Sunday, March 03, 2013

Three things the Liberal Democrats must learn from Eastleigh

From Liberal Democrat Voice:

Liberal Democrats are entitled to a weekend of being incredibly pleased with ourselves. I have never been as proud of this party as I am now. The way we calmly and professionally got on with delivering a brilliant campaign on the ground was astonishingly good. Activists put their lives on hold and dedicated themselves to Eastleigh for three weeks. My eternal regret will be that I never made it there, due to a horrendous Flu and its lingering aftermath. However, Team Scotland and many others across the country phonebanked their hearts out. Yesterday in Edinburgh, we even had to have an overflow room because so many people turned up to get out the vote. One young man, Daniel, even drove the 130 miles from Aberdeen to join us. 

The way the party bonded in adversity was not dissimilar to Willie Rennie's shock victory in Dunfermline seven years ago which was set in a backdrop of us having no leader and an uncomfortable tabloid story appearing roughly every half hour. We weren't in Government, then, though.

The team on the ground who produced the leaflets, got them delivered, made good use of the VIPs' time, organised the technology and inspired the party to rally round them were second to none. None of them should ever have to pay for a drink at Federal Conference ever again. We all owe them.

Stephen Tall has already written about the overall political ramifications of the result. I want to concentrate on the lessons the party must learn and act upon in the future.

There is no room for complacency

Yes, we won. But we had a significant swing against us that we can't ignore. We can't allow ourselves to forget in the warm glow of victory that we have some serious stuff to sort out. When we get things wrong, we don't have friendly media to help us out of the mire. As we've seen the last week, the likes of the Mail, the Murdoch empire and the Telegraph are only too keen to give us a good kicking. We have to demonstrate that we have dealt with all the issues which have been raised about us in the last week. If that means a few boats need to be rocked, then so be it.

The very nature of a general election means we can't concentrate all our activists on one place with one common goal. It is neither practical nor legal to deliver a leaflet a day in a campaign where the expenses limit is much smaller.  The intensity and brevity of the by-election helped us. We have to work out how to translate the things that worked in Eastleigh to local campaigns and build the capacity to deliver them. That necessitates a serious strategy to attract both members and supporters.

We have to value and build on our local government base

I doubt we would be celebrating this morning if we hadn't had such a bedrock of a local government base and a long record of delivering for the community. Keith House leads a team of over 40 local councillors who do all the right things. I lost count of the times voters told me great things about their local Liberal Democrat councillor, whose name they always remembered. The party needs to step up to the Eastleigh or the Portsmouth level of activity. We need to throw the kitchen sink at the County Council elections in May and make sure that our local base is enhanced. Our councillors matter and we need to work with them better. I'm encouraged by closer working together between ALDC and the party's election strategists. We need to do more, though and we need to listen to our councillors when we develop national campaigns. We might not have elections here in Scotland, but I'll certainly be encouraging people from here to help in Northumberland.

We have to develop a liberal response to the anti-immigration rhetoric of UKIP

It is not a good thing when a party like UKIP does well in any election. Their narrow nationalism makes any self-respecting liberal wince. The only thing we were saying about the UKIP candidate was that she lived in Surrey. We need to do better than that and effectively challenge the rubbish they come out with. Too many voters told me widely inaccurate stuff about how 40 million Romanians and Bulgarians were going to come here and get houses. 40 million? Really?  That's more than the entire population of both countries put together. We need to arm ourselves with some facts and engage in this debate. I was very happy with the policy we had at the last general election, to give people who had been here for a long time a path to citizenship and I wouldn't want to see us change it. Even Nick Clegg saying on the radio the other week that we need to look at whether the rules on housing allocation were fair made me slightly uncomfortable. What we need is more affordable housing, not to put people against each other. Nobody else is going to put the liberal case for us. We have to do this effectively and never pander to the sort of rhetoric we hear from UKIP and, regrettably and increasingly, our coalition partners and the official opposition.

The same goes for issues relating to the EU, as well.

Just for a little, while, though, let's allow ourselves the luxury of a well deserved celebration. Federal Conference a week from today is going to be fun.

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