Lib Dem consultation on AV campaign review

September 5, 2011

Lib Dem Voice has a consultation up on the review of the AV campaign being carried out centrally. I thought I’d put my response to it up here:

1. Did you do any telephone canvassing? Did you enjoy it? If not why not? If so, how would you improve the process?

I undertook many telephone canvassing sessions. Generally, they were positive, however when the campaign decided to abandon persuasive canvassing on legal grounds, they became less so. Focusing on telephone canvassing was a strategic mistake; we should’ve been out on the doorsteps from September onwards. ‘Grassroots’ means ‘where people actually live’, which means ‘doorsteps’.

2. How would you have improved the literature?

The design was generally to a high standard, however many elements of the messaging were poor. I would in particular focus on ‘Make your MP work harder’ message, which was rather opaque. The focus groups that gave rise to this message were flawed: those groups were educated in advance about how AV works, which allowed a complex message to resonate more strongly than would otherwise have been the case. The connection wasn’t clear to someone without a fairly in-depth grasp of how electoral politics works in practice, which unfortunately is not the case for the majority of the population.

We got some fantastic leaflets towards the end, which lumped the supporters of the Yes vote against the No-supporting parties, and asked the public to decide whose side they were on. Given that the BNP was urging a ‘no’ vote, these should’ve been widely distributed in BME areas. That they weren’t was seemingly a result of what I can only describe as ‘wets’ being nervous about reverse dog-whistle politics.

3. How was your relationship with activists from other political parties?

Mixed. The local Labour Party was fiercely opposed to a Yes vote, and we only received support from individual activists – even though the head of Labour Yes was a councillor in the borough. Anecdotally she was forbidden from campaigning in Islington by her fellow councillors.

The Greens were very supportive, and we worked well with them. I abetted this relationship by taking an ostensibly apolitical stance for the entirety of the campaign; I judged this campaign to be too important to allow any party loyalties to interfere with its delivery. Besides, following the tuition fees debacle it was reasonably easy to not feel like being a Lib Dem.

We had no idea who the local UKIP branch was at all, despite efforts to find out. This is a broader criticism of the campaign – we should’ve reached out to the only right-wing party backing a Yes vote. That we did not I lay at the feet of the trendy lefties in the centre, who did not understand how to build a political consensus.

4. Did the Yes campaign marshal activists in your area effectively? If not how could it have been improved?

I was the local organiser for the campaign, and have been relentlessly self-critical about the number of people we got out onto the streets, even though we won and had plenty of people out on the day and the weeks before. I failed to:

– Make enough phone calls to get people out for campaigning events

– Give up on street stalls and phone banking early enough in favour of door-knocking, when it became clear that the former wasn’t attracting enough support and the latter was a pointless waste of time in the absence of a proper GOTV operation.

– Bully the centre sufficiently into providing us with enough high-quality ‘out’ leaflets for doorknocking. We ran out on several occasions, which disheartened some of our activists who felt that knocking on empty houses without them was a waste of time.

– Carry out more ‘one-to-one’ briefing sessions with key activists, which I found to be a very effective way of engaging people in the campaign.

Having said that, I have one very major criticism of local activist ‘marshalling’ that had nothing to do with me. I was not allowed access to the mailing list of local people who signed up by the national website, which remained with the regional staff. This meant I was frequently unable to get emails, like event reminders, sent out to supporters because they were going out on the same day as national emails, and the centre was worried about spamming. There is no other way to describe this decision than stupid.

5. Did you find channels of communication with the Yes Campaign hierarchy open or closed?

While the regional organisers deserve to be commended for the amount of time they spent sending my complaints back to the centre, what actually happened at the centre was almost entirely opaque. Decision-making seemed largely capricious, and the final decision to focus on doorknocking I could only interpret as the centre finally catching on to their error in focusing on telecanvassing.

6. With the benefit of hindsight, how would you have liked to have seen the Yes campaignin your area run?

My ideal campaign begins in September 2010 with a relentless focus on grassroots organising, via a series of large group meetings of everyone on the various databases that became the Yes supporters database, followed up by one-to-ones with as many key activists as possible. Explanatory leaflets on AV start going out in November, with one per month till February. Doorknocking starts once-weekly in September, and moves to twice-weekly in the New Year. We develop a proper relationship with the local press in the New Year, selling in a package about why activists are devoting so much of their time to voting reform. Our leaflets contain simple messages that do not rely on an understanding of AV to be effective. We target particular groups, including BME people and students assiduously. We have a small local budget we use for our events and for particular leaflets focused on local issues. We have a proper cross-party forum for discussion of campaigning tactics.

This is all mostly textbook stuff, with the exception of the community organising elements. This is what I thought a grassroots campaign would look like. The Yes campaign did not run a grassroots campaign; they ran what people who’ve worked in NGOs their entire lives think a grassroots campaign looks like.

7. And nationally, how could the Yes campaign have been improved?

The list is too long to go into, but Andy May’s now famous document is a good start. I’d like to pick up on a few points from it:

– Actually sending out a Freepost mailing to every house in the country. The person who made the decision to not do this should never work in politics, campaigns or communications ever again. This is unforgiveable.

– Not hiring quite so many expensive consultants and managing the ones that you do hire properly.

– Reach out to all your supporters, including the ones you personally find distasteful. It’s a measure of your commitment to an issue that you’re willing to work with people you ostensibly despise in order to achieve it; the issue is more important than the fact you don’t like UKIP.

– In fact, this extends beyond UKIP. Labour Yes barely talked to the central campaign at all. All the party Yes groups should’ve been round the same table at least once a fortnight.

– Not being afraid to engage in reverse dog-whistle politics. I would’ve put up billboards with two pictures on them: Nick Clegg and Nick Griffin, and asked the public which Nick they preferred. That the Yes campaign did not do this meant the No campaign was free to use Clegg against them.

– Perhaps most importantly, celebrities are not people, they’re artificial media contrivances. Eddie Izzard was never going to change the mind of a granny who lives on an estate. Someone knocking on her door might have done. A ‘peoples’ campaign should involve as many people as possible making their own decisions about how to effectively campaign.

8. Could the Liberal Democrats have fed into the Yes campaign better?

Yes. We could’ve not put John Sharkey in charge of it. I’ve yet to see a response by him to Andy May’s allegations. Not making that response is a tacit acceptance of their truth.

9. What did the Yes campaign do well?

The elements of community organising they brought in at the start – I’d like to particularly cite George Gabriel here – were excellent and a breath of fresh air. It’s a pity they then decided to ignore them entirely in favour of the mixed bag of centralised control and cock-ups they tried next.

10. How would you fight a future referendum campaign on electoral reform differently?

I’ve covered much of this already above, but there’s one important principle I’d like to raise here. I’m in favour of electoral reform because I believe a government over which people have more real influence is a better government. Similarly, I believe a campaign for electoral reform over which all of its participants have real influence is a better campaign.

A grassroots campaign involves ceding as much power and decision-making as possible to the grassroots. Some of them might cock up. Some of them might perform brilliantly. However, they’ll demonstrate that the freedom to have influence, when distributed as widely as possible, can achieve great things.

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