Norwich North: what to make of all that, then? #nnbe

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: if you fight a by-election in which both your total number of votes, and your percentage of votes cast, declines since the previous general election then the result is disappointing. There, I’ve said it, disappointing.

Now let’s look a bit harder, and try and work out what’s going on, addressing directly the three questions:
1) should we have done better,
2) is our campaigning stuck in a rut, and
3) is the leadership to blame?

1) Should we have done better?

The verdict that we should have done better – at least come second – was encapsulated by the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson in his blog-post, How to unspin Norwich:

Lib Dems: “This is a truly shocking result for Labour.”
Translation: “Oh no. Why don’t we win by-elections any more?”

Except, of course, it’s not that simple. There seems to be a fantasy among some Lib Dem supporters, shared by journalists like Nick, that the Lib Dems have talismanic by-elections skills – that the party need only show up in any constituency in the UK, and the electorate will be hypnotically seduced into voting Lib Dem. This isn’t true now, and nor has it ever been true, a fact statistically proved by Lib Dem blogger ‘Costigan Quist’ HERE.

There was, perhaps, one exception: the last Parliament, when we won two of the six by-elections contested – Brent East and Leicester South – and also recorded hefty swings in two others, Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool. (The South Wales result in Ogmore, when the Lib Dem vote fell 4%, is usually happily ignored: it spoils the story).

But to judge this Parliament by last Parliament’s standards is silly, in any case, for it witnessed a perfect storm that is very unlikely to be repeated: a wildly unpopular policy – Iraq – on which the Lib Dems had a distinct, well-known, poular position; and a main opposition party, the Tories when led by Iain Duncan Smith, which was an utter campaigning shambles. The Lib Dems’ Iraq USP has now receded, while the Tories are, once again, a professional outfit. To expect the Lib Dems to conjure up by-election magic dust in vastly changed circumstances is utterly fanciful.

And the idea that, even if the Lib Dems won’t actually win, our vote must always, automatically increase is also profoundly un-historical. To me, the current Parliament most closely resembles the 1992-97 Parliament: a tired, imploding governing party, seemingly at the mercy of events, and a main opposition party on the up. So let’s compare the by-election results of now with then:

  • 2005-present: Lib Dems contested 12 by-elections, vote percentage increased in seven;
  • 1992-97: Lib Dems contested 16 by-elections, vote percentage increased in eight.

It’s true that the 1992-97 Parliament included some spectacular Lib Dem successes, most notably Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh, and Littleborough and Saddleworth. In each of those by-elections, of course, the party started in second place to the governing party – just as we did in Dunfermline.

Yet there were many results, too, in 1992-97 which mirror yesterday’s Norwich North by-election:

  • Barking (1 Feb ‘94): Lib Dem vote down 2.5%
  • Dagenham (17 May ’94): down 3.1%
  • Monklands East (12 May ’94): down 2%
  • Dudley West (12 Oct ’94): down 2.8%
  • Hemsworth (31 Oct ’95): down 3.7%
  • SE Staffordshire (12 Dec ’95): down 4.9%
  • Barnsley East (11 Oct ’96): down 0.3%
  • Wirral South (3 Nov ’96): down 3%

In each of those eight by-elections the party started the campaign in third place, or lower. Go figure.

(Historical endnote: let’s not forget either the Newham North East by election (2 Mar ’94), when the nominated Lib Dem candidate, AJ Kellaway, announced at a news conference on the eve of poll that he had resigned from the Liberal Democrats and joined the Labour Party. Imagine if that happened today, and the doom-laden blogosphere commentary that would accompany it!)

2) Is our campaigning stuck in a rut?

Here we move from the objective of historical fact – our by-election performance today is equivalent to 1992-97 – to subjective question so beloved of all armchair generals. The argument is familiar … our bar-charts are ‘dodgy’ and don’t work, bombarding the electorate with leaflets is so last millennium, the other parties have copied our tactics, etc.

Now, maybe it’s me, but I don’t quite get the logical train of thought which runs: ‘The Tories have copied the Lib Dems’ successful by-election campaigning strategy and are starting to win by-elections by using it. Therefore the Lib Dem strategy does not work and we should ditch it.’

It’s quite simple: the ‘Rennard technique’ – leaflets, target mail, bar-charts etc – works spectacularly well when the party is the main challenger. Trouble is, the Lib Dems have not had a by-election since Dunfermline in which we have been the undisputed main challengers to the governing party.

The ‘Rennard technique’ is not – and has never been – fool-proof. It has delivered by-election success for the party over almost two decades, from Eastbourne to Dunfermline, where the circumstances are right. But it has also failed on numerous occasions to work when the circumstances were not right. And they weren’t right in Norwich North.

The true test of the party’s strategy in such by-elections, then, is not ‘Can we win?’ It is, and should be, ‘Can we start building success here for the future’?

The most important campaigning questions are, for instance: has Lib Dem membership increased in Norwich North since the start of the campaign; have we built a delivery network to ensure the Lib Dem message is delivered beyond the end of the campaign; have we boosted our chances in target council seats; and have we increased the profile of our general election candidate?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, though my guess is ‘Yes’ will be the answer to most or all. In particular, it was canny tactics to select April Pond as our candidate, given that she is destined to be our candidate for the soon-to-be-overlapping constituency of Broadlands, and where her name recognition will now be much higher.

3) Is the leadership to blame?

The easiest to answer: no. Of course, the ‘Do you like Nick Clegg?’ question is another subjective one. But if there is an objective measure, it’s opinion polls: the latest Mori opinion poll showed 44% are satisfied with him, 28% dissatisfied – a net satisfaction score of +16%. For comparison, David Cameron’s net satisfaction is lower, at +9%, and Nick has been leading Mr Cameron for the past three months. So my view is that we should at least wait until the Tories decide their leader is a failure before deciding to ditch ours.

Ah, you say, but look at the current political circumstances – an exhausted governing party, the most severe recession in living memory, public contempt for politicians at an all-time high. Surely the Lib Dems should be benefiting? Why is it that Ukip and the Greens are attracting more votes than before, and not us?

There are any number of answers to this.

First, I think the party (and in particular the Parliamentary party) must face up to the fact that we did long-term damage to the Lib Dem ‘brand’ as a direct result of Charles Kennedy’s messy resignation. There’s no point going into the right and wrongs, again, here: views are pretty much fixed. You either think our MPs behaved disgracefully, or (my view) you reckon they reacted in the rather confused, inadequate and human way that people do when forced to confront difficult, private, personal problems. But, sadly for the party, I think that episode left us looking ‘just like the others’.

Then there is MPs’ expenses: though Lib Dem MPs emerged by and large unscathed, certainly not guilty of the fraudulent activities of Labour and Tory MPs, the overwhelming effect on the public was ‘they’re all at it’. As it happens, the Lib Dems – alone among the mainstream parties – have maintained or even increased our poll ratings in the wake of the scandal.

In essence, you see, the Lib Dems are no longer viewed as an insignificant protest party. We should be delighted: for years, we have tried to convince the public that we are major players, a party capable of becoming the next official opposition, and forming a future government. And, finally, the public is taking us at our word.

We have 63 MPs, are in second place in a further 190 constituencies, control large councils up and down the country. So, if you’re a voter trying to give the politicians a kick up the proverbial, who would you choose? It’s less likely now to be the Lib Dems.

We may just have to accept, at least for the moment, that Ukip and the Greens are the most likely repository of ‘right’ and ‘left’ protest votes respectively: safe to vote for in elections which won’t determine the next government, just as the Lib Dems used to be, before we started winning power.


Let me re-iterate how I started. Disappointment is the right reaction to this result: we didn’t win more votes, we didn’t increase our percentage of the vote. Of course, therefore, we should look carefully at the lessons to be learned. But, equally, this has to be tempered with a sense of realism of what was possible in a short campaign in a seat where we started in a very clear third place.

This by-election was never about us. On a relatively low turn-out, the voters took the opportunity to do two things: give the Labour party a bloody nose, and give mainstream parties a kick in the shins. They achieved both objectives supremely well.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Parliamentary by-elections.


  • It was the mote that cost the votes. Bloody tories drawing the publics attention to motes when the one at the pond castle is OK as shes a lib dem.

  • James Shaddock 25th Jul '09 - 11:06am

    Sorry Stephen, but you’re wrong with regards to literature. We put out far too much, especially in by-elections. Anyone who who helped out in Norwich North could see that and it was the same last year in Crewe & Nantwich and Henley.

    I even had PPCs saying it’s time we put out less literature .

    We must stop bombarding people with stuff (particularly some of the dire things that went out in Norwich North) and focus on the quality of our message to the electorate, rather than the quantity of pieces of paper we can stuff through letter boxes.

    Hopefully, Chris Fox will bring some fresh ideas to the table to bring this about and complement all the party has learnt from Chris Rennard.

  • Herbert Brown 25th Jul '09 - 11:10am

    You’ve been very diligent in digging out data on past by-elections in which Lib Dems didn’t do very well, but you are really missing the point.

    This may have been a Labour/Tory contest for first place, but it was one in which the combined Labour/Tory percentage of the vote fell by more than 20 points, and the combined Labour/Tory vote fell by nearly 17,000. The Tory vote fell by more than 2000, and their percentage increased only as a result of a greatly reduced turnout.

    It’s not as though the Labour/Tory contest squeezed the other parties out of the picture. Far from it. The percentage voting for other parties rose from 22% to 42%.

    A situation in which the government is deeply unpopular, and in which the electorate is also distinctly unenthusiastic about the official opposition, should be the dream scenario for the Lib Dems.

    That’s the background against which a drop of nearly 3000 in the Lib Dem vote – and 2 points in their share of the vote – has to be judged.

  • Stephen Tall Stephen Tall 25th Jul '09 - 11:15am

    @Herbert Brown “but you are really missing the point.”

    No, I’m not – you’re choosing not to read my argument about just the points you make. See section 3.

  • Herbert Brown 25th Jul '09 - 11:25am


    My post addressed your question “Should we have done better?”

    They point is that you can’t answer “No” to that question on the basis of previous by-election results where the Lib Dems did badly, because the situation is quite different. In the present situation, the Lib Dems should certainly have done a lot better.

    The fact that there are reasons why the Lib Dems did so badly – as outlined in your section on whether Clegg is to blame – doesn’t alter that.

  • As on the previous post about NN, I must disagree about the leadership.

    Clegg has led us to an electoral no-mans land.

    We may not be the party of “none of the above” in national elections any more, but we have nothing to show for losing this label. National credibility is useless without the votes to back it up. What’s the point of being “hungry for power” if the leadership can’t make it happen where it counts?

    Clegg allowed Cameron to steal the mantle of toughest on expenses – not due to policy – our proposals are clearly the fairest to the taxpayer. Instead, he messed up the timing and style of his announcements badly, looking too much like follow the leader.

    And OK – even if you think NN was unique – what about Crewe and Nantwich? The voters of Crewe aren’t natural Tories by any means. We should be the obvious party for old Labour voters to turn to. Why aren’t they doing so?

    If we’re going to move beyond being “not Tory or Labour” then we need a leader who up to the task of weaving together a narrative – a national sense of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat.

    Broadly, everyone knows what it means to be Labour (at least before New Labour): big state, investment in public services, commitment to the poor at the expense of the rich, etc.

    Broadly, everyone knows what it means to be Conservative (at least before Cameron): small state, privatisation, strong national defence, anti-Europe, etc.

    Now that the distinctions between the two have blurred, we need the leadership, more than ever, to set out a vision of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat on a national level.

    Cameron has stolen most of the publicly visible end of our Orange Book type ideas with his localism speeches and opposition to ID cards.

    We should broadly concede Lib Dem/Tory battles to the Conservatives and concentrate our resources on winning Old Labour voters over. There are more disgruntled Labour voters than disgruntled Tories!

  • Sorry, I meant to finish by saying

    If we accept that we have to attack Labour more than the Tories, then we need a leader who appeals more to Labour waverers than Tory waverers.

    Clegg is almost exactly the opposite of that!

  • Kate seems to know what it means to be a Tory or a ‘Socialist’ but not a what it means to be a Liberal. Her failure to understand, she then visits upon Nick Clegg!

    In the wrong party, Kate?

  • Martin Land

    Where did I say that _I_ didn’t know?

    I said that we need a leader who can *communicate* what it means to be Liberal Democrat.

  • Summary: It’s damned difficult to win a by-election from third place.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Jul '09 - 12:18pm

    Never surrender ground.
    Never waste time of opponents who have fallen.
    I well remember the old SDP leadership insisted on the Alliance laying in to Labour long after they were dead in the water with Foot. Ditto, now. We should be attacking Tory spending plans/cuts with avengance. Appeals to Lib Dems, Labour and to those Conservatives who have or are young people, middle age and elderly in their families who will suffer from cuts and increased unemployment. It is because Clegg shadows Cameroon (unconsciously, I am sure) that we risk competing with the Tories on misguided financial rectitude.
    Now is not the time to balance budgets and speak in terms of the household budget and the shame of debt.
    Now is the time to save our economy

  • Herbert Brown 25th Jul '09 - 12:19pm


    Given the fact that since Clegg took over, party policy has gone through the whole gamut – from big permanent tax cuts, through huge public spending to boost the economy, to dropping spending pledges to pay off the deficit for the benefit of the next generation – I think anyone, of any party, has good reason to be confused about “what it means to be a liberal”!

    And even if they manage to work it out temporarily, a new policy document will be along in a couple of months to put a completely different perspective on things…

    I am sceptical about blaming the leader for the result in Norwich North – I think the main factor is that in the eyes of the electorate all the established parties are tarred with the same brush over MPs’ expenses. But fundamental changes in party policy every few months really don’t help to establish a clear identity for the party or loyalty among its supporters.

  • Herbert Brown 25th Jul '09 - 12:55pm

    “Doesn’t the result demonstrate something rather more simple: that in a by-election, voters are less likely to vote and those who do not turn out will go for the most obvious challenger to the governing party …”

    No, it doesn’t, because only 40% voted Tory – less than the who 42% voted for other “challengers to the governing party” (up from 22% last time).

    This was anything but a two-party squeeze.

  • Kate :

    If I read your comments re the Crewe & Nantwich byelection correctly “the voters of Crewe aren’t natural Tories” = we should have done better by attracting previous Labour voters, then I think you misunderstand the Crewe & Nantwich seat.

    At the time many in the media, and possibly in our own party, assumed that the constituency equalled Crewe equalled railway town equalled solid Labour electorate. Not true. At the Unitary elections three weeks before the byelection the seats went Conservative 12 Labour 6 Lib Dem 2 Others 1. I lost count of the number of people who came to help from outside the area and expressed surprise at what an attractive constituency it was. Believe you me, there are plenty of “natural Conservatives” in South Cheshire!

    As I’ve said before, in the context of a Labour seat with Tories a clear second we do well to avoid being squeezed. We achieved it in C&N and in NN.

    Could we do better? Probably.

    Should we do things differently? Yes!

  • Herbert Brown 25th Jul '09 - 1:07pm

    “As I’ve said before, in the context of a Labour seat with Tories a clear second we do well to avoid being squeezed. We achieved it in C&N and in NN.”

    But in the context of a seat where less than half of the anti-Labour vote goes to the Tories?

  • coldcomfort 25th Jul '09 - 1:27pm

    I put the following comment up on my local LibDem party website yesterday. Flatteringly todays FT has a similar view of the result.

    ‘In the Norwich North Parliamentary by-election it was nice to see the ‘Honest’ candidate beat the BNP. The Tories will hail it as a triumph. They threw everything the had at it but with 12 candidates [only 6 in 2005]; turnout down by about 13%; and the winner down some 2000 votes on the Tory 2nd place in 2005, it is not clear what anybody can really read into this except ‘anyone but Labour’.

    My only criticism of our campaigns is that we are so terrified of the ‘negative campaign’ epithet that we do not attack enough.Nothing but negative campaigning won George W Bush two elections & whilst I’m generally against it in proper moderation on proper issues it has its place especially against Cameron.

  • Liberal Neil 25th Jul '09 - 2:31pm

    @James The fact that we don’t win every election in which we put out a lot of leaflets does not mena that putting out lots of leaflets is the wrong thing to do.

    In every by-election we have won we have put out lots of leaflets.

    In every parliamentary seat we have won in a general election in the last three decades we have put out lots of leaflets.

    There are hundreds of seats in which we didn’t, and lost.

    Yes, it is true that having the right messahe is important, but it’s not an either/or.

    And although it is ‘lots of leaflets’ the total amount of paper each household received in, say, Henley, was a fraction of the amount of paper in one daily newspaper.

  • Liberal Neil 25th Jul '09 - 2:46pm

    Alix is quite right that we have to review our tactics and be open to new ideas and ways of doing things.

    However we also need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    We struggled in many by-elections in the ’92-’97 parliament because Labour adopted a lot of our then tactics and copied them. In a period when they were riding high it made it far harder for us.

    We are seeing a similar thing now with the Tories.

  • If this result makes us, not too downhearted but prepared to take a long hard look at our presentation and messages then it’s the best result that could have happened on 24th July.

    Perhaps the most poignant political comments about the time of the expenses scandal was that we are now too big to be considered as protest but too small to be alternative government.

    I think where we have failed is:
    1/ perhaps the campaign was lacking focus beyond ‘local candidate’, maybe to general – whereas the Tories message focused on actually their most vulnerable proposition of being the ‘clean-up’ politics party! Yes we should have got 2nd place, definitely.

    2/ however our message is relayed – it needs to be very clear and challenging thinking; in juxtaposition. e.g “we’re quite a big third party. To talk of the two big establishment parties like that arrangement could never be overturned is now wrong”! “Only STV – single transferable vote will take power back from the establishment to the people and restore the peoples’ parliament”.

    We haven’t benefited from the expenses scandal because we have not displayed our anti-establishment credentials, leaving it to the Tories to sell an unlikely proposition.

    Additionally the Tories have actually been able to re-brand as quite fresh and modern. Superficial, yes but it has helped challenge thinking. A pleasant shade of blue, a nice tree. Take a look at our brand – a bit 90’s? Not sure what we should change but maybe the colour to orange (revolution), perhaps the bird is a bit “been there – done that”? Perhaps the logo should emphasis “I vote Liberal”, maybe underpin what we stand for: liberty, social conscience, internationalism in sub-title. Everything on the table in this respect!

    3/ We let our best salesman go and started from leadership scratch – twice! It takes time. One thing I am sure of is that Nick doesn’t need to deliver killjoy messages; leave that to the PM and Ministers – it’s their job! We ought to be honest but not on our own – we need to provoke an honest debate ” if the next election doesn’t yield clear choice and debate over tax and spending choices, and political reform – the public reaction in the aftermath may be dangerous”.

  • Alix: I think your comment and Stephen’s neatly summarise some of the main points of the debate. If you take a step back, it is though amusing to see they way the ‘anti-Rennardism’ (to put it very crudely) line has mutated over time: from “it doesn’t work” to “it doesn’t work here” to “it doesn’t work because the others do it” 🙂

    That’s not to say that our campaigning tactics shouldn’t continue to change, though I think critics of them tend to overlook just how much they’ve changed in the last ten years. What is particularly lacking though is examples of people saying “I think doing Y would work better, and look – here’s the election campaign in which we did Y in my patch and the evidence that it worked”. There have been some cases including, ahem, the use of email and blogs in Hornsey & Wood Green – and in my experience when such practical evidence is produced, many in the party are very willing to adapt their ideas of what forms a textbook election campaign.

    But I wish more people who think they’ve got better answers would actually put them to the test in their local campaigns. In many cases I think they’ll find their ideas aren’t nearly as clever as they think, but hey – there’d be nothing better than to be proved wrong and learn how to campaign better as a result.

  • Bill le Breton says

    “Appeals to Lib Dems, Labour and to those Conservatives who have or are young people, middle age and elderly in their families who will suffer from cuts and increased unemployment.”

    Err, so that would be everybody?

  • Herbert Brown 25th Jul '09 - 3:50pm

    “There are very few examples of a by-election where with 47 days or less between the trigger of a by-election and polling day, the Liberal Democrats won from third.”

    I’m sure no one is suggesting the Lib Dems should have won Norwich North.

    I think what’s being suggested is that for the Lib Dem share of the vote to decrease – and for the actual vote to drop from 7,616 to 4,803 – represents a very poor performance, considering the huge number of disaffected Labour supporters, and their evident reluctance to support the Tories.

    Yet another way of looking at it is this. Of those who didn’t vote either Labour or Conservative, less than a third voted Lib Dem.

  • James Shaddock 25th Jul '09 - 4:04pm

    @Liberal Neil

    I’m not saying don’t put put a lot of leaflets, I’m saying we need to make sure we don’t over do it.

    One great positive from Norwich North was the use of social networking and new media. We could easily cut the amount of literature by say 10-20% if we replace it with new, innovative campaigning techniques.

    Obviously don’t change everything in one go, but we must learn to try new ideas and not constantly rely on tradition, otherwise we will get caught short and by then it will be too late

  • The Telegraph says we would get 79 seats! Based on the NN result, the Tories 400+ and Labour 107.

  • Don’t agree with Stephen that the position now is similar to 1992 – 97. There is still a very fundamental difference between a situation with the Tories flying and Labour down in the dumps and vice versa. The trouble is, we haven’t seen this in most of our political lives (the last time 1975 – 9 was different in that we were under attack anyway and separately 1 For supporting Labour in Lib Lab pact, and 2 Over the Thorpe affair) So the last comparable period was around 1966 – 70.

    And we are being beaten badly in seats we should win in other times, esp Henley. And we are now putting out far too much – I saw C&N last year, and that was ludicrous, compared with SE Staffs which I also saw – one of the quietest byelections you could know. Now I am not saying do nothing, but, frankly we could have got an equivalent result in C&N with far less paper! Having said that, I actually think NN was a reasonable result in the circs!!

  • Martin Land 25th Jul '09 - 4:42pm

    I really would like to write an enormously long piece on what we are doing wrong and how I know we could do it better; but this is not the place for that. Perhaps we could set up a commission…? This time we could call it the ‘No Bones Unturned Commission’ and actually, properly work out what needs to be done.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Jul '09 - 4:49pm

    aneurin Says
    “Err, so that would be everybody?”

    Thanks for making my point aneurin, though I think it was in another string.

    Unemployment matters to most people either directly themselves or indirectly to family and friends. Unemployment is rising (of course it is already much higher than official figures suggest) and adding to the economic decline. It is the key issue and we are in danger of positioning ourselves on the wrong side of that issue.

    It is difficult to make an impression in a short campaign, but especially so when our Leader’s economic message is light blue, when we are tarred with the allowances brush when we are not ramming home the advantage we had on the economy.

    The campaigning techniques Chris uses go back years. People will vote for local heroes who get things done about the issues that matter to people locally. You just need two things: a local hero with a genuine record of campaigning alongside local people and a stream of communications telling people what is being done, explaining how they can join in the campaign(s)on those issues and highlighting the successes of those community-wide campaigns.

    We throw that approach away at our peril.

    The one word of warning is that those pieces of communication have to be ‘straight’. Any hint of trickery, falsehood or subterfuge and our campaigners will be severely punished.

    So, let’s make sure our local heroes are free to campaign against cuts, against welfare reductions, against service closures and for better homes, better health services,a better environment and more opportunities.

  • Simon Wilson 25th Jul '09 - 4:57pm

    Stand Still misses the point- the difference is that Tory grandee Douglas Hogg (or should we call him Viscount Hailsham) claimed back the cost clearing of his moat as expenses (Daily Telegraph 120509).

  • the real "eastender" 25th Jul '09 - 4:57pm

    let’s be fair, lord rennard’s techniques _do_ work – if you consider our results in context of the amount of money and resources labour and the tories have, they’ve worked bloody well.

    we do need to try new things and to evolve, and mark pack is entirely right when he points out the continuous evolution in our techniques over the last decade. at the end of the day, it’s all about convincing the electorate of two simple truths – that our candidate can win, and that they are the best person for the job. Barcharts, focus and target literature are, unless someone has a big secret they’re not sharing with us, the best tools available.

  • Herbert Brown 25th Jul '09 - 5:09pm

    “You cant talk in absolutist terms when comparing votes as the turnouts are different.”

    That’s true up to a point, of course. That’s why I also pointed out that the Lib Dem share of the vote fell – and that of those who didn’t support Labour or the Tories, less than a third voted Lib Dem.

    But I do think the raw figures are important too. The number of people who voted Lib Dem on Thursday was less than two thirds of the number who voted Lib Dem in 2005. That’s despite an intensive campaign – presumably much more intensive than four years ago – and huge numbers (~15,000) of disaffected Labour voters up for grabs.

    In the event, at least a third of those who supported the Lib Dems last time either didn’t bother to vote or supported another party. And the ex-Labour voters who voted apparently went predominantly to UKIP or the Greens, rather than to the Lib Dems or the Tories.

    I suggest that is something people should be concerned about, rather than endlessly repeating the mantra “it was only to be expected”.

  • stand still 25th Jul '09 - 5:20pm

    Simon wilson:
    Its a moot point. The mote screwed them both.

  • Martin Land 25th Jul '09 - 6:13pm

    “But I wish more people who think they’ve got better answers would actually put them to the test in their local campaigns. In many cases I think they’ll find their ideas aren’t nearly as clever as they think, but hey – there’d be nothing better than to be proved wrong and learn how to campaign better as a result.”

    Mark, I’ve been doing it differently for years and I think I have a pretty good record!

  • I would agree with Tim13 on two of his key points:

    a) that in the context of July 2009 the NN result wasn’t too bad

    b) that we could have done as well in C&N with less paper [ I finally refused to deliver when I was sent to deliver Labour-squeeze leaflets on eve of poll in one of the most affluent & Tory areas in the entire constituency ].

    We need :
    less literature
    better literature
    targetted literature

    One of the key faults with the ‘blizzard of risographed leaflets’ approach is that it does little to build long-term Liberalism and support.

  • “I’m not saying don’t put put a lot of leaflets, I’m saying we need to make sure we don’t over do it.

    One great positive from Norwich North was the use of social networking and new media. We could easily cut the amount of literature by say 10-20% if we replace it with new, innovative campaigning techniques.”

    It was very good for keeping members informed about what was happening. It was also well used by the media however it certainly isn’t a reason to cut back on direct communication with the electorate.

  • Liberal Neil 25th Jul '09 - 9:50pm

    @James & @Darrell I’m with Tim on this. Every by-election campaign I’ve bene involved with where we have won, and indeed the general election campaigns where we’ve won or come close, we have had lots of complaints that we are delivering too many leaflets.

    I know of not one single parliamentary by-election campaign or general election seat that we have won where there have not been people complaining.

    I know of many, many elections where we have not delivered lots of literature and have lost.

    Where James has a point is with regard to email. Personally I think it is worth looking at dropping people we have active email addresses for from some rounds of target letters where we can email them instead.

    But the problem is that we don’t have access to most people’s email addresses. Even the seats that have been working hard at collecting them for years still only have a few thousand. It is therefore unrealistic to think that email could replace even 10% of some items of literature.

  • Liberal Neil 25th Jul '09 - 9:52pm

    @crewegwyn “One of the key faults with the ‘blizzard of risographed leaflets’ approach is that it does little to build long-term Liberalism and support.”

    Surely that depends on what’s in them?

  • Herbert Brown 25th Jul '09 - 9:54pm


    “. . . I was wondering what you thought the party can do about this, in terms of marketing, positioning and policies.”

    Really, (nearly) everything I’ve posted on this thread has simply been addressing Stephen’s question “Should we have done better?” – the answer to which I think is clearly “Yes!”

    As to what can be done to improve matters, that’s a very big question, to which I don’t have the answer.

    One thing I do think, though, is that the Lib Dems did have a smaller number of offenders in the MPs’ expenses business – quite possibly just because there are fewer Lib Dem MPs – and that it should have been possible for the party to project itself as significantly cleaner than the other two. That has clearly not happened, as far as the public perception is concerned.

  • “Every by-election campaign I’ve bene involved with where we have won, and indeed the general election campaigns where we’ve won or come close, we have had lots of complaints that we are delivering too many leaflets.”

    I’m not convinced of this line of reasoning. Certainly in Hodge Hill, Hartlepool and Henley (there three most recent I’ve attended) the complaints were of a vastly greater volume than at previous elections.

    I have heard anecdotes from people who have similar reports about those three from Dunfermline that this wasn’t the case which may support the “content is king” theory. My personal assessment is that the criticism was most extreme in Hartlepool which also supports that theory.

    The problem with complaints is that they are a symptom that people have simply stopped reading them. Not much point in delivering stuff people aren’t reading.

    The figures I would like to analyse are whether we start to pick up support late in the campaign – the contrast of our published canvass stats contrasted with the actual results suggests not.

    The reductio ad absurdum extension of multiple deliveries is that if you have delivered the constituency three times that day and still have capacity, a fourth leaflet will produce a benefit. I can’t see much logic in that.

    The threshold only seems reachable in by-elections so I doubt it has any practical ramifications for local and GE campaigns.

  • The key test of a literature campaign is whether it gets complaints about volume. If it doesn’t it means you have not done enough. There’s a volume of US marketing research that support this in the commercial sphere.

    Obviously the thing that makes the difference is the messages and one of the most important for us is credibility of challenge – in NN we were never a more credible threat to Labour than the Tories and the lack of local polling meant the campaign was locked into the last election and songle early poll.

    Also all the evidence points in twin elections that the results get locked down the first time people vote – C&N was a rerun of the locals a month before as was NN of the Counties/Euros.

  • I agree with most of Kates points, and feel that many of you have missed her point.
    In this election coming up it is going to be a lot easier to gain voters from Labour than it will from the Tory party. What you are seeing, and I do not think it will change, Labour supporters just not coming out to vote. These are the people to talk to, and I feel there are a lot of Labour seats to pick up where the Tory party is in 3rd position. I also think a number of Tory voters will switch just to get Labour out.
    In 1997 the Tory party had the same problem, their supporters just did not get out to vote, not many switched to Blair, but a number did vote Lib Dem.
    This time I think the Labour party will suffer the same problem.
    Kate you are correct.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jul '09 - 12:26am

    The campaigning techniques Chris uses go back years. People will vote for local heroes who get things done about the issues that matter to people locally. You just need two things: a local hero with a genuine record of campaigning alongside local people and a stream of communications telling people what is being done, explaining how they can join in the campaign(s)on those issues and highlighting the successes of those community-wide campaigns.

    Yes, Chris Rennard was not the originator of these techniques. In fact what has been called “Rennardism” tends to be a use of some aspects of them which misses the point.

    The main thing was that the literature should not look like standard political literature. The name “Focus”, for example, was chosen deliberately not to be identifiably Liberal Party literature. The idea was that people would pick it up and read it and not discard it thinking “oh, that’s politics, and politics is nothing to do with me”. It should contain positive stories which referred to what people encountered in their lives, and carefully lead them to thinking about politics without realising that’s what they were doing.

    Literature which immediately goes into heavy promotion of the party, slagging off the others, and the use of bar charts for the “wasted vote” line is missing the point.

    The bar charts and “two horse race”/”straight choice” line should be brought in near the end when we’ve won the argument on what we’re saying and doing positively, not made an issue from the start. The idea should not mainly be to get people who don’t really like us to vote for us tactically, it’s to encourage those who do like us not to be swayed by the “but it’s a wasted vote” line which the other two parties will use against us.

    The literature should look different from what the others are doing. What worked in the 1970s and 1980s when the others were putting our very staid stuff won’t necessarily work now everyone puts out stuff with the sort of “busy” look the classic “Focus” had.

  • Might this turn out to be a more positive sign. I look at the result as a protest vote moving to the UKIP and Green or BNP where applicable. That means worse results at by elections but may be better at the General Election. Trying to regain your ground as a protest vote will be a mistake.

  • “The key test of a literature campaign is whether it gets complaints about volume. If it doesn’t it means you have not done enough.”

    But when those complaints are at the level that the literature is not being read delivering further leaflets is not achieving anything. My assessment in Hartlepool and Hodge Hill was that in the last few days very little stuff was actually getting read so it’s impact was minimal. My reading is that we were losing support in those final few days as well which may be a linked factor.

    Interestingly I’ve heard reports from people who found similar problems in those two elections that in Dunfermline (where there were comparable volumes of literature delivered) that this wasn’t the case.

    I’ve only ever seen this issue arise at Parliamentary by-elections where we had been delivering at least a leaflet (often a dual delivery) a day for a week or more – and the opposition were doing the same. Local campaigns can almost never manage that volume so the issue doesn’t IMO arise outside of Parliamentary by-elections.

    Hywel (who did work for ALDC for 7 years so is hardly from the “one leaflet” tradition!)

  • Norwich North really was a dismal result for the Tories, wasn’t it? 38%? If they are serious about winning the next General Election they should have got more than than 50% at this stage in the Parliament, ideally more than 60% (especially given the circumstances in which the byelection was held). Recall what happened during the 1964-70 and 1974-79 Parliaments. The Tories (a) did much, much better, and (b) captured almost all the anti-government vote. There are millions of people out there who cannot stand the sight of Brown but will never vote Tory in a million years. Hence the big votes for no-hope Ukip and Green candidates.

    BTW, the prep school brat who sneers at April Pond’s moat should familiarise himself with the historical geography of East Anglia. Much of the region never had open fields and is dotted with ancient farmsteads, many of them surrounded by moats (more a source of fish than a means of protection).

  • David Allen 26th Jul '09 - 4:28pm

    This just isn’t about campaign techniques, Rennardism, or post-Rennardism. Mathematical optimisation of your marketing strategy ain’t worth a fig if your goods are not worth selling.

    On the economy – We’re all over the place. As Herbert Brown put it “Since Clegg took over, party policy has gone through the whole gamut – from big permanent tax cuts, through huge public spending to boost the economy, to dropping spending pledges to pay off the deficit for the benefit of the next generation”.

    On tuition fees – We’re all over the place. First we scrap them, then we think perhaps we won’t, then we insist that we will, and then lastly (post-Blairite propaganda masterpiece) we announce that scrapping them has been downgraded to an “aspiration”!

    On the reform agenda – We’re all over the place. We insist that a massive range of fundamental constitutional reforms must all be put into place as instant panic measures – But we show very little interest in saying sorry to the public about the expenses fiddles, or for taking action inside our own party to put anything right.

    Why on earth did as many as 14% of the Nowich North voters stick with the Lib Dems? It can only have been a combination of past loyalties and a perceived lack of a good alternative.

  • Herbert Brown 26th Jul '09 - 5:49pm

    Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning a couple of other examples, relating to economic policy.

    I am not confident I’ve kept up with all the reformulations, but if I understand correctly, the package of tax changes agreed under Ming Campbell three years ago is going to be more or less completely thrown out. The proposed increase in green taxation has dwindled drastically, because the government has already carried out most of the measures. And lowering the basic rate of income tax to 16p is now going to be replaced by an increase in allowances.

    And what about that £20bn of public spending cuts that were going to fund some combination of Lib Dem spending priorities and extra tax cuts? Nearly a year on, only a small fraction of the cuts has been identified (despite repeated assurances last year that the details were imminent). And Nick Clegg’s spin would imply that some of the spending priorities will have to become “aspirations”, because the money isn’t there.

    This £20bn of spending cuts was a favourite Lib Dem policy of Gordon Brown’s, and no doubt it will feature prominently in Labour literature where the Lib Dems are the challengers at the next election. The Lib Dem answer used to be “they aren’t cuts, they are a way of redirecting spending to other priorities”. If those other priorities become mere “aspirations”, the party will be left without an answer. The cuts will be real spending cuts, and to make matters worse the party still hasn’t identified where they are going to come from, which gives Labour carte blanche to make its own suggestions …

  • Pointless cheap shot time:

    “to point out the Moat in another’s eye without considering the Pond in their own…”

  • Liberal Neil 27th Jul '09 - 2:14pm

    @Hywel – in my experience the level of the complaints about the quantity of literature delivered was fairly similar whether it was Henley, Hartlepool, Leicester South or Brent East.

    I tend to agree with Dan that if we aren’t getting at least some complaints we probably haven’t delivered enough to be winning.

    That IS NOT because I take some macho pride in having annoyed people, but because the electorate is not one mass of people, but 80,000 individuals. The point at which SOME people start to complain is the point at which the message is starting to get through to a large number of others.

    You ask an interesting point about how support changes during a by-election campaign. Well withut giving away secrets, my experience of all the by-elections we either won or got a decent swing in is that the swing came late.
    To give you one specific example, Bromley, we lost the (large) postal vote by about 20% but won narrowly on the day – because the swing came after most postal voters had voted. That is not to say that the early few weeks are unimportant, they set the ground for us to be able to get the big swing at the end, but it is the big push at the end that wins it.

    Henley was interesting in this respect. By the middle of the campaign I am sure we had gained ground on the Tories. About ten days out they stepped up their campaign in response. In the last week they out delivered us by some margin, sharpened their literature (we believe they brought new people in) and outgunned us on polling day probably four to one. The result was that they gained momentum in that last week while we fell back.

    All this IS NOT to suggest that having the right message isn’t important. I’ve worked on by-elections where we got it right, and others where, in my view, we got it wrong. You can delver as many leaflets as you like with the wrong message and it will have little impact.

  • Herbert Brown 28th Jul '09 - 12:43am

    “To take up some themes raised by David Allen, Herbert Brown and others, how might what we think of as sensible, distinctive policies be perceived by those with a limited interest in the detail of politics?”

    At the risk of being provocative, that question might perhaps be turned around: what are the policies that make Lib Dems get up an hour early to deliver a couple of hundred leaflets?

    What are the policies that make them think “We are the only ones saying this. And if no one says it, it will be terrible for Britain”?

  • Andrew Turvey 28th Jul '09 - 3:15am

    The problem with the “throw lots of leaflets at them” strategy is not that it doesn’t “work”: as you said, it’s actually pretty effective in increasing our vote and we don’t know anything else that’s as good.

    The problem is that it seriously pisses lots of voters off.

    That can’t be good for our long term future or for the good of politics.

  • coldcomfort 29th Jul '09 - 4:07pm

    There are 8 MEP’s from the North West. The only one featured on the local TV news was Nick Griffin. I made a formal complaint & got the usual guff about ‘balance’ etc when we all know that commonsense [an exceptionally rare commodity] is ‘boring’ to the media and extremism is news. It is also much easier for the media if they can pretend that there are only two major parties. Thus in an important exchange about the economy on last Sunday’s Andrew Marr show there was Alistair Darling & David Cameron & no Vince Cable or any other LibDem. We would have made ourselves distinctive if we had supported Charles Kennedy instead of dumping him and told the media to do something anatomically impossible to itself. We never have, and never will, be given a fair go. Our progress is only a bit about leadership. It is mostly about principles & chipping away and nowadays about interacting with the voters over the heads of the media and all the time not just at elections. We will also never get power by re-distributing the votes of those who will vote in any case. I joined up when we only had about 7 MPs so we’ve done pretty well, but instead of fretting about Norwich [which was freak] we need to focused on how to inspire those who don’t vote at all.

  • May I just say thank you, stephen tall, for such an interesting article. I agreed with about 95% of that article and it was very interesting and well written

  • @Neil

    I agree with substantial amounts of that (and really the difference between me and yourself and Dan is probably less than 1%)

    On the “annoying voters” point though, this isn’t a digital on/off state of affairs. The notable thing in Hodge Hill and Hartlepool was the frequency and hostilty of the complaints I got. That was very different from any by-election I’d been in before.

    And in Henley when I was canvassing a few days before polling day again the complaints were at a high level and certainly well outnumbered the number of positive voting for us responses I was getting (this was on the estate where the BNP polled strongest so may have been an exception).

    I agree about late swings. The issue for the “by-election machine” however is that rather than getting a late swing to us in recent campaigns we (going on my assessment of Hartlepool/Hodge Hill and yours in Henley) have seen a late swing away from us.

    One thing that has changed in recent elections is that opposing parties (particularly the Tories) have picked “flaw free” candidates. If you look down our list of notable byelection wins then a common factor is that the Tory candidate wasn’t local:
    Eastbourne (ex Scunthorpe MP)
    Ribble Valley (twice South Wales candidate)
    Newbury (Somerset County Councillor)
    Christchurch (ex Bristol MP)
    Romsey (Dorset County Councillor)
    Brent East (Labour MEP from Surrey)

    Compare that to the Tory choices in Crewe, Henley and Norwich North

  • Liberal Neil 30th Jul '09 - 12:47pm

    @Hywel – Yes I’m sure we mostly agree! My perception of Hartlepool was that we were gaining ground right up until the end.

    Hodge Hill was probably harder to determine accurately. In both of those campaigns a significant factor was that Labour delivered lots of literature to counter ours!

    Where there is a n issue is where the debate becomes very negative between the leading parties. My unhappiness with the Hartlepool campaign was that i felt we got into too much of a tit-for-tat argument with Labour and that we should have moved our message onto a more positive theme in the last few days. There were also some issues about which areas we were tareting and how which I won’t go into here.

    Had we gone more positive at the end of that particular campaign, playing on the strengths our candidate had and being positive about the good aspects of the town, I think that might have been welcomed by many voters.

    @Andrew I don’t think there is anything wrong with any party putting out its literature in a variety of forms in order to increase the chances of a wider number of people reading more of it.

  • Liberal Neil 30th Jul '09 - 4:13pm

    @Andrew – but surely our objection to The Sun is not that it is printed in the form of a tabloid newspaper, but the content? We do produce some of our leaflets in the form of a newspaper, but we don’t use a ‘page 3 stunna’. so is there really a problem. Is there really any difference in principle between producing a leaflet on A4, A3 or A2 paper?

  • tactical voter 31st Jul '09 - 1:35pm

    I very much agree with Kate’s view “Now that the distinctions between [Labour and Conservatives] have blurred, we need the leadership, more than ever, to set out a vision of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat on a national level.”

    On the leadership front, perhaps Nick should leave the combative PMQs to the Leader of the Opposition. With only two questions, I think many voters would be more impressed with serious, constructive policy points – not a hyped-up sense of indignation. If you want to make a greater distinction between Cameron and Clegg, that would be a start – more policy, less soundbite please.

  • “My perception of Hartlepool was that we were gaining ground right up until the end.”

    Maybe you were just sending me to the worst bits 🙂 Certainly earlier in the Hartlepool campaign I was getting a very positive response in not very promising areas (including interestingly from low social class young women which may have been an interesting reflection of people empathising with our candidate)

    However the bit I particularly recall was on the Monday evening on an estate which looked like it should be one where we polled well (privately owned semis) – and the response was frankly awful, not just negative but with actual hostilty (that may have been a reflection of Labour’s vitriolic campaign).

  • I have come to the conclusion that to be taken seriously from now on, we must take ourselves seriously. We have had 30 years of Thatcherite social (no such thing as society) and enconomic (loadsamoney) policies. Only the Liberal Democrats have the policies for this country to have a fresh start. We must talk about Power and have a simple straightforward Narative overarching all our policies.

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