Liberal Democrat General Election Review: What Does This Mean For Smaller Local Parties?


On 15th May 2020, Dorothy Thornhill’s report into the Liberal Democrats’ national campaign was published. The 61 page document outlines failings across the party in messaging, targeting and overall decision making. If you haven’t already read it and want a shorter read, I’d recommend Peter Walker’s article in The Guardian.

The review details how a gap between national data modelling and targeting, and the local parties serving those seats resulted in areas with little infrastructure suddenly being informed that they were a serious target. The problem was two-fold. National modelling was very optimistic of the chance for Brexit Party candidates to squeeze the Conservative vote share and was not reassessed after the Brexit Party decided to stand down their candidates in favour of Conservative incumbents. In addition, the report states that some local parties only discovered they were a target when they received boxes of election materials. Campaign teams in this position were fatally unequipped with the skills needed to win a parliamentary seat.

So, going forward, what do local parties and branches need to do to prepare for an electoral miracle? Is it worth preparing for such an eventuality?

Indeed it is.

Tim Farron’s call as leader was for local activists to “pick a ward and win it”; a piece of electoral wisdom many still see as the core strategy for the Liberal Democrats. The set of skills needed to win a seat on a local or parish council is actually similar to the strategy that should be at the heart of campaigning in a general election. Making sure that campaign teams have these skills is possibly one of the most important things that local parties and regions can do right now.

Perform a skills audit. Talk to your existing group of activists about what they can do for the campaign. Maybe they have professional experience in writing or design and can help with leaflets? Sometimes members don’t offer up their skills because they don’t realise their local party is looking for it. It is so easy for a campaign manager to see a helping hand offered and to fill it with Focus leaflets.

Campaign teams can use this information to see where knowledge gaps are and find training opportunities. This is something we need to work on as a party, which Baroness Thornhill and her team recognised. It also reminded us that many of the usual training opportunities are held at residential events such as federal conference, or ALDC’s Kickstart, which are inaccessible to many. By organising more accessible training, as a party we’ll have a more diverse range of activists which will not only enrich our collective knowledge and experience, but will help us move towards a party that looks more like the communities we seek to represent.

Making sure that even our smallest campaign teams have the skills to lead a strong and coherent campaign, even if they’re only working in one polling district, enables campaigns to grow and scale up operations as more activists join. Using the party’s core set of tools such as Connect, Minivan and PagePlus (or Affinity if you’re really up to date) means the infrastructure built will grow with the team. It’s also really handy that we’re all on the same page for when activists travel to help in seats across the country.

So, while we all await a time when canvassing and leafleting is safe, pick up the phone. Call your team and find out what skills your activists are missing. It’s time to arm the troops.

Rebecca Procter is Chair of Nottingham Liberal Democrats and served as an election agent in the 2019 local elections. She studies Computer Security at Nottingham Trent University.