There are powerful lessons in the Lib Dems’ decimation in London which the Labour Party would do well to remember.
There are powerful lessons for Labour in the Lib Dems’ decimation in London
Two weeks ago, a few days after my 24th Birthday, I was elected as a Labour councillor for Wembley Central in the London Borough of Brent. To say that Labour’s victory in this, London’s truest rainbow borough, was emphatic would be a gross understatement. It marked a profound endorsement of Labour values and a total rejection of the Lib Dems, perhaps for a generation.
Labour now has 56 of the borough’s 63 councillors, the Tories six and the Lib Dems just one. More significant than Labour’s increased size in the council, however, was the Lib Dems’ utter capitulation; their group was reduced to a solitary, hitherto unelected councillor, down from a previous bloc of 17.
The icing on the cake was that the Tory group on the council has subsequently split in two due to ‘local difficulties.’ Perhaps only in Hammersmith or Islington was Labour’s victory more telling.
While the basic stats are compelling, with this pattern of Labour domination repeated across London, far more interesting in my view are the reasons why the Lib Dems’ ground strategy totally failed in Brent, and for much the same reasons, all over London. For there are two powerful lessons in the Lib Dems’ decimation in London which the Labour Party would do well to remember outside of the South East.
I grew up the city of Bath, where the Lib Dems have been dug in ever since Chris Patten was unceremoniously dumped by a previously staunchly Tory electorate. You could not find two more different places in England than Brent and Bath. Yet in both places, the Lib Dems use and have always used the same clever, deft tactics to brilliant effect. Except that in Brent those tactics no longer seem brilliant, while in Bath the litmus test will come for Don Foster MP in a year’s time.
Put simply, the Lib Dem approach is twofold: 1) relentless, negative propaganda focused on local controversies, shoved through letterboxes from noon until night and 2) local candidates who are very active on the ground and, in many cases, are genuinely conscientious when it comes to casework. In Brent in 2014, these two key tenets in the first place stopped working, and in the second place, ceased to be reality.
In Brent, the Lib Dems focused almost exclusively on parking charges and library closures. Yet they neither offered a genuine alternative programme, nor did they acknowledge that any cuts made by Brent Council were imposed when the Lib Dems themselves approved them in Whitehall (something of a Catch-22 for the coalition’s second party).
Secondly, there was sense that this time the Brent Lib Dem candidates simply didn’t have the stomach for the fight. They were inactive, negative and vacuous. Brent Labour responded brilliantly and fought the campaign based on a positive, innovative agenda, whilst at the same time putting up a wonderfully diverse group of candidates who simply outworked the other parties.
When the Lib Dems were a protest party and scrabbling around in perennial opposition, holding administrations to account and focusing on negative attacks was understandable. And it worked in many cases.
Yet the Lib Dems in Brent simply failed to adjust their tactics for this coalition era. They were almost ashamed to admit that their leader was the deputy prime minister of a government which has embarked on a mission to systematically dismantle the welfare state which leftists worked so tirelessly to build.
I do not expect that the Lib Dems will adjust their approach in time for 2015. We should not forget that the Eastleigh by-election showed the Lib Dems are not yet a spent force. Yet results like Labour’s in Brent show that the Lib Dems really are there for the taking. A positive, energetic, unapologetically left-wing agenda really will be listened to.
The gates to Lib Dem constituencies across the country really are now open – the Labour Party must now charge straight through them.
Samuel Stopp is a Labour councillor for Brent’s Wembley Central WardLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.