Opinion: The Liberal Democrats and the County Council elections – a whole new chapter?

A wise man said to me today: “are you going to write a new chapter for the book after you came third in your election?” The chapters in 101 Ways to Win an Election are each the same length as an LDV article so I thought, “why not!?”

The first and most obvious point to make is to never stop learning. Each campaign has the potential to teach you something new. The trick is to learn the right lessons, which generally will come from listening carefully to what the voters are telling you about your campaign.

In this election, in North Norfolk where I was working, we found it incredibly hard to identify UKIP supporters on the doorstep. We knew the vote was there and it puzzled and troubled us throughout the campaign that we could not find it. In one division, won by UKIP with over 1,300 votes, we found just 80 UKIP supporters through our doorstep canvassing, In the next few weeks and months we will spend a lot of time talking to people about why they voted how they did and how we win back their confidence. And on a similar theme, the first thing I did when the count was over was not to write to the papers about the iniquities of the voting system. Instead I ordered a copy of Nate Silver’s book on forecasting to see if it could help me do a better job of understanding voters.

The second lesson from the election results was the importance for a candidate to build a relationship with voters. It is incredibly difficult right now for Lib Dems to win NEW supporters because when you are in power every time you make a decision you risk annoying someone. This would be true whoever we were in coalition with, whatever the broader environment. So it is important as a first priority to give your own supporters clear reasons to stick with you and then to work hard at making sure they vote.

My co-author Mark Pack wrote in 101 Ways about the importance of defining a post as being one that your candidate, and only your candidate, can do. In essence this is what we start to do when we work hard for our communities. But we also have to convince voters that it matters to them that we are given the chance to carry on doing the job. It’s no good having a record of action if the other candidate has a better message about what they will do in the future. If they know you and trust you because you are visible in their community and on their doorstep; if you regularly show you are listening to them, they will trust you and what you tell them when it comes to an election.

Next, listen to your activists. I was reminded of this on Friday, driving one young volunteer home after the count. He said to me ‘I really enjoy phone canvassing. I would have happily spent the whole week on the phone if you had asked me.’ Instead he had spent the week doing a variety of (often menial) tasks, tackling the latest emergency. Always find the time to talk to volunteers and find out what it is they REALLY want to do as their contribution to the campaign, you will sometimes be surprised by the result. D’oh!

Finally, make sure you get the strategic priorities right. This is especially important when votes are at a premium. Listen to what the voters are telling you through canvassing. Be prepared to take tough decisions about areas you cannot win. That’s why I was far from disappointed to finish third in my own election contest. The division was never a top priority. The priority was electing as many Liberal Democrats as possible across North Norfolk. We achieved this winning five divisions (one more than we went into the election with), two of them with majorities of less than 40 votes. So each time I sacrificed campaign time in my own division to help candidates in more competitive divisions I knew I was helping us to win.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Do you think that there are no policy lessons to learn here?
    I am looking for a LibDem party which embraces justice, civil liberties, progressive taxation and the importance of voting how you said you would vote. Instead the party rushed into government with the tories and had to sacrifice too much it seems

  • How did Local Libby do, and what are her thoughts. It was a three way fight against Mad Max and a kipper, so her observations might be relevant. I suspect she might be drowning her sorrows with a glass of Pinot Grigio though.

  • “Be prepared to take tough decisions about areas you cannot win.”

    I hope the LD’s are finally getting this. The next election will be fought under FPTP, not PR. Already at least 5-6 of the current 57 MPs are doomed (some of the 2011-13 local election results in the North are appalling). Spend in the other 50 seats, plus a dozen or so that might be got from the Tories.

    The other key role, now that a Tory majority is unlikely, is to stop the flood of votes to Labour in Con-Lab marginals, thus preventing THEIR majority.

  • tony dawson 9th May '13 - 11:11pm

    I find it difficult to accept that someone who wants to discuss tactical matters relating to electoral performance on a public website (or anyone who publishes the same) understands too much about winning elections.

  • Let me restate the obvious: The Liberal Democrats are in a huge hole and they are going to stay there until after the 2015 election. Tactical adjustments will do nothing to change this because the strategic factors are all against the Lib Dems. The sine quâ non for a reversal of fortunes is a complete change of leadership and a clear break with the Tories, and that is simply not going to happen. Even if someone did dare to challenge Nick Clegg for the leadership of the party, that person would lose by an immense margin, because of timidity, unwillingness to rock the boat, and a fear that it would only make things worse. By this time next year every Lib Dem in Parliament is going to be obsessed with retaining his or her constituency, there will be no stomach for concerted action, and Nick is going to be trying to broker some kind of deal with Cameron to salvage a few key seats — notably his own. Of course Cameron won’t be able to deliver anything of the sort, and he’ll have enough trouble with his own right wing — though I doubt enough to lose him his leadership either. If things get desperate enough, there’s a chance that the coalition might break up before the election — but it will be too little, too late, and nobody on this side will be able to make it look like a principled move. More likely, the parliamentary Lib Dems will stick with Nick and the Tories through a bloodbath. Only then — and only if Nick does the decent thing and resigns — will the party be able to recreate itself as anything resembling what it should be. But by then the damage will have been done. I guess it will take three more elections for the party to rebuild the strength that it had before 2010, but that depends on an increasingly unstable and unpredictable political scene.

    None of this is what I want to happen. I find the whole thing dispiriting and depressing. But it’s the nightmare that’s been shaping up for the past three years, and the probabilities of things shaking out this way are greater with every passing day.

  • mark faircough 10th May '13 - 7:37am

    Labour did have a wonderful night, the Tory votes went to Ukip. Labour can get as many votes as they want in South Shields they did not make much headway in the areas they needed to. The Libdems had a poor night because also there were 106 council byelection that day & they finished on the debit side in the byelections .

  • “I suspect that a great many UKIP voters are slightly ashamed of the fact, as it potentially labels them as racist and far right, and thus will not say.”

    Is that not also the indication from opinion polling, where UKIP ratings are significantly higher in online polls than in telephone polls?

  • Lots of Tories won’t say, or pretend “I haven’t quite made up my mind” or “I’m not very political”. I found some UKIP were quite proud of the fact – we were fighting Tories, and some wanted to rubbish Coalition, or the 3 main parties etc.

  • mark faircough 10th May '13 - 3:41pm

    sorry I should have said DIDNT HAVE A WONDERFUL NIGHT

  • Although I now live in the SE I’m from Devon. My home County Division, where, it has always been Lib Dem / Tory we were fourth behind Labour and UKIP. The message is clear – our history and principles put us closer to Labout than the Conservatives. Under Clegg’s leadership all the hard work done by Lib Dem activists over twenty plus years is being thrown away. Why? Because our parliamentary party is predominantly the privately educated children of privelidge – who cannot quite bring themselves to take the radical policies needed to eliminate that privelidge and create a fair society. They have swallowed (it seems) hook line and sinker private good – public bad matra of the Thatcher years and their response to our poll position is siomply to assert that we need to shout more loudly what we have done in government. If their strategy isn’t convincing solid life long Liberal activists like myself, the it isn’t convincing anyone at all – a fact supported by the election results – including that in Eastliegh.

    Clegg says where we are dug in we are still winning, whilst possibly true, it is hardly a case for his own defence, as what it says is that very hard work can allow us to win, despite Nick Clegg. For myself I have had to scale back my committment to the party due to work committments – but it is difficult to think I would increase it in the future when the party is acting against my personal interests, beliefs and principles and the national interest.

  • David Allen 12th May '13 - 9:39pm


    I am torn between applauding your clear foresight and condemning your acceptance that this party is doomed to self-destruction. Can we really be that stupid?

    Yes, we can, we did it before, in 1987. That’s when we solemnly told the voters that they should vote for a divided Alliance and a double-header leadership by Steel and Owen which was fighting itself. Of course we got hammered. We knew we would get hammered. And yet we went along with it, got hammered, repented, merged, and swore blind that we would never do anything so stupid again. And here we are, doing something just as stupid again. We will repent after May 2015 I suppose…

    Or we could change tack now. Just a thought. If we had an ounce of nouse, we would change tack now.

  • Simon Banks 20th May '13 - 5:37pm

    In Essex too we found the UKIP vote very hard to locate. My experience with a residents’ survey before a district campaign was that this was better at finding UKIP support. But it may be as UKIP becomes seen as more of a conventional party, that its vote will be easier to find. In the meantime I hope some psephologists are working on studies of where the UKIP vote came from as at present we’re making big assumptions.

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