The One Lesson the party has forgotten from Chesham and Amersham | Chris Annous
By Chris Annous
Following on from the party's sensational election of Sarah Green in the Chesham & Amersham by-election there has been a lot of debate about the lessons that can be learned from this victory.
Lessons about what worked in the campaign, about how fragile the Conservatives' popularity really is and how this fits into the wider realignment of British politics have all been acknowledged and hotly debated.
Indeed, the surprising retention of Batley & Spen by Labour has only served to intensify these debates.
But as someone who knocked on hundreds of doors in Chesham & Amersham, I think our party has completely missed another key lesson from these by-elections:
Actively engaging with ethnic minority communities must be an essential part of a successful British political party in the 21st Century, not a token luxury.
Now, anyone who follows politics will have seen how much importance was placed on engaging British Muslims in Batley by George Galloway and Kim Leadbetter in Labour's victory. That seemed to be the only story the media was interested in covering.
But equally, if you look beyond the media's characterisation of Chesham & Amersham you will realise that similar lessons can be learned from here too.
Whilst Chesham & Amersham is indeed part of leafy remania/the Commuter Belt/the Blue Wall - whatever you want to call it, such a simplistic characterisation of the seat misses out on the diversity of its constituents. It really isn't all leafly mansions.
ONS Census data shows that around 15% of Chesham's population is of Asian heritage, and a day spent door knocking there quickly reveals that there is a significant South Asian Community in Chesham with a mosque and many inter-generational families from diverse backgrounds living there.
Myself and my fellow LDCRE Executive Members who joined the campaign trail, identified early on that any victorious Liberal Democrat campaign would have to successfully include these communities in our activity. So we set out about doing just this, working with the local party and campaign staff to make sure our campaign was inclusive of ALL of Chesham's residents, not just those who fit the traditional demographics of Lib Dem voters!
Our Executive Members helped support and attend a visit from Sarah, local councillor Parveiz Aslam and Ed Davey to Chesham Mosque, to speak to the community at Friday Prayers. We also held an LDCRE Action Day where joined by London Assembly Member Hina Bokhari, we recruited a diverse campaign team, who were passionate about the issues of equality and human rights that are often of greater concern to ethnic minority voters and had experience of canvassing ethnic minority voters and those with English as a 2nd language, and campaigned in Chesham's most diverse areas.
Now I know many Liberal Democrat campaigners, including some very senior ones I know well and respect, will be thinking: "That's all very nice and well a good thing to do, but it isn't going to win us an election, let's focus our scarce resources on the leaflets and hyper-refined Mini-Van lists that will win the seat for us."
But, how wrong this attitude proved to be. We knocked on hundreds of doors in these areas during our action day, encountering many and many voters who hadn't yet engaged with the campaign's literature but told us they were appreciative of Sarah's visit Mosque but wanted to know about her position on issues that particularly, and crucially not exclusively, mattered to them, asking us questions about the party's position on Palestine as well as fixing potholes. On that day we helped secure the votes of many residents' who don't normally consider supporting the Liberal Democrats as they are unaware of our party's values, but after campaigners who understood their lived experiences and how this influences their politics had spoken to them were passionately excited to back Sarah.
Indeed, when I returned to Chesham to knock-up voters on polling day, I was delighted that two of my lists took me to roads that had been covered at the heart of our action day.
Where only a week and half earlier I had first encountered a warm but unfamiliar response to our party on the doorstep, on polling day I enjoyed possibly the two best canvassing lists I have ever encountered. Whole roads of homes, now covered in stakeboards, were on my list and 95% of the residents of the households, which were often intergenerational and so including up to 8 voters, were actively excited to be voting for Sarah and the Liberal Democrats, informing me they had texted all of their friends and family members to do the same.
So as we look back on the Chesham and Amersham Campaign, I hope that our party and the senior campaigners that run it behind the scenes, who often display an attitude that whilst diversity and inclusion is morally important and something they support, it doesn't contribute to the core purpose of the party, namely winning elections, and so can't be a priority for resources or our strategies, learn two lessons.
First: Running diverse and inclusive campaigns can't be treated as a luxury that we do if we have enough resources and once we have finished the "proper" activities that help our party win, but rather it helps us win. The Thornhill Report identified this key lesson but unfortunately, we are yet to see it be implemented.
Second: Running diverse and inclusive campaigns matters everywhere, not just in your Brents, your Lambeths and your Southwarks where are a majority of residents are ethnic minority, but also in your Cheadles, your Wimbledons and of course, your Chesham & Amershams where a small, but significant, proportion of residents are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Chris Annous is the LDCRE's Communications Officer. He has previously been the party's London Assembly Candidate in Greenwich and Lewisham, the Young Liberals BAME Officer and a staff member on the London Liberal Democrats 2021 Mayoral & Assembly Campaigns.
If you would like advice on how to run diverse and inclusive campaigns with your local party then please email firstname.lastname@example.org