The Liberal Democrats could well be on course to improve our vote share to seats “bangs for the buck”

In the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats were 14%, or a seventh, less effective at harnessing our vote share to win seats than we were in 2001. If you look at my table below you’ll see that, since 1983, 2001 was our best year for converting vote share into seats. 52 seats for an 18 per cent vote share. One could say that was the election when we were best at targeting.

In 2010, there was a lot of hoo-haa after the election about the coalition forming and us being in government for the first time since the Second World War. Lost in all this fizz, was the fact that we actually did quite badly – lamentably one might say – in terms of converting vote share into seats. We lost the knack we had in 2001 and 2005. We had 23 per cent of the vote but that only converted into 57 seats.

If, we had done as well at targeting in 2010 as we had done in 2001, we would have won 66 seats – 9 more than we actually won. An extreme microcosmic example of this effect was a city where, overall, we romped home by 7,000 odd votes but failed to win either of the two seats therein, losing one of them by a margin of just a third of one per cent of the vote. The campaign across the city was run brilliantly and I don’t suggest anything could have been done differently, but it is hard not to think a wistful thought of “what might have been” even if it is with the benefit of hindsight.

seats share

Do you know what? I think Nick Clegg is one of the few people who actually realized that we had done badly in targeting in 2010. I believe he took it to heart, because you can see, by the actions he has pushed forward, that the party is determined to learn the targeting lessons of 2010.

The sort of actions I am thinking about are these: Appointing Paddy very early on to lead the campaign. If there is anyone who knows the “secret of the targetting black magic box” it is our Pads.

We’ve seen the development of Connect so that Paddy can see, minute by minute, who has been out canvassing and what the results were.

This next one is staggering to old woolly Liberals like me, used to elections being fought on a shoestring, the whiff of gunfire and the odd, indeed very odd, hovercraft tour. £350,000 is being spent on private polling this year to find out what is going on in the constituencies. £350,000 in Liberal Democrat terms is a ginormous investment. Absolutely ginormous. And I think it is justified. What we need is ruthless targeting decisions, based on firm evidence, in the weeks to come. Candidates (A) who think they are a shoe-in to win suddenly finding themselves high and dry without support. Candidates (B) who didn’t realize they had a chance finding they are suddenly surrounded by new friends and awash with cash. Sorry candidates A but that is the way targeting should work in a third party with precious resources.

We’ve seen Campaign 2015 and “I’ve done my ten”, the highly impressive skills survey we received this week and the impressive January money match scheme, even the bloody slap-down of Tim Farron last weekend. All these convince me that, as far as organizing the ground war and the campaign, this time we are really serious. Not that we weren’t last time, but this time we have got all our ducks a row, with a vengeance. I may stand to be corrected by events, but I am currently much encouraged by our campaign organization.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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44 Comments

  • I agree, but think you are very brave to post this. I would get my popcorn, but am too bored of the usual suspects and the usual slanging. Instead I’ll go and do some delivering in our held-seat where I live.

  • I’d also add that we have some solid principles engaged. One of those is pragmatism (i.e. pursuing winnable seats), the other is genuine conviction, when the Tories seem to be courting UKIP and Labour the SNP. We have everything to fight for. We also have memories of the days when they joked about being able to get all the LibDem MPs in a taxi… if things don’t go as we hope, we have the resilience to rebuild.

  • Dan – the received wisdom on this is that the Cleggasm converted to froth votes in unwinnable seats. The difficulty with our targeting strategy for 2010 was that the supertanker of trying to win Tory seats with much narrower majorities had not been turned in time to face Labour-wards in 2010, where the political momentum was in winning seats from Labour.

    Put simply, we should have recognised in the run up to 2005 that we should have been positioning ourselves as clear second place in enough Labour seats to reap the reward when the inevitable political tide turned in 2010.

    The problem was that too many of our leadership and activists were bothered only about fighting the Tories and not looking at the Labour-held seats, with the result that we weren’t prepared to stave off a Tory recovery and reap the reward of Labour seats when the time came.

  • The other thing to say is that 18 years of Tory rule focussed many peoples’ minds regarding tactical voting in 1997 and the habit stuck.

  • George Potter 20th Mar '15 - 11:44am

    The problem is that targeting doesn’t work long term.

    By the mid 90s we’d built up our local government base to the highest level ever and then, by targeting money and activists at places where we had strong local government support, we were able to convert that into a far higher number of seats than ever before.

    However, the problem with this strategy is that it means that, slowly but surely, outside target areas our local government base declines as activists and resources are diverted away from these areas towards held and target seats.

    In Guildford, for example, we held the seat from 2001 to 2005. But since the current Tory MP has a seven thousand vote majority what we should in theory be doing is spending all our time helping the designated target seats in south west London instead of trying to take back the seat or even just trying to move forward.

    If you look at the table in the article you’ll see there was a big bang in our efficiency in terms of our seats to votes ratio in 1997. That’s when targeting was introduced. But ever since it was introduced our local government base has declined steadily year after year which in turn means there are fewer and fewer places which are capable of becoming winnable enough to be counted as a target seat.

    What’s worse, where we target but fail to win we usually break the local party in the process. In 2005 we had target seats in Berkshire like Windsor and like Maidenhead which were very winnable. But then, partly because we foolishly announced that they were part of a “decapitation strategy” which led to the Tories throwing the kitchen sink in, we failed to win them. Now you go and look at our local government base there now – it’s practically non existent because the local parties were burnt out trying to win the seats and lost control of the council in 2007.

    But what chance is there for a recovery? Any members in Windsor or Maidenhead will now be being told to get on the phones or to travel to campaign for a target seat somewhere else and so there’s very little chance that the seat will ever become winnable again.

    That’s the problem with targeting. It’s great at converting a carefully built up local government base into seats in parliament but it’s terrible at preserving or improving the local government base so that more seats become winnable.

  • George – I understand what you’re saying, but it is/was a reaction to the FPTP world where the only measure of your relevance as a political party is the number of seats you win in Westminster. Frankly, if we held every council in the country no-one would give a stuff if we had no MPs.

  • George Potter 20th Mar '15 - 11:56am

    And what’s more, there is now much more competition in politics. Once upon a time you had Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem – all you needed to do to have a decent shot of winning was put out leaflets, do some decent local campaigning and then present things as a two horse race between you and the frontrunner in order to benefit from tactical votes.

    Now, however, we have a five party system in England (more elsewhere in Britain) to the extent that we even have a Green county councillor in Surrey of all places which should show just how much the old “X can’t win here” rule of thumb is breaking down.

  • George Potter 20th Mar '15 - 11:59am

    @Tabman

    Agreed. But if you follow the goal of parliamentary seats continuously at the expense of the local government base then sooner or later you’ll loose both.

    What’s really needed is a balanced strategy – and ideally a policy that sitting MPs should be expected to develop the fundraising and activist base in order to be able to hold their seats instead of sucking resources away from everywhere else in their area.

  • George – yes that’s the sensible approach to this. Also developing some sort of “air war” that enables us to shape and capitalise upon the changes in the political weather.

  • matt (Bristol) 20th Mar '15 - 12:06pm

    George, this is a digression but my 90-year-old grandmother (love her) continues to believe strongly that Windsor is at heart a Liberal area and its only since the council was merged with those Tories in Maidenhead that things have gone downhill. I can’t comment on this as a complete list of councils leaderships in Windsor pre-1974 is not available to me; however since the last Liberal MP for Windsor was in 1868, I am sceptical.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Mar '15 - 12:47pm

    Paul Walters

    Do you know what? I think Nick Clegg is one of the few people who actually realized that we had done badly in targeting in 2010.

    Nonsense.

    The point that the optimism generated by what was attributed to “Cleggmania” led to something of a breakdown in targetting discipline has very often been made, in fact I would think most experienced activists are aware of it being an aspect of that election and its rather disappointing result. I am sure many readers here are aware of people who had planned to shift to working in other constituencies after the initial pre-election leaflet distribution, but then stayed put saying “It’s looking so good, I think we might just have a chance here”. Indeed, many of us may be such people.

    2015 will of necessity be a defensive election, so heavy targetting is justified. But targetting must always be accompanied by plans to develop, otherwise it is a strategy for managing decline. In local government, the targetting strategy was done with the idea that more councillors means more general awareness of the party in the locality outside the targetted wards, means when campaigning starts in another ward there’s a greater acknowledgement of our existence and latent support to build on.

    The problem is, I can’t see any evidence of a national development strategy. When the Coalition was formed, the strategy seemed to be that just seeing us “in government” would bring us big new support from people who up till then had dismissed us as “not serious” or “never going to win” or “just a protest party”. Well, that didn’t work, did it? It just generated a “pleased-with-ourselves” image that people saw as “there, all they wanted was power, they had no real principles”. Then, when our support was dropping, we had the line that it didn’t matter, these were just “protest voters”, now “going back home” to Labour, and somewhere out there was a big batch of “real liberals” who would come to us if we carried on banging out “real liberal” ideas, which those saying this meant as Thatcherism taken to extremes but without the old small-c conservative king and country stuff. Well, there’s just no sign of a significant proportion of the electorate who want that, and pushing it has just alienated many who were hanging on as supporters.

    If the aim of targetting is just to save enough of the seats we already hold to be able to carry on in coalition (and from what is coming out from “sources close to the leader” that seems to be the case), then we’ll be just the same in 5 years time, but actually a little worse as there’ll still be some losses. We’ll be back to the historical relic that the old Liberal Party and the National Liberal Party were in the 1950s.

  • I can offer a personal perspective on Windsor and Maidenhead. I joined the party in 2005 and helped Kathy Newbound take on Theresa May in 2005. At the time we controlled the RBWM council and Theresa’s majority was just 3000 (it went up to 6000 at that election). In 2007 I only saw what we did in Maidenhead as I was living there and stood for a difficult ward which pre-2007 we held narrowly. The Tories came up with a shocking last minute scare story about us wanting to cancel weekly bin collections (we didn’t want any such thing, but it was probably naive of us not to have made that crystal clear earlier than we did). I lost my seat narrowly but my ward colleagues retained their seats – again narrowly. Overall in Maidenhead we did reasonably well due to good targetting strategy. The same could not be said of Windsor, which lost all of their seats. By 2010 I had moved to Windsor (where I stood as PPC) but it was never a target seat. Our target was to squeeze Labour (which we did, their vote halved) and focus on winnable council wards. But in 2011, the national anti-LD mood put paid to us retaking any of those seats we’d lost in 2007 – in fact we lost all but one of our Maidenhead seats too, leaving us with just one councillor in the RBWM we had controlled just 2 elections before. We fought back a bit, taking Eton of all places shortly after, then another one in Maidenhead after that. The reality now though is that we go into the 2015 local and general elections with smaller local parties than we had before. Only one or two of the people who were councillors back in the days are still active now. Locally we have to work our target wards but general election wise we’ll (rightly) be sent elsewhere.

  • David20th Mar ’15 – 10:25am
    “I agree, but think you are very brave to post this. I would get my popcorn, but am too bored of the usual suspects and the usual slanging. ”

    Too right David, Thank goodness we have a clear majority of contributers and members who actually still believe in the values set out in the preamble and so keep ‘the usual suspects’ in check when they start with all their equidistant Centrist and Thatcherite economic clap trap.

  • Matthew Huntbach
    There is no “s” on the end of my surname.
    Best wishes

  • Paul’s operative would is “could”. Every football manager says their team “could” win the League, but we all know that for most of them it is empty words. Equally you could write and article saying we “could not” win more than 15 seats in May. I have said this for ages, we need to stop fooling ourselves. WE have lots of MPs standing down, bang goes any personal vote, if there is actually in reality such a thing. Remember all the seats we have won at times
    since 1997 and lost, may be for ever, Hereford, Cornwall SE, Abingdon and Oxford W, Winchester. Romsey, Richmond on Thames, Weston Super Mare, Devon West, Newbury, Chesterfield, Rochdale etc etc.
    We are not that good at holding seats. At the same time we have Labour and the Conservatives targeting themselves many of our seats, with more resources and manpower.
    Back in 1970 we were targeting, even Orpington and Cheadle, where sitting popular and well known MPS were defeated.. Our national polling figure with only just over 300 candidates is equivalent to our position today. We do not look like getting out of single figures in national polling and have a national vote spread at its lowest level since the Liberal Party formed what 150 years ago!.
    We can try and gloss all we like but in the probable face of a last fortnight squeeze towards Labour and Conservative, as the public seek a party to have a parliamentary majority, we will be in an dire situation of significant further vote loss.
    We could have avoided some of this damage and history will ask questions why we did not take the necessary action to do so. But that is all past, we have to think of post election , pick up what pieces we have, new leadership, review and refresh our ideas and policies and over say 3 years start to rebuild a base again.

  • Caractacus – yes, and look at all the red in that list. Yet we made no impact there at all. How many seats have we won from Labour in the last 20 years? We did not do enough to pick up the anti-Labour vote in the two previous parliaments.

  • Bill Le Breton 20th Mar '15 - 4:10pm

    The failure of the 2010 campaign was the failure to respond to a vicious and formidable negative campaign that was the natural reaction of the press and the Labour and Conservative parties reacting to our polling surge after the first leaders’ debate.

    There was little or no rebuttal as the attacks came in. An inexperienced crew made up largely of commercial marketeers who do not normally work in a campaigning environment where negative campaigning is a feature. The extent of the negative campaign made them freeze. In fact there were few individuals in the party with such experience and expertise …. Those that there were had all campaigned in the cities which had active daily media and a Labour Party fighting for its existence.

    This negative campaign not only reduced our support levels but it also undermined whatever third party squeezes we had been able to put effect in the run up to Election Day. I’d like time to look at that list of 50 seats but my guess is that in each case it will have been the third party vote that will have stopped us winning, rather than the vote level of the winning party.

    And yes of course targeting was not invented in 1997. It was just that Lords Smith and Jacobs gave us far more target seat muscle than we had ever had before. They deserve more credit than they have ever been given.

    To answer Tabman,s point, perhaps it is harder for us to squeeze Tories when they are in third place than Labour. Probably it is also harder to squeeze Third placed Tories when the overall direction of the election is away from Labour. These two factors combined may explain why we did not pick up say 10 more from Labour.

    In 1992 we made 10 gains from Labour in Liverpool and were therefore on target to win Control,of the city in 1993. Labour put on an extremely effective Negative campaign and I think we made just 4 gains. It was a huge learning curve. Labour never manage to mount that sort of campaign again and we had learnt how to prepare and respond to negative campaigning with a detailed strategy, but still it took a further 5 years and 4 election days to win that majority … A first time majority for us in Liverpool … Jones the vote never won a majority.

  • George Potter 20th Mar '15 - 4:10pm

    I think a factor to consider is that, by and large, our sitting MPs are good at building up a personal vote but very poor at building up campaign machines capable of holding the seat on its own – with the result that they generally end up relying on activists from outside their constituency to get them elected and on being given lots of cash from HQ.

    If as a sitting MP you can’t raise the vast bulk of the money you need to be re-elected and if you can’t recruit more activists with all the advantages of incumbency on your side then you’re not pulling your weight. Simple as that.

    If I could use my own patch as an example, we have a borough whose boundaries don’t align with the constituency. We used to run the borough thanks to council seats won outside the constituency within the borough – yet in the process of getting an MP elected, then losing the seat and trying to get it back, a lot of those formerly held seats have become places where we’re not even in distant second any more.

    The target strategy makes sense for 2015 but all it’s good for is managing decline. After all, no one ever won anything by fighting on the defensive for the entire campaign.

  • Bill Le Breton 20th Mar '15 - 4:16pm

    George good campaigners use shields as well as swords. I reckon that five of the best campaigners in the party are probably doing their bit delivering and canvasing while inexperienced and incompetent campaigners are in the positions of responsibility. And my feed back is that they are already being found wanting under pressure.

  • Liberal Neil 20th Mar '15 - 4:18pm

    The problem with ‘targeting’ for me is not that we target extra resources at marginal seats in the run up to an election, but that we don’t do more general development all the rest of the time.

    It certainly is true that there are too many places we have won that haven’t built up their own infrastructure in a systematic way too.

  • “The failure of Cleggmania was the responsibility of Clegg and Alexander who wrote the manifesto with it flawed policies on illegal immigration and joining the Euro. ”

    There is a ridiculuous, monday morning quaterbacking, view of elections which goes that if only we’d dropped policies X and Y we’d have won as those were they unpopular ones. It was a view taken after 2005 and after 2010.

    If you do that you end up with a bland meaningless manifesto which doesn’t say much about liberal democracy. And which isn’t actually worth bothering to campaign for!

  • George Potter: “The target strategy makes sense for 2015 but all it’s good for is managing decline. ”

    At least “managing decline” is a strategy! Or it would be, if someone were actually thinking about it rather than just doing it by reflex.

  • @Bill Le Breton

    “George good campaigners use shields as well as swords”

    They don’t spend so much time going on about them, though.

  • David Allen 20th Mar '15 - 9:01pm

    “The failure of Cleggmania was the responsibility of Clegg and Alexander who wrote the manifesto with it flawed policies on illegal immigration and joining the Euro.”

    My take is that this is half right. Cleggmania meant a seemingly brilliant piece of hype about constitutional reform which held the nation spellbound for a week or so, with the rest of the policies dashed together perfunctorily. Clegg decided to appease his activists by taking on leftish policies like free tuition and an amnesty for illegal immigrants, even though he didn’t really believe in them. On fees, as we all know, he over-compensated for his doubts by making a silly pedge he never meant to keep. On the amnesty, he just struggled to articulate the case for it. Irrespective of the merits of that policy, it fell flat because Clegg fell flat. Hence his entire souffle fell flat, hence Cleggmania turned into Cleggphobia.

  • Philip Thomas 20th Mar '15 - 9:21pm

    Nothing wrong with that amnesty proposal: it is a civil rights issue.
    But given what they actually did in power the amnesty in the manifesto looks like a sick joke.

  • “My take is that this is half right. ”

    I think your massively rewriting history through the prism of how you (now) want to see things.

    Cleggmania collapsed – well party support fell in the last couple of days true. But that is a common phenomenon of Lib Dem campaign surges – see 1992 and (at least from agents anecdotes in some areas) 2005. Those of us with long memories and scars talked to activists – a lot – in the final days of 2010 about a late slippage of votes and why it was essential not to take things for granted. That is something a sensible post-election review should have looked at as (again anecdotally) there is evidence this wasn’t the case everywhere.

  • Philip Thomas 20th Mar '15 - 10:06pm

    So basically, we’re losing thousands if not hundreds of thousands of votes all across the country but this is actually a bonus because it increases the ration of seats to votes? On this logic, we’ll have achieved the ultimate in 5 elections time when the only seat we have is Orkney and Shetland with, say, 8,000 votes!

  • Hywel,

    OK, it’s not the first time the Lib Dems have ever had a late slippage in place of the well-known “late surge”. But I don’t think there has ever been such a big reverse – from a massive increase in support to a slump, in the space of a few days.

    Clegg as a campaigner had strengths as well as weaknesses in those days, I grant you. However, you really can’t deny the facts. If the late reverse in 2010 wasn’t due to an inadequate campaign on non-constitutional reform issues, what else do you think it was due to?

  • George Potter 21st Mar '15 - 9:49am

    Actually the reason Cleggmania faded by election day is the innate conservatism of the voting public. Lots of people flirted with voting for us but in the polling booths they ended up voting the same way they normally voted after a couple of weeks of media attacks on us and the other parties doing all they could to undermine us.

    This wasn’t helped by the fact that we were terrible at converting the flood of new supporters to actual boots on the ground. Nowadays it would seem simple: stick them all on Connect phonebanks or something. But I remember vividly that, at the time, you had groups like Rage Against the Election on facebook which had 500,000 members but which spent most of its time having circular discussions rather than being tapped as a source of volunteers and helpers and donors.

    Cleggmania failed because the people who switched to supporting us on the basis of one tv debate were largely a group of people who just as easily switched off of supporting us when the counter attacks started and when the privacy of the polling booth enhanced the urge to play it safe and vote for the party they usually voted for and Cleggmania failed because our campaign operations were horrendously ill equipped to handle a sudden influx of supporters and to direct them usefully.

    In contrast, just four years later we saw how the SNP managed to be brilliant at taking a defeat and turning it into a victory by tapping independence supporters and activists to become new members. They managed to convert an increase in support to boots on the ground. We didn’t in 2010.

  • Martin Pierce 21st Mar '15 - 10:16am

    I take it this post is meant as a joke.

  • The strategy of targeting resources on key seats does appear to be bearing some fruit, even in the current harsh climate:

    https://www.aldc.org/by-election-results/melksham-tc-melksham-central/

    By contrast, the national campaign has proved utterly inept to the point of being laughable thus far.

    I would counsel against too much blind faith in Paddy Ashdown. Some of us will recall that it was Paddy Ashdown who appointed Des Wilson to run the 1992 campaign. Wilson came clothed with an aura of invincibility, the master campaigner who could single-handedly turn around the party’s fortunes. The hype was believed by the membership, and no-one complained when Paddy gave him dictatorial powers. The campaign was a disaster principally because Wilson refused to entertain targeting. Add to that the “My Vote” logo, Wilson’s shameless self-promotion, the ill-considered gimmickry, and the result was an unsurprising failure to win seats that we should have won. Those who actually knew how to win, such as ALDC, were marginalised. Mercifully, Paddy learned the lesson.

    This time round, while the national campaign is far worse than anything ever dreamed up by Des Wilson, the campaign in the constituencies is being run on ALDC lines and will probably save the party from oblivion.

  • “This wasn’t some usual Lib Dem campaign fade – for the first time ever we led the polls during the general election that was squandered and 10% points dropped. ”

    More like 5 or 6. I think that very fact should cause some questions to be asked about the accuracy of some Cleggmania polls. Whilst there was a boost there’s some evidence that it was exaggerated by polling data being adjusted using assumptions that were no longer holding (I recall reading some post-election analysis of one poll where of the “new” Lib Dem vote more than half hadn’t seen any of the debates.

    In 2010 it was the Euro and regional work permits, in 2005 it was local income tax. In 2015 it will be something different (drugs???) But just what should Lib Dem policy on Europe and immigration be so that they would be immune from attacks by the Telegraph and Daily Mail.

    “This wasn’t helped by the fact that we were terrible at converting the flood of new supporters to actual boots on the ground. Nowadays it would seem simple: stick them all on Connect phonebanks or something. ”

    That is a bit “fighting the last war” though 🙂 The SNP have had the benefit of three things, one the LIb Dem experience in 2010, two there is more technology around now to facilitate that (but we haven’t really seen whether cyber-activity translates into on ground activity or what impact it has) and three they have had more time.

  • Chris Rennard 21st Mar '15 - 1:20pm

    There is much here that would benefit from proper analysis in a considered format by way of post General Election de-brief.

    But before we reach that point, I would not accept that aiming to target to win a parliamentary seat in each region (as in the strategy that I promoted) undermined our local government base and membership elsewhere etc. In Yorkshire, for example, we had no Lib/Lib DemMPs for 10 years after 1987. Working closely with the region, we targeted Sheffield Hallam and Harrogate in 1997 and won them both. This gave us two Lib Dem MPs on regional TV etc. – who also promoted campaigning across their region and increased prospects of success elsewhere. Their wins certainly didn’t inhibit campaigning in other parts of the region and helped us to achieve success elsewhere. In the 80s and early 90s, it was a very hard battle to persuade most of the ‘establishment of the party’ to adopt my plans for a targeting strategy. But doing so was the basis of increasing our number of MPs nationally from 20 in 1992 to 46 in 1997.

    The Westminster seats won in 2001 and 2005 did NOT somehow ‘undermine’ us in the Scottish, Welsh, local and European elections in the following years. On the contrary, winning those Westminster seats, with those MPs, contributed very positively to our successes in other levels of elections. Organisational growth and increased professional resources followed as a consequence of the success of ‘targeting’. Twelve MEPs, for example, provided leadership and support for the party across all of England and Scotland (sadly we didn’t get an MEP in Wales). The greatly increased parliamentary strength in the Commons also enabled us to appoint many more members to the House of Lords (doubling our numbers there).

    The facts behind Paul Walter’s analysis show that our share of the vote in six General Elections in the twenty-three years between 1987 – 2010 never varied by more than 3% from an average of 20%. But the number of seats that we won in Westminster elections increased from the 19 (at merger) to 62 by 2005. ‘Targeting’ is the explanation for this, but is about much more than allocating money and people (who are very rarely ‘allocated’ to an any significant degree). It is more about backing the local campaigners who have identified the issues that matter to their communities, worked with people to get something done about them, built a party machine (often based on local council successes) and who are then given support to turn all of that in to a winning election campaign.

    Targeting also changed the nature of the party. In 1970, we elected just six Liberal MPs (one in each of Cornwall, Devon and Wales and three in Scotland). At the height of ‘Alliance’ popularity in 1983, we still only elected 23 MPs (between both the Alliance parties, and all of them male). To be elected as one of our MPs always required extraordinary personal effort (as is often still the case), but in those days you also needed a lot of your own money. Few of our candidates had the sort of money needed to finance a winning campaign, and nor did their local parties. To illustrate the difference between ‘targeting’ in 1992 and 1997, the General Election budget in each case was about £3m. In 1992, I had a budget of £120,000 to work to for all target seats, but for 1997 (with strong support from the Party Treasurer at the time, Tim Razzall) I obtained a budget for the target seat operation of £1m (over two and a half years). Money was,of course, not the only factor but it helped us to make a breakthrough, more than doubling the number of seats won. In terms of party members moving to help (and had many more members then) there were still only a small handful of them who ever went to help in a seat other than their own.

    The task now in defending our parliamentary seat numbers (and avoiding a repetition of what has happened in other recent elections) is to ensure that our MPs and candidates can get across effective messages that add significant value to the base of national support (talking about things like their local campaigning record, what they are achieving for their constituents, tactical voting considerations etc.)

    Finally, I would point out that we actually lost national share of the vote between 1992 and 1997 (18% – 17%) as some of our previous voters backed Blair that time. But our number of seats, based on effective local messaging and tactical voting etc., more than doubled. So indications of party support in national polls (whether conducted in a constituency or national poll) are not necessarily the absolute determinant of the outce in terms of our seat numbers.

  • Philip Thomas 21st Mar '15 - 1:54pm

    Targeting is a good idea during an election campaign: it helps us keep (or gain, but I think keep is the watchword for 2015) key seats. Outside of the election campaign, the organic and natural growth of the party is what gives us the data to decide what we target during the next campaign (as well as of course, the election statistics themselves).

    I am a strong believer that every vote counts. You never know when today’s “wasted voter” in a safe Labour constituency might move house to the Lib-Dem Tory Marginal a few miles away: and said voter can still contribute to our campaign in money and time. Furthermore, when we eventually make the switch to a PR voting system , he doesn’t need to move house after all. Which is not to say we should be pouring resources into his constituency now.

  • Philip Thomas 21st Mar '15 - 2:30pm

    An amnesty for those who have been here for 10 years or more is not a border control issue but a civil rights issue: but I don’t think the leadership was clear about that in 2010 and instead, when it achieved government it proceeded to take away more civil rights.

  • Steve Comer 21st Mar '15 - 6:00pm

    Julian Tisi hits on an issue that has been a factor in the party for at least 30 years, but which is rarely discussed: ” Only one or two of the people who were councillors back in the days are still active now. ”
    The sad fact is so many of our activists get so burned out by the commitment required, that once they lose their seat, and start doing ‘normal’ things like seeing their partners, reading a book, watching a bit of telly, going to concerts or just popping down the local pub, they don’t want anything more to do with the Lib Dems for fear of getting sucked back into hyperactivity again!

    We need to work out how we hang onto people who’ve given a lot in the past and keep them interested (accepting they’ll do less and on their own terms) without badgering them, whilst at the same time encouraging new activists to come on board. At the moment all those of us who were very active as Councillors seem to get is e-mails and telephone calls constantly badgering us to do more and donate more!

  • SIMON BANKS 21st Mar '15 - 6:24pm

    Tabman:

    But if we have twenty or thirty MPs and no organisation, no activist body to speak of, outside some forty constituencies, we’re dead in the water. Local strength matters in each local area whatever the national media say; and for all sorts of reasons, including boundary revisions, severe weakness around islands of strength gets to them before long. National recruiting of new members is little use unless the newcomers are prepared to get stuck in locally and in my experience, despite welcoming e-mails and invitations to various things, they aren’t. They just don’t see the connection between joining the Lib Dems and helping in local campaigns or turning up to select a parliamentary candidate. I’m sure there are exceptions, but locally-recruited members are much likelier to be activists.

    Nonetheless, in the current dangerous position, I agree the priority between now and May 7th is the seats we can hold (and a handful we could win). As soon as this election is over, though, the priorities have to change or we’re history.

    As for poor conversion of votes to seats in 2010, of course one reason was that we were mostly fighting Tories who were doing better than they had since 1992. But I think in addition the “Clegg bounce” caused some people to be over-optimistic and seats were lost because we’d moved to nearby seats we thought we could maybe win; and the Tories had more advanced systems than us, pre-Connect, so they could move the troops at short notice where they were needed. The number of narrow defeats for us, compared to the number of narrow victories, tells a tale.

  • @George Potter:

    “The problem is that targeting doesn’t work long term.”

    George, that is not correct. It is true that targeting does not always work long term. But that is because targeting on its own is foolish and insufficient. To provide progress, targeting requires winning followed by follow-up, development, consolidation and outreach. Far too many Liberal and Lib Dem groups who benefited from being a ‘target’ got only to stage 1, enjoyed being in power and winning elections for a few years then (surprise surprise) fell over when times got bad.

    You cannot do everything at once and it is never a movement in entirely one direction. Some Local Parties arguably consolidate politically but do not develop membership and/or repay outside help by outreach work nearby.

    A week is a long time in politics and most non-target local parties can afford to drop a few things for a few months to help in a neighbouring area without long term political consequences provided that they pick things up again shortly afterwards, hopefully with the assistance of a new or retained MP from nearby.

  • Conor McGovern 22nd Mar '15 - 7:39pm

    Proportional representation for local government would go some way to alleviating the problems mentioned above, so hopefully this policy will be on the table in potential coalition talks.

  • I would like to vote for a lib dem government but I don’t want another coalition with the Tories so what should I do?

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