, that fails either to attract floating voters (because the party is not amongst the front runners) or to rally the core vote, the “base” in political jargon.  The party gave a lot of prominence to tough-sounding slogans like “you break, you fix” to reassure the floaters about the party’s stance on crime, but this left more liberal voters (like me) cold.  The party’s literature consisted of a lot of tabloid newspapers which neither worked as sources of local news to draw people in, nor to rally wavering loyalists.

And the base seems to be disappearing.  Surely metropolitan London is the most liberal part of the country?  And yet the overall results must be amongst the worst in the country.

So the lesson for the party must be to spend more time rallying the base.  It needs to be spell out what the party stands for, liberal values above all, and less defensively justifying the coalition, and not trying to appeal floating voters in areas where the party isn’t strong anyway.  The requires a completely new mindset from the party’s campaigners.  Even when they promise to do this (I remember last time’s Euros particularly well), they tend to get the same old rubbishy tabloids, positioned messages, and so so on.  The next Euros will be an important test.  I’m not holding my breath.

That applies especially to London.  The party still needs to hang on to its MPs and councils, which takes relentless floating voter persuasion – but the party surely can’t afford to disappear into nothingness outside its bastions.  The party needs activists, donors and the moral authority that come with a genuine nationwide base.



11 thoughts on “London elections – the Libs Dems need to rally the base”

  1. You’re pretty much spot on, but the Euros are in two years time not next year, thank goodness.

    1. Thank you James. I am correcting the original to spare further embarrassment!

      1. It may be in 2 years, but we need to prepare for the Euros now. Our strategy from this point onwards must be Differentiation, Differentiation, Differentiation. Justifying the coalition was absolutely the wrong approach when we are not in coalition in the London Assembly (which doesn’t work that way anyway). Unfortunately this country has a media that treats Westminster as the only thing that matters. A lot of news articles referred to “Coalition votes” and the “Coalition” performance; yet we were not fighting these elections as part of the national coalition. I do not think our campaigns made this fact sufficiently clear.
        For the Euros, differentiation and campaigning on our LIBERAL values are especially important. I’m glad Chris Davies said from the beginning that the European Parliament is a “Coalition-free zone” (words that we should repeat as a mantra for our 2014 Euro-election campaign); of course anyone who understands how the EP works would know that it would be, but sadly not many people do. MEPs vote largely on ideological lines, so we should play up ideological differences in 2014: run a campaign that does this while explaining clearly what MEPs do, making little reference to national politics. And most importantly, we should mainly be attacking the Tories in 2014, with particular reference to their raving-right European allies. These provide huge potential ammunition against them. In 2014 we can and should do to the Tories what they did to us over the AV referendum.

  2. I tried to make the point at the London conference that we need to clearly and simply define for the voters what we stand for, but that got pretty much ignored.

    Of course we don’t like to simplify things, because we know things are not black and white, but unfortunately subtlety doesn’t win votes. If we could get a simple message through, then maybe people would be tempted to then look deeper but starting with a mixed message just put them off.

    ‘But’ is probably my most used word so I do realise how hard this is!

    1. Thanks Sandra. It’s very hard because a clear message can put some voters off, especially if it concentrates on liberal and internationalist values. But that’s what is needed to rally the base. Easy to see why people hesitate – but at the moment we aren’t getting through to many people at all.

  3. “The London elections are an awkward challenge for the party. It’s entire campaigning wisdom is based on going after floating voters to win first past the post elections. This already makes the party vulnerable in proportional representation systems, such as that used for the Assembly.”

    My local party’s response was to tell people “Labour can’t win here.” Oh dear.

    1. I remember Lib Dem leaflets saying “X can’t win here” in 2009 for the Euros. Utterly stupid. And apart from that, it was a lacklustre campaign that gave people no reason to vote for a Lib Dem MEP.

  4. The party got just what it deserved in London: nothing. as a voter I am sick of all the lies and deception practised by LibDem activists and candidates, epitomised by the laughably selective graphs and the ridiculous ‘XXX can’t win here’, ‘two horse race’, ‘wasted vote’ garbage continually trotted out, even in elections like these with proportional voting systems. Compared with all this tired old gutter politics the greens come across as a very welcome breath of fresh air!

    1. Thank you Robert. Those sorts of slogans really work in first past the post elections when you are one of the two top parties in contention – but campaigners don’t realise or perhaps care how offputting they are to many of the ordinary public, contributing to the antipolitics cynicism. And it really doesn’t help when they are used inappropriately, as I have seen Lib Dem activists do far too often. The Greens present a far cleaner image – which makes them lousy as winning FPTP elections, but much better on PR>

    2. @Robert: How did you vote in the AV referendum last year? If you voted No, like over 2/3 of those who voted, then I’m afraid it’s partly your fault that we still have bar graphs in election leaflets. If the country had voted Yes, then we would no longer have any use for bar graphs or “X can’t win here” slogans. In the Lib Dems we don’t like this sort of thing either, but under our electoral system we have little choice if we want to win. Bottom line is that if you voted No last year then you have no right to complain about misleading bar graphs, because you voted for the electoral system that encourages them.

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