Lessons for future campaigning from the 2010 election

Liberal Democrat Voice at Conference

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The Wednesday lunchtime at Liverpool conference saw myself chairing the last of The Voice’s fringe meetings, this one looking at lessons from the 2010 general election.

Our guest speakers were Hilary Stephenson (Director of Campaigns), Duncan Hames (newly elected as MP for Chippenham) and Paul Holmes (former MP for Chesterfield).

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6 Comments

  • Duncan Hames says he supports the reduction in the number of MPs, but in the next breath he tells us why this is a terrible policy. Then he says he supports AV, but goes on the tell us why this would probably be disastrous for the party.

    It would be useful if members woke up to the fact that Cameron is taking us for a ride before rather than after the Parliamentary Party follows the lemmings over the cliff.

  • David Rogers 27th Sep '10 - 9:01am

    I attended this fringe meeting, which was good – but I’d hoped for more………what happened differently in Chippenham, Wells, and Eastbourne, compared with seats we did NOT win from the Tories – or for that matter those that we lost to them narrowly? No doubt this type of analysis has been done, but where is it being shared, so that we can all learn the lessons?
    Additionally, what are the lessons we need to learn immediately – and apply forthwith – to next year’s largest annual round of local elections?

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Sep '10 - 10:31am

    I regret that those who lost us the election remain at its top, and that means the sort of analysis that David Rogers would like to see won’t happen, or would get buried if it did and those at the top didn’t like what it revealed.

    There is always a tension in our party: is it a movement of ordinary people upwards to gain political power, or is it a brand to be sold downwards from the centre to the people?

    Our 2010 election campaign was run by people whose careers have been selling brands downwards. These people are now employed, we find out, as “advisers” to our leader. I do not think they are going to admit “we were wrong” or say “people like us should not be running the party”.

    At times of optimism for our party, it swings towards the top-down selling a brand name way of thinking, and this then becomes its downfall. There is then a period of retrenchment, slowly the party picks itself up again through the efforts of local workers, until things start looking good, and then the same happens.

    What happens during the upswing is that it attracts naive supporters who can’t understand the more cautious approach of those who have seen it before, or of those who have enough experience of actual grassroots campaigning to know that silly razzamatazz does not go down well in elections here, and that actually the people of this country are yearning for a more down-to-earth human style politics. These naive people then criticise more experienced members, saying “your problem is that you are not ambitious enough, if you want to win you will win, let us show you that”. And they do, and they lose, and then they drop out because they were never in it for the long term.

    This idea that “if you believe you will win, you will win” is very popular in business-speak. The corollary is “if you lose, it’s your fault, you’re just natural losers”. This has practically become the national ideology of the United States of America, so it’s perhaps not surprising that those keenest on it here often seem to be wannabe-Americans, peppering their talk with Americanisms and heavily influenced in all they do and think by what happens in the USA, or at least by what happens in the USA as portrayed by its entertainment industry (much of the USA entertainment industry is a propaganda machine for USA values). One can see that the “opportunity is out there, go out and grab it, if you fail you’re a loser” comes naturally in a country which was so recently newly settled so still had vast untapped resources – unlike ours where all the land was parceled out in 1066. It also fits in with the religious foundation of USA (this is a cue for some Weber, go and look up “Protestant work ethic”). Mostly it works very well to defend the rich being lightly taxed, the poor suffering and little in the way of state services, because it holds that the poor are just losers who deserve to be like that, just people who could not be bothered to grab the opportunity that is there for us all. Although one might note that opportunity seems to be far more grabbable for the children of the rich. How many of our top businessmen and politicians have not come from a privileged background? Look at the leaders of all three major political parties … All this needs to be borne in mind when we look at political discourse here, at how the diminution of mass membership political party politics has shifted politics towards the right and towards simplistic free market assumptions.

    The conflict between the top-down razzamatazz way of doing politics, and the grassroots campaigning way really what the division between the SDP and Liberal Party was about in the 1980s, much more so than policy differences. But to some extent we can see the same happening with the Thorpe charisma in the 1970s, where the good results of the February 1974 general election were not firmed up in the October 1974 election. It happened also with “Cleggmania”. Because Clegg’s personality was seen (not entirely correctly) as the cause of the rise in poll support at the beginning of the 2010 campaign, caution was thrown away, and our party’s national image became dominated by that. I’d be interested to see the extent to which there is a correlation between the seats we won and those where a Cleggmania election campaign was avoided at local level.

    Neil Kinnock’s Sheffield Rally in 1992 is still cited as the classic example of a party losing because it started believing too hard it would win. Razzamatazz works particularly badly if you’re doing well in the polls, but have a lot of weak support that is still rather suspicious of you – Kinnock in 1992, yes, Clegg in 2010, yes. Maybe it’s a cultural thing in this country, which is why those so influenced by the USA’s culture can’t see it. I think we would have done a lot better had we a more low key and less leader oriented campaign in 2010, but the “Cleggmania” made it hard to argue that line, as even local campaigners who weren’t keen Cleggies wanted to get in on it and perhaps put more of him in their material than they were previously planning.

    There has been some admission in our party that the optimism encouraged by the polls in the election led to a breakdown of targeting strategy. Yes, I’ve heard enough stories now to know there is a great deal of truth in this. Targetting has always worked for out party, and I can look at a few places where I’ve been involved in the past where seats are being won now BECAUSE some years earlier those same seats were left out of campaigning as they weren’t then targets. That is, once the first target were won, more targets could be added. Over-stretching yourself early on, on the grounds “you have to believe you will win to win” rarely works in my experience. On my previous more ideological points, I do find there seems to be a correlation in the party between acceptance or dismissal of careful targetting as the way forward and left-right economic views. That is, those most likely to dismiss a cautious targetting strategy as “it shows you don’t really want to win” are those most likely to be keen on simplistic free market theories.

  • David Rogers,

    “what happened differently in Chippenham, Wells, and Eastbourne, compared with seats we did NOT win from the Tories – or for that matter those that we lost to them narrowly?”

    Eastbourne – Nigel Waterstone was widely and viscerally disliked.

    Wells – David Heathcote-Amery had made some controversial expenses claims and the local Tories were focussed on winning Somerton & Frome rather than defending Wells.

    Chippenham – Helpful boundary changes. (I was going to cite the ethnicity of the Conservative candidate, but is that still a factor in 2010?)

    There was no magic formula, rather a range of local factors that made the difference between narrow victory and narrow defeat.

    Liberal Neil,

    “Some lessons are already clear though – and the one message that came out loudly and clearly from all the training and briefings at conference was that ‘keep it local’ will be more important than ever as will personal contact with individual voters.”

    And how are we going to do that with fewer MPs, constantly shifting boundaries, and a voting system that fragments the opposition in rural and outer suburban areas?

  • Liberal Neil 30th Sep '10 - 8:07pm

    @Sesenco “And how are we going to do that with fewer MPs, constantly shifting boundaries, and a voting system that fragments the opposition in rural and outer suburban areas?”

    I should have ben a bit clearer – I meant the message coming out about how we fight local elections in the next few years, rather than the next general. Those of us who remember fighting local elections against the backdrop of 4-5% national poll ratings in ’88-’91 know that hard fought and very local campaigns can win through, whatever the national circumstances.

    As to your point about ever-shifting boundaries – yes there will be a big change at the next election, but after that, if the system stays in place, the changes are likely to be fairly gradual each election from then on.

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