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Chair's Report for 2017

November 19, 2017 10:39 PM
By Martyn Pennington

Martyn Pennington 2017As in 2016, this year turned out very differently from what we expected a year ago.

In April, just as we were preparing our last push in the KCC elections, a real snap General Election meant we had to go the extra mile and carry on campaigning until June 8th. After the shattering results of the 2015 General Election, followed by the massive disappointment of the EU referendum in 2016, we hoped for better - hopes that a large proportion of the 48% 'remain' voters, and a significant number of Labour voters unable to agree with Jeremy Corbyn's leadership style and policies, would support us, gave us a reasonable base for optimism. The outcome could have been worse but could have been so much better.

We lost our party leader following the election and hope that a new team and a renewed profile at national level can boost our chances.

At the local level we also continued to face disappointment in terms of results, however we are making progress in the long hard slog to building an effective party canvassing machine.

Membership

This time last year, Lynne was pleased to announce that our membership had risen to 211. This year, the news is that we have continued to gain members for both branches, and the total now stands at 288.

Nationally the picture is also bright, with the total of Lib Dems exceeding the 100,000 mark in 2017, and probably reaching the same level as the Conservatives.

National campaign

As indicated above, the hopes of a strong performance in the General Election faded as Labour managed to pick up most of the 'remain' voters, and as Jeremy Corbyn managed to catch the imagination of many voters tired of Tory economic policies and budget cuts.

Here in our area we saw two of the three parliamentary candidates coming from our own party, and had a good relationship in Dover with Simon Dodd, the candidate we adopted. We decided from the beginning to support James Flanagan and our friends in the Canterbury party in their campaign and it was frankly disappointing that so many voters there preferred Labour to the Lib Dems, to create probably the major upset of the election.

At the national level we lost Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam, Sarah Olney in Richmond, and Greg Mulholland in Leeds North West, of the English constituencies; they are all missed, but Nick's loss to the Parliamentary party is highly significant in terms of experience and public profile. Many results reminded us that every vote counts, since (for instance) we lost Sarah's seat by just 45 votes.

Here in East Kent, we were unable to improve on the 2015 performance and - as many school pupils have read in their reports - "must do better". Yes, we are hurting, but we need to turn the hurt into action.

Local campaigns

We began the year making plans for the KCC elections in May, and each branch chose a target division. In Dover and Deal, the Deal/Walmer division was chosen and William Darlington and John Trickey were candidates. In Thanet, where Birchington and Rural was the target division, Angie Curwen and I were candidates. Both divisions were lost to the Tories, with our candidates getting 11% in Thanet and 9% in Dover. In fact the Tories swept all before them and UKIP was wiped out at KCC.

By-elections were also fought, with John Finnegan standing in Margate Central for Thanet District Council, and Anne Fox for Sandwich Town Council, without success. At the time of writing we await the announcements of the by-elections following the death of Ken Gregory, who was KCC councillor for Birchington and Rural, and TDC councillor for the Thanet villages.
Finding candidates in the Dover Branch remains a serious problem, as seen recently when the by-election in St Margarets was called.

Success doesn't come easily, especially when we are starting from such a low base. Those who have stood as candidates will feel disappointed by the results but have gained hugely in terms of experience and understanding of the process.

As a party we have a mountain to climb if we are to mobilise our resources more effectively. This is why - between now and the district council elections in 2019 - we have to devote ourselves to befriending and involving every member. If even only half our members are regulars in working on social media, designing and delivering leaflets, and canvassing, we can make important strides towards re-establishing a presence on a par with the two other main parties.

Events

At party level the annual barbecue at Sandwich was again a great success, and thanks are due to our President for the use of his home as our venue. At the annual dinner earlier this month we were fortunate to have Tom Brake MP as our speaker, and although numbers were relatively low the event was still successful. Both events were organised by mainly new teams and took a huge amount of effort, but the experience should stand us in good stead for coming years. Given the current level of resources, this pattern of events in the party is probably about right, namely two major events a year.

Both branches regularly held social events through the year, Thanet mainly on the 'pizza and politics' model and Dover on the 'Lib Dem pint' model. These are very effective in getting to know and motivate members in a more specific area, and in Birchington the first events of a 'politics in the pub' were very successful. In my view we should experiment with more get-togethers at a local level.

Party structure

Last year saw the first full year of operation with two branches. I believe this structure is the right response, both to the bit of England we cover - Thanet and Dover have their own specific local issues and characteristics - and to the decision to abandon the proposals for the merger of district councils.

The reductions in the number of district councillors will make it even more difficult to win councillor seats and we therefore need to focus on town councils as well; after all, many of the tasks now carried out at district level should be devolved in future to the town and parish councils.

At the Regional Conference last week in Reigate, we had a review of our party's situation and it was judged very positive; most of our candidates have been approved since early 2015 but we shall need to bear in mind the rules about renewing the approval of candidates every three years.

Conferences

Several members attended the Spring federal conference in York, and the main Bournemouth conference held in September, on which reports can be read in the autumn newsletter.

Conclusion

First and foremost we need to mobilise and motivate as many members as we can, and we can do this by starting to build a team in each ward or division. Personal contact is essential.
Secondly, we have to be more linked up with our fellow parties in this part of Kent. I found some of the appeals from HQ during the General Election rather naïve (implying that ravelling to some far-flung target seat should pose no problem!) but we can already see the benefits of working not just with Canterbury but with a wider group. And we are already getting noticed after being off the radar for years!

Thirdly, we don't give up.

I've been beaten too many times since I re-joined the party in 2014, but I'm a liberal democrat - I just keep calm and keep on canvassing, because I believe in the value of the individual, I believe in helping the oppressed and the poor, I believe in respect for minorities like refugees and those whom some other parties despise.

I believe in the decency of the British people. Join me and we can be winners here.