101 Ways To Win An Election is a welcome and pleasant surprise.
Now that might seem a lukewarm introduction to a review of a book co-written by my co-editor Mark Pack, together with fellow Lib Dem Edward Maxfield. But it’s not intended to be either ironic or half-hearted because what makes this book such an excellent guide to political campaigning is that it succeeds in being a whole lot more than that.
In fact, its 308 pacy pages cheerfully zig-zag between marketing manual, self-help book, and campaigning A-Z — with dollops of political history, pop-psychology, and behavioural economics thrown in for good measure.
The authors have clearly put a lot of thought into creating a book which people will actually want to read — and to re-read — on a subject many but the most obsessed political aficionado might initially dismiss as dull and boring.
Drs Pack and Maxfield do not shirk the essentials of building a successful campaign (far from it), but neither do they dwell overly on the mechanics of, for example, capturing voter ID data, or copy-writing and art-working leaflets, or building a volunteer team. Instead, the book is structured into five sections — your message, your team, your resources, your communications, and your leadership — collectively totalling 101 individual chapters. With no chapter longer than four pages, it is easy to dip in and out of, while even entries you feel don’t apply to you can quickly be skimmed for nuggets of wisdom.
But it’s not just the structure that helps the book whip along, it’s also its jauntily irreverent tone. The authors’ campaigning credentials are such (Mark managed Lynne Featherstone’s successful 2005 campaign, Ed did the same for Norman Lamb in North Norfolk in 2001) that they are comfortable wearing their learning and experience lightly.
This isn’t a know-it-all lecture in Things We Did Brilliantly Which You Must Now Do. Well-targeted anecdotes of their own hits-and-misses flow thick and fast. Quotes both funny and pointed are sprinkled throughout, from The West Wing to Gorbachev to David Ogilvy. References to works both academic and popular underpin, and cut through to, their message.
Here are five examples, chosen pretty much at random, to give you a flavour…
… as you go from door to door, even on the steepest slope in the worst of weather, remember one thing — ‘politicians never come round here’ is one of the most common complaints people make. Each door you knock on builds the reputation of democracy. (p.174)
Successful teams have good leadership; leadership that helps, supports and guides people but which also lets them get on with their jobs. As once said in the magazine Campaigns & Elections, you should never put a steering committee behind the steering wheel. Nor should you leave the steering wheel unattended. One leads to paralysis, the other to crashes. We are not fans of either. What we are fans of is having a team — and one big enough to win. Follow this rule of thumb: there should be one helper for every 200 electors. That 1:200 ratio (call it the Maxfield-Pack Ratio, or MPR, if you like) comes from experience in many elections at many different levels and includes everyone from leaflet deliverer through to office workers. (p.67)
The toleration level [for receiving political leaflets] varies among people, which means that if nobody is complaining then you are doing less than the least tolerant person wants — and far less than the average person wants. It is only when you get a complaint or two that you are heading towards what the typical voter is happy with. So the really scary thing is not to hear voters complaining about too much literature, it is to hear no complaints at all. (p.170)
At the heart of our approach to communicating your message is a simple note: you might dream of persuading everyone to vote for you but you will not. Fortunately to win, you do not have to. What you do need to do is find the most efficient and effective way of getting your message across to the people who will consider voting for you, then keep talking to them until you persuade them. (p.148)
… exposing a personal face to the world requires the personal face to be presentable. As someone once quipped about US Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and his opponent, ‘As long as he has a Twitter feed, she has a chance.’ Numerous candidates have been tripped up as the online world reveals them to be stupid, rude, arrogant, bigoted or all four. But the personal touch is till the one to aim for. (p.243)
I hope that quintet of snippets leaves you wanting more… because there’s lots more where they came from.
I’ve only one cavil: the absence of illustrations. It would have been great to see examples of campaign activities — photos, petitions, leaflets etc — which the authors felt worked brilliantly… and of course a few howlers which didn’t.
And I’ve only a couple of suggestions. First, case studies: though both authors pepper the text with personal insights, I’d have loved to see them include a handful of worked-through examples of their own methods out into practice. And secondly, at the end of each chapter to include some sort of 3-point check-list summary — along the lines: ‘If you remember just one thing…’; ‘If you do just one thing, make it X’ and ‘Ask yourself this one question…’ — to further encourage this to be a book which isn’t just read but put into everyday use.
The biggest worry of all about this book is, of course, that two of the Lib Dems’ most experienced campaigners have just spilled the beans of their top ‘what works well’ tips to other political parties. They have a suggestion to counter that, though: ‘we recommend you minimise this risk by regularly visiting your local bookshops and buying up all the stock, just in case’. There could be worse investments.
* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from May 2007 to Jan 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.