Sunday, 25 May 2008

A highly professional but soulless campaign

I'm only just back from Crewe and Nantwich, having been to see some relatives in Cumbria in the interim.

My impression of the Lib Dem by-election campaign was that it was very well organised. The by-election HQ was terrific and there was a great team of people in charge. The only minor quibbles I have on this front are the usual ones you get at by-elections, about some delivery routes not being sorted into walk order correctly or about the size of delivery rounds being given to one person.

But I wasn't impressed with the content of the campaign. It seemed to me to lack focus and any coherent idea of why people should vote Lib Dem in Crewe and Nantwich. There was the usual concentration on just a few key issues, but I don't see that there was any real attempt to draw them together or to show how they related to our core liberal beliefs.

OK, we were coming from a more or less standing start and the Tories were seen as the clear challengers from the off, which in the end enabled them to romp home to an impressive victory. But we could have done far more to give people a positive reason to vote for us. In the end, although we weren't squeezed too badly, we got the result we deserved with our share of the vote going down.

Let me illustrate my concerns with quotes from some of the Lib Dem literature from the last few days of the campaign, which is all that I saw.

From a 'Focus on Nantwich', the main story was headlined: "Lib Dems fight to protect green spaces". The first sentence of this read: "Local Lib Dem Elizabeth Shenton is leading the campaign to save the green spaces of Nantwich." Now, ignoring the "Local Lib Dem" bit - which I'll turn to later - my first thought was OK, what's she or the local party actually done about it? The answer seems to be not a lot. But nor is there any attempt to explain why we think those green spaces are important, or why in this case they are more important than ensuring an adequate supply of housing in the area. And why not actually use the issue to promote the liberal belief that the taxation system should be changed to encourage development on brownfield sites?

From the same leaflet, there was a piece attacking local police cuts. But where was the mention of the fact that we wish to scrap ID cards in order to spend more money on policing?

From a 'Crewe and Nantwich News Extra' tabloid, the main story was headlined "New 10p tax con". This was good knocking stuff, but why not actually mention that we want to take anyone earning the minimum wage out of income tax altogether? Or that we want to shift taxation away from income and on to pollution?

The PS on the 'blue letter' read: "PS: With your support, I will take the battle against rising parking charges at Leighton Hospital to Parliament." Really? What's Parliament going to do about it then? Pass legislation to stop health authorities from charging for parking at hospitals? Or increase the budget for the local health authority so that they don't need to raise such charges? Surely one of the things about being a liberal is that we don't believe that Parliament can or should sort out such matters. Perhaps we should have linked the issue with our policy for directly elected local health boards, so that we'd be saying something like: "Vote Lib Dem and YOU get to decide whether parking charges at Leighton Hospital should be increased."

Another difficulty with the campaign is that by and large we were banging on about the same things as the Tories, such as the 10p tax rate and post offices. We therefore weren't giving people a distinctive reason to vote Lib Dem. Also, although our literature was best in terms of both quantity and quality, the Tories in particular have closed the gap - they're also now doing 'blue letters', for instance - so that we get less bang for our buck.

And there was also the laughable obsession with just how local the candidates were. We were attacking Edward Timpson for living a whole 17 miles away from the constituency, despite the fact that our candidate was a councillor from Staffordshire! OK, Elizabeth Shenton lived closer to the constituency than him, but that obsession was bizarre. NOBODY gave a damn about where the Tory candidate lived or worked, and nor should they. Even worse was in the aforementioned 'Focus on Nantwich' when we included one of our vox pops which included a statement from one person that: "Elizabeth Shenton is the only candidate of the main parties to have a proven record as a local councillor here." No, not here: Newcastle-under-Lyme. That was just a straightforward lie.

Now, I'm certainly not saying that by-election campaigns should be akin to a seminar on political philosophy. But there is a difference between having a simple message and having a simplistic one and I think in Crewe and Nantwich we erred too much towards the latter. It was also incoherent, as there was no attempt to relate the various issues to a vision of the sort of society we wish to create.

I hope that Crewe and Nantwich marks the end of a strategy of raising a few issues seemingly at random and flogging them for all they're worth. Campaigning must be related to a liberal vision or it is largely worthless. Lessons must be learnt for Henley, as we can't afford to have too many more utterly soulless campaigns.


Stephen B said...

I'm never hugely convinced that policy matters much in a by election and that the most important thing is to get some seemingly unstoppable momentum to your campaign.

Obviously, policy does matter in as much that some parties are considered beyond the pale as the vehicle for the protest vote.

In the case of C&N, I got the impression that Labour's attacks on the Conservatives simply consolidated the perception that the Conservatives were the only challengers in the voters' minds.

I also agree with you on this silly obsession about where a candidate comes from.

Interesting to see if Labour will run a similarly chippy campaign nationally in 2010.

Bernard Salmon said...

I'm not saying that policy matters, but having a clear and coherent message does. The Lib Dems didn't have that in C&N.

Anonymous said...

Did you see the Conservative literature claiming their candidate was the only local candidate? As he actually lived further away than the Liberal Democrat candidate, should we have just rolled over and said nothing?

Bernard Salmon said...

Yes, we should have completely ignored it as nobody really cared. If we have a candidate who has a substantial track record in a constituency, then by all means play that up and contrast with opponents where relevant. But to attack the Tory candidate for not being local when our candidate didn't even come from the same county is rather silly.

Anonymous said...

Many of the residents I spoke to said they wanted a "local" MP. I have also party polling presentations in the past which show how that view is very, very, very common amongst electors.

I'm sure they meant many different things by "local". But if the Tories are saying their candidate, who was less local than ours, was the "only" local candidate, and people said they wanted a local candidate, I think we would have made a big mistake if we had ignored the issue.

You might not think that "local" matters much, but we have to fight elections on what the public wants.

Charlotte Gore said...

I think I share your concerns about the usefulness of this style of campaign. Clearly it is no longer enough to simply bombard the electorate with more leaflets than anyone else and hope for the best.

Also I think the tone of a lot of Lib Dem stuff - bragging and overconfident - and other transparently deceptive tricks mean, I think, we're making our candidate seem at best sneaky and at worst giving a very bad message about how we see the electorate.

The literature I saw from C&N lacked honesty: "Elizabeth Shenton Set To Win!" - seriously, who's idea was that? In a time when Labour Ministers are more afraid of deviating from 'the line' than they are of telling the truth - and people are sick to the back teeth of it - we missed an opportunity to prove we're different. Instead we told C&N that we're just typical politicians. Very disappointing.

Where is the compelling reason to make people want to vote Lib Dem, regardless of who they think might win? Where's the reason that a majority of people would want to vote Lib Dem on general principle? Why can't we find that reason?

Bernard Salmon said...

Of course people will say if asked that they want a 'local' MP, just as they want higher spending on public services and lower taxes and borrowing to be kept under control. But when our candidate wasn't from the constituency either, why make an issue of it?
More generally, I don't think that a campaign which just says 'Let's find out what the people want and then just repeat their views back to them' is one which really works. It needs to be backed up a clear and coherent view of what we want to achieve. if Crewe and Nantwich showed anything, it was the limitations of a purely populist approach, rather than one based on a liberal vision.

Linda Jack said...

I think you make some important observations Bernard. The story is key, what story were we telling in C&N and why should it be believed? With a small presence and very few members we needed that strong narrative that Neil Stockley keeps challenging us about. Of course policy is important in underpinning the message (if it is contradictory we have a problem!) but rather like the BNP councillor who boasted that he had no policies and got elected, the electorate were looking at the message the BNP were peddling nationally. Charlotte is right, why claim to be winning when we ain't?

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