The Ghost in the By-election Machine

June 27, 2008

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.

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3 Responses to “The Ghost in the By-election Machine”

  1. I agree entirely with your analysis but I question whether we have to go wholeheartedly for the overly professional approach of the advertisers. We need a simple, straightforward campoaign as elections in this country emain very local.

    I am always very wary of buying into American tactics since their election system is completely different and based overwhelmingly on money.

    We certainly need to re-invent our tactics but we don’t need to spend hours (and thousands) getting advertising professionals to over-analyse. We should simply ell our core policies better.

    People care about bread and buter issues, not spin, and that is where we should focus.

    Anyway, great post.

  2. declineofthelogos said

    I think to a large degree we need to tailor the level of professionalism we employ with regard to our target audience. Tatty blanket tabloids do not appeal to the soft Tory vote, but are effective at squeezing soft Labour. I am not entirely convinced that all elections remain focused on local issues – indeed, I worry that one of our failures from a campaigning perspective is to frequently ignore the wider political context when planning – witness the approach we took to the London campaign, for example.

    The ‘narrative’ approach I mentioned is not exclusively American – it’s more about the form of words we use to get the voters to feel a connection with our candidate, and how our messages relate to one another. It involves creating a structured and coherent campaign that develops over time. I appreciate your point about the monetary basis of American campaigning, of course.

    With regard to the advertising approach, I think the suggestion mooted was that instead of spending thousands hiring advertisers, we make better use of those working in marketing within the party to supply advice to our literature designers. It costs nothing, and binds more people into activism.

  3. Neil said

    Your are wrong about the amount of help we had in the last week and particularly on polling day.

    We were knocking up extar people in the most ruban part of the seat because it was much more efficient than knocking up small numbers of people in the more rural parts – not because we had loads of people.

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