Shouldn’t positive campaigning start at home?

On election night, I was knocking up voters in a very posh bit of the Edinburgh West constituency.  It was going well with most folk indicating that they had already voted for Christine Jardine.  I got to one house where a very angry man told me he wasn’t voting for us and wasn’t sure who he would vote for as, in his view, everyone had run a negative campaign focusing on what was wrong with the other candidates.
I’d not concede that Christine’s campaign was wholly negative – although the voters did need to know where we stood on the SNP’s second independence referendum and the Tories’ hard Brexit – but it’s certainly true that voters often feel that the parties appear more focused on tearing each other down rather than casting a vision of what we should do as a nation.
The political climate has become particularly toxic in Scotland since the independence referendum (for example, a SNP supporter followed Tory canvassers in one seat screaming abuse through a megaphone).
What can we do to change this?
Two weeks or so ago we were all overjoyed to see twelve lovely Lib Dem MPs elected to Westminster.  Each one of those victories was something to celebrate.  We are overjoyed that the voters in those constituencies hold those MPs in as high esteem as we do.
Some of those twelve will be candidates in the forthcoming leadership context and we will have to choose between them.  That will require us all to scrutinise what they have to offer.

Given that we are supposed to like these twelve people, could we make a pledge to take forward this campaign by trying to build up candidates we support rather than tearing down those we oppose?
If we support a candidate, let’s share why that candidate is worthy of support rather than attacking other candidates.
Let’s assume all of the candidates are good Liberals who seek the leadership from the best of intentions.  We must honour that in our discourse and in our campaigning.
Even if we prefer one candidate over another, let’s seek to understand the skills and ideas of all of the candidates.  Some of us will end up with a leader that wasn’t our preferred choice. We have to be unable to get behind and support that leader if we are to take forward liberalism in the years ahead.
If we Liberals can’t do positive campaigning within the confines of an internal election, what hope is there for the wider country?

* Stephen lives in Edinburgh, works in the oil industry in Aberdeen and has been a party member since he was 17.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Jamie Dalzell 22nd Jun '17 - 1:47pm

    I am very keen that, as a party, we do discuss this issue further. I was very active in the Cambridge campaign and spoke to a lot of residents who complained about the negative and aggressive campaign literature they had seen.

    A conversation with a Norwegian woman and her British husband particularly stuck in my mind. She is currently completing here PhD here in the UK and he is on 12 months paternity leave, fully-funded in the UK by Norway. They complained about the extremely negative literature they had been receiving from our party (who they had voted for previously), especially the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn which seemed to align us with the worst tabloid rags.

    They highlighted that the support they received from Norway was partly due to the high levels of trust within their society, they trust the government enough to gladly pay higher taxes and in turn they are trusted with significant financial support when they require it (such as the paid paternity). They point to the toxic nature of campaigning in the UK as a key reason that the level of trust in the UK is so depleted.

    Labour and the Tories will be unscrupulous in their campaigning. However if we want to build trust again after our (misrepresented) role in coalition government, we may need to rise above such behaviour and instead focus entirely on a positive liberal vision for our country.

  • David Becket 22nd Jun '17 - 1:51pm

    Agreed Jamie, but you try telling those who drive our campaigns that.

  • Mark Nicholson 22nd Jun '17 - 1:53pm

    The candidates have to set the tone of the debate for this to happen

  • Had a very similar experience. Mainly as a result of trying to squeeze the Labour vote. Another one that stood out for me was a chap who simply said ‘What are the LibDems going to do?’ Didn’t have much to excite him if he was not a staunch Remainer (1p on Income tax didn’t extract a hallelujah ). Contrast that with the answer a Labour canvasser could say. As I have said before, I hope we have a root and branch autopsy on this election and quick about it.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Jun '17 - 2:59pm

    Vince Cable was on BBC TV Daily Politics today. He is expecting Ed Davey to stand.

  • No in short. Candidates should be able to deal with negative attacks because in the real world they will have to.

  • Dave Orbison 22nd Jun '17 - 6:26pm

    Hywel – reminds me of Homer Simpson in front of a fruit machine. Keep going, more more of the same, no matter what, keep going.

    How depressing. So Corbyn offers hope, captures the public mood for change and even feedback from LibDem canvassers indicate the LibDem negative campaign was counter productive but yet, still you want more of the same. Amazing.

  • Negative campaigning is a campaigning technique that does work, but like all campaigning techniques, will deter some voters. Just as message repitition works (sometimes, or at least used to), but also annoys some voters. And some voters are totally affronted from being canvassed on their doorstep, but canvassing overall is an effective campaigning technique.

    It may be worth to consider not being deterred from a general campaigning technique because of anecdotal negative feedback of a specific application of a campaigning technique from a small sample of self selected voters (those who it has worked on probably just say “Yes am voting Lib Dem” without much further comment, while the few it has put off may say “No I am not voting Lib Dem because of that horrible leaflet of yours/too many leaflets/because I feel you are pestering me”).

    The issue isn’t so much whether negative campaigning should be done, but how to do negative campaigning effectively. It is legitimate to point out the failings of the incumbent whilst in power, or the shortcomings of their proposed platform, and if communicated in a tactful way, can be effective. I tend to think repeated pictures on leaflets of Jeremy Corbyn in a flatcap isn’t very clever or effective. Pointing out to Labour remainers that the Labour Manifesto is a manifesto for a hard Brexit probably is.

  • I strongly agree that we should only engage in positive campaigning.

  • Philip Knowles 23rd Jun '17 - 8:40am

    I’m sorry negative campaigning is NEVER effective in getting someone to switch a vote. It can sow the seeds of doubt but then needs to be followed up with a positive. We ran a campaign asking people how they would vote on issues important in the area then showed how our Tory MP voted on those issues. That got them annoyed with the MP but you then need to give them a reason to vote FOR you.
    If we had done that nationally we may have had a better result.
    As for the leadership of the Party. I wish we could choose from some of our people in the House of Lords. When you only have a pool of 10 you have a limited choice.

  • I know I personally hate negative campaigning, and it tends to have me leaping to the defence of whoever has been unfairly maligned, even if I don’t much rate them. However, I also recognise that it works across the population as a whole, and it’s how a large chunk of our press work, and to abandon it would be hugely naïve.

    Nevertheless, I don’t think we should ever have a leaflet which is wholly negative. Yes, have the headlines about how rival parties will be gunning for a dangerous hard-Brexit, or damaging 2nd Independence referendum, but we must always find space in the leaflet for a series of bullet-points on our own, positive policies.

    IMO, FPTP actively rewards negative campaigning, so not only do we have disproportionate governments, we have ones who aren’t properly practiced in the art of positive campaigning or collaborative working. It’s one of my primary drivers for wanting STV, and I’d encourage everyone who is fed-up of negative campaigning, or facing a voters fed-up of negative campaigning, to get more involved with the campaign for electoral reform.

  • I joined the party earlier this year, seeing it as a progressive and positive party. In the campaign, I was only able to do a couple of hours leafleting for Christine Jardine, just before election day. I am delighted she won. I have to say I would not have been inspired by the single-issue leaflets I was delivering. It seemed to me that the only position we were taking was “well, we may not be the Tories, but we’re just as against independence as they are.” I don’t find that an attractive policy position – at least not on its own.

  • @Philip Knowles

    You say that negative campaigning is NEVER effective in getting a voter to switch to us, but then in the next sentence talk about how it can play a role in the process of a voter switching to us. I think it should go without saying that developing a support base is something that occurs over a long period of time as a result likely dozens of interactions with something Lib Dem related (leaflets, canvassing, social media, traditional media visibility, endorcements etc etc). It would be the exception for a voter to vote for us based on one interaction, be it positive or negative campaigning. It is all part of a medium to long term process, and as you allude to, negative campaigning can soften up our opponent’s supporters (who may go on to vote for us in response to a subsequent positive message).

    It also needs to be pointed out that a voter switching to the Lib Dems isn’t the only possible helpful outcome from campaigning. A supporter of our opponent not voting at all is also a helpful outcome for us (this certainly occured with some true blue unswitchable Conservatives who didnt vote at all because of the so called Dementia Tax). As is a supporter of our opponent switching to a minor party instead (assuming the ward/constituency is held or we are the main challenger). Effectice negative campaigning can bring about either of these outcomes.

    Also negative campaigning against our opponent can be effective in squeezing supporters of 3rd or lower positioned parties. Certainly there are some Labour supporters in Conservative facing Lib Dem targets/held seats who like to see the Lib Dems attacking the Conservatives, faciliating the squeeze process for them to vote for us. Of course this isn’t always the case.

    Negative campaigning has a role, but it needs to be done in an effective way as part of a whole range of campaigning techniques. It isn’t always required and certain types of negative campaigning can end up being overall counterproductive. Of course the more targeted it is, the more effective and least counterproductive it is.

  • John Barrett 23rd Jun '17 - 6:51pm

    As someone who delivered many of Christine’s leaflet, but sadly with too many saying exactly the same thing. I also received all the leaflets from all the other parties (many which were poor or very average, in Edinburgh West, where Christine Jardine won. I understand where Stephen and Colin’s views are coming from.

    There was effectively a single campaign message in our literature that only the Lib Dems could beat the SNP and that a vote for Labour or the conservatives was a wasted vote.

    It was presented as a two-horse race. We were on 33% at the 2015 election, the SNP won it on 39%, while Labour and the conservatives were both on 12%. So the tactic of spending the entire campaign squeezing the third and fourth party votes might at fist sight appear to have been successful. However the result proves otherwise.

    The Labour vote increased 3% and the tory vote increased by 9%. Our vote stayed almost exactly the same as in 2015 and the SNP vote fell significantly, as it did in many other constituencies.

    What we need to have is some meaningful analysis of how successful our campaign techniques are. It is clearly not simply good enough to say that where we won, it was because the campaign run ensured the best result. We need much more than delivering endless leaflets saying much the same thing, if people like me are going to want to deliver them.

    I am absolutely delighted she won.

    Hopefully over the years to come she will be able to campaign on her track record as my MP and other local and national issues and if so, I am sure her majority will increase and I will be delighted to deliver good positive leaflets, rather than simply ones repeating a mantra decided at a campaign meeting.

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