Monday, September 20, 2010

How the coalition is affecting local results

As readers of Lib Dem Voice will know (and there seem to be a lot of you, from the numbers who've already mentioned our victory on Thursday to me at conference) we have just celebrated the third of three local by-election victories in the Oxford West & Abingdon (OxWAb) constituency since May.

Sadly all three by-elections were caused by the deaths of long-standing, effective and hard-working local councillors, Audrey Tamplin, John Wyse and Pat Hobby, each of whom I had helped elect originally and each of whom I had a lot of respect for.

Following our loss of Evan's seat in the General Election there was a real danger (as the party has seen in other places) that our local seats would start to fall like dominoes as a result.

But the activists in OxWAb are, I'm pleased to say, made of sterner stuff. Within a few days of the General Election our Abingdon team were back out on the streets canvassing and delivering for a Town Council seat in Dunmore ward, one of a minority of wards in the constituency that has seen some Conservative representation in recent years.

We selected the excellent Julia Bricknell who had fought and won the same ward in a district council by-election a year ago, and she worked her socks off. I'd like to say we fought an excellent but it was actually a fairly straightforward one. We had a good, local candidate, a positive record of working for the town and a good local issue around the need for a full interchange on the A34 at Lodge Hill.

And the coalition, which was being formed during the period of the campaign? A fair few people mentioned it, some negatively and some positively. A very small number, typically of previous tactical supporters, said they wouldn't vote for us a as a result, but a few others gave us credit for making a difficult decision and went with us a result.

But the over-riding message is that nearly everybody said nothing about the coalition at all and wanted to talk about local issues in the town.

We held the seat with very little change from previously.

The day after polling day in Dunmore was the nominations deadline for a Cherwell District by-election in Kidlington North, at the other end of the constituency. This seat had been held for 12 years by the indefatigable John Wyse who had originally been elected in an election with the slogan 'Vote Wyse-ly' (see what we did there?) and who had built up a formidable reputation over his years as a councillor.

If we were to lose ground to the Tories in OxWAb, Kidlington North would likely be one of the first places to go.

We selected a keen young candidate in Alaric Rose who proved to be a real find. A local resident, he got out on the doorsteps and personally spoke to hundreds of residents. The Kidlington team, augmented by help from across the constituency and beyond, worked very hard and secured another victory.

As far as the coalition was concerned it was much the same as in Dunmore. A small number of people against, some of whom said they would not vote for us as a result, but many others pro, and an overall sense that in a local election the work our Kidlington team have been doing to improve the village is far more important than what is going on in Westminster.

Kidlington was different to the two Abingdon by-elections in that Labour did run and active campaign, with leaflets attacking the coalition. They also had a big team out on polling day, including several helpers from Oxford East. It didn't seem to make much difference and they still trailed in a poor third.

And finally (and, to be honest, the novelty of by-elections was starting to wear off at this point) we faced out third by-election in Abingdon Northcourt.

We were very lucky to persuade one of our long-standing local deliverers, Helen Pighills, to stand. The campaign got off to a slower start - it was mid-August and most of the electorate and quite a few of our key activists were away. I even managed a lovely week in Somerset myself.

We got a couple of leaflets out and from the Bank Holiday the campaign started motoring. Helen canvassed regularly, and the Abingdon team once again trooped out to help her.

And the coalition - well, sorry to disappoint those of you looking for doom and gloom, but it was exactly the same as the previous two by-elections. As soon as folk knew it was a town council by-election they wanted to talk about the town. And once again the combination of a very good local candidate, our positive record of improving Abingdon, and highlighting the Conservative run County Council's failures, was enough to deliver us a 3% swing from the Tories.

Once again a few people raised the coalition and/or the coming cuts, but it was only a small number, and those who wouldn't vote for us as a result were even fewer.

So as far as our campaigning through to next May is concerned I think there are a few useful lessons (and none of them new ones!):
  • Keep it local. In local elections the voters are primarily concerned about local issues and our local record.
  • Work hard. In each of the three by-elections we delivered more leaflets and knocked on more doors than the opposition.
  • Keep it simple. In each by-election we stuck to a small number of simple messages promoting our strong candidate, our positive local record, pointing out the Tory County's failures and squeezing the Labour and Green vote throughout.
To any experienced Lib Dem campaigner this will be neither news nor rocket science. But in the face of the media criticism the coalition is facing it is worth reinforcing.

Those of us who remember campaigning in the post-merger 1988-1991 period know that we can win seats and councils at local level even in the face of dire national poll ratings (we were at about 4% in the polls when I helped us win control of Oadby & Wigston in one of those years!).

But we will only win where we put in the work on the ground. Anyone who thinks that it will be as easy this time round, or that they can rely on our national success, is deluding themselves. Whenever you have started your campaigns previously, start earlier. However many leaflets you have delivered previously, deliver more. And however many doors you have knocked on previously, knock on more.

Good luck!

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