'I inherited a mess': Alain Desmier, the man tasked with making Islington Liberal Democrats electable again
PUBLISHED: 09:43 30 October 2017 | UPDATED: 09:43 30 October 2017
Islington Lib Dems were a major player for so long. Then they disappeared. Alain Desmier has the huge task of regenerating the party before next year's local elections. He tells the Gazette: "We have stopped feeling sorry for ourselves."
Alain Desmier became chair of Islington Liberal Democrats a year ago. He admits: “I inherited a mess.”
You can’t blame him for being candid. It’s not as if the Lib Dems have anything to lose.
Between 2002 and 2010, they controlled Islington Council. In the 2005 general election, Bridget Fox was just 485 votes from winning Islington South and Finsbury. She finished second behind a certain Emily Thornberry.
But whatever the Lib Dems had in Islington, they lost. In the 2014 council elections, they were bombed out completely, a consequence of the coalition government. In June’s general election, they finished third – behind even the Conservatives – in both Islington seats.
It was Mr Desmier himself who stood in Islington South and Finsbury, hoping to ride a wave of anti-Brexit feeling and genuinely believing he would run Ms Thornberry (“a very skilled political operator”) close. As it happened, she won 24,379 more votes than him.
In fairness, Mr Desmier was in the process of revamping his party when the snap election was called in April. For him, the campaign confirmed what had gone wrong: “I would be doorknocking in Clerkenwell,” he tells the Gazette, “and people would say to me: ‘We haven’t seen you Lib Dems here for years.’ I can only say sorry.
“Islington Liberal Democrats were too rooted to its Highbury base. Islington is obviously a lot more than Highbury. We have to get to the basics again.”
Those “basics” are the council elections next year.
“You don’t win parliamentary seats without having councillors,” Mr Desmier says, pointing out Labour’s 47 to one dominance of Islington. “People want to see evidence of the work you’ve done.
“I have spoken to so many people who voted Labour and said: ‘I couldn’t risk a Tory government.’ But that’s no excuse: I thought I’d finish second and yet I got 4,000 less votes than the Conservative candidate. People liked our message, but didn’t see us a viable option.”
Mr Desmier has set about changing the party’s culture: “There was a residual feeling of bereavement. Those Lib Dems who had run a really good Islington Council drifted away. I can see why – being a councillor takes a significant toll.
“It was a party looking backwards. So many conversations began with: ‘When we ran the council...’ I banned it.
“It was an organisational mess. Our focus was very narrow. We only worked a couple of wards. Now we are focusing across the borough with excellent candidates.”
Mr Desmier’s background is in IT startups. He is also chair of governors at Montem Primary School in Hornsey Road. So what gives him the motivation to take on the challenge of overhauling the entire local party?
“Democracy can only work if there’s an opposition. I have a lot of casework. One frustration I have is on behalf of the residents in housing associations and social housing. So many of these properties aren’t being properly maintained. I have been speaking to a group in Barnsbury and there are some dreadful conditions.
“So what infuriates me so much with this Labour council is when you see it putting all its effort into getting rid of Caroline Russell [the sole oppostition councillor in Highbury East – which also happens to be a Lib Dem stronghold].
“All 47 of them were in Highbury East the other weekend. Their entire ideology lies on getting rid of the one remaining opposition member. They are engaged so much in vanity projects: the smartphone benches, Barnard Park.
“And here I am speaking to people living in these awful conditions. Their council clearly isn’t helping them. A council has got to work, and it’s so vital we get Liberal Democrats on it.”