General Election 2019 – campaign positives and negatives

Here are what I think were some positives and negatives about our campaign messages and strategy. They are based largely on the points made to me as a candidate by voters or members and other party activists have endorsed the points I make. They are not in any particular order of priority. Some of the negatives were to some extent beyond our control, but they are matters we need to face better in future.

Positives

  1. We said correctly that we are by far the strongest party for Remain.
  2. Our manifesto was full of excellent proposals and was the only credibly costed one.
  3. We targetted certain seats and urged people from other places to help in these target seats.
  4. We established agreement with the Greens and Plaid Cymru to help each other in appropriate seats.
  5. As the campaign proceeded we took the huge range of manifesto proposals and trimmed down to a few policy issues.
  6. Led by Jo, we highlighted the £50bn remain bonus, though maybe it was not explained enough and therefore not believed by some voters.
  7. Jo presented herself as a determined young lady of courage.
  8. We said that Boris and Corbyn were not fit to be prime minister though some floating voters were turned off by this personal attack, so maybe it needed to criticise them on specific characteristics only.

Negatives

  1. We said we would revoke Article 50; that is how it came across without the attached condition. Members generally must take responsibility for this after the conference vote.
  2. When Jo said right from the start that she could be prime minister this caused many people to seriously question her political judgment; as in other matters, was she badly advised by her team ?
  3. Following on from that and the reported poor performance in the first TV debate, Jo came across even to floating voters as inexperienced and not ready for high level leadership. We can say that to enter a general election so soon after becoming our leader was a tall order.
  4. There was no cooperation from Labour in seats where we were second.
  5. We did not say anywhere near enough about why we should remain and this should have been part of our campaigning from 2017.
  6. Related to my first negative point, we did not always say first in speeches and statements that our aim was for a second referendum. Likewise we did not say often enough why it was democratic to have such a referendum.
  7. Although our manifesto had a huge number of proposals on the environment our messaging was not strong enough about Green issues for young people (as evidenced by a poll taken of students at my local college).
  8. Early in the campaign there were hints of it being a two-horse race and the media hyped this up enormously.
  9. There were not enough opportunities to constructively put our case as an anti-austerity party with the best manifesto for dealing with inequality.
  10. The Coalition still works strongly against us for many people, who therefore still do not trust us; some young voters have been persuaded of that too.
  11. The Rob Flello issue in Stoke South (which soon went national among churches) was badly handled and badly messaged by the national party. The public heard the message that Christians are not welcome in our party.
  12. Our media team put out messages that had good content but were not presented well, e.g. even towards the end of the campaign one headline said we would stop Brexit immediately.
  13. There was a lot of tactical voting.

* Nigel Jones is the Chair of the Liberal Democrat Education Association.

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26 Comments

  • To be fair Rob Flello wasn’t a liberal (at all) and his dropping by the party was the right thing to do. It had little publicity and I doubt influenced more than a few thousand voters; the overwhelmingly majority would not have voted Liberal Democrat anyway

  • Nigel Jones 20th Dec '19 - 9:56pm

    James, our local paper made Rob Flello a big issue with two major articles, followed by comment in the letters page that Christians were not welcome in our party. I faced it as a big question at a church hustings, the local paper made it a third big article earlier this week and yet another letter giving the same distorted message appeared in our local paper yesterday. The same issue, with Tim Farron raised again, was a major question in a TV interview I did for a Christian TV station in South London a week before polling day.

  • Given Mr. Flello consistently voted against same sex marriage when he was a Labour MP in Stoke in 2013, and was on record as an anti-abortion campaigner, why did the Party adopt him in 2019 but within a few hours issue a statement saying “it only really became clear over the past few hours how greatly his values diverge from ours.” ?

    Given this, and a more flexible stance on the party’s most prominent policy in Eastbourne, is there or is there not an effective and rigorous system of due diligence or is it make it up as you go along ? It all seems to be an unprofessional elastic muddle and certainly sends out a mixed message to potential Roman Catholic Lib Dem voters.

  • James Baillie 20th Dec '19 - 10:33pm

    The solution to the Rob Flello problem was that he should never have been permitted to stand as a Liberal Democrat candidate in the first place. His political stances on a range of issues like abortion and same-sex marriage are clearly inappropriate for someone upholding our values, and stand far from those of the Liberal Democrats. We should absolutely learn from this in future and improve candidate vetting as a result.

    I disagree on negative point 1: the members gave the party a policy, it was up to FCEC how we messaged that policy, and they absolutely did not have to pitch it in the terms given. What we talk about and how much we talk about it in the air campaign is FCEC’s purview, and they must take at least as much, if not more, responsibility than Conference.

    On the other hand, negative point five I think is very good indeed and something we need to think about more, and I hope we’ll think much harder about points nine and ten in future too – there are a lot of areas where we could have taken those opportunities and whilst we worked hard to make the most of them at a local level in my constituency, I did feel like we were making up for rather than working effectively alongside the national campaign in highlighting those things.

  • @Nigel

    Im sure the Rob Fello must have felt like a big thing, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a very niche issue that would have occupied the minds of people already decided on how they would vote (those that attend hustings invariably have, and have strong views to match, as well could those that read local newspapers), whose number was very small.

    The mistake with him was letting his be a candidate in the first place given his long track record of conservative and anti-liberal views

  • John, in certain circles the issue will not go away, even though I would agree that it affects a minority of voters.
    David Raw is right to imply that it was not handled well by the party.
    As to Simon’s questions, somewhat cynically asked, we Lib-Dems will continue to campaign to put people in all their diversity and needs at the centre of government policy and society, fight for localism, representative democracy and the much needed complementary internationalist approach to human society.

  • I think that once the BBC and ITV had decided to frame it as a two horse race we were doomed to do poorly at the polls in this election. I cant remember such bias from TV companies in an election, I m surprised it was even legal do ignore one of the three parties that stand nationally and frame it as Tories V Labour as they did. They greatly influenced the result by doing this, had Jo been in those two debates we would have done much better. Nigel Faridge Ltd standing down more than half his candidates didnt help either.

  • Tobias Sedlmeier 21st Dec '19 - 12:35am

    Michael Kinsley said, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

    On the terms of this definition, what happened with Rob Flello story was a gaffe for two reasons:

    (1) It demonstrated the LibDems increasing centralism, i.e. London HQ decides things and overrules local branches. That’s what happened with Rob Flello’s deselection.

    (2) It demonstrated the LibDems increasing intolerance of diverse viewpoints and political protest. Until relatively recently, many LibDem MPs have been opposed to abortion, to greater or lesser degrees and votes on abortion have not been whipped but have been treated as a matter of individual conscience. Similarly, a good chunk of LibDem MPs did not vote for the introduction of gay marriage, among them Simon Hughes, Sarah Teather, Alan Beith, Greg Mulholland. We’ve had 50 years of legal abortion in the UK without needing to criminalise peaceful protect outside abortion clinics, but we now see LibDems supporting criminalising protest. It is a slippery slope – now the guns are trained on those supporting boycott, sanctions and divestment in respect of Israel. (Am I too cynical to wonder what might have motivated certain pro-Tory and anti-Labour interventions during the election campaign?).

    To a very large degree, the LibDem leadership and commentariat are no more than useful idiots.

  • A helpful piece of homework by Nigel. Meanwhile as a Methodist minister who has campaigned for gay rights since the early 1970s, I confess that this is the first I’ve heard of Mr Flello.

  • I followed the election quite closely and this is the first time I’ve ever even heard the name Rob Flello.

    Again, as others note – look at the Ashcroft data. Firstly, fully half of Lib Dem support at this election was contingent on the circumstances surrounding the election – they supported the most unequivocally pro-Remain party. Those people do not identify as “Liberal Democrats”. Secondly, as Paul Walter notes elsewhere, this was a “wasteful” campaign in that the party needed 3 times as many votes to win a seat as in 2005. That rather suggests that whatever targeting strategy was in place, it wasn’t effective. And thirdly, the party had no advantage with younger pro-Remain voters. The Lib Dems got 12% of the under-35 vote which is exactly the same as their percentage of the over-65 vote. The reasons for that need to be clearly understood.

  • Paul, your point about younger voters shows we need to listen more to people and not make assumptions about them; when I took part in the college event I was surprised at the young people’s automatic opposition to Lib-Dems; those who were pro-remain wanted to vote Green, until they heard the green candidate, but then swung towards Labour because of Labour’s bigger promises on public spending.
    Antony, I too heard there was a national ad campaign but it did not reach anywhere near my area; was that because it’s an area where Lib-dems stand no chance at the moment ?
    Geoff, I share your comment having met and supported gay Christians in the 1980s.

  • The Rob Flello issue didn’t get much if any traction. I find it hard to believe it would have resonated with any groups other than anti-equal(ish) marriage or anti LGBT rights generally extremist Christians who have either not read or not understood the Bible. That’s a group that is very very unlikely to vote LIb Dem in any significant amount (the reason for the party’s decline can be put down to many things – it is not because of loss of support among evangelical Christians!)

    But he was approved despite some fairly widely know problems with his views on equality related issues. As was Waheed Rafiq in Hodge Hill. AIUI he stood as a UKIP candidated in 2010.
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-50495409

    In both cases you have to ask very serious questions about how robust the approval process was. Both had backgrounds – which were clear public knowledge – that should have led some serious questions to be asked if the approval process had been adequate and sufficiently robust.

  • @ Hywell Take a look at Montgomeryshire as well.

  • @Tobias Sedlmeier

    I doubt the abortion stance was what clinched it for Rob Bello. It’s not a settled issue for the party, and even ideologically it isn’t settled (there are liberal arguments to be pro-choice and there are liberal arguments to be pro-life). I actually am very much opposed to this creeping restriction (via councils) on the right to protest in relation to abortion. It’s a core liberal principle to be allowed to peacefully protest).

    I suspect where Rob Bello fell foul of the party was his opposition to same gender marriage. This is a settled issue for the party and a prominent selling point of the Lib Dems. Unlike those (some of them awful) Lib Dem MPs that ABSTAINED from the vote, Rob Bello repeatedly voted AGAINST it. Yes I think abstaining is wet, but it’s not the same as voting against. Some of those that abstained did so because they had the (very liberal) view that the government should have nothing to do with marriage, a position I agree with.

    As for excluding Christians (or people of any faith) from the party, then I think its perfectly reasonable to exclude religious fundamentalists and extremists who will refuse to vote according to liberal principles and party policy, putting their holy book or church/mosque/temple as the deciding factor as to how to vote. Whilst I don’t think everything in a manifesto, or voted as party policy, or what a party whip says must be obeyed all the time, I don’t have any time for MPs that go against any of the above because their holy book, spiritual leader or congregation tells them they must. The Liberal Democrats are a liberal party not a theocratic one.

  • John David Raw 21st Dec '19 - 12:19pm

    @ James Pugh Who is Rob Bello ? Any relation to Rob Flello ?

    @ Frankie “The Lib Dems got 12% of the under-35 vote which is exactly the same as their percentage of the over-65 vote. The reasons for that need to be clearly understood”….. according to Ashcroft – (who happens to be a chum of Farage, by the way).

    Now maybe you (and Sir Vincent) can stop your ageist nonsense….. If Stoke is a precedent for political correctness, then maybe Sir Vincent might not have been re-selected anyway.

  • Are you mistaking me for someone else Mr Raw I’ve up to this point not commented on this article. But if you want to demonstrate the generational split Mr Ashcrofts poll does it quite well
    Labour won more than half the vote among those turning out aged 18-24 (57%) and 25-34 (55%), with the Conservatives second in both groups. The Conservatives were ahead among those aged 45-54 (with 43%), 55-64 (with 49%) and 65+ (with 62%).
    https://lordashcroftpolls.com/2019/12/how-britain-voted-and-why-my-2019-general-election-post-vote-poll/

    Now you could suggest the split is an age thing, but it could equally be argued it is a wealth thing, with the old being relatively well of in comparison to the young. Either way as we have voted to be poorer I don’t think exorting the young to work harder to support the economically inactive will be successful. I suspect they will just leave for greener pastures. After all that all what the youth of poor countries always do.

  • Paul Barker 21st Dec '19 - 1:09pm

    Most of this is noise.
    The story of this Election is very simple, Labour, Tories & The Media all wanted it to be a Two-Horse Race & we were not big enough to stop them.
    We were not big enough because its too soon.
    Our Low Point was Summer 2017 when we were averaging 6% in The Polls, Two & a half Years was just not enough for a full recovery.
    It took 7 Years for us to fall from 23% in 2010 to 6% in 2017, perhaps a full recovery will take 7 Years too – that would take us to 2024.

  • Sue Sutherland 21st Dec '19 - 3:46pm

    Paul Barker – most of this is noise – could be called a Flello Bellow?

  • Tobias Sedlmeier 21st Dec '19 - 6:19pm

    @John Pugh

    “Whilst I don’t think everything in a manifesto, or voted as party policy, or what a party whip says must be obeyed all the time, I don’t have any time for MPs that go against any of the above because their holy book, spiritual leader or congregation tells them they must.”

    Well, when certain religious leaders spoke out during the election campaign saying that those of their religion should not vote for a certain political party, rather than condemning religious interference in politics, the statements of those religious leaders were endorsed and repeated by LibDem candidates. When it comes to the LibDem leadership, some religions are more equal than others?

  • Jack McKenna 21st Dec '19 - 8:36pm

    In my view there are three major reasons we suffered the disaster we did.

    1. Jo came over quite poorly. Rightly or wrongly many people thought that she looked like a keen sixth form politics not a credible leader. Now I know this conclusion is drawn because of the sexism that is everywhere in our society but I’m afraid at the minute that’s how things are.

    2. The ‘Jo Swinison is your next Prime Minister’ campaign made Jo and the party look barmy. It’s quite hard to set yourselves up as the sensible grown ups in the room when you’re promoting an idea that even keenest Lib Dem activist knew was never ever going to happen after the election.

    3. The revoke policy went down like a cup of cold sick. It alienated nearly all of the moderate remainers and #remainernow voters. I agree the policy made logical sense but it became almost impossible to see and in every interview our candidates were trying to defend a policy that we were never going to enact because we were never winning a majority.

  • Nigel Jones 21st Dec '19 - 9:50pm

    Thanks to Paul Barker for coming to the wider issues in my article. But if progress is slow, what about the fact that we have gone backwards in number of seats won this time ? On the matter of a two-horse race, I am not sure we can blame the media entirely, because when our leader had the chance to appear on TV, commentators said she had missed an opportunity.

  • Andrew Sims 22nd Dec '19 - 7:47am

    Thanks Nigel, although I think you are being too positive about the campaign. You didn’t mention that the poll rating went from ~22% polling to 11.5% if things are going well and all of that going to the Tories and despite the huge amount of publicity there was very little tactical voting.
    The errors started on Day 1 with talk of being the largest party – clearly no one was expecting the third party vote to get squeezed. Oh dear… really? Sounds like senior Leaders were way too optimistic.
    Jo’s TV performances, while positively received within the party (!) were not positive to a lot of other people, and her personal rating fell precipitously. That needs to be looked at – what was it that really turned so many people off?
    So the next leader please take a lot of acting lessons. That Leader needs to ensure that the more people see of him, the more they like him. I know we have a democratic party but the leader needs to look good on TV. No ifs no buts.
    Our key pledge on revoked was then quietly dropped – an astonishing situation for the supposedly intelligent political strategists running the party. Additionally, as someone else pointed out, it meant that a FPTP system would invalidate a referendum. Err aren’t Lib Dems meant to be against FPTP?
    We don’t need more policies. The policies are fine. We need fewer messages. EVERYONE remember, that the party with a clear message, albeit a Big Lie, won a huge majority. The SNP had a clear message (independence) and also won almost every seat they stood for. Labour had lots of policies and no clear message – they lost badly too. Does this seem like a pattern?
    Your article shows that messaging was a weakness – that needs to be rectified ASAP.

    So – lets challenge the idea of Brexit.

  • @David Raw

    I’m not aware the candidate in Montgomeryshire had past views exposed that seriously questioned if he was at odds with the party’s fundamental values and which were well in the public domain – like the two referred to above.

    I may have missed something but as it stands I think they are different cases.

  • Following such an infantile and disastrous campaign, the Libdems should now seriously reconsider where and how they position themselves in the post-Brexit landscape. I personally think a massive dose of humility would be in order along with a muting of pro-Europe voices. By all means appoint an extremely competent ‘Brexit spokesperson’ but this should not be at the forefront of the party’s profile. Rather, it should overtly focus on a couple of more domestic issues, namely Housing, and Electoral Reform. These should become the dominant sectors within the party structure; to such an extent that the Libdems come to be seen as ‘owning’ these areas. I’d suggest electoral reform would require building the broadest coalition. Surely the argument could be won if the new Labour leadership could be persuaded…

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