Lessons from Dunfermline: A lot more conversation, a little less literature needed in future

Campaigning on the doorstep - Lynne FeatherstoneI stand by my view that the Dunfermline by-election result was pretty much the best that we could have achieved in the circumstances. As I said in my comment to that post:

We were squeezed – that much was inevitable, but as Labour blogger Ian Smart said the other day, our vote did not crumble to the extent that had been expected. Both Labour and the SNP expected to be able to help themselves to all of it, and were surprised when they couldn’t.

They tried so hard and of course nobody wants to lose 7% of their vote, but it could have been a lot worse. What was very clear from conversations we had was that very few people we spoke to wanted the SNP to win. It shouldn’t surprise us that some of them saw Labour, at 590 behind from 2011 as the better prospect to keep them out. However, they are willing to vote for us in the future. The local government result in Dunfermline South is quite a good indicator of how we are doing. In 2012, our Tony Martin, a councillor of not far off 30 years standing, had 1190 first preferences and was elected on the first ballot. Labour’s 2 candidates between them had 2465. This time both parties lost a couple of hundred votes, but the SNP went up by 500.

Even though I don’t think we could have done much better than third place in this by-election in these circumstances, there are lessons we can take from the campaign. Generally our messages were good, focusing on the hospital, the local college and key achievements at national level such as the rise in the State Pension and income tax threshold. Thing is, if you are a voter who’s a bit fed up with us for “the coalition,” a leaflet landing on your doorstep, however gorgeous and enticing it looks, isn’t necessarily going to grab your attention. And maybe we focused too much on the paper and not enough on the phones.

I had very many conversations with people which went, roughly:

“Not voting for you….coalition….Tories…evil”

“But look at what we’ve stopped the Tories doing (insert examples of choice, but one which resonated particularly was stopping their cut to inheritance tax).

“And instead of giving tax cuts to rich dead people, we cut taxes for ordinary working people like us…

“And gave the biggest cash rise for a generation to the state pension…

By this point, more often than not, people were ready to talk a bit more. Just because we have the stronger economy, fairer society coming out of every pore, doesn’t mean to say that this has resonated particularly well with the voters. And spending the time now talking to them and making our case now is surely much more sensible than wasting time and energy putting leaflets which aren’t going to be read through doors. Elections in the US now focus very much on actually talking to voters and the campaigns are pretty disciplined about what they expect their campaigners to achieve. A conversation can achieve so much more than a bit of paper, so surely that’s what we need to prioritise above all else. Knocking on doors and phoning has always been important, but we need to do more of it than ever and we need to really increase our number of contacts from now.

David Penhaligon was right to create that mantra that if you have something to say, put it on a leaflet and stick it through letterboxes. Times have changed, though. We now have a record in government at the most economically challenging time in the last 80 years to defend. Today’s version of that should be “If you have something to say, pick up the phone, knock on the door and have a conversation. Then reinforce it with a leaflet or a letter.”

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • To be fair, the lesso that out-dated nature of literature-heavy campaigns is one the party could and should have learned from the 2010 election. We out-leafleted Labour by at least 3 to 1 in our target seat and still lost by over 3000 votes. In the end, ancedotal evidence suggests that voters were irritated by the volume of paper from the LibDems and even helped turn people against us.

  • Peter Chegwyn 28th Oct '13 - 2:06pm

    I disagree! Every election, every campaign, every area is different. The ‘key’ is knowing what is right for you and also knowing how best to target the (often limited) resources at your disposal for maximum effect.

    I held my own County Council seat in May without knocking on a single door or making a single campaign phone call. My percentage vote and majority were almost exactly the same as four years ago and I successfully ‘squeezed’ both UKIP & Labour. I won through the tried-and-tested method of effective and targetted literature and all-year-round community politics, coupled with effective use of the internet and social media. I could deliver 20 leaflets in the time I could knock on one door or make one phone call and I could update my website, facebook, email lists etc. in the middle of the night when no-one would answer the doorbell or telephone.

    I’m NOT saying that door-knocking or telephone canvassing are wrong. If I had dozens of helpers willing to knock on doors or use the phones then great… but when I and many others have very limited resources then I believe it’s still possible to win through effective literature and social media alone.

    In short, I’m simply saying that every campaign is different. Oh, and there’s still a place for ‘community politics’ – the way to win locally is to concentrate on local issues and all-year-round local campaigning – I didn’t mention the coalition or Nick Clegg once in my leaflets!

    Community Politics. There’s still a place for it in our Party.

  • Andy Boddington 28th Oct '13 - 2:34pm

    Spot on from my perspective Caron

    I learnt some of the same lessons back in May when fighting a Tory stronghold at unitary level. Talking to people matters most. We did not do enough telephone canvassing, or enough by email.

    One of our biggest problems is that we have so few telephone numbers and emails. The telephone numbers we have are skewed towards older people. Getting the mobile numbers of young people has to be a priority. But then reaching them on Facebook and Twitter is perhaps better than ringing. I met a number of people on voting today who said: got your Facebook message, gonna vote for you.

    But then my personalised letters to young people also worked. One lad turned up at the polling station waving a “please vote for me” slip I’d dropped in his door in the early hours. He told the tellers: got not voting card, don’t know how to vote. But Andy says I can just turn up.

    I am 58. Probably less than 10% of the information I access comes from leaflets and printed materials. The rest i get online. I guess if I was 18, 100% would be online.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Oct '13 - 2:47pm

    If somebody tried to take credit for inflation pushing up the state pension then it would probably reduce the chances of me voting for them.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Oct '13 - 2:54pm

    To comment on the main subject I would say that I don’t have enough experience to comment on the balance of literature versus conversation, but I think with Eastleigh the sheer volume of all types of communication was a put off because it showed little respect.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Oct '13 - 3:24pm

    Although I broadly agree that conversation is better than literature! People have many doubts and many of these are best answered via a conversation.

  • Tony Dawson 28th Oct '13 - 6:14pm

    Conversation is very useful if you have sufficient spare (and clued-up enough!) bodies around to converse. How many Lib Dem constituencies presently have enough of these to make a real ‘dent’ in the numbers?

    Like Peter Chegwyn, I won my Council seat in 2012 without canvassing anyone at all other than a sample 2 hours one day to check that my support in a swing area was roughly what I thought it was. I was then able to spend the campaign canvassing a bit for other people but mostly writing their leaflets as well as my own.

    Literature can still have a seismic effect in a campaign if it is very good (in these days it has to be internet/social media as well) and it can sometimes help with winning the battle of competing agendas early on in a campaign which makes it impossible for the others to get back at you. I do not know what went out in Dunfermline but the quality of Liberal Democrat literature at parliamentary by-elections I have attended over the past decade has been highly-variable – some excellent but some other appeared to be so formulaic , boring and uninspiring to the point that I have gone home rather than put any more of it out. Volume of the latter provides a comfort blanket for election agent/organisers but doesn’t do much for results.

  • Richard Church 28th Oct '13 - 6:38pm

    Peter Chegwyn is right. There might be circumstances where you can get way with less literature, but I don’t know of a winning campaign in a target, not held, seat which was gained without far more literature through letterboxes than the opposition.

    Canvassing and the internet is not a replacement to a literature campaign, it is an addition to it.

  • Liberal Neil 28th Oct '13 - 7:58pm

    The challenge is to have built up enough capacity to run a strong literature campaign and do lots of face to face contact with voters.

    The shift in balance neds to be towards building the party organisation outside of election periods so that we can do lots of both during them.

  • Peter Chegwyn is certainly among the most effective campaigners in the Party, probably the best currently active. I have known him for only 25 years, others for far longer. Listen to what he says.

  • Like everyone else I agree that listening to Peter Chegwyn is a good idea.
    Note in particular that he says about his recent election success – – I didn’t mention the coalition or Nick Clegg once in my leaflets!
    I also agree that people should do what Peter Chegwyn says, unless that involves sabotaging a hunt on the way to a council meeting. There is nothing wrong with sabotaging a hunt (or a badger cull) but the stopover at the police station might make you late for the council meeting.

  • Bill le Breton 29th Oct '13 - 11:20am

    Or late helping in a Richmond by-election as I and a few others once found to our cost, me’lud 😉

  • I found Peter Chegwyn’s comment interesting. In our constituency we had two local by-elections in inactive wards over seven months. One could argue any amount about the potential or difficulty of each ward for us, but the arguments seem to even out. In both cases, other parties went in big because the result was thought to be in doubt. In the first ward we got 17.5%. In the second, we got 4%. The main difference, I think, was that in the first we conducted a residents’ survey which gave us issues we could pursue, and we did a fair bit of traditional canvassing. In the second, the campaign was a matter of leafleting plus some phone canvassing.

    I suspect Peter can win without knocking on doors in the campaign because he’s already well known and has a track record. Where we don’t have a track record, we have to build it, and that includes face-to-face contact.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 29th Oct '13 - 2:19pm

    Peter, you have been a councillor for about 6,000 years and you are clearly very good at your job. It’s hardly a surprise that in a council election you had your finger on the pulse of your division from your extensive all year round campaigning.

    What happens, though, at the General Election. Ideally, all those people who vote for you should vote Lib Dem, too. But they may not be motivated to. Now, I’ve fought General Elections where our national message has been so terrible that we’ve not bothered with it on our local literature/campaigning. I don’t think we can get away with that this time, though. We can’t just pretend that the elephant isn’t there. The voters might well have been blissfully unaware of our national profile before, but they sure as hell will be in 2015. And if they don’t pick it up from the tv, our opponents will hammer their interpretation of us home. This is why we need to get in there and start to rebuild our relationship with the electorate on national issues now. It’ll be a bit late to start in March 2015.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 29th Oct '13 - 2:23pm

    RIchard, I agree that we don’t replace literature with canvassing – but people aren’t going to read the literature if they are annoyed with us for joining the coalition. Those are the people we need to talk to and win them back.

  • Shaun Roberts 29th Oct '13 - 2:44pm

    Agree with a lot of what’s being said here.

    It’s like this – two activists out doorstep canvassing for a couple of hours will probably speak to 60 people. On the phone they’ll reach 120 people. With leaflets they could reach 600 people (depending on type of area). (Note I used numbers to make the maths easy!)

    Of course the in person doorstep contacts will be more effective , but will they be twice as effective as the phone contacts? Will they be 10 times more effective than each literature contact?

    Obviously the best campaigns do everything, but resource wise its often a question of what’s going to work for you in your area and the type of election you’re fighting – as we can see from the different responses here. If the number of votes needed to win are more than you can actually talk to on the doorstep (as they are in 9 out of 10 elections and all general elections), then you need to be doing phones and literature too. Every campaign should be doing online stuff as standard.

    I’m a big fan of US campaigns, but the reason that they can send all their volunteers out to talk one to one with voters is that they are already bombarding voters with TV and radio advertising, posted direct mail and online campaigning. That’s not something we can replicate.

  • David Allen 29th Oct '13 - 5:18pm

    Caron Lindsay,

    “I had very many conversations with people which went, roughly:

    ‘Not voting for you….coalition….Tories…evil’

    ‘But look at what we’ve stopped the Tories doing ……….. And … And … ‘

    By this point, more often than not, people were ready to talk a bit more.”

    Hmm. So, what you’ve done is converted a hard anti into a soft anti?

    Talking works, I suggest, if it’s a local election. Then the voter really wants to evaluate you (especially if you are the candidate) and your local policies / achievements. He / she could well decide that Nick Clegg is rubbish, but you are worth voting for.

    Talking is much less likely to work if it’s a national election. The voter might rate you highly, but if he / she thinks that Nick Clegg is rubbish, you probably still won’t win their vote.

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