Opinion: We mustn’t be afraid to attack the opposition when they deserve it

Many things are being written about the election we have just been through. I for one think this is great; everyone is engaged and wanting to examine what went wrong, how we can learn, what can we do next time. The key is that we’re all committed to rebuilding and giving it all we have again next time. This is really encouraging, so I wanted to add my own little insight and raise a few more questions for our campaign teams, local and national, to address.

My issue concerns the ever-dreaded ‘negative’ campaigning. It’s something we as Liberal Democrats really struggle with, especially at a local level. One of the biggest frustrations for me in all my campaigning roles I’ve held so far, is that the superb team of local councillors and candidates I’ve always worked with are entirely uncomfortable with praising themselves but even more so with blaming the opposition for things that they absolutely should be blamed for.

I can completely understand this attitude. By nature we Liberals want to make sure everyone is given a fair hearing. Our councillors have worked for usually decades at building up relationships of trust with their voters and don’t want to come across as using mistakes of others for political gain. All the reasons are very honourable, but after an election like the one we’ve just had, it is a bitter pill to see so many undeserving people elected who had made a mess of things and who now appear to have an even bigger mandate to make it all worse.

Even people who previously would have refused to outright blame the opposition for some money they wasted or some such situation are now in agreement that we have to start calling people out on things they do wrong. But we must be smart.

An interesting and unnerving aspect that I observed this time was the lack of direct attack on us from the Conservatives. We now know that they were very heavily targeting Lib Dem seats and votes. I know that I am not alone in having sat in hustings and listening to my Conservative incumbent praise myself and my party for our contribution to government. In Solihull next door, the Conservative machine was priding itself on its ‘positive’ local campaign and lack of personal attacks. On the doorstep, my councillors were being told what ‘lovely’ people the Camerons are. The generic literature we observed in our constituency had practically no ‘attack’ message.

Clearly there was a very strong attack message going on. We all know that the politics of fear, over the SNP, over the economy, over unknown chaos, triumphed. So how was this message being delivered?

My educated guess is via national media and extremely informed, specific and relevant targeted messages. The local teams didn’t need to get their hands dirty. They could busy themselves claiming credit for everything positive whether they deserved it or not, self-righteously criticising other parties who dare challenge them as ‘playing politics’ and styling themselves as lovely, community individuals.

We ignore this approach at our peril.

* Elizabeth Adams was the Liberal Democrat candidate for Stratford-on-Avon in 2015 Parliamentary Candidate in Stratford-on-Avon, 2015 and is West Midlands Regional Executive Officer.

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12 Comments

  • You know, the more I think about it there really was a complete lack of outright attack on the Liberal Democrats, by both parties, especially the Conservatives

    I wonder if this was an defined strategy by Crosby to attract Lib Dem leaning voters

  • Gareth Wilson
    There was plenty of Conservative direct attack on Liberal Democrats where I live. But then I live in one of the 50 or so seats where we came second. Did you not notice that the Cameron, Osborne and Shaps tours took them all to seats held by Liberal Democrat MPs or seats where the Liberal Democrat candidate might do well? Ndidmyounthinknitnwas a coincidence?

    Perhaps in those hundreds of seats where the Liberal Democrat came fourth or fifth the Consrvatives did not bother to flog a dead horse.

  • In Cheltenham the Tory literature essentially ignored the Lib Dems, focusing on Miliband and Salmond.

  • All you need to do is figure out what the Tories weren’t doing in Sheffield Hallam that they were doing everywhere else.

  • Bill le Breton 22nd May '15 - 3:50pm

    “the Tory literature essentially ignored the Lib Dems, focusing on Miliband and Salmond.”

    whilst their intensive social media campaign was targeting those self same people.

    That is why when you spoke to so many people they said how sorry they were but ‘this time’ they couldn’t vote for us because they had to stop the “Scots” running the country.

    And yes, Gareth, you don’t get people to vote for you tactically by being rude about their ‘first/former preference’.

    In this Parliament we UNlearned everything we ever knew about delivering a tactical argument and the the Tories became star graduates of that school.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd May '15 - 3:54pm

    The Labour Candidate in Southport did nothing except attack the Lib Dems. Took a lot of votes off us but not quite enough to let the Tory slip in.

    “Our councillors have worked for usually decades at building up relationships of trust with their voters and don’t want to come across as using mistakes of others for political gain”

    It would be a lovely world if all the bad things which our political opponents did were ‘mistakes’. But this is not the case. ‘Negative campaigning’ does not often work too well unless the people putting out the message are already trusted ie there has been quite a lot of positive campaigning, too, already. But you have to remember that most people out there do not spend a lot of time in between elections informing themselves of what is going on in the political world. If we do not tell them, nobody will. Remember, too, that anything not said at least three times will not gain much traction at all.

  • @Bill Le Breton “And yes, Gareth, you don’t get people to vote for you tactically by being rude about their ‘first/former preference’.”

    That’ll be why we lost 30% of our vote to the Tories then.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd May '15 - 5:25pm

    @ TCO

    “That’ll be why we lost 30% of our vote to the Tories then.”

    I would think that was more likely down to people preferring the organ grinder to the monkey. The monkey never displayed much in the way of musical training to the audience.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd May '15 - 5:55pm

    I’m surprised that whether Lib Dems should run negative campaigns is up for debate. Of course they should. So I agree with the article.

    You have to be careful of course, because they can back fire, but if you have a clear opportunity then put the ball in the net. 😀

    In Southport the Conservative candidate distributed a few negative leaflets, but not many. Mainly linking the Lib Dem candidate to the Oakeshott donations and therefore the Labour Party.

  • peter tyzack 23rd May '15 - 9:15am

    standard Tory line is to accuse everyone else of ‘playing politics’. But the key is that they play ‘us-v-the rest’, which is how we should play, ie focus on our position in the field, our principles and policies(the latter based on the former) and not being shy in saying that our principles are what ‘being British’ is all about.

  • You can attack the other parties all you like, they still need a reason to vote Lib Dem as an alternative.
    What you have to work out is whether your negative attacks make sense, or make you look desperate.
    So in 2005 I did not mind attacking Labour over the war in Iraq; they deserved it.
    But attacking the SNP for wanting a Tory government – well that didn’t work did it? No one believed us. And even if they did, why would they vote Lib Dem?

  • Yje problem with the campaign was the Lib Dems focused their attacks in seats and on an opposition they had no chance of beating. Focusing on the SNP reinforced The Conservative Vote in England because it backed up their claims that the SNP were foece the English to eat deep Fried mars Bars or whatever rubbish thet were peddling. Ditto for Labour. The point is that English news and English politics has no real traction in Scotland which is why they have their own News Papers. In the Northern Labour and Urban seats Labour increased their grip for similar reasons.. People in Liverpool, Newcastle et all are not going to vote for deeper cuts and nor is the large Asian vote in places like Leicester. Which is why there were lost deposits.
    This left the Southern Tory facing seats and here the mistake was to run on the record, because again it favoured the Conservative. The Chancellor wasn’t a Lib Dem. nor was the Prime Minister. Nick Clegg was deputy Prime minister. to which I would say. so was John Prescott.

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