Tom Brake MP writes… Politics is a profession of unrelenting pace

In politics, no sooner have you seen off one challenge, than another appears on the horizon. At least the triathlon I completed had a clearly defined finish line. Yet, in politics, no sooner has one election ended, than you have to refocus on the next.

As a result, it’s hard to find time to sit down and take stock. But during this recess, I’ve set myself the challenge of putting some time aside to refocus on the last election and look at the detail behind the detail.

I’ve spent election after election trying to learn the lessons of what went wrong. I’ve sought to understand why my majority has declined since I was first elected in 1997 as a young MP. But this time, I want to understand how in just four years we turned the tide, innovated and secured a threefold increase in my majority, bucking the national swing to the Conservatives.

Because the truth is that too often we analyse what went wrong. It’s high time we also look at what we do right as a party and learn what we can from how individual MPs have been campaigning to win at a local level.

2005 was a watershed election for me. I survived. By a whisker. But throughout the count it was far from clear that I’d won.  In fact, I bounced from optimism to pessimism from one minute to the next. I didn’t know whether to be relieved that I’d won or ashamed that we’d let it get that close. Either way we were bruised, but still standing.

In the end my majority was slashed in half. But as I stared at the piles of my opponent’s ballot papers amassing before me, I resolved that it would never be this close again. I decided that I would do something about it and (after a slightly sombre victory party) set about bringing together a team with new ideas, who were willing to look beyond our traditional ways of campaigning and professionalise our approach to campaigning.

So how did my campaign evolve from that point on? And how, four years later, did we not only defend the seat, but put down a marker that Carshalton and Wallington was squarely Lib Dem territory?

In essence there were 3 key elements which we developed to enhance our campaign and give it the shot in the arm it needed – Information, Innovation and Infrastructure.

Information

Instead of working on the basis that my constituents needed to know everything about me, we resolved to learn all we could about them.  At a strategic level, we changed the dynamic that existed between me and my constituents. We consciously moved the emphasis from me, to them.

In practice that meant that we didn’t put out literature without ensuring we got some information back from constituents which we could use to inform our campaign.

But the job didn’t stop there. The real challenge was to use that body of data to blitz individual constituents with clear, honed messages, geared towards helping them understand how I was championing their corner on the issues that they cared about.

And then we hammered home our messaging for four years with every single delivery, never deviating from our core messages.

Innovation

A party without ideas is not worthy of Government. So I was clear that ideas from all team members were welcome. It didn’t matter if you’d fought elections across the country for 30 years or were volunteering in my team for experience – all ideas were encouraged.

If someone could make a case for their idea and explain the benefit it would bring to the campaign, then I decided I would back them 100%. Some ideas failed of course, but others worked out and changed the course of the election campaign.

As a result of giving my team the freedom to innovate, my online presence ballooned from no online presence in 2006 (beyond a big standard website), to 5,000 Facebook friends, 6,000 e-group members (whom I consulted on a monthly basis). I also ran initiatives such as online advice surgeries through Facebook Chat.

Innovation helped position me as a dynamic candidate, but it also allowed me to stay on top of local opinion and represent local people more effectively as a result.

Infrastructure

We had to think big. That meant more deliverers, delivering more leaflets, more often.

So we focused on fundraising and following up positive leads and did the hard graft for four years, delivering all year round without any lull in our campaigning intensity. I worked on the basis that the day I was putting my feet up, my opponent was sure to be out delivering and recruiting. As a result, I didn’t put my feet up and that helped motivate my team to follow suit.

In practice, increasing my profile also meant more poster sites and more correx boards. We grew from 15 sites to over 100 Correx sites and 1,000 stakeboard site in 12 months. It can be done. But you have to ask and ask again. And you have to prioritise it.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that correx sites aren’t worth the effort. Seeing a sea of neon orange motivates you and your team, converts the electorate and helps break down the will of your opponent.

In 2010, as the votes were counted I knew that we’d done all we could to secure a victory. There were no regrets.

One of the main things I took from the last election is that you simply can’t predict how popular or unpopular our party will be at any given time. And we shouldn’t get hung-up on it. It matters, but not as much as you may imagine.

Instead, we should get on at a local level as individual candidates, making sure that we have done all we can to secure a victory.

By collecting information, allowing our team to innovate, and by focusing squarely on building infra-structure you can get ahead of the game and negate the fickle swing of fortune. So my message is simple – it’s time the party rediscovered its verve for campaigning and it’s up to individual candidates to give their campaign managers and volunteers the scope to fulfil their campaigning potential.

* Tom Brake was the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington from 1997 to 2019.

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4 Comments

  • Sue Doughty 10th Aug '12 - 9:38am

    Thanks Tom, it’s good to hear an inspiring story like this.

  • More a question. What is the difference between a Correx site and a stakeboard site?. We put Correx boards on stakes and put them up in gardens. We have a few large Correx boards for the best sites. We also use some windoiw posters. Comments? John Winder NE Herts.

  • Helen Dudden 10th Aug '12 - 1:17pm

    I think the comment you listened to your constituants, is one of the most important facts in th article you have written.
    Of course, you represent a voice for them in a rather lovely building, that has been the powerhouse of change, for many years.

    As a constituant of Don Foster MP, I have been lucky enough to speak in the House of Commons on my interests. I fully understand the pressure that you have, you are expected to know about everything, and be a part of everything.

    That is part of your job description.,

    I think being a person who can deal with the general public is very important, Our problems are important to us, and to most importantly, your constituants.

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