In 2021 we achieved something we’ve not achieved since 1993: winning two Parliamentary by-elections in the same year off the Conservatives. We start this new year with a larger Parliamentary Party than any of us would have dared dream of a year ago. (A winning run that has continued with the first council by-election of this year too - congratulations to now councillor Andrew Dunkin who won a seat from Labour from third place.)
The question now is how do we build on that success in 2022, and how do we make the most of our limited resources? Here’s the plan.
Winning over those with liberal values
We showed in both Chesham & Amersham and in North Shropshire how to appeal to many Conservatives. People with (some) liberal values, who often voted Remain, but who backed Boris Johnson in 2019. They're now willing to listen to us, even to vote for us - as long as we listen in turn to what they say is most important to them. That's why our campaigns in both those by-elections didn't start with us lecturing them. They started with us listening to them, finding the common ground between their concerns and our values.
Tactical voting was important in both contests. We should be grateful for the cooler heads in other parties who saw this too.
But winning over a soft Conservative counts double - one on our total plus one off the Tory total. A tactical vote only counts once - one on our total but nothing off the Tory total.
We need to do both to win (and of course substitute in our main rival in places where it isn't the Conservatives we're up against).
Securing electoral reform
Get this right and we can be a big part of the story of removing the Conservatives from power. Get this right and we can be a big part of forcing a hung Parliament. Get this right and we can use that power finally to secure electoral reform for Westminster.
That is why the Conservative-Lib Dem battleground of the Blue Wall is so important. It's the way to change all our politics.
But, the majority of our members, our elected representatives and our votes are from outside the Blue Wall. So we must get the balance right but I hope you can see why there is so much focus on the Blue Wall.
For Labour facing areas, having voters hear us talk about the part the party can play in removing the Conservatives from power will also be helpful mood music. Background noise that will make it easier for our local messages about Labour’s failure in so many town halls to work.
Refining our message
To succeed, we must continue to refine our political messages. We need to give people a clear sense of the difference that the Liberal Democrats make.
We’ve got an extensive set of market research underway and now have regular feedback sessions with our most active canvassers. That way we can make sure our decision are rooted in what voters are telling us - an important lesson from what went wrong in 2019.
In his autumn federal conference speech, Ed started setting out this messaging, with the idea of a fair deal for everyone at the heart of it. That desire to give everyone a fair deal, enabling them to lead their lives as they wish, is what makes us distinctive as liberals.
Improving our campaign support
We saw in both Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire how important our local organisation is. Without the May election results we had in both seats, we wouldn’t have had the by-election successes we did.
We’re starting to see the benefits of our big investment in our networks of field campaign staff. It’s been tough to prioritise this area of expenditure, but both results show the benefits of those difficult decisions.
We also need to continue to modernise our campaigning. So the Campaign Innovation Fund is back for 2022 to fund more experiments, helping us learn what works. We’re also bringing key data work back in-house so we can improve the data available to campaigners on the front line. We’ll be making major changes to our web presence during the year and improving many of our other tools.
Getting our organisation right
As the Thornhill Review - our 2019 post-mortem - found, the way we run ourselves as a party caused us severe problems. We’ve been working through a program of fixes, and are now looking at how to improve the role of the Federal Board.
Of the Board it said, “There is no clear ‘leadership team’ where the three pillars of the party – political, operational, federal – can make cohesive decisions, simply, quickly, and effectively. The Federal Board – 40+ members – is not, cannot, and should not be that team.”
So we’re now focusing on that question of the Board’s size. Is a body of 41 the size we need to drive things at the heart of the party? After a series of consultations, reform options will be going to the Spring conference for members to decide on.
Both volunteers and staff will be working flat out in the run-up to the next general election. They will rightly expect the party to have put its own house in order and to have learnt the lessons from 2019.
If we don’t finish implementing the Thornhill Review, we will be letting them down.
An important related matter is our candidate approval, selection and support processes. It's important that all our candidates share the party's values. As liberals we cherish the value of differences of view over policies, but our shared values must be fundamental.
Our elections committee (FCEC) recently decided to commission a review of how our candidate process is working after the first wave of selections in this Parliament and make any necessary recommendations for changes.
Given the issues raised by some recent selections, I am writing to the review asking them to look at three particular issues related to them:
- How our pre-shortlisting due diligence processes are working at identifying possible areas of concern about candidates;
- How our shortlisting processes are making use of such information; and
- Where there are concerns but also a good explanation (e.g. someone has genuinely changed their views over a decade and there is evidence to demonstrate that), how we communicate such explanations to members, such as when members from other local parties hear of a selection result.
I will use future reports like this one to provide updates on the review’s progress.
We will also in 2022 be giving a renewed focus to membership. We must make it easier for people to get involved in the party, provide more training and events, and improve the diversity of our activist base.
I’m looking forward to working with our new Vice President responsible for working with ethnic minority communities to ensure we continue to get better at diversity and inclusion across the whole party. (The result will be published once an appeal has been heard.)
Without our members and other helpers, there would be no party. Our membership and its grassroots work has always been our greatest strength.
So to end, thank you - for your support for the party, for all you’ve done and - I hope - for the help to come in 2022.
It is always risky predicting what a year of politics will bring. We do know that the May elections will bring an important opportunity for us to expand our local government base, bringing the benefits of our policies to many more people. Events like the World Cup will once again highlight issues of human rights, racism and the need for our society to continue to change. The Assembly elections in Northern Ireland will be both a great opportunity for our sister party, Alliance, and also remind people across the whole UK of the problems that Brexit is causing.
Whatever the uncertainties of what is to come, with your help we can make sure we continue our recovery so that the Conservatives are voted out of office and we finally secure electoral reform for Westminster.
Feedback on these or any other matters is very welcome. Please do get in touch on [email protected].