Richmond shows progressive alliances do work
By Chris Bowers in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by Rutland and South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats
Buried amid the dramatic and highly welcome headline of the Liberal Democrat landslide on Richmond-upon-Thames Council was a rather overlooked factor that, when progressive alliances are done properly and sensitively, they can work and be a great asset to the party.
In 2014 the Conservatives won thirty-nine of Richmond's fifty-four councillors. This time we won thirty-nine but, while we picked up the other fifteen councillors four years ago, this time the Tories only got eleven, with the other four going to the Greens. And those four Greens are in part a Liberal Democrat success.
Richmond is made up of eighteen three-member wards. In twelve of them, the Liberal Democrats fielded three candidates and the Greens none, but in the six where the Greens put up a solitary candidate, we only put up two. This was in part a thank you for the Greens standing aside in both the Richmond Park by-election of December 2016, and in both Richmond Park and Twickenham constituencies in the 2017 general election, decisions that meant we won two of those three polls. But it was also an exercise in overt cooperation between two political parties.
It could have gone badly wrong. Our decision not to stand a third candidate in six wards could have cost us six councillors, or even twelve if a Conservative had won the third seats because Liberal Democrat voters weren't willing to vote Green. That's why the campaign was so important it wasn't just about making our presence and values felt, but about letting people know that they had three votes, and we were encouraging them to use their third for the Greens.
This was therefore more than just a tacit pact in which the two parties operated very independently but didn't stand a full slate of candidates - this was genuine cooperation. There was joint literature (alongside single-party literature), a cooperative canvassing script in which Liberal Democrat canvassers asked receptive residents to use their third vote for the Green candidate, and joint campaigning sessions involving people of both parties wearing each other's rosettes and stickers pointing out that voters might want to support inter-party cooperation even if their hearts weren't beating to a Liberal Democrat or Green pulse. Canvassers were genuinely campaigning for two parties, a novelty in British politics.
The results make interesting and optimistic reading. The Greens had hoped to get one councillor elected: Andrée Frieze, their parliamentary candidate who stood aside to give Sarah Olney a clear run in the Richmond Park by-election. But she was one of four Greens elected. All four finished third in their wards behind two Lib Dems, which suggests there were a few Lib Dem voters who didnt want to use their third cross for the Green. But they were outweighed by the many who were happy to buy into the Green deal (as it became known in canvass groups). And with Richmond's Greens putting all their campaigning efforts into two wards, they now have two councillors who were elected pretty much entirely off the back of Liberal Democrat efforts.
As such, it would be easy to say the Greens got the better deal, but we got something massive too: Vince! The whole raison d'être of the deal was conceived in 2016 and 2017 so Green votes didn't scupper Liberal Democrat chances in two winnable parliamentary seats. The Greens stood aside, but they wanted something in return - now they clearly have it, and so do we in the form of our party leader and major asset back in Parliament.
It won't be possible to replicate the Richmond model everywhere. But in places like Richmond, where there are a number of two- and three-member wards, and where both Liberal Democrats and Greens are strong, failure to cooperate is likely to let the Tories through.
We must also be clear that it wasn't the Green deal that won the party Richmond council. That was an astonishing achievement that would have happened even without cooperation with the Greens, and it's reassuring that both parties are edging towards not having a coalition, with the Liberal Democrats governing alone, albeit in constructive dialogue with the Greens. But given how long and slow the road back from our pre-2015 position is proving to be, first-past-the-post means we must use opportunities to work with like-minded parties. And Richmond has shown that they can bear fruit.
* Chris Bowers was a two-term councillor on Lewes District Council and a co-editor of "The Alternative" which explored the idea of a progressive alliance.