I imagine that by this point you’ll all have seen the score-lines; here are some reflections on what they mean, as the dust settles from a hard-fought 2016 election campaign with some mixed (though broadly positive) outcomes for the Lib Dems.
Firstly, Wales. There can be no question that this was a bruising result for us, but we need to do more with bruising results than feel bruised about them. Our constituency-level results weren’t horrendous, but weren’t good enough, and our list results were weak.
What can we tell from this? Firstly, that we’re more reliant on personalities than we’d like to be and possibly more reliant than is healthy. Kirsty’s result in Brecon was good, but we have to accept that it was Kirsty’s result more than it was Liberalism’s result – something the list vote showed very clearly. As a party fighting back from a low ebb we shouldn’t be afraid to profit from having brilliant candidates, of course, but in the long term we need to start thinking about how we persuade people of our ideas and values as well as just our candidates.
Scotland painted a nicer version of a similar picture to Wales. We held steady, and we got some wonderful constituency results with Alex Cole-Hamilton and Willie Rennie managing to claw back ground from the SNP. The list results, though, and some of our other constituency results across northern Scotland and the Borders, are cause for concern. We are at risk of much of highland Scotland becoming a two-way battle between a unionist Tory party and a nationalist SNP; this is a spectre that we badly need to exorcise. With Scottish Labour weak and the SNP continually choosing to govern heavily to the centre-right, we have good opportunities for principled opposition to their failures on education and their over-centralisation; we must be sure to take them in the years ahead.
Finally, England. Here we have good cause for feeling like things are on the way up, and some real successes. We were never going to get huge breakthroughs a year after 2015 in a set of largely Labour-facing council elections, and earlier in the night it looked like we might even take losses. We pulled through admirably though, and got some great results. These were both in some Labour areas and, much more so, against the Tories in southern England, with our brilliant success in Watford being the crown jewel of this year’s victories. These are our first net council seat gains since 2008; there’s still a long way to go to reverse the electoral bloodbaths of the coalition years, but going from regularly seeing losses in the hundreds to a modest stack of gains is definitely a solid start in our rebuilding.
We need to take careful note of where we did and didn’t advance though – we didn’t advance everywhere, with a few bruising results in Birmingham and Cambridge for example, both of which saw some truly great council veterans unseated. With a few exceptions, we struggled to make headway in urban areas, London being the largest example but also Bristol and Birmingham, with our biggest wins coming in the suburbs or the few more rural districts of the night. This is to be expected when facing off against a Tory Westminster government, and indicates that nationally our focus next year (when far more rural Tory-facing seats are up for grabs) should be to work out how we can effectively pick off softer Conservative targets.
What might that mean in practice? I think we need to think outside the box as policymakers and campaigners and be prepared to experiment and innovate. The centrality of community politics to Tim Farron’s worldview will stand us in good stead for local politics, but those instincts need more policy groundwork to let us explain to people what Liberal community politics means in the 21st century. At conferences, we need to focus harder on community not just being a buzzword or a method but also the root of some real policy work.
We also need to think about how to create a wider Lib Dem movement in the years ahead; the bread-and-butter of door knocking near elections is after all only the last leg of a journey, and we badly need to build our activist base in many areas. Bringing people round to our ideas is something that can and should happen all year round; experimenting more with public meetings, street stalls, social media advertising and other “depth” engagement methods when not directly campaigning for elections may pay dividends in some areas, especially building campaigning forces in areas where we are currently fragile.
Of course, as of right now we need to put those things to one side; nothing at all that we have done in these elections comes ahead of the importance of winning the EU referendum, and it is vital now that there are no distractions and nothing held back in diverting all our resources – every boot on the ground, every post online, every campaigner and every campaign organiser – towards that aim. The polls are too close for comfort, and there are few times in each generation when a vote as pivotal as this comes up. The next month or so will shape our country and our politics in ways that are hard to predict; as a party and a liberal movement, we will need to think on our feet to keep rebuilding as we head on beyond the Referendum towards 2017.