Opinion: A guide to fighting list seats

In writing this article I do not claim any great wisdom in how to fight list elections. In fact the fact I survived the latest Welsh Assembly poll has more to do with the decline in the Plaid Cymru vote than anything I did, though the amount of effort and targeted work we put in must have had some significance in securing a 54 vote majority.

This is what I did. It may not be appropriate in other areas and it may be fairly obvious to any experienced campaigner. Inevitably there were things I could have done better or did not do at all that I should have.

The system of election used for the Welsh Assembly is a D’Hondt top up list. Forty constituencies elect Assembly Members by first past the post. A second ballot paper allows voters to put a cross against a political party and the outcome of that election is used to distribute four top up seats in each of five regions, having taken account of the seats already won in the constituencies.

You are not permitted to stand in both a constituency and on the list, so they are treated as separate elections, even though they are interdependent. A freepost leaflet is available to candidates for each ballot so there is a huge opportunity to manage a split of each so as to maximise your vote, if you have the resources to do so.

In South Wales West we did not have those resources. We raised and spent just over £20,000 for the regional election and most probably an equivalent for the seven constituencies within the region. The first part of the strategy was to get our key message to every elector, because in a close contest even a dozen converts could make a difference and so it proved. We did do an addressed regional freepost which enabled us to split between postal voters and non-postal voters, thus ensuring timely delivery.

In theory we were not allowed to cross–refer between the constituency and region on the freepost leaflet though both Labour and the Tories flouted that rule. We did use common photographs and artwork on both so as to ensure voters knew they were part of an integrated campaign. We only had the money to send out an unaddressed full colour freepost leaflet in five of the seven constituencies. In the other two we sent out a five-split enveloped address with accompanying letter.

It was a two-vote strategy in which we encouraged people to give us both their votes in any way we could. Our messaging on both this and policy issues was highly disciplined, consistent throughout and ruthlessly repetitive.

The message was the key. We took a decision that whatever the issues with Nick Clegg and the party as a whole being in government, seeking to distance ourselves from them was a recipe for disaster. We would still suffer from protest votes whilst offering no reason to those who wished to give us the benefit of the doubt to come out and vote for us.

Instead we promoted our achievements in government, countering the negatives about tuition fees and being in government with the Tories, by proclaiming the 50,000 Welsh workers who no longer pay tax, the 1.1 million who will have a tax cut, linking pensions to earnings and extra money for tax credits.

We also adopted a major principle of good campaigning – keep it local and keep it relevant. We produced a costed manifesto with strong campaigning themes, highlighting the failures of Labour and Plaid Cymru on education, the economy and health. We supplemented these messages with our own policies: an innovation fund to grow new businesses, a training grant for firms who take on new permanent employees, a pupil premium and a pledge to start closing the £604 per pupil funding gap between England and Wales, and a promise to investigate claims by professionals that one fifth of the health budget is being misspent. We hammered home these messages wherever we could.

The X factor was the collection and use of data. In any close election differential turnout is key. In a D’Hondt top-up election it is even more important. You do not have to top the poll to win but you do have to do sufficiently well compared to the other parties to get a seat. That meant that getting our vote out was crucial.

We started by producing extra literature and doing some surveying and canvassing in council wards we hold. This reinforced our messages and enabled us to work on personal votes to counter disillusionment with the Liberal Democrats. The danger was that people might vote for an individual constituency candidate but use their list vote as a protest against us. That certainly happened in areas where we are not strong.

As an example we did a full canvass of my own council ward, delivered three additional pieces of literature and knocked up all of our Ds and Ps on the day. The message was vote Welsh Liberal Democrat on the list to re-elect Peter Black. We won that ward and I am convinced that it was that effort together with similar efforts in Swansea West and elsewhere that got us the crucial 54 list votes.

Having a recognisable incumbent with a good track record and a reasonable reputation for getting things done also helped. It meant that we were better able to localise our message and ask people to vote for me personally, even though my name did not appear on the list ballot paper.

Not all areas of my region are particular good at capturing data despite my best efforts. From an electorate of just under 400,000 we have about 20,000 Ds and Ps (definites and probables), mostly concentrated in two constituencies. We needed to get them all out but we did not have the people to knock their door or even telephone them.

So we resorted to the Post Office and paid for direct mail to encourage them to stay with us and to motivate them to vote. Particularly effective were blue ink letters, hand written by me, but in envelopes addressed by laser printer with a hand writing font and with a stamp, that arrived a few days before each elector was due to vote.

I have lost count of the number of people who came up to me to thank me for the letter and to assure me they were voting for me. It was expensive but it was worth it, not least for all the grateful Post Masters whose stamps we bought up on a trawl of sub-Post Offices around the region.

In fact we could have done more and we will plan to do so next time. Direct mail on top of a basic leaflet campaign is essential in getting your vote out in a list election, though squeeze messages in a D’Hondt top-up system are difficult and rarely understood.

At the end of the day you cannot always buck a national swing, but if you are going to give yourself the best possible chance then data collection, getting your messages right, good communication across the region and targeting to get your vote out are all crucial. It will also hold you in good stead for the vital local council elections in the following year.

Peter Black is Welsh Liberal Democrat AM for South Wales West

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4 Comments

  • Good to see the whole strategy set out … Canvassing the core areas made sense, especially seeing that there was a constituency vote to fight for as well in those areas, but I found it difficult to imagine how it was possible to make any sort of impact in such a large area, some of it places where LibDems and LibDem activists are a rather rare species.

    One thing I found intriguing on the ground is how hard it is to keep the three levels of government separate and to emphasise the issues which are actually specifically relevant to an Assembly election. It might be easier, actually, where your list candidate is also a councillor. Between council issues (potholes, parking permits, redevelopment and rubbish collection) and Westminster (Tuition fees! Betrayal! Cuts!) the assembly and its agenda seems to find very little room in any doorstep conversation. This is obviously made worse if the party in (Welsh Assembly)) government decides to campaign mostly on Westminster issues rather than on its own record. I really wonder whether the Assembly has still not quite found a place in people’s consciousness and eventually will, or whether this it is going to be a permanent feature of assembly campaigns that the issues you hear on the doorstep almost always have nothing to do with things the assembly can actually influence. I would like to know whether it is different in Scotland.

    Perhaps I missed it in the article – but it might be worth pointing out that this year’s decision to leave candidates’ names off the Welsh regional ballot paper was a real obstacle. When you have to count on personal votes in the face of an overwhelming scepticism (if not hatred in some areas) of the party, it’s going to be harder to tell people to put that cross next to the bird without the reassuring familiar candidate’s name beside it. And there is no doubt to my mind that there is a big personal (rather than party) vote in some areas of the South-West Wales region. I think that the system should encourage that rather than making it a lot harder to be rewarded for personal achievements.

    And the rule that candidates can’t stand in a constituency and also be on the list is patently counter-productive. This isn’t a party political point, it’s potentially a problem for all parties, and I’d say that it hit the Welsh Conservatives hardest this time. I think it should be changed.

  • Harry Hayfield 12th Jun '11 - 10:14am

    Here’s the maths (concentrate):

    Wales South West Constituency Votes: Lab 85,080 Con 31,140 Plaid 23,224 Lib Dem 12,965 BNP 2,106
    Wales South West Regional List Votes: Lab 71,766 Con 27,457, Plaid 21,258 Lib Dem 10,683
    % Rentention of Constituency Vote: Lab 84% Con 88% Plaid 92% Lib Dem 82%

    Here in Mid and West Wales (where we won a Lib Dem regional member for the first time ever) we reckoned that you need at least 80% constituency retention on the regional list to have any chance of a regional list seat.

  • David Pollard 12th Jun '11 - 7:02pm

    Well done for all your hard work. Could you tell an ignorant Englishman what exactly was the result in terms of LibDems elected?

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