Opinion: campaign spending – did the Lib Dems get it right?

You can, famously, prove anything with statistics. But the figures for General Election expenditure, released by the Electoral Commission in December, raise some interesting questions for Lib Dem campaign managers.

It was an extraordinary election in many ways. The TV debates, Cleggmania,the economic crisis and the MPs expenses scandal. All of this perhaps made it a particularly difficult election for the party to manage. Marshalling scarce resources in an unpredictable environment is a tough challenge.

The Lib Dems were always going to be out-gunned on the national stage but did we allow ourselves to be out-gunned and out-manoeuvred locally too?

Looking at expenditure in the ‘long campaign period’, it is surprising that Lib Dems spent more than two thirds of the expense limit in only 37 seats. In those key contests the win return was strikingly low: there were five gains and eight ‘holds’ and eight notionally held seats were lost. The other seats were targets that were missed.

Adding in the short campaign the party spent more than two thirds of the aggregate limit in just 52 seats. Seventeen of them were won. Only 62 seats spent more than half of the aggregate limit allowed.

Seats with a surprisingly low spend in relation to the limit include some notable misses for the party: Oxford East (58% of the limit spent); Dunfermline (58%); Ashfield (53%); Chesterfield (51%); Hereford (65%) for example.

An interesting picture emerges when expenditure by other parties is added in. Looking at the 100 seats where Lib Dems spent the most seems to confirm the impression that Lib Dem campaign managers were generally making the right call about where to invest resources. But maybe questions should be asked about how much was spent on individual campaigns. Among the seats where Lib Dem candidates were outspent by their rivals are Durham, Hampstead and Kilburn, Harrogate, Hereford, Islington South and Oxford East. All of those would be on any list of key marginals from May.

There were 20 seats where the Lib Dem candidate finished less than 2,000 votes behind the winner. Across those seats the party ‘under-spent’ by around £205,000 against the legal limit. Less than the amount that was spent on flights for the leadership team as LDV reported in December.

For the first time since 1992 the party came out of an election feeling it had underperformed in terms of seats compared to its vote share. We seemed to finish on the wrong side of a swathe of very close results. In 2015 we likely face an even tougher contest. The party needs to ask tough questions about spending priorities, intelligence gathering and structures to ensure it gets the maximum return next time.

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