TO Hamilton House in King’s Cross last night, for a health check on the Liberal Democrats as the party gathered in the basement for a mini-conference ahead of the London elections. One day soon we will have to do a ‘where are they now’ feature on their members who stormed the Camden Council barricades in 2006 when they became the Town Hall’s largest party.
Camden’s eco-champion Alexis Rowell, we know, is a Green Party campaigner now, former education chief John Bryant is the chairman of the Lib Dems in Harrow, while Matt Sanders is a civil servant in New Zealand, facing up to no longer being a special adviser to an actual, real life deputy prime minister by jetting off to the other side of the world. But when the ten year anniversary of their Camden triumph clocks over in May, we’ll send out a search party to make sure Libby Campbell, David Abrahams, Ben Rawlings, Ralph Scott and so on safely get their reunion invites too.
That said, while some have flown the Camden nest a decade on, there is a core that, despite one election calamity after another, remains undeterred, bravely/loyally/foolishly it’s hard to know which label is correct. Here, clapping Tim Farron, you could find old council inmates Janet Grauberg, Gilian Risso-Gill, Nancy Jirira, Bryant himself and former council leader Keith Moffitt. Jill Fraser, the organiser of the conference no less, shows no sign of raising a white chip shop apron and Flick Rea, the one who always proved resistant to Labour’s comeback in Camden and sits as the party’s sole councillor, joined her at the back of the room rattling cream cracker tins for campaign donations.
While Farron was there to gee up the troops working on Caroline Pidgeon’s impossible dream at May’s mayoral elections, he also laid out his wider strategy for a return to relevance, offering a blueprint of ‘community politics’.
Basically, he told them to go back to the basics which once helped form a yellow band of power across north London: taking Islington, a power-share in Camden and parliamentary seats in Brent and Haringey.
It’s back to the leaflets. It’s back to the neighbourhood politics, or pothole politics as they were sometimes known. He said it wasn’t just about making sure you get people’s streets clear of dog mess, but a hyperlocal street fight seemed to be the prescription. The Lib Dems won in Camden ten years ago because left-leaning voters were angry with New Labour’s market approach to public services and, of course, the Iraq War, but for their own part they expertly played the role of the agony aunt listeners who’d tackle neigbourhood irritations, who’d get the fly-tip at the end of the road cleared while rivals posed as national commentators loftily chewing global issues.
Farron seemed to be saying it was time to get back to those simple building blocks.
“Our return, our comeback has got to be founded in the principles of community politics,” he declared. “There are some people who think that means dog muck on pavements – sometimes it does – but the idea that somehow the alternative to community politics is glamorous and community politics is not glamorous is utter baloney.”
He didn’t quite say which part of community politics he thought was glamorous but Farron went on to say that members had to win “on the ground”, and “do all the things we put on the leaflets: keep in touch, gets things done, make a difference all year round – that’s what we should be doing. That’s how we will fight our way back.” That familiar refrain that council leaders had as much or more power than some MPs popped up too, a cute way of recognising that the party’s post-coalition parliamentary wreckage would only be fixed once Lib Dems were making gains in local elections again.
It all meant, and here is the danger with the neighbourhood focus, is that we didn’t really get to hear fom Farron about his own policy ideas. Instead, he told us what he didn’t like, devoting his slot to a roast of George Osborne for the budget controversy sparked by Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation and then, still talking about others rather himself, he switched his fire to Labour.
“Following the IDS revelations, there was a massive open goal. The Labour Party chose to graze the outside of the corner flag,” he said, charting on the room’s laugh-o-meter with this one. “I’m angry with the Labour Party. I’m really angry with the Labour Party, and not because they are now run by the kind of people who used to try and sell me strange and tedious newspapers outside meetings. That is their funeral, that’s for them to worry about. I’m angry with the Labour Party is that all of this is happening on their watch. It’s not certain there is every chance that Cameron and Osborne will get away with this dreadful stuff of the last few days. It was hubris which led Osborne to do what he has done to disabled people, to impose these totally unnecessary cuts on this country.”
He added: “It’s born out of invulnerability, caused by the fact that the Labour Party is, without doubt, the most useless, ineffective opposition in the history of British politics. The conclusion you can draw from that is you’ve got 20 years of the Tories in that case. I’ll tell you why, don’t assume that Labour’s failure to be an effective opposition is because they’re incompetent. They are not incompetent, they’re just playing a different game. Think about it: if you’ve spent, effectively, 116 years trying to take over the Labour Party, if when you’ve finally achieved that goal of taking over the Labour Party, frankly you’re not that fussed if it takes a generation to get into Number 10; your job is to secure the Labour Party for your movement, for your brand of socialism and who cares what happens elsewhere.”
Obviously, it’s the kind of sentiment which plays to disconsolate Labour supporters who remain cross that first Ed Miliband the leadership of their party and then even more so that Corbyn followed him, seeding the idea that rather than changing their current party from within they should switch to a new one. We’ll see more of that, no doubt, but the risk with this tactic in areas like Camden and other parts of north London is that Corbyn may not be as unpopular with their target electorate as he suggests. The Labour leader, for example, certainly isn’t universally laughed out if town by some of the younger Lib Dem voters, some of whom seem happy to shelve the old orange book to help find greater unity across political allegiances in the response to the Conservatives in government.