In the London Borough of Sutton we are in an unusual position. The Council is the longest continually-held Lib Dem authority in the country, first taken in 1986. They won by marbling themselves throughout the borough, joining residents associations and other community groups, delivering leaflets that were not overtly party political and being seen as working hard for their neighbours rather than for a party. Any attack on them was portrayed as being personal. They still have the ability to wring their hands whilst sitting on them. However, after twenty two years of running the council and eleven of having both local MPs, they have become the establishment without realising the fact. The initial goodwill which swept them to victory has faded away as they remain reliant on past achievements. In Sutton, people know what they are getting when they vote Lib Dem and they want change. Here are a few tips that have helped us become an effective force for that change in Sutton:-
1. Work hard
Obvious really but there is no silver bullet. We reduced Group meetings to the bare minimum, instead using the time to deliver 1000 extra newsletters every Monday. This may be relevant to a topical issue or helping in a marginal ward.
2. Give the media what they want
Local journalists are hard pushed and under-paid. Write the complete story for them so that it can be easily inserted into a free slot. Speak to the senior reporters and the editor regularly, at least once or twice a week. You do not always need to be the centre of the story. A comment alongside an article is often sufficient. The letters pages are crucial.
3. Pick your fights
You do not need to oppose for opposition’s sake. Many Lib Dem Councils in the South are not that far removed from Conservative ones, so the two groups may agree on a high percentage of issues. By picking your fights carefully, your opposition when it comes will be listened to more closely and respected. Vary your approach to cut through the white noise of debate.
In the same way that the Liberal Democrats innovated in a low-tech way with their regular Focus newsletters and bar charts, you can look to steal a march on engaging a whole new generation of voters by using new media and video, starting non-political community campaigns and so appearing to residents that you are coming with fresh ideas as to how to help improve your area. I scrapped my advice surgery where I had sat in a room each month for two years and received two visitors. Now, I pick a few roads in my ward, send out 200 letters to those households asking them to put up a poster if they want to see me on the following Saturday morning. I get far more enquiries, many of which are just gripes. It keeps me informed and 200 people know that I have been around.
5. Work Harder
Back to where we started. Winning a battle in the council chamber is a sideshow. The biggest contingent of witnesses to this event are other councillors and I should hope that they have already decided how they will vote. Instead of grandstanding use the time to gather information and get out in front of the people who matter.