Opinion: We should be ambitious in our campaigning

Katy Gordon fought Glasgow North in the General Election in May and is now the top candidate  on the Glasgow Regional list for the Holyrood  elections in May. In this inspiring article, she shows how her team’s “yes we can” attitude paid dividends, increasing membership by 150%.

When I started campaigning in June 2007 as PPC for the target seat of Glasgow North, I had very little idea of how to go about it.  All I knew was I was fed up with Labour taking the people of Glasgow for granted, that the Lib Dems had real potential to grow in Glasgow and that Campaigns Department in Cowley Street were only a phone call away!  Perhaps my campaigning inexperience was actually a strength as I wasn’t weighed down by years of toiling for little reward in a city where Labour had traditionally taken all the prizes.  So, with an optimistic can-do attitude, I blithely announced we would deliver the first piece of literature (a Thank You Focus for the Scottish elections the previous month) across the whole constituency of 35,000 households.  The few activists gulped hard, some privately probably thought I was crazy as such coverage had last been achieved 30 years previously in the Hillhead by election, Roy Jenkins’ famous win in the 1980s.

If it hadn’t been for a small band of keen students, led by Jamie McHale (later to become Jo Swinson’s campaign organiser), one councillor’s delivery network in the leafier parts of the constituency and the indefatigable Hugh Waterfield (rapidly to become my campaign sergeant major), we would have taken a lot longer than two months to get the Focus delivered.  We also started canvassing twice a week that summer, under Hugh’s guidance, which proved three things:  it takes a certain type of person to be a good canvasser, that I loved meeting and talking to voters and that my inability to get off a doorstep quickly was a serious handicap…

Throughout the three years of the campaign, I was lucky that a series of strong local issues fell into my lap.  However, the key is being able to spot and take advantage of such opportunities.  When Post Offices were being closed across the country in 2007, we led a very strong local campaign to save two within the constituency, while the Labour MP stayed silent.  Saving both Post Offices hugely enhanced both my and the party’s reputation.  When you get people running out of their houses to congratulate you as you go past, you know you have done something right.  This also helped us to start to build up our team of local deliverers, and also helped identify more supporters through our canvassing.

When we won our second big campaign, to stop a nightclub being built in the Botanic Gardens, our reputation grew still further.  Although the Lib Dems weren’t the only people campaigning on this, we managed to make the issue strongly associated with us, while again the Labour MP was invisible.  By now, we were also running monthly action weekends and luring helpers with the promise of a free lunch!  The students were strongly behind my campaign by then as I was frequently in and around Glasgow University helping with student events.  Local members were also starting to come along, even when it was raining (a frequent occurrence in Glasgow!)…

By 2009, as we fought alongside local residents to stop three primary schools closing, our leafleting had increased to such an extent that I was starting to be recognised on doorsteps at our by now thrice weekly canvassing sessions.  Our recruitment machine had also started rolling so whenever we identified a supporter, Hugh or one of the team would follow them up to try and get them to join.  As our membership went from about 120 at the start of 2009 to around 270 by polling day, we were clearly hitting the spot.  What was so encouraging was that many of the new members were also inspired to become active, so our pool for action weekends was also developing.

As 2009 went on, I really pushed hard for donations and standing orders so we could afford an office and a paid staff member.  By April we had achieved both, which made a massive difference to the final year of campaigning.  At last I was able to concentrate more on being a candidate, as my Campaign Organiser took charge of everything from literature design, to organising action weekends to pushing me to do more and more canvassing and campaigning.

Despite failing to stop the schools closing, the Lib Dem reputation continued to grow, as local parents could see we had fought like tigers to help them save their schools, while the Labour MP again failed to put in an appearance.  Vince Cable even came in person to help the campaign and I got more and more support from our party’s big names, as the campaign went from strength to strength.

As Christmas gave way to January 2010, we were by now running canvass sessions five nights a week, delivering literature every month across the whole constituency and money was pouring into the campaign office, as were the offers from helpers.  Many students were attracted by my fourth big campaign, to save a quirky West End lane from developers and I even managed to get one of our main local papers, the Evening Times, to back the campaign.

In the final two months of the campaign, we were running weekly action weekends, delivering like crazy and new volunteers were appearing at the office nearly every day.  By election day, we had delivered nearly a million pieces of literature, massively increased our canvass data and raised more money that the party in Glasgow had seen in the past 30 years.  You know you are starting to get somewhere when your activists start to complain that they are getting too many leaflets from the Lib Dems!  I found out later from one journalist that we outspent every other candidate (from every party) across the whole of Glasgow.  Considering we had no money, very few activists and no canvass data when we started, that was some going.

I think what the past three years have taught me and the team is that you should always be ambitious.  We didn’t win this time, but we ran the biggest campaign the Lib Dems in Glasgow have seen in 30 years and we built a great baseline for the next campaign.  We learnt a lot of new techniques in a very short time and the voters responded to a party that was clearly listening to them and prepared to fight hard for what they care about.  We learnt that effective campaigning is infectious and the buzz that the party felt in the city is still there and ready to be used again.  We increased our membership by 240%, and Hugh Waterfield won the Harriet Smith Award this year for his unstinting efforts on behalf of the party.

As I said in my submission: every campaign needs a Hugh. But every campaign also needs belief and ambition and to know there is no such word as ‘can’t’!

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16 Comments

  • Dinti Batstone 14th Oct '10 - 5:22pm

    More power to your elbow Katy! I’m sure your hard work will pay off next May.

  • Roy Claret's Army 14th Oct '10 - 5:40pm

    You didn’t mention that Labour’s majority went up and there was a swing of 0.6% from LibDem to Labour.

    Nor did you mention that you will be lucky to get third place next time after going into coalition with the Tories.

    Nor did you mention that the bookies had you favouorites to win on the Monday before the election

    Nor did you mention your nearly complete absence of activists and members in working class areas.

    But apart from that, give yourself a pat on the back and do all you can to stop Jo Swinson losing her seat next door at the next election. You might find a few less student activists on your side of course.

  • Aleandra White 14th Oct '10 - 7:07pm

    Woah where did the comment above come from.

  • A Labour Party activist. But, yes, the man has a point. In lots of these seats: from Glasgow to Islington South, working class people came back to the Labour Party because of the threat of a Tory government. The Lib Dems had nothing to say to these people because we spent all of our time talking about tuition fees, and not about housing, job re-training, a living wage etc.

  • I was recruited to the party by Hugh Waterfield. He is an inspiring man and a fine human being. He is a realist but greater than his realism is his loyalty to the party. I was active for about a year in the Glasgow North Campaign between 2008 and 2009 but it was the “yes we can ” philosophy that made me pull out and eventually leave the party. I found “yes we can” actually meant living on Fantasy Island – and I could’nt stick it my loyalty was not as strong as Hughs. It’s not enough to aspire or desire, there still needs to be a practical possibility of making it happen , this wasn’t ever really there. No amount of whooping it up or delusion could change that. Katy worked unbelievably hard for Glasgow North but there was no real success – the increased share of the vote was less than Ann Mc Kechins 5% increase in share and the majority was increased. She deserved better and no-one could have mounted a better Lib Dem campaign. She was backed heavily by the party as PPC and target seat and the out spending doesn’t surprise me but what was the point of all that funding? To say the Lib Dem activists didn’t go to working class areas is just plain wrong – there just wasn’t any support there.
    I think Katy should not be above Robert Brown in the list – he has a proven record of achievement and Katy unfortunately doesn’t. Losing Robert Brown is almost certain and that is tragic for the Scottish Parliament and the people of Glasgow. It may well be inconsequential as there may be no list Lib Dem MSP anyway in 2011. I voted for Katy although no longer affiliated with the party, but was relieved that my vote did not end up contributing towards the scandalous coalition- and I genuinely believe that ordinary Glasgow voters like myself who voted Lib Dem in May will, like me, see Katy’s loss as a lucky escape. To have to live with the knowledge that you put Cameron and Osborne in Downing street would be dreadful and will ensure that vote for the Lib Dems in future is out of the question.

  • Roy Claret's Army 15th Oct '10 - 10:06am

    http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/photo.php?fbid=431744119745&set=a.429571809745.215596.7613164745

    Lucky Katy didn’t get elected. Can you imagine her having to tell the students and the academics in the West End that her party would break the tuition fee pledge after telling the working class voters in the North of the constituency that she would be voting for a Tory PM?

    So she increased the share of the vote by squeezing 5% off the SNP with a ubiquitous ‘Only the Lib Dems can beat Labour here’ leaflet an uninspiring call to vote tactically: never mind the quality feel the width. Hardly a stunning result. I think she also needs to be careful about claims that she spent more than any other candidate in a Glasgow seat. The SNP spent up to the limit to defend Glasgow East. I hope she is not admitting that she broke the limit…

    I didn’t say you didn’t go to working class areas. I said you had no activists there and boy did you stand out, I think most people thought you were Jehovah’s Witnesses or truant officers.

  • James Ferle,

    So your answer to something happening in the party that you don’t like is to walk away?

    If every Liberal Democrat who disliked the current turn of events took that attitude, how would we ever get the party out of the coalition or get rid of Clegg?

    I have been a member of this and one of its predecessor parties since 1982. I have encountered many situations that I found intolerable (the Owen leadership being one of them), but I never once even contemplated walking away.

    If you have some mettle, you stay and fight.

  • Roy’s Claret ARmy,

    “I didn’t say you didn’t go to working class areas. I said you had no activists there and boy did you stand out, I think most people thought you were Jehovah’s Witnesses or truant officers.”

    Are you endorsing class hatred, by any chance?

    The reason I ask is because this is one of the reasons why I and many others will never even be tempted to join the Labour Party.

  • Roy Claret's Army 15th Oct '10 - 1:01pm

    Of course I am not endorsing class hatred. What a ridiculous question.

    The only people waging class war right now are the Tories, so be careful throwing tawdry accusations around.

    It is a simple question: why do Lib Dems fail to make inroads in working class areas? And of course it affects people’s perceptions of you – lots of earnest young men with a gleam in their eye. Ok maybe more Mormon than Jehovah’s Witness.

    Actually I believe that it is the duty of society to look after the poor and the weak. It’s nothing to do with hatred, and a lot to do with love.

  • Roy’s Claret Army,

    “I didn’t say you didn’t go to working class areas. I said you had no activists there and boy did you stand out, I think most people thought you were Jehovah’s Witnesses or truant officers.”

    That sure sounds like class hatred to me.

    A couple of questions for you:

    (1) Why is Labour still failing to make inroads outside its core areas?

    (2) Why does Labour think it is entitled to the support of the poor when it (a) increased the gap between rich and poor when in office and (b) is incredibly relaxed about people getting filthy rich?

  • Christoph Hitchen 15th Oct '10 - 3:45pm

    I would like to second the comment that James Harrison has made. We worked very hard in every area of the Glasgow North constituency to get the Lib Dem message across, be this in Hyndland or Maryhill.

  • Real Lib Dems 16th Oct '10 - 12:29pm

    I suppose the most important part of any campaign is making use of your best assets.

    In the case of Glasgow this is without a doubt Robert Brown. Robert has made the Glasgow Lib Dems what they are from being an electoral nonentity to a position where we can seriously and credibly challenge for elected positions at all levels of Government. Katy and her sycophantic followers effectively ran a smear campaign against a good, loyal and hardworking MSP simply to get her elected. Katy wanted to be an MP one minute and an MSP the next – oh wait – all she really wants is power.

    Katy’s decision not to stand in a constituency is far from ambitious – after failing to unseat Ann McKechin despite the vast quantities of resources poured into the campaign she is just scared of getting another pasting from Pauline McNeill and again languishing in 4th place (!) in Glasgow Kelvin. Katy is good at getting other people to do her work for her and now she is top of the list she knows she is almost certain to get elected without having to do any real work.

    The fact that we outspent every other candidate in Glasgow should not be celebrated! We lost! For a paltry gain of 1600 votes in Glasgow North (with the Labour majority actually growing) we lost over 7000 votes across the city because all resources went into one seat. Katy may come to regret her campaign if those votes don’t come back to the party for the list election and she will know it is all her fault.

  • Real Lib Dem is I’m afraid completely correct. It’s about getting elected and the tragedy for Robert Brown is that he has lost out to she who shouts loudest. It’s a nonsense and I know Tavish claimed that membership had risen since the election but I fear that Glasgow will speak and speak clearly to Katy and her band of helpers. Robert has been a fantastic MSP and minister in his time and it is total madness for him to be ousted by Katy in this farce.
    By May the Lib Dems will be clearly and fully submerged in the carnage that the Cameron twins are about to launch and Katy may well have to take the political bullet for that- there may be ironic justice after all.
    Many voters like myself who did vote Lib Dem will not do so again in the near future and there is no argument to be had on that , its just not going to happen. The “whole streets and streets” of committed Katy voters voters, James Harrison claimed to have spoken to in the election may well be history.

  • Roy's Claret Army 16th Oct '10 - 7:16pm

    Sesenco – I described how the young, clean-cut Lib Dems in their ironed shirts and jeans look very odd in some parts of Glasgow and you think I am waging class war?? Grow up for god’s sake.

    I know you canvassed the working class areas. My question was why you have no activists in those areas?

    I can assure you that the Labour party has members in middle class areas at one of the successes of Blair was to extend Labour’s appeal into middle class areas. The fact that we held Eastwood with an increased majority and have the MSPs for all of Jo Swinson’s seat shows that. I don’t think we’ll have any problems winning East Dunbartonshire next time (unless you can persuade your new Tory friends to vote for you).

    Katy’s campaign against the school closures was utterly cynical. These schools were 2/3rd below capacity and the closures were needed in order to provide children decent education with schools having proper facilities. However the usual LibDem instinct to oppose every school and hospital closure opportunistically came to the fore.

    I agree that fear of a Tory vicory helped Labour: but Katy’s preparedness to go into coalition with the Tories meant that her campaign was based on squeezing the SNP vote.

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