Paddy Ashdown’s eight steps to winning a Parliamentary constituency

In December 1976 Paddy Ashdown put to the local party in Yeovil a plan for winning the constituency for which he had been recently selected and where the party was third at almost every election. Thirty-five and a bit years on, it still reads as a pretty good plan.

1. We should adopt a three-election strategy and should plan on that basis that I would probably not be in a position to mount a genuine challenge for the seat until my third attempt. [It took him two rather than three attempts as it turned out.]

2. I would need to stay full-time in the constituency. So I had to get a job locally and could not afford to get distracted by anything other than the single task of winning Yeovil (i.e. I could not afford to allow myself to get interested in national Liberal Party affairs).

3. Our immediate aim at the next election was not to beat the Tories, but to beat Labour. Once we were the clear challengers for the seat, we would be able to squeeze the Labour vote in subsequent elections.

4. Our effort, therefore, should now be not in the rural areas, where we had traditionally concentrated, but in the towns – and especially in the Yeovil estates, where Labour’s traditional vote was based.

5. We needed to build up our base from the bottom, concentrating first on local government elections.

6. We could not rely on any newspapers, either locally or nationally. So we would have to find other means to communicate directly with our electorate if we were to succeed in getting our messages across.

7. We would nevertheless need a strong Press effort – we should aim to get at least one story, with genuine news appeal and about a local issue, into the local Press every week.

8. The national Party’s standing was not very high, so our key messages should be about local service not national politics. What was subsequently to be known as ‘community politics’ would be our battleground.

Taken from Paddy Ashdown, A Fortunate Life.

Some of the steps in his strategy are very specific to particular local circumstances. The general principles are however sound, especially having a political strategy and then shaping your campaigning to fit it, rather than simply campaigning where you are used to working or are comfortable with working. Still very relevant too is the need to make your own channels for getting out news, one which these days involves the internet alongside the traditional printed local Focus newsletters.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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  • Paul Holmes 3rd Feb '12 - 11:58am

    As Mark says -35 years on its still a pretty good plan.

    It involves accepting the reality of Third Party politics under FPTP.

    It means that any serious candidate has to commit to a minimum of 10 years or more hard work over 3 General Elections (knowing that even then many will not be successful).

    Where does that leave all those who, on the pages of LD Voice and elsewhere, constantly say that it is unreasonable/unrealistic to expect candidates to take this task on -as if becoming an MP was a career move like applying for promotion in a firm or a profession?

    Unlike Lab and Cons we have only a tiny number of seats where getting selected a couple of years or less before the election means in effect getting elected to parliament. Even a ‘good air war’, as in the 1974, 1983 and 2010 elections,makes minimal difference to how many seats we win as only those who have run intensive Target Seat campaigns can capitalise on the general opinion poll boost.

  • David Pollard 3rd Feb '12 - 6:23pm

    I remember when paddy Ashdown was campaigning for the leadership of the party he told the story of the Duke of Wellington who lost a small battle at the start of his Spanish campaign and told his aide to write to parliament in England that they had won a great victory. After that he never looked back. So when the Yeovil party fought a parish council election soon after Paddy arrived and came third, he sat down and wrote a press release titled ‘Liberals secure a magnificent third place in Parish election’ and never looked back. Lovely memory.

  • A good plan, much – if not all – of which would still bear fruit. Very similar to that which was followed in North East Fife with Ming Campbell too – though he did need three goes to cross the line.

    The one which would probably be more difficult now is 2. Despite what some say, there’s not the same mobility and unless you’re in a job which is easily mobile or are self-employed this is probably more difficult now than in the 1970s when Paddy devised this plan.

  • Stephen Donnelly 4th Feb '12 - 12:08am

    This is why we draw our parliamentarians from such a narrow base. Most people are not in a position to make such a commitment, even fewer women than men. But as Paul Holmes says, it is reality under FPTP.

  • Tony Dawson 5th Feb '12 - 1:36pm

    If Paddy Ashdown had set off with the same vision and strategy and tactics in 1996 rather than 1976, he would possibly have not been allowed to be selected and would almost certainly have been sabotaged along the way by those who adopt a ‘centralised clone’ approach to parliamentary candidacy 🙁

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