The Liberal Democrat campaign in Henley was textbook. It included some of the best literature I’ve ever seen, including an exemplary magazine crushing the Tory’s claims to be a defender of the greenbelt. We had a large army of volunteers out canvassing and delivering throughout the weeks preceding polling day. Our election day operation itself was so well-manned we were able to knock up people who we had no canvass data for, but appeared likely to be our supporters. But, in the end, we were only able to achieve a swing of 1.84% – a swing that, arguably, was more likely to be caused by Labour voters switching to us than necessarily a product of our campaign.

And this has been noticed. So what happened? Out of the five by-elections since 1997 that have resulted in a change of control, the Lib Dems have won four – and the only one we didn’t win was Crewe & Nantwich, less than a month ago. Indeed, the swings we have managed to achieve in more recent by-elections have been down from the heady highs of 2003 and 2004. The last time we managed a swing of over 10% was at the Bromley & Chistlehurst by-election in 2006.

So what happened? While, naturally, the Tory revival played a part here, it’s not the full story – the Tories only raised their share of the vote by 3.4% compared to 16.9% in Crewe, while Labour’s share fell by over 10% in both cases. Previously, we would have expected a lot of that vote to go to us, but it seems to have been divided between us, the Tories, and the BNP. While the issue of Labour voters going towards the BNP is for another day, it’s worthwhile asking what was so different about this election in terms of our capture of the Labour vote. Why didn’t we get more?

To anyone on the ground familiar with our campaigning tactics, the answer would be obvious. The Tories stole everything we’ve been doing in by-elections since 1997, and with their greater money and resources, did it better. They had a magazine, Good Mornings, polling cards, localised newsletters, the works. Their literature had clearly had more spent on its production, and while ours was designed more effectively, theirs had a tendency to look more professional. I suspect that this professionalism played a big part in increasing the efficacy of their literature relative to ours; a leaflet with higher production values indicates a more serious party in the minds of the voters, and not appearing serious is something we can ill afford.

This isn’t just true in Henley – across the country, Labour and the Tories are copying our tactics, sneaky buggers that they are. They’ve started producing imitations of the Focus local newsletter, started campaigning more on local issues, and actually begun to work harder for their votes. They’re doing this because they realise that otherwise that these are votes we’ll be able to take. It’s a good reflection upon our efforts that the public are now more likely to get a better service from their elected representatives, even if the larger parties had to be terrorised into doing it. However, it leaves us with a campaigning quandary: if the Tories and Labour are stealing our thunder on local campaigning, one of our most important selling points is gone. We have a reputation for being effective local campaigners, and this is partly why our share of the votes for Council elections is consistently higher than that of national elections – usually at least 3-4%. If we lose that, where do we go from here?

There are multiple approaches currently being put forward. One of the most popular is to shift the strategy for our campaigning away from ‘messenging’ towards ‘narrative’, as advocated by Neil Stockley. This would involve ensuring our candidate at by-elections has a good story to tell, giving the voters an emotional involvement with his or her campaign. It’s analogous to Obama’s primary campaign: presenting oneself as an outsider bringing hope and change to an ossified political system is very emotive, regardless of its truth. While this will doubtless be effective, every party will contain sufficient Obama-watchers to make it likely that all of a sudden everyone will be bringing hope and change in 2010.

Another approach is to rethink our literature radically, and start taking more tips from the world of advertising. This would involve amplifying a brand – whether it be the party or a candidate – with extremely emotive phraseology and photography. An example is for the front page of a leaflet to consist of a big picture of a happy family with the tagline, ‘Because your family is priceless’, with more information inside about how only the Lib Dems can guarantee your family’s continued prosperity.

I suspect that this would certainly gain us votes, but would require significant volunteer management to ensure that all of our people went along with this – patronising and manipulative advertising techniques are not what our membership in general signed up for, regardless of how effective they are.

The approach I would like to suggest is the following. During the debate about detention without trial for 42 days, several polls were published that found that while the public was in favour of liberty as a principle, in particular cases they were more likely to be in favour of surrendering it for increased security. Other research has emphasised that the public are frequently in favour of our economic policies and the principles behind them – they simply don’t vote for us because they don’t think we can win. What this demonstrates is that where we’ve managed to overcome the credibility gap, or indeed during a by-election where it’s less relevant, targeting literature about relevant principles to relevant demographics could be extremely effective. Our candidate will have the value over and above the opposition of not only being a strong local campaigner, but a strong local campaigner who believes what you believe.

This will naturally only be successful if we can weave into the campaign’s overall narrative, potentially using the advertising techniques mentioned above. Talking about a candidate’s background and how he or she has come to their principles could be devastating – it’s the sort of thing that would work very well in a magazine. It gives us an inbuilt advantage over the Tories and Labour in the current climate, as it’s not clear at all what either party stands for.

Naturally, its success is dependant on its effective implementation, and it is possible to object that we talk about our principles already. But the point is that we rarely do it in any kind of prominent way – while the principles inform the electoral machine, they’re rarely produced by it. We can’t afford this any more. If the Tories and Labour have caught up to us, we need to be one step ahead.

Zim

June 18, 2008

You know what’s disturbing? Finding out that someone who does the same job as you has been brutally murdered for it. Crazy as it may sound, I’m really against people getting killed for giving out leaflets. I’m against other people getting horribly killed of course – it largely goes without saying – but as I’ve found to be the case with both everyone else and myself, we just simply care more when there are similarities between ourselves and the victims. We tend to do so in an unspoken way, though – witness the stories about Mugabe’s initial land grab, back in 1997. Why was this newsworthy? Many other post-colonial African nations have done or are doing something similar, but somehow they don’t seem to merit the same level of attention.

I suggest this is because of Mugabe’s deliberate strategy of targeting the white-owned farms only, rather than all the larger landowners, many of whom were black. Thus, the press could report on a very simple and easy to sell story of white people having farms taken away by black people. And, like it or not, a story about people we very visibly are similar to being attacked by people we aren’t similar to is gruesomely fascinating. It’s not racist to find it thus, it’s analogous to the same stone-age instinct that makes us more concerned with the wellbeing of our families than with others. It only becomes racist when you cease to accord moral value to all of humanity, and begin to blame all black people for the actions of others. However, what it does do is sell newspapers.

Again, like it or not, people found this story viscerally interesting, and papers that carried it sold more copies. Publishers noticed this, and continued to carry more stories about Zimbabwe. However, there’s a movement which seems to believe there’s some sort of conspiracy behind this, as though the British were building up moral support for the claim that Africans can’t govern themselves, in order to resurrect the Empire. You get comments like this one on Comment is Free, bewailing the fact that there’s so many bad things happening in Africa that the excessive focus on Zimbabwe is ludicrous. It’s not. It’s the market doing what it does. It’s just that no-one seems to want to talk about why people like the story. Funny that.