6 things Lib Dem campaigners can learn from Boris Johnson and George Galloway

Boris Johnson has twice won a contest for a directly-elected Mayor. George Galloway has recently won a Parliamentary by-election.

That is why, for all the many reasons Liberal Democrats have for criticising both, smart Liberal Democrats also know that there are lessons to be learnt from their electoral successes.

  1. Let your personality hang out.
    Boris, Gorgeous George – whatever the nickname, the point is the same: they have enough of their character on show to be a character. Only occasionally is being dull a virtue – usually when a predecessor’s personality has become so tiring voters that want a break (think John Major and François Hollande).
  2. Be different.
    Their defeated rivals will probably treat this as a compliment, but in truth it’s more double-edged than that: Johnson and Galloway were very different from their defeated opponents. Too many of their defeated opponents were too much like ‘politics as usual’ candidates.
  3. Fight a campaign that maximises personal contact.
    Ken Livingstone also got this right in his 2000 London Mayor victory with his campaign bus tour. If you have the distinctive personality to win, you need to show it to voters – and that means a campaign focused on getting as many voters as possible in close touch with that personality.
  4. Use social media well.
    “Galloway has done a lot on social media. Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative – they’re just old school to me” – so said a youthful Asian to the BBC after Galloway’s victory. By 2015 using social media will be more popular with the electorate than voting,  making it not only a major, mainstream medium which lets you display your distinctive personality, but also a medium that makes those who ignore it look old-fashioned and out of touch.
  5. Oppose the right opponent.
    In his by-election victory,Galloway fought Labour and Labour fought the Tories.Galloway got the choice of opponent right and won; Labour got it wrong and lost.
  6. Get the public involved.
    Whether it is Galloway and his public meetings or Johnson and his army of small donors giving via text message the point is the same: a large grassroots network of supporters who are actively involved in a campaign makes it much more effective.

Of course, if you want to know more about how to implement any of these half dozen lessons, there is a certain book which will help

* Mark Pack is Party President and Co-leader of the party. He is editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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This entry was posted in Campaign Corner.


  • The lesson of Galloway and Johnson is “think outward, not inward” The skill of these men lay in getting into the minds of voters and speaking to them on the same wavelength so that the end of the day the voters thought the policies being promoted were as much theirs (the voters) ideas as they were in fact the candidates proposals.

  • Richard Dean 12th Sep '12 - 12:51pm

    Galloway caught people’s emotions by focussing on what they wanted, not by proposing solutions. For instance, his battlebus had something like “We need the NHS” on it – there was no detail on how it should be organized or paid for.

    Boris catches people’s emotions by being bumbeling and nice, again not producing solutions but expressing what are effectively emtions – things like “they problem has to be solved by applying principled common sense”, but not saying what they should be.

    So I’d say the main “lesson” is to catch people’s emotions. And tio do that we need to know what they are – which G and B know well.

  • Geoffrey Payne 12th Sep '12 - 1:04pm

    I think there is an overemphasis on personality here. Galloway would not have won if he stood as a Tory. He would not have won if he stood in Surrey. He projects himself as an angry man, angry about the policies of the government and a lot of people, mostly Muslims, felt he stood for them. It is curious that no openly Muslim candidate has come forward from Respect who can galvanise people in the same way.
    So personality plays a part, but so does the message.
    It ought to disturb us that the people in Bradford are as angry as they are, but we appear to have nothing to say to them to let them know that we intend to implement policies to help them. No wonder Galloway got elected.

  • Paul Holmes 12th Sep '12 - 1:54pm

    Social media is of course now a very valuable and necessary part of any political campaign but as Galloway has shown it is also a very dangerous and two edged ‘weapon’.

    Asian community use of social media won him the Bradford by election as Mr anti everything but his recent social media video broadcast on rape has led to the Leader of Respect and the Respect candidate in the Manchester by election resigning from George Galloway’s Party. Also of course the last few years have seen a variety of Cllrs, MP’s and candidates from all Parties destroy their electoral chances through knee jerk use of social media such as Twitter and Blogs.

    From another perspective those who thought a good Social Media campaign was all that was needed to win the AV Yes campaign (they certainly put little store in all those boring and hard to deliver leaflets ‘of old’) had a bit of a reality check too as I recall.

    As for Boris he of course has a perfect hand to play as Mayor of London. He is answerable to no one and can make himself popular by constantly demanding that Central Government spend huge sums of taxpayers money on London infrastructure projects -whilst leaving taxes on his rich City chums as low as possible of course. As a serious politician he would have to face reality -unless he could get away in Britain with the Reagan and Bush act of preaching national fiscal rectitude whilst in reality cutting taxes on rich people and running up record levels of national debt?

  • Bill le Breton 12th Sep '12 - 1:55pm

    What job does the electorate want done ? Very often it is enough to articulate the issue. But if you miss the issue or fail to be the loudest voice defining the issue you won’t ever win support. Without this the victory just goes where it ‘normally goes’.

  • The only lesson Galloway has to offer to anyone is how to be a carpetbagger who exploits racial and religious divisions.

  • I live in Bradford; Galloway is a demagogue who exploited an electorate that largely felt ignored by mainstream politics. I suggest that the best lesson to be learned from his example is to ensure that you voice the concerns of your constituents effectively and once elected, you deliver on promises, something which Galloway cannot seem to do.

  • Max Wilkinson 12th Sep '12 - 9:05pm

    Say things that you mean, say things that people want to hear, say things that people understand, try to intersperse all that with a few things that might make people smile.

    Oh, and if you say something in a draft speech that you believe to be true, don’t then retract it. You’ll look a bit spineless.

  • “It ought to disturb us that the people in Bradford are as angry as they are, but we appear to have nothing to say to them .”
    Tell that to Bradford LD MP David Ward!!!!!

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Sep '12 - 11:00am

    On the whole I think personality-based politics leads to poor government and poor representation. I would rather be represented and governed by people who have genuine competence and a background which means they know and understand how I feel than by people who have big mouths, arrogance, and the sort of devious minds which can hide that and make it look like friendliness. I feel the rise of the cult of personality, whether in politics, entertainment or business, is a bad thing, and illiberal. It is aristocratic in the sense that it is based on the idea that there are a small number of super high ability human beings who the rest of us must accept as naturally our leaders. It is discriminatory in that it favours certain personality types over others. It is anti-egalitarian in that for all that it promises we can all succeed so long as we have the right sort of personality, in practice having that personality tends to correlate with the confidence that comes from having a privileged socio-economic background, and being able to promote that personality or having it manufactured for you depends very much on the willingness of those who run the media to do so. At the core of my liberalism is the idea that most of us are capable of a great deal and society needs to be organised in a way that maximises our ability to achieve what we are capable of, therefore I want to see a decentralised society with satisfying roles for all of us, not a society based around adulation of a few heavily promoted “celebrities”.

    I believe that as a movement we should therefore be fairly explicitly opposed to the politics of personality. Just because that’s the way the world is going doesn’t mean we have to join in. Our movement has tended to succeed when it’s done things differently to how the great and good say they should be done, and to fail when it’s taken the attitude (which is frequently pushed on it) “We must do it that way because that’s how everyone does it, and we want to look smart and professional, don’t we?”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Sep '12 - 11:07am

    Galloway has succeeded by stirring up resentment in a way that would most certainly be condemned as way beyond acceptable if it were done for white working class people. He has an appallingly bad record as a constituency representative. Johnson has succeeded because of his upper class background – someone with the same attitudes who did not have the mannerisms and appearance and accent that comes from that background would never have made it anywhere even if they had more mental ability.

  • Tim -tell that to the Leadership of the Lib Dems and their advisers including Centre Forum! Don’t try and blame the PBI.

  • I think they are two very different cases, though the both use their outsider status to their advantage.

    In the case of Boris Johnson, he’s in some respects seen as independent from the Tory party because electing the Mayor of London is not seen as the same as electing am MP or government. He also benefited from being up against Ken Livingston. It was a strait battle between the incumbent and the previous incumbent. Even then the election was close. IMO Labour missed a trick precisely because they went head to head in a clash of big personalities rather than capitalize on the unpopularity of the government. Ken was simply marginally less popular. However, would Boris have won against a relatively a more personable, neutral, Labour candidate like Oona King. I seriously doubt it.

    Galloway worked hard to woo a disenfranchised vote, but it’s not as simple as rabble rousing. The point about Respect is that it has its origins in depoliticizing the language of the old Left. Respect as word can mean virtually anything to anyone. It a kind of PC catch all concept. You might not be in favour of the People’s Popular Front, but how can you object to respecting people. Hense respect can encompass religious groups as well as hardcore socialist activists and anarcho politics.

  • @Glenn:

    “would Boris have won against a relatively a more personable, neutral, Labour candidate like Oona King. I seriously doubt it.”

    Hullo!!!!!! Anybody there!!!!!?????

    If it came to determining a narcissism index between King and Livingstone I know where my vote would lie. And do we really want beauty contest politics for an executive position?

  • Malcolm Todd 14th Sep '12 - 8:49am

    What has George Galloway actually achieved, beyond personal profile? There have always been Liberal MPs who have that — think Cyril Smith, Clement Freud, Llllllllembit …

    And Boris? Well, yes, he’s got a little further — though the Mayor of London is nine-tenths figurehead as far as I understand it — but, as Matthew says, that’s probably got a lot to do with class. The British — or at least a big enough minority to be very influential — remain peculiarly susceptible to following men who simply look and sound like the sort of men they expect to be in charge. Combining that with a sort of ‘anti-politics’ image has been a fairly impressive achievement in Johnson’s case. Even so, I’ll be astonished if he actually makes it to a higher level of public power. And for a party, rather than an individual, I don’t think there’s much to be learnt from that.

  • What has Galloway ever done for us? There’s the cat suit. I grant you the cat suit. Oh, and the “indefatigablility” quote. That too. And the egomaniacal amusement factor …

    [That’s enough bad Python – Ed.]

  • Tony Dawson,
    I think the cult of Boris is largely a myth. I don’t think he won because he is popular, so much as he was less unpopular than Ken. It was a narrow victory against a candidate who was perceived as a bit dodgy. Part of the reason we are hearing stuff about the Boris factor is because the Tory press don’t like the current leader, know they can’t win the next election and are looking for a figurehead. Boris is the nearest thing to a popular Tory they can come up with. Sure the BBC love him because he’s a cartoon bumbling toff, but most actual voters perceive him as a bit of a buffoon doing a mostly symbolic job. Oona King would have beaten him with room to spare. Sure she lacks “substance”,, but beyond publicity stunts and cartoon hair Boris is not exactly a political titan ether, As it stands it was a battle between someone seen as a bit of a joke and someone seen as a bit of a crook. I just don’t think there’s much to learn from it, Personally, I think in a general election Boris would be pretty much hopeless because he would face questions that being a genial old buffer wouldn’t get him out of, some them about his lack of leadership during the riots and trust, this is a guy who was sacked as a journalists because he made statistics up to reinforce his articles.

  • Tony Dawson 15th Sep '12 - 8:34am

    . . . . .

    “…….and winning three Parliamentary elections in three different countries………………….”

    (Scotland, Yorkshire, London}

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Sep '12 - 10:51pm

    R Uduwerage-Perera

    I am not for a second saying that we as a Party should be ‘dumbing down’ ourselves, but certainly I am saying that we would benefit from acquiring the human and interpersonal skills that Gorgious George and Boris Johnson appear to possess.

    Er, weren’t we told we would do this by putting in Nick Clegg as Leader? During the Leadership campaign and the run-up to it, we were forever being told that Clegg had some super strong personal skills and charisma. Indeed, this was often the main argument advanced in his favour.

    The difference between then and now suggests to me we should be extremely cautious about claims that certain people have or do not have personality skills felt desirable in a leader. We should ask to what extent these “personalities” have been manufactured by people who control the media and have vested interests. Clegg is a particularly sad case, because it seems to me he was put forward as a strong charismatic leader when it suited the media to do so (i.e. in order to get the Liberal Democrats to elect someone who is part of the social elite and is to the economic right), and then dropped and painted in much more negative terms when that suited them (i.e. because it suits the Conservative Party to have him made look weak and ineffective). In general, the right-wing media tend to conflate positive personal attributes with having the politics that suits them. Boris Johnson is reported very positively because beneath the jovial image he’s a firm supporter of hard right economics. George Galloway is another Tony Benn or Dennis Skinner – the more they get reported positively as a “personality” rather than negatively as a menace, the more you know they’ve lost it: it has been judged they will never have any real influence and boosting them at the expense of what could be more effective figures on the left works as a sort of divide-and-conquer thing, or setting up the left as being mainly loveable old codgers who are past it.

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