Friday, 30 May 2014

Taxi for the Lib Dem! Why the Lib Dems lost in Camden

The demise of the Camden Lib Dems at the 2014 Camden poll seemed to catch their councillors and activists by surprise, but their thumping was long-expected.

Lib Dems decimated in Camden
The editorial in the New Journal captures at lot of their misfortune, but here's my take:

1.  Believing their own hype.  The political culture of the Liberal Democrats is based around the creation of local 'super-heros' who will fix your potholes or gesture out late rubbish collections with pointy fingers, and promoting this impression in their Focus leaflets.  All good work for those  Most councillors from other parties find the suggestion that Lib Dems work harder on casework or are 'more connected' locally very patronising and wrong - and is not something ever shown objectively in casework figures.  If there was a difference then there would be a substantial personal vote at election times - yet sampling the ballots and the results themselves show that this didn't materialise when it mattered.  That didn't stop the Camden Lib Dems believing their own hype and self-promoted local celebrity rather than thinking more profoundly about their local offer and message. After hubris comes nemesis (a.k.a. pride comes before a fall) as they say in Greek tragedies. 

2.  They talked to the same people maybe a bit too much.  Labour mounted a massive operation for months on the doorstep - at time speaking to over 3000 a month. This is vital in Camden where there is so much churn that you don't just get your views from the same people on the same community groups, important as they are.  The Lib Dems even struggled to find enough candidates to stand, even roping in partners of sitting councillors to make up numbers.  Their party was hollow.

3.  Nothing to say on the 'big issue' - housing.  Affordable housing and cheaper rents are the top concern of Camden residents.  Neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Conservatives had any real policies on the housing crisis and by lacking them appeared sectional and out-of-touch to everyday concerns.  Labour pledged to build 6000 homes, take action on private landlords and empty homes.  What we said locally was backed up by Ed Miliband, while the Lib Dem leadership seemed to have given up on London from the beginning of the campaign.  (As an aside, the Conservatives failed to make inroads - and Labour made real gains in Tory targets Fortune Green Belsize, Swiss Cottage and even Hampstead Town - because they also lacked policy spectrum on housing beyond traditional channels such as repairs and leaseholder charging).   

4.  Nick Clegg alienated progressives - but it wasn't just him.  Contrary to the public 'Clegg Out' calls by local Lib Dems following last week's defeat, Nick Clegg unpopularity goes beyond his own person - although he is of course symbolic.  Blair is right in his analysis but I'd go further: the Lib Dems essentially fought the 2010 election from the left of Labour - specifically and deliberately doing this in a number of areas, including North London.  But people aren't just angry at the Lib Dems because of their deal with the Conservatives, nor their welshing on policies like tuition fees.  There's also a general sense that the Lib Dems in power have made a series of catastrophic decisions which has set back the progressive cause a generation.  Their amateur-night handling of the PR referendum and Lords Reform blew once in quarter-century opportunities to change the nature of British politics - in both instances it was apparent that they had been comprehensively played by the Conservatives.  The trust issue with the electorate isn't just linked to Clegg but Laws, Cable, Alexander in fact anyone who could credibly be leader.  Dissatisfaction with compromises played a part, for sure, but there was also the question of competence... and that's a real killer.

5.  A bit too much Labour-hatred.  The success of the Lib Dems in North London over the last decade was partly a result of their progressive appeal, yet their very political language in 2014 was a turn-off to the very voters they attracted before. In the Kilburn Times, for example, they pledged to 'topple' Labour, implying they were up for a new Coalition with the Conservatives. This is not where people were at, and in doing so (via leaflets as well) they gave clear signals to the electorate that a vote for the Lib Dems was a vote for the Coalition in Westminster.  As the CNJ argues: maybe a bit more distance and independence would have been wise.    


6.  North-west frontier tactic didn't work.  Trying to create an artificial divide between people living in the three wards in the north west of Camden (erroneously dubbed the 'north west frontier') and the rest, was rejected by the NW6 electorate.  Claiming that the area was neglected by street cleaning services couldn't be stood up by the facts and the charge that all services were being relocated to King's Cross also didn't hold any water. Camdeners voted for parties with Camden-wide policies.   

7.  The writing was on the wall in 2012.  The London Assembly list results in Camden in the 2012 Mayoral elections placed the Lib Dems in 4th place to the Greens
. The warning signs were there to see but rarely picked up in the national or local press - and certainly not by the Lib Dems themselves.  

That's quite a lot to fix there...

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