Some questions for the next head of campaigns

The interviews for the post of Liberal Democrat Head of Campaigns are presumably fairly imminent now. If I were on the interview panel –indeed even though I am not – here are some questions I would want to ask of the candidates.

These are not about political strategy or policy matters but to do with Campaign methods and organisation. Neither are they meant by any means to be an exhaustive list just my particular current bugbears. Perhaps too I should preface these questions by noting that I started out as a voluntary Campaign Organiser in the 1980’s and 1990’s for numerous Council candidates, two General Elections and two Euro elections. Then, after the side routes of being a Cllr for 16 years and an MP for 9 years, I returned to being a voluntary Campaigns Organiser for others from 2010-2014 and, strictly as a one off, as a full time paid Constituency organiser from 2014-2015.

Question 1. The recent Party review of the 2015 General Election talked of the centralised ‘Command and Control’ approach that was adopted by the Campaigns Department and others from 2013-2015. How well do you think this worked and what future approach do you want to follow?

Question 2. From 2012/3 -2015 the Campaign Department had never before employed so many staff and spent so much money. At the level of a Strategic Seat the main day to day dealings were with the Regional Campaigns Officer and the Area Campaigns Officer. Their main role it seemed was to hand down the ‘Tablets of Stone’ from on high (which had already been emailed through) and to report back to London. Was this the best use of such staff resources compared to previous practice when there were fewer Campaigns staff?

Question 3. CONNECT was bought in as an off the shelf system written for US elections. Enthusiasts say it is a Formula One system. Many Constituency based end users say it is complex, clunky to use and barely got out of the Pits on General Election Day (as also happened with the new Conservative Party programme). I have heard it suggested that there is no point Constituencies having a Formulae One Car if they don’t have the Formulae One Mechanics who can fine tune it. How do you propose to improve both CONNECT and the nationwide training in its use?

Question 4. There has been a lot of talk of ‘New Campaign Methods’ which have been tried out in the last year with some success. What exactly are these ‘new methods’? What exactly is the actual electoral evidence that they work?

Question 5. There has been some talk of the urgent priority of building a ’Core Vote’. How many decades do you think it would take to build such a Core Vote? Where does a Fourth Party (in votes and Seats) find a critical mass of such Core Votes? Is there a danger that pouring money, effort and emphasis into a Core Vote strategy could be counterproductive in a set of predominantly FPTP electoral systems?

Question 6. As the new Head of Campaigns would you be lobbying the Party to strip out its spending on Administration and Committees so as to redirect increasingly scarce resources, via the Campaigns Department and ALDC, into Grassroots election training and campaigning to rebuild our shattered electoral base?

* Paul Holmes was formerly a Cllr for 12 years in Chesterfield and was the MP for 9 years. Much to his surprise he was persuaded to come ‘out of retirement’ and return to elected politics in May 2019.

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26 Comments

  • David Evans 29th Mar '16 - 1:07pm

    Most sensible set of questions I have heard in a long time. If however the interviewers are of the usual “Things will all work out fine” mindset we will get another Ryan, telling us just what the leadership wants us to do i.e. “Work harder in your own patch leave us to keep making a mess of it at the top”.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Mar '16 - 2:11pm

    If we all agree that we want liberals to be in power in most places most of the time then how can we then agree that the core vote strategy is a good idea? It can’t win and keep power because it’s focus is on minorities and before people say women aren’t a minority the Mark Pack and David Howarth plan emphasises younger university educated London based women and minorities.

  • Paul Holmes 29th Mar '16 - 2:38pm

    @David Beckett. I am not saying I would necessarily disagree with you (especially since EARS belatedly developed its online capacity) but I was trying to be none controversial and put forward serious questions I hope that people at the top will engage with. I don’t think that they will remotely consider abandoning CONNECT after all the money and personal capital they have sunk into it so at the very least it needs to be dramatically improved and made user friendly.

  • I’m not sure a set of passive-aggressive questions about your perceived problems with the approach of the previous person in the role is the best way to conduct any interview, let alone one for our next Director of Campaigns.

  • Paul Holmes 29th Mar '16 - 3:31pm

    CQ -I normally, on principle, don’t enter into debate with people who hide behind anonymous labels but:

    Questions 3-6 are nothing whatsoever to do with the previous post holder and Q1 and 2 cover much more than decisions taken by the previous post holder alone.

    I have known the previous post holder well for many years (long before they were the post holder) and have always got on extremely well with them. I also think they have been unfairly scapegoated by some for what went wrong between 2010-2015.

    But none of that is the point of my questions -which are about what happens next not what has happened in the past.

  • Simon Drage 29th Mar '16 - 5:19pm

    @Paul Holmes I don’t think the premis of your Question 2 is correct. The resources and staffing in the last parliament were small compared to the 2005-10 parliament.

  • Bill le Breton 29th Mar '16 - 6:24pm

    First, I wouldn’t hold the ‘interview’ in London.

    I’d hold it in Liverpool, Leicester, Gordon, Cheltenham and Gosport.

    I would drop candidates in one of these places and give them four hours to find the neighbourhood ‘issue’, design a campaign, then, after lunch ask them to work with a couple of local activists on testing out that campaign, finding some local support and finally, at 6.00pm, taking out a team of around 20 to find people to take action on it.

    I’d film as much of this as possible. Share the film with activists from across the country. Get them to review what they had done with those people … and then let that ‘jury’ make the recommendation.

    Those campaigns would also have to be capable of being conducted in an integrated fashion locally and nationally. So some Parliamentary staff would need to be involved in the reviewing be among the ‘jury’.

    They would also need to show how the campaign worked in different media including social media.

    Someone who is an instinctive campaigner would be able to do any necessary rethinking of staff structures, hardware and software in the light of experience over their first year in post.

  • Paul Holmes 29th Mar '16 - 6:27pm

    Simon, I’m happy to be proved wrong if you have all the staff and financial figures but:
    a) It is commonly stated that the 2015 election was our most expensive ever.
    b) I was an MP 2005-2010 and I certainly don’t recall a network of Regional Campaigns Officers plus a number of Area Campaigns Officer plus the central CONNECT staff (because that didn’t exist then) as well as the usual core Campaigns Dept staff based in London. Some of those, but not all of them. For a while too I was Chairman of the Parliamentary Party, Chairman of POLD and a member of the Campaigns and Communications Committee and I don’t remember any big Campaign Committee staff expansion taking place. We did, following the Bones Report, move some staff/money out of Policy and into Media staffing but that was not Campaigns Department staff.

    In one capacity or another (Organiser, PPC, MP, Organiser) I have been involved with Target/Strategic Seat campaigns every year from 1995-2015 and unless old age is really catching up on me I do not ever remember the Campaigns Department employing so many staff or spending so much money as for 2015.

  • Without proper radical policies that resonate with the electorate (e,g. oppose the Academy School Diktat) …………….. Deckchairs and Titanic comes to mind…………… and since Captain Clegg is still around…… a bit of an apology rather than self-justification wouldn’t come amiss.

    On the organisation side…. questionable leaflets in Auld Reekie doesn’t help.

  • Tony Greaves 29th Mar '16 - 7:34pm

    I’m not sure that most of the current generation around the higher levels of the party “organisation” would recognise anything that Bill le B wrote here as campaigning.

    More fundamentally I am not sure they understand the meaning of the word. But the Leader does and it’s time he exerted himself a bit more and got rid of the dross.

  • paul barker 29th Mar '16 - 7:38pm

    Most of the questions seem fair enough but I would add something aimed at measuring flexibility, preparedness for making sudden changes & willingness to accept the unexpected.
    British politics is in a weird state, especially the English component. Labour, The Tories & UKIP are all badly split with Leaders under threat. UKIP & The Greens have seen falling membership. We have been battered. The top 5 Parties in England are all weak but voters have to go somewhere. This is an unstable situation & I just hope we are ready to move fast to take advantage of sudden shifts.

  • Tony Dawson 29th Mar '16 - 8:21pm

    While I do not doubt the usefulness of the approach proposed by Bill le Breton to the issues in recruiting a campaigner, one would very much hope that anyone getting shortlisted for the position of ‘Director of Campaigns’ in the Liberal Democrats would have already pre-qualified in a lower position requiring the skills Bill would wish to ‘out’ having been long-since demonstrated and applied.

    What I think Paul Holmes is addressing is that we ought to have a Director of Campaigns rather than what we have previously had which is effectively a ‘Director of Elections’ in charge of a (sometimes very effective) department called the ‘Campaign Department’ which has never been any such thing. Our Party does not presently ‘campaign’ in any meaningful definition of the word. To some extent a true Director of Campaigns needs to be someone with a far more political brain than an organisational or process brain. The question arises as to whether our rather bureaucratic national Party is prepared to have such an individual working for it.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Mar '16 - 9:06pm

    To be super fair: the core vote strategy targets 20% of the electorate, but this is not due to a lack of financial or human resources, this is the limit of the strategy.

    If people want to then target 25-35% then how does it keep the core vote? Labour thought it had a loyal core vote in Scotland and look what happened. May as well target 40% to begin with, which is roughly what is needed for a good majority.

    There’s no financial reasons why 40% can’t be targeted when developing policies. Maybe 35% as a minimum, but we saw what happened to Ed Miliband’s 35% strategy.

  • Peter Davies 29th Mar '16 - 9:31pm

    We all have different ideas of what ‘core’ means so I would like to know their attitude to non-geographical targeting. It is now relatively cheap to raise our profile among people nationally with common interests. Unfortunately, most of those people will be in areas where we have no chance of a councillor or MP (we might get an MEP, AM or MSP). Some of them will be though and some who are not now will be in ten years time as they and our target areas move. My question is therefore will the national head of campaigns actually start producing some national targeted campaigns.

  • Simon Banks 30th Mar '16 - 9:20am

    The main problem with these questions is that now they’ve been posted, the interview panel won’t be able to use them! They all seem pretty good, searching questions to me and I’ve quite a lot of experience in devising interview questions. I would only make the Connect question slightly wider. Of course HQ is not going to abandon Connect. But should it be promoted strongly to local parties that struggle to afford it and will rarely if ever be using its more advanced features? Or should the party accept that like heavy artillery, it’ll be invaluable in some places and wasteful or counterproductive in others?

  • @Paul Holmes a look at the Electoral Commission figures on the General Exspenses shows that 2015 really wasn’t our most exspensive election ever.

    Page 20 of the Electoral Commission report into party spending shows our spending was down considerably:-

    Party Spend £3.5million in 2015 vs £4.7million in 2010
    Candidate (short campaign) £1.4million in 2015 vs £2.7million in 2010
    Candidate (long campaign) £1.4million in 2015 vs £2.4million in 2010

    Some of it can be attributable to the fact that we were targeting fewer seats but overall in 2010 we spent £9.8million and in 2015 we spent £6.3million – two thirds of the amount we spent when our poll rating was massively higher (of course there is also probably a relation between this).

  • Simon -I clearly said that between 2013-15 ‘the Campaigns Department employed more staff and spent more money than before’. Much of the money recorded by Electoral Commission figures is what is spent by Constituencies and also of course only refers to the few months of the Long and Short term campaigns not to the entirety of 2013-2015. It therefore for example omits staff who were put in place as early as 2013, most of the expensive opinion polling and so on.

  • Hi Paul I know but I think those figures were indicative. However in 2011 the campatinds department was reduced to just a handful and took a long time to build back up. At most we were back to 2015 levels by the end. As a Campaigns Officer in London I had no seat support budget for any of the seats I worked with in the last parliament. This was a stark contrast to the situation in the 2005-10 parliament as a key seat organiser where we had our campaigns officer had a substantial budget to support us.

  • Dan Falchikov 30th Mar '16 - 11:11am

    One question should suffice.

    ‘Is your name Bill Le Breton? ‘

    If they answer in the affirmative then they get the gig.

  • A few honest comments occasionally appear, but there is almost no perspective of the 5 years of Lib Dem disaster, from a voter point of view. Worse than that, the efforts of some here to damp down criticism, sweep it under the carpet, pretend it never happened just makes bad into worse.
    The gravity of what happened (from a voter perspective), is that Nick Clegg is your own version of Gerald Ratner. In equivalent terms Nick Clegg ‘sold’, the idea that there would be,…’No Broken Promises’. When voters bought that stuff from Clegg, and got it home, he then spent the next 5 years showing voters that he might have been a good talker, but he knew full well that he was selling ‘crap’.
    To voters, Clegg and by association, Liberal Democrats *Did a Ratner*. Until you make plans to resolve the *Ratner* effect, no amount of clever campaigning, or clever software is going to help sell ‘crap’ to (very), unhappy customers.

  • Paul Holmes 30th Mar '16 - 1:09pm

    @J Dunn -I specifically said at the start of this thread that it was not about political strategy or policy but about Campaign Strategy and Organisation. We have had acres of print about the politics of it all and my views are not too far from what you say here. The very specific concerns I wanted to address are those concerns which unfortunately usually get little discussion outside the inner realms of the Party Hierarchy. However good or bad the political message a Party needs a good on the ground campaign organisation to turn ‘Air Wars’ and opinion poll ratings into critical masses of votes in specific places -but you are right that selling a duff message is pretty difficult.

    @Simon Drage. I sympathise greatly with the way experienced Campaigns Staff were lost wholesale in 2011. But I still stand by the view underpinning my Q2 that between 2013-15 a lot of, increased, Campaigns Dept resources were not always deployed to best effect (the internal Party Review of the Campaign has a lot of pertinent points on this) and that Campaigns Dept -overall -employed more staff directly than ever before. For example in my very weak Region, counting 50% of directly co funded posts into Full Time Equivalents, there were at the start of 2014 two FTE Campaigns Staff (really 2.5 as the co funded Regional Campaigns Officer in practice worked entirely to Campaigns Department direction) overseen by a higher paid Area Campaigns Officer. I can never recall the same level of directly funded Campaign staff at any previous time. Yet the senior two of those staff posts were essentially administrative (different post holders over two and a half years so not a personnel issue but down to job description) and in my view a waste of the talents and experience of those post holders. Then there were the brand new CONNECT Team in London and those overseeing number crunching and expensive Opinion Polling. In the past £4,000 Constituency Polls (about 50 were done?) had been forgone based on the view that scarce financial resources such as that were better deployed on, for example, 4 constituency wide hand delivered pieces of literature.

    Now it may be that all these were proven to be very necessary and wise allocations of resources. If I were interviewing for the new Head of Campaigns I would want to ask the candidates for their reasoned views on this. Unless we question such decisions and ask for empirical evidence how do we ever learn what works and what needs changing?

  • Tony Dawson 30th Mar '16 - 4:55pm

    @Peter Davies:

    ” My question is therefore will the national head of campaigns actually start producing some national targeted campaigns.”

    This is not the job of such an employee – they will be employed to DELIVER campaigns, not to formulate them (though they can advise on this issue like any other member). Determination of campaigns priorities for the Party should be the job of the National Executive, in co-ordination with the Parliamentary Party – but they need to be realistic. You should only create a campaign which you can deliver. And the Liberal Democrats are too patchy presently nationally to deliver a truly national campaign. What Lib Dems CAN still do, however, is deliver nationally-determined and co-ordinated campaigns across substantial areas of the country, using these to generate wider interest in the party through regional media. We might then grow a more balanced membership.

  • Peter Davies 30th Mar '16 - 7:40pm

    Producing is an ambiguous word. I am happy to accept the term delivering. What I am asking for is that the same campaigns that they now deliver to local parties (who in most cases don’t have the data to target them) should also be delivered through national (mainly electronic) media to people who are likely to be receptive regardless of where they live or even whether we know their name.

  • Diane Reddell 1st Apr '16 - 3:18pm

    My question would be how would you get the Lib Dem message across to apathetic voters so they vote for their local candidates? Another is how would you make best use of technology and marketing to do this?

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