Are by-elections the best use of activists’ time?

Over the course of November I lost count of the exhortations I received to contribute, either financially or through my time, to the Oldham campaign. But is our current approach to by-elections the best for our party, and, if not, what wider lessons can we draw? This article is written to provoke, to challenge, and to inspire debate; equally, it is not written to insult or degrade the hard work or enthusiasm of activists or candidates with which this party is blessed.

Activists are encouraged to get involved in a by-election for a number of reasons: (i) the excellent qualities of the local candidate; (ii) the opportunity to increase our representation at Westminster; (iii) there is value in 2nd/3rd/… place; (iv) to learn about effective methods of campaigning; (v) to spread our national message; and (vi) it’s fun/sociable/exciting! But we have to realise that we are a seriously resource constrained political party. Resources are financial and people-time: activists, party staff, and political figures (e.g. MPs). I would argue that these are all more seriously limited than at any time since I joined the party in 2005, with the possible exception of activists. Even here, many will have full time commitments, a family, other volunteering work etc. 

We therefore must ask if the arguments listed above suggest that by-elections are necessarily a good use of our money and time. On the excellency of the candidate, it strikes me that there were 631 excellent candidates last May, yet only eight were returned. We must acknowledge that the golden days of by-election success are now distant memories: it is ten years since our last by-election success; in the 59 by-elections since 1997, on only two occasions have we gained the seat and then held it at the next GE. And whatever value you reasonably ascribe to a good second place means that 3rd/4th/5th place are correspondingly less valuable.

I would like to tentatively suggest an alternative: multi-constituency/local party action days, bringing together activists across an area smaller than a region, would seem to me to be worthy of our time and our money, including federal funding. These would target winnable councils, or receptive areas for the London, Wales or Scotland 2016 elections. Of the 22 councils which we have lost control of since 2015, 12 have elections (full or thirds) this spring; whilst London, Wales and Scotland have more proportional systems that reward incremental gains. Combined with federal support, I think these can come close to replicating the sharing of best practice, and excitement, of a by-election whilst spending less money and with a greater chance of concrete reward. They are possibly a better vehicle for spreading our national message, as the local arena will be less crowded and voters less overwhelmed by a loud fight between other front-runners.

It wasn’t hard to work out where we have recently lost local power, but really this information should be provided to activists – after all, for a General Election we identify target seats well in advance: why not do the same with the May 2016 elections? When a by-election is called because the sitting MP, who only just beat the Lib Dem candidate at the last election, has resigned due to an improbable scandal, I will be there like a shot. In the meantime, tell me where we need only a small push to regain the representation that the people of this country need us to have and send me there instead.

* MIchael Atkins has been a member of the Liberal Democrats since 2005.

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20 Comments

  • Peter Davies 10th Dec '15 - 2:42pm

    The ‘activists are a limited resource’ argument doesn’t wash. Activists who go to bye-elections are more likely to be motivated to do something at home than those that don’t. It is true that our finances are limited so it might be worth sending more people out to knock on doors and fewer to deliver mediocre leaflets.

  • nigel hunter 10th Dec '15 - 9:23pm

    I agree that that more people should be door knockers but also hand over questionnaires with their ideas for us ,hopefully to put into practice both locally and nationally.

  • To win back the level of support we once had we need a mass audience. But the media are never going to give us a mass audience with 8 MPs.

    So what do we do?

    I suggest we look at people who do have a mass audience without the help of the media. In particular, I propose that we consider the example of David Icke, who maintains a mass audience through his website and books. Every Friday, Icke goes face-to-face with his audience on Youtube. That’s 15 minutes of free-to-view eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the rest of the world. Icke is a masterful communicator, and he gets his message across (whether or not you agree with it).

    My suggestion is that Tim (and perhaps his 7 colleagues as well) do regular Friday talks that can be put on Youtube and posted on the party website. That would get to far more voters than any number of press releases, and it would have a more intimate feel. Tim is nowhere near as good a communicator as David Icke, but I think he is suited to the fireside chat approach. It is surely worth a try.

  • Jonathan Brown 11th Dec '15 - 1:22am

    A very good and thought-provoking article Michael.

    I certainly don’t think we should abandon by-elections altogether. It is important that we show ourselves to be a national party after all. And byelections can be an important part of rebuilding a party in somewhere like Oldham.

    But I think you are right that our focus ought to be on local elections which are both more winnable targets and as a result, more likely to lead us back to prominence. Being able to say in 2020 that our councillor base has doubled in size and we control lots more councils that we did in 2015 is likely to be a more powerful message than having gained a single extra MP ina by election – if we can even achieve that. And of course, building up our power at council level will also build skills, drive recruitment and help us to reconnect with ‘ordinary people’ again.

  • Martin Pierce 11th Dec '15 - 7:46am

    I think we shouldn’t forget that by-elections have repeatedly been the kick-starter of relevance and attention for the party at times of past doldrums – Orpington in the 60s, Sutton & Cheam and Berwick in the 70s, Croydon, Crosby etc for the Alliance and notably Eastbourne and Ribble Valley in 1990/91 after the merger/89 Euros debacle. In fact it’s difficult to think of anything else that has done this for us. So arguably we should be doing the reverse of what’s suggested and think about throwing the kitchen sink at them – especially if likely ones can be predicted. And there’s an obvious place to look at where there may well be a by election next summer and where we had the MP as recently as 2010 – Richmond Park

  • Tsar Nicholas 11th Dec '15 - 9:39am

    The view expressed in this article was pretty commonplace during the 9140s and 1950s. Good job that nobody listened then.

  • Bill le Breton 11th Dec '15 - 9:56am

    Of course this opinion piece follows a line that Caron initially took over Oldham in a comment here when the highly experienced campaigner Jonathan Fryer argued that we must take the by-election seriously https://www.libdemvoice.org/we-must-take-oldham-seriously-47948.html

    Reading Michael’s argument and Caron’s that day you would think that the ‘centre’, that is the Campaigns Department, throws the kitchen sink at everything. It does not. It knows all about the Boy Who Cried Wolf, it knows the dangers or talking up the Party’s fortunes up, getting the membership and the media excited, only to find itself covered in egg.

    But Oldham was a special case. If you do not realise how dangerous Oldham could have been without the great service done by Jane, her team and those who helped in any way, I suggest you look at the history of the 1990 Bootle by-election which ended Dr Owen’s Continuing SDP when it did so badly that it was beaten even by the Monster Raving Loony Party and within a week voted to dissolve itself.

    Make no mistake – at the time of the calling of this by-election there were so many unknowns that a wounding result similar to that of the SDP was not impossible.

    At Oldham, the fight was to avoid mortal reputational damage.

  • Simon Banks 11th Dec '15 - 1:46pm

    Political situations change. That we’ve not won a by-election for ten years does not mean that we won’t win one in the next five years; and if we don’t try, we won’t win. However, I think party HQ with the aid of the appropriate regional or national party should make a clear-headed assessment of whether we really stand a chance. I’d think that in Oldham West we didn’t. If members are chased every time there’s a by-election – plus every May for regular elections – and asked for money, we’ll lose members. A new or marginal activist who’s persuaded to help with a campaign under the impression we might win, only to see us well under 10%, may not come again. It’s crying wolf in reverse.

    It’s not a new problem. I remember on the one hand having, to hard sell to get local members to believe that the SDP could win in Greenwich – after I’d been down and been very impressed – and all the noises suggesting we could well win in Vauxhall, which any fule no was a no-hoper, especially if any fule had spent an hour or two canvassing.

    This is not to suggest we should do nothing in hopeless by-elections. They can be valuable experience for keen new members. A reasonable level of activity shows the world we’re still around and gets some of our arguments over. In Clacton, we were encouraged by visits by lords and the like, but not ecstatic that Nick Clegg (though we didn’t expect him to visit) missed the opportunity when interviewed on TV to say anything positive about the campaign. We’d been cajoled into fighting for the party. If we can’t win, it does still matter whether we hold our deposit, whether we beat Greens or Labour or UKIP or Tories or nationalists (depending on local circumstances). But there is a real danger that unselective repeated appeals will turn people off.

  • I think this is a very interesting debate prompted by an excellent article. Obviously in Oldham we faced obliteration as Bill le Breton says so we had to fight to achieve a respectable result which we did thanks to Jane and her team who showed we can’t be written off just yet. Obviously the party leaders can’t come out and say this kind of thing out loud but publishing previous local election and GE results would give activists a pretty strong clue as to whether the seat is winnable.
    I also think that Martin Pierce may have underestimated the effect of local election results on activists’ morale both at grassroots and in the higher party echelons. I was very active in the 80s and 90s and the Alliance breakup affected our results in Bath in the immediate aftermath but the following year when polls were suggesting Labour landslides we managed to keep all but two of our seats. The local reporter said that this showed 3 party politics had returned which gave the party quite a boost on the election night coverage in spite of losing two seats. So the lesson is that you don’t always have to win to get a successful result and this helped to encourage the teams who won subsequent bye elections.
    So my conclusion is that each election has to be fought for what it’s worth to the party whether it’s at national or local level so targeting is vital to make use of scarce resources.

  • Simon Shaw I think Simon B meant that we had not GAINED at a Parliamentary byelection for 10 years (almost, Dunfermline, IIRC in very early 2006, when we were leaderless, of course). Your throwing Eastleigh into the pot, as a hold (just!) rather confuses things.

  • Simon
    As you well know, when you tell us of your 40 years or so in the Party and predecessor, the Lib Dem and Liberal “byelection record” is about taking seats from other parties, often with immense swings from unpromising positions, not about holding on after a defence. As has been pointed out many times, by friend and foe, Eastleigh, apart from the reason for it being fought, was in a hugely favourable position. Many local activists, Council near to one-party state Lib Dem. Opposition split between UKIP and Tories, many strong constituencies within easy reach for helping etc. Who knows what might have happened had the seat concerned been one less-favoured.

    We know you are keen on accuracy with words, Simon, but sometimes it pays to have the underlying narrative right, rather than dotting every i and crossing every t!

  • Sir Norfolk Passmore 12th Dec '15 - 9:13am

    The author of this article is profoundly mistaken,

    Just about the ONLY way we will get positive coverage in this Parliament and change the death spiral narrative (where we’re remembered at all) is by winning one of these damned things. Richmond – if Goldsmith gets the mayoralty (and I’m rather doubtful) – being a big opportunity.

  • I’d suggest that Eastleigh is the last place to be talking about LibDem ‘success’… It is, rather, an example of how far we’ve fallen…

    It was just held on 2013 with a fall of 14% in the LibDem vote (that after throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, into the hustings)
    As for 2015, the less said about a 21% fall the better….

    Regarding M. Atkins points I think there are pros and cons in fighting hard in ‘no-hope’ elections….I think it’s in the British psyche to remember lost causes and as a party it brings out the best of efforts…On the other hand, too many such adventures are a depressing reminder of where we are….

    I tend to agree with Jonathan Brown in concentrating on winnable local elections…Most voters are not ‘political’ and a steady drip of good news about local LibDem councillors, on local matters, in local media will garner far more potential voters than a flurry of ‘fliers’ in the run up to a GE….

  • Jonathan Brown 12th Dec '15 - 6:36pm

    I think Bell le Breton makes a vital point about Oldham: “the fight was to avoid mortal reputational damage”. Although Simon Banks is also correct that we shouldn’t mislead party members or the media i.e. “it’s us or Labour” as it makes us look silly and ends up backfiring.

    It is crucial that we do everything we can not to lose deposits. Having the media narrative on election nights change from ‘wiped out and irrelevant’ to ‘winning local council by elections and haven’t lost a deposit in two years’ isn’t as good as ‘party has won every by election called’ but is important progress nevertheless.

    But if we’ve got no chance of winning or even just massively increasing our vote share, then putting a lot of resource into by elections where we’ll confident we will at least keep our deposit may not be a better use of resources than focussing on making local election gains.

    If the argument for pouring in resources to a by election is to rebuild a local party and prepare the ground for a future election, then let’s not pretend it’s about trying to win. There’s no shame in saying to party members or the media that although we don’t expect to win the electorate deserve the option to vote for a candidate and a party who cares about human rights, privacy, the environment, compassion to refugees, etc., etc. and there’s no shame in asking party members to help on the basis that they will gain experience and help build a capable election-fighting machine for the future.

  • Michael Atkins 14th Dec '15 - 4:35pm

    Thank you all for the comments – I’m pleased to see that this has inspired a small debate about the value of by elections and our priorities, which was the motivation for writing the piece in the first place.

    Several excellent points have been made – I agree wholeheartedly that winnable by-elections should be pursued and fought. But I am dubious that
    i) Had our involvement in Oldham been, say, half the size, would we have received far fewer votes? Half as many? More?
    ii) Would, say, half as many votes have been any different (mortally wounding?) versus losing our deposit on 3.7% and fourth place?

    I did exclude Eastleigh when claiming that “it has been ten years since our last by election success” – I think I meant to say “gain”, which is correct, rather than opening a debate on the meaning of “success”. Apologies!

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