Follow the yellow brick road? The Liberal Democrats’ general election campaign

Guide to 2010 election book coverHere is my chapter from the Total Politics Guide to the 2010 General Election, looking at the prospects for the Liberal Democrats:

The 1997 general election turned out to be a once in a generation opportunity for many local Liberal Democrat campaign teams to gain a Parliamentary seat from the Conservatives. At the tail end of a by then deeply unpopular Conservative Government, the election saw unprecedented numbers of seats falling to the party. A few seats that were not quite gained from the Conservatives in 1997 did subsequently fall in 2001 and 2005, but it was the 1997 election with the Conservatives in government that was the main opportunity. Nearly every campaign that missed then did not subsequently win.

The next general election looks most likely to present the Liberal Democrats with a similar opportunity for seats to be gained from the party in Government, this time Labour. The crucial difference however is the battle between the Liberal Democrats and the main opposition party. In 1997, with Tony Blair’s Labour Party in opposition, there were very few Liberal Democrat MPs who had to hold on to their seat against a major challenge from the opposition party. Next time however, with David Cameron’s Conservative Party as the opposition, there are many Liberal Democrat MPs who have to hold their seats against a Conservative challenge. Whilst 1997 was therefore mainly a contest for the Liberal Democrats against one other major party, the next general election will be a contest against two.

That is the double-pronged challenge facing the Liberal Democrats – gain large numbers of seats from Labour whilst making small progress or holding their own against the Conservatives. (In Scotland and Wales there are few seats where there is a direct Liberal Democrat versus nationalist battle, though the SNP ability to take votes off Labour may actually assist the Liberal Democrats in making gains.)

But it is not only many individual local campaign teams who face a make or break opportunity. So does Nick Clegg. For the leader of the third party, their first general election provides a key opportunity to make or break their reputation on the national stage. Both media habits and media regulations see the third party leader given significantly more coverage in a general election campaign than beforehand. For most of the public, it is the first time they really get a chance to form deeply rooted views of the person. Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy both prospered in this limelight. Ming Campbell never got the chance to find out, and now Nick Clegg has the opportunity ahead of him.

There are some promising signs that Clegg will make good use of this opportunity. Off the back of the recession and MPs’ expenses scandal, Clegg has steadily improved his personal standings with the electorate, and indeed for three consecutive months prior to the writing of this piece had higher net ratings with MORI than Cameron. Moreover, he communicates best when he is in conversation rather than soundbite mode. Being on TV or radio and being able to talk (and be reported) at length plays to his strengths, and a general election campaign will give him many more opportunities to do both. It will not just be a case of more coverage but coverage which suits his natural communication style.

The campaign will be unusual in that the party will have two major national figures, with Vince Cable being as well known amongst the public as Nick Clegg. Moreover, the popularity and high level of tabloid newspaper coverage garnered by Norman Baker, combined with the continuing affection for both Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown, mean the party will not be short of figures with national media profiles and popular support. The challenge will be as much about presenting Nick Clegg as about working out how to turn a team of popular individuals into votes for the party.

Even turning the popularity of one person into votes has always been tricky for the Liberal Democrats, with detailed academic analysis of the link between popularity of the party’s leaders and the party’s poll ratings only showing a very weak correlation. Having a handful of such figures is a different – but very welcome – communications challenge for the party to crack.

Of course, popular senior figures and the party more generally also need to have a message and policies to underpin it. There was widespread agreement in the party that its 2005 manifesto was rather like a collection of nice food ingredients but without a recipe. The individual policies were popular ones, but they did not add up to an overall compelling story and so the party’s message was rather less than the sum of its parts.

The leadership contest between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne featured at times acerbic exchanges on policy, but in the end the differences did not amount to very much. Moreover, whilst the period of settling in for a new party leader often makes their approach to policy clearer, in Clegg’s case the rapidly changing economic situation has made much of the discussions of only a couple of years ago already feel like they were from a different world.

On individual issues, such as the rights of Gurkhas and the future of Trident, Clegg has carved out some distinctive stances but these do not add up to clear overall theme on their own. This search for an effective theme is made harder by David Cameron’s revitalisation of the Conservatives and his clear intention to present his party – despite its name – as being the choice for people who want change.

So far, the Liberal Democrat response has been to offer a different, better, more radical version of change, as shown in the titles of various major policy initiatives in 2008 and 2009: “Make it happen”, “Take back power” and “A fresh start for Britain” to name but three. That theme of change which pays more attention to the environment, changes the political system more and gives more power to individuals is likely to be played out repeatedly during Nick Clegg’s first general election as leader – with the added thread of Vince Cable’s economic credibility.

It will not just be with a new leader that the Liberal Democrats approach the next general election. It will also be the first since 1992 in which Chris Rennard, in one post or another, is not the key person in the party’s campaigning. The campaign will be heavily reliant on his successful work to improve the party’s organisation and finances from their previous precarious position – and also on the extensive work that took place to prepare the party for a general election as early as 2007 (an election after which he was planning to retire). Part of that progress has been avoiding a repeat of the various one-off financial debacles that occurred earlier – the sort of work which does not attract much attention, but brings significant benefits.

The team running the next general election campaign is heavily based on the key staff appointments and structural changes that he made. It comprises individuals who have myriad sorts of experience, but will be new to some of the challenges of organising a national campaign whilst also successfully marshalling scores of target constituencies and their individual campaigns.

It will be Hilary Stephenson’s first general election as Director of Campaigns. She has an impressive track-record in her patch in the north where she both was a key member of the winning team in Hazel Grove and then had wider responsibilities as one of the Deputy Directors. As one former colleague puts it, “Success has a habit of following her around”.

In as interim Chief Executive is Chris Fox, another person with a long track-record of party involvement but new to the role. In addition to his experience as a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate in 1997 (for Windsor) and a very successful career in PR and communications, he has also in the past been involved with a party ginger group (Liberal Future) that was seen as being on the right of the party and at times quite hostile to party activists. Since becoming Director of Policy and Communications, he has impressed many with his decisive action and the extra edge he has added to the party’s media work. The election campaign will be his chance to prove those doubters wrong.

Playing another key role in the general election campaign will be John Sharkey – former Chief Executive of Saatchi and Saatchi and one of the advisers closest to Nick Clegg. Sharkey unusually has detailed experience of working on a general election campaign – but for the Conservatives, as he was a senior figure at Saatchis in the 1987 general election campaign. He also played a significant role behind the scenes in helping the Liberal Democrat 1997 general election campaign, advising on advertising and election broadcasts.

Meanwhile, in the target seats the Liberal Democrats will have two main organisational challenges. First, the party will be fighting to win in double the number of seats it fought a decade ago. That is a massive (and largely unheralded) step forward – and will stretch the party’s money and volunteers thin. Second, in many of those seats the party will be trying to run a winning campaign with a much weaker local campaign organisation than was traditionally seen as necessary. It is a cliché with much truth that northern seats being fought against Labour have a less wealthy electorate less interested in joining and helping organisations than those seats previously won from the Conservatives in southern England.

The party’s ‘textbook’ campaign plans have steadily evolved to reflect these new challenges – and the changing tactics of other parties. With a greater emphasis on casework, the internet, canvassing, direct mail and the smart use of data the target seat campaigns put to the test at the next election will be different in many important respects from those of 1997.

The next election will also put to the test the party’s approach to getting better gender and ethnic balance amongst its MPs. That approach has been two-fold: individual encouragement and mentoring alongside then giving extra help to campaigns with a female or ethnic minority candidate that show a spark of potential.

In 2001 and 2005 showed that half the gains made by Liberal Democrat candidates were in seats with women candidates – and this was not a coincidence. The party has also had a high proportion of female candidates in winnable or possibly winnable by-elections.

But overall these efforts only increased the proportion of women Lib Dem MPs from 6% to 16% between 1997 and 2005, with a major limiting factor on that growth being the pattern of retiring male MPs being succeeded by male candidates. The signs for 2010 are more promising, with at least three retiring male Liberal Democrat MPs being replaced by female candidates.

The party is yet to win a seat in a General Election with a black or minority ethnic candidate after Parmjit Singh Gill’s failure to retain the Leicester South seat won in the 2004 by-election. There are some prospects of rectifying this at the next general election, though there is less confidence in the party that this will be done than there is that the election will see another step forward in the gender balance of the Parliamentary Party.

The party therefore faces challenges and opportunities on a range of fronts. Whilst many commentators have taken it as a nearly forgone conclusion that 2005 was the party’s high watermark, there are many in the party who remember similar comments after 1997 – which were wrong. Given the huge variations from the national average which are often seen in seats that see an intensive Liberal Democrat campaign, who is right may well not be clear until all the votes are counted. My own prediction? That’s between me and the bookmakers!

The Total Politics Guide to the 2010 General Election includes chapters on the prospects for the Conservatives and Labour, a series of studies of factors such as the internet and election law and a comprehensive survey of the key constituencies to watch around the country. You can buy the book from Amazon here.

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6 Comments

  • A really good piece but it raises some questions about our strategic aims for 2010. Of course we want as many seats as we can win but there are 2 things that matter more- stopping the Tories getting a majority & pushing
    Labour into 3rd place in the vote-share. This is an Election where every Libdem vote will count, in every seat.
    Imagine a result where we get more votes than Labour but only a quarter of the seats, that would make the case for reform better than any campaign. A hung Parliament with the Libdems 2nd in the real world would put us in a great position to lead the demands for real change, root & branch.

  • There is a third way. The number of people voting was only 61% in 2005 from 77% in 1992, do we know the reason for this? This means there is a market out there of 16%, and how many seats could we win with just 5% of this 16%. If you look on this link it will show you the % in all areas of the UK.

    http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm
    General election turnout since 1945, by region Year UK England Wales Scotland N.Ireland
    2005 61.4
    2001 59.4
    1997 71.4
    1992 77.7
    1987 75.3
    1983 72.7
    1979 76 75.

    Source: House of Commons Research Papers 01/54 & 05/33

One Trackback

  • By Book review: Total Politics Guide to the 2010 General Election on Tue 8th December 2009 at 12:38 pm.

    […] Dems’ post-merger history in which Chris Rennard will be absent. (Mark published his article here on Lib Dem Voice recently). Paul Richards’ article on Labour is less revealing, but he still makes a better […]

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