The 12 Op-Eds of Xmas (Day 12)

Throughout the festive season, LDV has offered our readers a load of repeats another chance to read the 12 most popular opinion articles which have appeared on the blog during 2008. The accolade for most-read article on LDV goes to Lib Dem chief executive Lord (Chris) Rennard, and appeared on LDV on 27th June…

Chris Rennard writes about the Henley result…

I am enjoying this debate and for the record:

1) I don’t always comment in detail on things read by our opponents – but I do welcome any constructive debate within the party on these issues – especially contributions from those who also work hard in these campaigns.

2) I am not generally “hands on” in the organisation and management of our by-elections these days (unlike when I was Director of Campaigns & Elections 1989-2003 or a member of the team in various by-elections from Edge Hill in 1979 to Greenwich in 1987). But as Chief Executive (in the structure debated and agreed within the party in 2003) I have overall responsibility for all of our election campaigns. I have complete confidence in our campaigns teams led by Hilary Stephenson (Director of Campaigns), campaigns staff and the people I ask to be agent in these campaigns such as Miranda Roberts who was superb in Henley.

3) There is a major misconception on the part of some of the people commenting that the Lib Dem performance is entirely determined by what we do and our national position. This is not so. The results are also determined by the relative national standing of the other parties – and by what they do, who they choose and the tactical situation etc.

People point to our successes in places like Newbury and Christchurch in 1993 or Romsey in 2000 and say why not Henley in 2008? One difference is that the Conservatives are at about 45% in national poll ratings compared to 30% or less then and people are much less conscious of how awful John Major’s Government was. We found it hard in that era to win Labour seats like Barking or Dagenham (our share fell significantly in these by-elections on the same day in 1994 that we won Eastleigh from the Tories). We found it even harder in seats like Dudley West and Wirral South where Labour started a good second to the Tories, we were third and got squeezed.

Our Crewe and Henley results should be seen in this context. They indicate that our support is more robust and our techniques even more effective than they were then.

4) The issue of candidates is of course very important in any campaign. Both Elizabeth Shenton and Stephen Kearney did us proud. But it has been very rare in by-elections since Orpington for us to win without very local candidates. Sarah Teather proved that it can be done (as did Diana Maddock, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Clement Freud).

Of particular note to this and other debates about by-elections generally is that our choice of candidates is not with me or the Leader but with our local members and those who run the candidate approval systems. Our Leader and campaign teams work enthusiatically with the choice that is made for them. In Henley we worked hard to promote Stephen’s local credentials and he moved in as soon as selected.

5) The issue of the amount of paper crops up frequently. I did a lot of canvassing and knocking up over the last couple of days – so I heard the general public reaction to the paper blitz. But I didn’t genuinely feel that anyone was not voting for us because we tried too hard. There were complaints about the amount of paper delivered by both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns. But then consider the fact that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats polled 85% of the vote between us.

6) In relation to Henley specifically, only a few people were in a position to monitor how our campaign led to a big increase in our level of support over the period of the campaign. Neither we nor the Conservatives started where the 2005 General Election ended.

The Conservatives are trying to destabilise us by criticising both me and our by-election tactics/performance. I find some of this amusing as one of their most senior by-election team in Crewe confirmed to me on the night that they are simply trying to “copy my text book”. But they don’t really understand it or follow it as well as we can when we really mobilise effectively. They should now publish the private ICM poll that they conducted at the start of the election period. This would prove who “won the campaign” in terms of shifting support. We went up significantly in the campaign and they went down by a equally significant margin.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Martin Land 5th Jan '09 - 5:59pm

    I’m afraid this reads little better now than it did then. The Tory literature I saw in Henley was excellent and well targeted. The only mistake they are making is simply putting out too much of it – but I guess they copied that off us too!

    Every time I win a council by election someone from ALDC phones up to ask me how many blue-ink letters and good evenings and good mornings I put out etc, etc, and are outraged when I say I didn’t. The world has moved on and what is needed to win elections now is well thought out quality literature with a message that does not insult the intelligence of the VOTING public nor of our candidates and campaigners. If the message is strong, targeted and intelligent quality will always win out over quantity. Yes, I accept that the heated environment of a parliamentary by election may well be different (though who knows, we haven’t tried and now we have created the monster it would be difficult to slay it.) but in far too many local elections we are stretching resources to the limits by failing to properly concentrate on presenting a quality message rather than just delivering a quantity of literature.

    A strategy that depends on the number of bodies we can fling at an election has its limits when you are a smaller party with more limited personnel resources.

    We need to acknowledge our limits and up our game by using more professional marketing methodologies and techniques. Chris needs to acknowledge this – and soon.

  • Martin, I completely agree. In Glenrothes, the SNP ran a campaign very similar in style to ours next door in Dunfermline, obviously learning from us. However, this was also the first election campaign where I saw notes on a number of doors stating “no election literature please” (and some of them not so polite!) Also, in Dunfermline, there was certainly anecdotal evidence that by polling day voters were heartily sick of the amount of literature landing on the doorstep.

    Don’t get me wrong though – it does have its place as the most effective method of getting the message across. However, the message needs to be strong and the policies clear, otherwise it’s a bit like running a high-budget advertising campaign for Ratners jewellery.

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