London Liberal Democrats hold their conference today. People have been sending me the agenda and various promotional materials. (Whatever it says, I am not a speaker, by the way).
The e-mails say that one of the conference themes is our preparations for the European elections. Another theme should be the London Liberal Democrat story and how the party plans to do better in elections for the London Assembly. This is especially relevant given that it is elected using AMS, a proportional voting system. People can use their party list vote to elect more Lib Dems to the London Assembly. That applies regardless of whom they want to be London mayor.
But our campaign in May didn’t tell our supporters – or other sympathetic voters – how they could elect more Lib Dems. Nor was there a clear Lib Dem “narrative”. In marketing terms, the party’s simply didn’t tell voters what they could “receive”, in terms of policies started or stopped, in return for “buying” our “product”.
Sure enough, voters didn’t buy. Our total share of the vote dropped by nearly seven points, to 11 per cent. As a result, the Lib Dems went from five assembly members down to three. And yet constituency candidates achieved an average of 14 per cent, with none being elected.
Looking forward, I think it all boils down to a simple question: what would the party prefer people to believe they are “buying” when they vote Liberal Democrat for the London Assembly. More precisely, as I have argued many times, does the party know what people expect to receive in return for voting Lib Dem?
As I have also argued many times, the answer is highly unlikely to be a long list of policies. The “brand” may amount to a promise of greater accountability or probity. More likely, it will be associated with delivering more action – making it happen - in one or two particular areas, such as the environment (water quality) or, perhaps, a more coherent approach to transport policy. Caroline Pidgeon AM started to hint at this sort of approach in her recent Liberal Democrat News article. But the story needs to be developed and followed through, in our London policy, marketing and campaigning. I understand that some new policy work is underway, which is welcome. But let’s be clear: building a Lib Dem brand in London – and not trying to promote a candidate for mayor by running an essentially negative campaign – should be the party’s priority next time round.
That doesn’t mean neglecting the 2012 mayoral election. Far from it. The Lib Dems need someone to embody the story, to make it “real” for voters. The obvious person is the party’s candidate for mayor. S/he may not expect to be elected but I have always thought that the candidate for mayor should head up the party’s list of assembly candidates.
Other parties can make it happen. The London Greens at least held their own in May, in a difficult political climate. And look at how New Zealand’s minor parties invite voters to use their party vote to give them, and not others, greater influence. ACT and the Greens made a form of AMS work for them, at last weekend’s general election.
So why can’t Liberal Democrats in London make it work for us?