Learning the lessons from last week #3: Grassroots campaigns don’t win national elections

Liberal Democrats have long known that grassroots campaigns can win a ward, a council or a constituency – but they don’t win national election campaigns. It’s the knowledge that you need both the grassroots campaign and an effective national media and/or advertising campaign that explains why when Chris Rennard was the party’s Chief Executive not only did the Campaigns Department grow hugely in size – but so too did the national press team.

Yet at the heart of the Yes campaign in last week’s AV referendum seems to have been a big mistake: trying to run a grassroots campaign to win a national contest.

Grassroots campaigns can pick off parts of a country. Grassroots campaigns can win when there is no national opponent (cf the campaign against the government’s forestry proposals last year – a very effective use of grassroots mobilisation, but not up against a direct opposing campaign). Grassroots campaigns can also raise the funds that fuel national media and advertising campaigns (cf Barack Obama and his mamoth TV advertising spending for the 2008 Presidential contest).

But where a grassroots campaign is up against a national media and advertising campaign against it, grassroots are not enough.

Yes to Fairer Votes website screenshotIn its own terms, the Yes campaign’s grassroots efforts were very impressive: dominating local media coverage for the much of the campaign with local events and stunts; huge numbers of volunteers brought into the campaign; impressive online donation figures and levels of web traffic that easily beat the No campaign.

There were, inevitably, some mistakes too – especially  in the very small number of different leaflets available which meant that even where there were people willing to regularly deliver an area it was extremely hard to do more than a couple of deliveries – and frequently the idea was that one leaflet would make a difference. (Just as doing only the one leaflet so often results in someone winning a Parliamentary election. Oh, hang on…)

But even without any of those mistakes none of that would have amounted to nearly enough in the face of a national politician speaking out in the national media. The headline polls moved when David Cameron started speaking out as Tory voters shifted heavily to the No camp in response. The No campaign may have run an extremely intensive online get out the vote campaign, but by then it didn’t really matter.

The combination of David Cameron and the Daily Mail is not a sure-fire election winner by any means (see May 2010 for a start), but the answer does not rest with street stalls and tweets in a national contest.

Of course you cannot magic ideal supporters out of thin air, but in the end it mattered far more that so many Labour MPs, peers and councillors did not follow Ed Miliband’s lead, that no Conservative MPs came out unequivocally for a Yes vote and that only the usual suspects amongst media outlets backed a Yes vote (and many of them half-heartedly).

There are many things political parties and campaigners can learn from the grassroots and online efforts of both sides (as Paul Waugh has pointed out) but the most important is a reminder of the limitations of both.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Matthew Huntbach 11th May '11 - 8:43am

    Oh, here we go, blame the grassroots. Mark, I have already explained where I think the national “Yes” campaign went wrong – it was a rubbish campaign. Do you remember I stood up at the London Regional Confernece on 9th April, before the polls showed we were losing, said just that and said why, and said “Rememeber my words when we lose?”.

  • I assume you’ve read this?

    Seems like a decent explanation to me, especially the points about not recruiting the UKIP vote.

    I’d also add that there was a failure to make the case that parts of the UK already have differing electoral systems to pure FPTP, it is notable that Scotland, Wales, and large parts of London voted No. These parts of the UK already know that there are viable alternatives to FPTP, most of which are a great deal more complicated than AV too.

  • Tony Dawson 11th May '11 - 9:20am

    “when Chris Rennard was the party’s Chief Executive not only did the Campaigns Department grow hugely in size – but so too did the national press team.”

    A standing joke and complete waste of money, if you ever spoke to any serious national journalists. Churning out totally-boring well-meaning but poorly-written pap about Lib Dem positions on matters where the press and electorate knew little and cared less.

  • Tony Dawson 11th May '11 - 9:27am

    ” the Yes campaign’s grassroots efforts were very impressive:”

    This Mark Pack is clearly a different Mark Pack than the excellent gentleman I saw on TV at the weekend. Or he is having a joke at our expense, which he is entitled to do on his own website?

    The YES campaign centrally was an appalling incompetent mess which turned-off those who tried to help it. The ONLY success of the YES campaigners was in those areas where a local team took hold of the issue and pursued their own arguments, produced their own material etc which addressed the issues instead of the rancid dribblings of the YES campaign. In most areas of this country there was NO effective ‘grassroots ‘YES’ campaign at all.

    On polling day I encountered people who still did not know what AV was. I believe that it was the strategy of the YES campaign to keep them in ignorance and get them to vote ‘YES’ on a wave of hysteria about MPs fiddling expenses. They were as bad as the NO campaign except that you kind of expected the disgusting rubbish from the NO campaign when you saw who was running it.

  • I’d make three observations.

    1) The article mentions Cameron and Ed M, but not Clegg and the other Lib Dem cabinet ministers. They dropped off the face of the earth during this campaign. Whatever I think about Ed M, he went out there personally for AV at considerable political cost. Whatever I think of Cameron, he went out there and got involved. Clegg was nowhere, Cable was nowhere and Huhne’s one contribution was this ludicrous idea of settling it in court. Ed looked like a serious opposition politician, Cameron looked like a man with the words ‘Prime Minister’ in the job title – the same could not be said for Nick Clegg. The AV referendum did show up problems with leadership and I am at a loss as to why this plain fact was not in the article.

    2) It seems to be common currency that somehow out there there is this great ‘progressive’ (whatever that means) silent majority. All that is needed to energise that majority is some dog-whistle issue, like electoral reform, and they will turn out in droves. This silent majority does not exist, however much some have convinced themself it does. I got a feeling that the YES camp was a bit hopey-changey and appealed to the voters it wished existed, not the ones it had.

    3) Whilst I’d agree with g to the point that the YES campaign ought to have pointed out that there are systems other than FPTP in use in the UK, I’m not sure it is an argument that would have enthused anyone. Put another way – are constitutional issues really the ones on which to make a stand? Can anyone now see the public at large thanking the Lib Dems for making a referendum on the House of Lords a national priority, if that is the route they go down? House of Lords reform is a bear-trap – Cameron would just drop out of sight and leave the Lib Dems to have a public row with 700 peers.

  • Matthew,
    if you read it again, I think it’s quite clear that Mark is *not* blaming the grassroots campaign: on the contrary, he is pointing out – and accurately, I think – that the grassroots campaign was good but could not succeed on its own.

    It seems pretty evident that even the best grassroots activists can’t win in the context of a national campaign, if the central handling of media and strategy isn’t working. Note that good strategy in such a case isn’t solely top-down…. there has to be a good overall strategy, but there also has to be some leeway for local groups to adapt the message to local circumstances. In the case of the YES campaign, the national strategy wasn’t god enough and there was not enough room (if any) for local variation: some local groups asked for permission to produce local material, and in many cases they were denied permission. Which explains, for example, why the campaign wasn’t properly adapted to circumstances in the devolved nations where other voting systems are already familiar.

    There was plenty of very impressive grassroots campaigning for the YES side, but that alone was clearly not enough…. not by a long way.

  • Tony Dawson – A very good point. I was at a loss as to why the YES campaign tried so hard to tap into the sentiment surrounding expenses. Even if that was anything to do with the voting system it looked like a desperate substitute for argument.

    As a wider thought, is there a possibility that maybe expenses is not the be-all-and-end-all issue that it was built up as.

  • Where the Yes campaign went wrong was not using a universal freepost. Everyone I know – from different parts of the country – got one No leaflet (delivered free) just before the postal votes went out and another No leaflet (again, delivered free) just before polling day. Both leaflets as far as I can tell immediately preceded the two big jumps in the No poll rating.

    Even in the small pinpricks of the country where we were delivering, we were only catching up, and far too much of the country will have received nothing. At first the Yes campaign didn’t even want to provide leaflets! People wanted information on AV and far too many of them only got something from the No people.

    Too much emphasis was placed on social media – people talking to themselves. Social media is great for mobilisation; it’s rubbish for reaching ppl who don’t already agree with you or passionately oppose you. On polling day itself my partner was at a Yes campaign office where for a period of about 20 minutes, four people (all the paid staff in the office) were arguing over the wording of a tweet!

  • Kirsten de Keyser 11th May '11 - 9:51am

    Grassroots campaigns worked perfectly well in Camden, Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh Central, Glasgow Kelvin, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth and Southwark.
    As a member of the Camden campaign I know that we, in large part, departed from “the script”, which made you sound like a broken record, and just told people why we, personally, were voting yes.
    I suggest some serious analysis of the tactics employed in the above constituencies which, after all, triumphed against all the odds.
    @Tony Dawson – Churning out totally-boring well-meaning but poorly-written anything – apart from being your value judgment, will always be a waste of money. But an EFFECTIVE communications department is the beating heart of any effective political campaign. Remove it and you lose your voice. Political activists the world over have died, and are dying, in the pursuit of getting printed campaign information to their electorates.

  • Kirsten – It is telling that of the ten places you name, six are in a small part of central London.

    The decision to hold this referendum on the same day as local elections needs to be a part of the inquest – plainly a bad idea.

  • I came across an interesting blog post from inside the YES campaign (by Cory Hazelhurst, who was part of the Birmingham YES group) … it has a provocative title, but stick with it – I think there is a lot to learn from its thoughtful and informed analysis – and I thought that it was a good read, too.


  • Dave Hennigan 11th May '11 - 11:55am

    I was surprised that in Manchester, we got as high as 45% considering the drivel we were asked to deliver from the YES campaign. The leaflets were appalling quality and yes, we were expected to put out leaflets in a Lib Dem held seat saying ‘…make your MP work harder’.

    Sorry, we did our own stuff but people simply didn’t understand AV. The national media rhetoric was about personalities not policy – that was part of the problem.

    I received a freepost from the YES Campaign, it was a postal voter recruitment letter with a poster. I live in rock solid Conservative Macclesfield. Can’t work out the strategy there?

  • “Picking out likely Yes supporters in a strong Tory area sounds like good targeting of direct mail to me – and better than writing off whole areas?”

    The YES campaign wrote off most of the country. They wrote off the campaign. They also contributed, in my view to a couple of percentage points being knocked of the LD vote. Who the hell ‘appointed’ these people?

  • Dave Hennigan 11th May '11 - 1:17pm

    It’s difficult to know how I was targeted though as I’ve never been canvassed as a Lib Dem.

    I doubt whether the AV Campaign had an affect on the result. I knocked for 10 hours Tony and 1 person mentioned it adversely.

  • @ Kirsten I’d suggest that the demographics had rather more to do with the success in the few areas that voted ‘yes’, than the nature or effectiveness of the local campaigns

  • Darren Johnson AM 11th May '11 - 2:40pm

    Key mistakes
    – fluffy mesages that obviously tested well in focus groups before the campaign but were simply not robust enough once both campaigns got up and running
    – failure to use a freepost leaflet
    – over-reliance of celebs and non-politicians: people want to hear from leading politicians on major constitutional issues. Milliband, Kennedy, Lucas Farage et al should have been used in every leaflet
    – lack of engagement with right of centre voters: failure to make full use of Farage was a big mistake
    – having literature the same colour scheme as the census caused confusion
    – constant Clegg/Huhne spats with the Tories were a turnoff for voters rather than an asset for the campaign


  • “missed the boat on capitilising on the Obama-style internet campaign which was so vital in his victory.”

    But Obama was capitalising on a mood that was going his way (first serious black candidate and an anti-Bush feeling). There wasn’t the same thing here – nor in the US mid-terms where I assume the same social media/internet campaigns were deployed and the Democrats took a kicking.

    One mistake of the Yes campaign was that they seemed to think that Obama had changed the rule book for campaigning.

    However what Mark doesn’t seperate out is the strategic failings of the Yes campaign (messages, themes, literature designs etc) from the organisational ones (no coordination, lists/leaflets arriving late, no freepost leaflet (i mean, seriously WTF!) etc)

  • Kirsten de Keyser 11th May '11 - 2:48pm

    Of course the demographics played a part as they always will, but I don’t think that can be the whole story. At any rate, that would come out in the wash if an astute analyst ran the slide rule over these campaigns.

  • Surely getting your freepost right is one of the most important parts of the ground war in a GE. The Yes campaign didn’t do one while the No campaign did. So a lot of houses had two or more pieces of paper from No and maybe one or two poor ones from yes if there happened to be a deliver or they had walked past a street stall.

  • Tony Dawson 11th May '11 - 4:46pm

    “there were two fundamental errors that the Lib Dems foisted on the campaign.”


    i think you can count the number of Liberal Democrats who had any say whatsoever in this timetable on the fingers of one thumbless hand.

  • Tony Dawson 11th May '11 - 4:52pm

    “There is a naiveity and lack of thoughtfulness in the upper echelons of the Lib Dems that I find deeply depressing.”

    This has existed since the days of Paddy Ashdown’s leadership. At least Paddy was robust enough to take on arguments and discussions with people who disagreed with him. The Kennedy bunker was staffed with a very strange group of people whose principle job appeared to be to hide Charles’ alcoholism from those who did not already know about it and keep Charles on the road. They developed a great deal of power since Charles could not involve himself in one third of the decision-making which Paddy did, and had a particular line in ensuring that Charles did not hear too much of what he didna want to.. I am not sure much changed in this respect during the brief Ming Dynasty or thereafter.

  • Ruth Bright 11th May '11 - 5:00pm

    I don’t think it’s fair to say Mark was blaming the poor bloody infantry of the Yes campaign. I don’t think he’s entirely right though in saying the areas that voted “Yes” are very similar demographically. My understanding is that in Southwark for example the best “Yes” box was in one of the most deprived polling districts in the borough. The grassroots Lib Dem campaign in Southwark simply must account for the “Yes” vote there.

  • Simon McGrath 11th May '11 - 7:09pm

    I wonder of huh and Farron running a campaign about the wickedness of the Tories, their responsibility for slavery ,the empire and holding back universal suffrage and saying that AV would block a majority Tory govt ever again did anything apart from reading Tory turnout?

  • Andrew Suffield 11th May '11 - 8:03pm

    Whatever I think of Cameron, he went out there and got involved. Clegg was nowhere

    Cameron and Clegg had a public agreement that they would both stay out of it, which Cameron violated at the last minute in a blaze of Tory-controlled media that could only have been carefully planned for ages. Clegg clearly didn’t have a media campaign prepared. Draw your own conclusions.

  • @Simon McGrath Posted 11th May 2011 at 7:09 pm

    ” …their responsibility for slavery ,the empire and holding back universal suffrage and saying that AV would block a majority Tory govt ever again did anything apart from reading Tory turnout?…”

    Of course, anti-slavery, anti-empire and universal suffrage were all probably considered extreme at their outset, so it probably wasn’t the best idea to tell people that AV would prevent people with extreme views getting representation in Parliament.

  • Tony Dawson: “The YES campaign centrally was an appalling incompetent mess…………”

    I totally agree. About the only issue that was never brought out in the YES campaign was the merits of AV as a voting system. Unlike many other Lib Dems, I believe that real PR is impossible to achieve but AV is the best achievable system.

  • Nigel Quinton 12th May '11 - 10:45am

    @Nick H

    Re the timing. According to my local Tory MP (and minister) the Tories actually proposed May 2012 for the referendum but Nick Clegg “insisted” it was 2011. Quite possible of course that back in those days the idea of an anti-Clegg backlash seemed just as remote as the idea now that he could ever win an election – or even an argument – ever again.

    To those who bemoaned the lack of high profile LibDems in the YES campaign: what are you thinking? The presence of Nick Clegg in the campaign was hardly going to boost the YES vote, was it?

    Wrong messages, poor organisation (esp the lack of a freepost), but above all a failure to prepare the ground for a yes vote. Our party policy called for a constitutional conference to build consensus on reforms before putting it to the vote – what happened to that idea?

  • Nigel Quinton 12th May '11 - 10:52am

    One other thought – having just started to read the Birmingham post mortem.

    “A crushing defeat of 69% to 31% demands a lengthy post-mortem. It’s an absolute thumping, and surely puts electoral reform off the agenda for a generation at least.”

    Well, no, actually. This was a vote of just 43% turnout. That is below the threshold the Tories wanted to set for a valid result (when they were worried that YES might win).

    So you cannot call it definitive, and there is no reason for us to give up now for the next 20 years. Sure it will take some time, and another change of government but the reasons behind the huge public support for this 16 months ago are still there, just hidden behind the more immediate perceived threats from cuts and misguided public service reform in education and the NHS.

  • Nigel Quinton 12th May '11 - 10:53am

    “huge public support for this 16 months ago”

    I meant reform generally, not AV specifically!

  • Nigel Quinton Posted 12th May 2011 at 10:52 am

    “This was a vote of just 43% turnout. That is below the threshold the Tories wanted to set for a valid result”

    My recall was that they said 40%? I thought the news also reported that it would have been valid even if the threshold had been set?

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th May '11 - 11:47am

    Mark Pack

    Matthew: who is blaming the grassroots? Saying a task was impossible for a group of people to achieve is, if anything, defending rather than blaming.

    Let me quote your line “Yet at the heart of the Yes campaign in last week’s AV referendum seems to have been a big mistake: trying to run a grassroots campaign to win a national contest”. Sorry Mark, but I DO read that as “blame the grassroots”, and even if that was not your intention, it will be read by those who have power and influence at the top of the party and outside but influencing the top as just that – blame the grassroots.

    This has been my experience throughout the over 30 years I have been a member of the party – it is lions led by donkeys. This is why I am so angry at the current state of our party, we have seen mistake after mistake after mistake made in presentation from the top, the hard work of thousands of our members has been hugely set back by it, yet still those responsible won’t admit they’ve got it wrong, and still they preach down to us that we have to accept their ad-man’s and PR-person’s view of the world.

    I am not the only one to say that the centrally produced material from the “Yes” campaign was poor, it seems to be a common theme in the replies to your article. Yet there is nothing in your article which admits to the mistakes made there. Instead you seem to be suggesting, or if you were not it will certainly be taken that way, that the problem with the campaign was that it was too grassroots dominated. The predictable consequences of this will be a call from those at the top for campaigns to become more centralised, for grassroots activity to be run down or at least made to obey the dictate of those at the top, for the party to move from a democratic organisation towards becoming a sales force for its leaders.

    I was very careful from the start to say how I thought we should put the “Yes” case, and then to say what I thought was wrong with the “Yes” material when it came out – which took the opposite approach to the one I suggested. I did this very deliberately in order not to be accused of just having wonderful hindsight. I took the risk, because at the time I made my public statement “Remember my words when we lose this vote”, it was not at all clear that we would lose it, we were instead still feeling very optimistic about it. Had I got it wrong and my criticisms of the material were shown unfounded, I would have looked very foolish.

  • As someone from a country where AV actually works and has done so for 90 years (Australia), I found the whole experience of being in the UK while this was happening extremely bizarre. A lot of, for want of a better word, sheer crap was being put forward by the No campaign and pretty much nothing at all was being said in response, grassroots or otherwise. This wasn’t a failure of the campaign’s method – it was a failure of the campaign itself.

    People are at heart averse to change so when you’re asking them to vote for change they should know why they need change, and they should know why this change improves things. Have on hand ridiculous results (and there’s plenty available in UK constituencies) where the electorate’s wish was clearly trounced by someone getting a few votes more than someone else on FPTP, and ask if this is fair in a democracy where the majority’s wishes are expected to be respected. Make sure you pick a few examples where each party was wronged, so it’s not labelled a partisan campaign. Ask if it’s reasonable that “tactical voting” has become the norm because if under FPTP you don’t vote for one of the major parties you may as well not vote at all, so you end up voting for someone you hate just to try and keep out someone you hate even more. (This is the UKIP vote and also the far-left-of-centre vote you’re trying to get). And get some Australians involved in the crap-filtering (even if it means liaising with them on a forum from over there) – they’re going to be better at answering the crazies simply because they’ve grown up with the system and seen exactly how it does work in practice.

    One interesting thing is that the strongest areas of “No” in the final result were as expected some of the most conservative areas of the country in eastern England, while the Yes’s were coming in from central London and some other inner cities – the progressive vote basically. However this wasn’t engaged enough. When you have a split constituency you actually have to campaign in the areas you’re already good in in order to counterbalance the others – if you don’t have a counterbalance, the whole thing gets lopsided. What was needed was a 70% vote from the progressive core and the major centres – that it struggled for 50% was not a good sign.

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