Saturday, January 29, 2011

Libdem campaign damned by leading LibDem MEP

A sour LibDem has sent me this email to them from Chris Davies MEP, you may find it interesting, I think it blows huge holes in the LibDem campaign, in their credibility, in their unity and in their ability. I hope this blog will be shared far and wide.


Most readers of this e-mail will know that I spent a decade and more building up the party in the old Littleborough & Saddleworth seat. I contested it on three occasions, and was elected to Parliament in the 1995 by-election - only to fail to win the new Oldham East & Saddleworth (OE&S) seat two years later.

OE&S has remained one of our top target seats. The vast majority of wards in the constituency continue to be held by Liberal Democrats. On too many occasions, and for a variety of reasons, we have failed to win the parliamentary seat by a whisper.

Then along came the Court's decision against Phil Woolas's despicable leaflets and the calling of a by-election. The Liberal Democrat HQ was just 600 metres from my home in Saddleworth so there was no escape for me - despite it being the coldest few weeks on record.

I believe that readers of this e-mail are part of the Liberal Democrat family, and mostly live the North West of England. I admit to being disappointed that the by-election 'signing-in book' includes more names of Liberal Democrats from London than it does from my own region. I'm really sorry that we in the North West didn't pull together more effectively, despite the efforts of Andrew Stunell, Tim Farron, Gordon Birtwistle, John Leech, John Pugh and Mark Hunter, all of whom put in plenty of appearances and got down to work in the snow and ice.

(Interesting that the NW LibDems are not on-side, is that because they don't like what the Coalition are doing to our communities? I reckon so, what do you think? Ed)
Against the odds we did well. I like to think that we could have done even better. Here are my reflections.



It reveals naivety on my part that it was only after the polls had closed in Oldham East & Saddleworth that I learnt that no opposition party had lost a by-election in a seat it held since 1982, when Labour was beaten by the Conservatives at a time when the latter were riding the crest of the wave after Britain had recaptured the Falkland Isles. Had I known this beforehand I would not have placed a small bet on the Liberal Democrats to win, even with the odds at 10-1 against.

We campaigned to win OE&S. There may have been some in the organising team who realised from the beginning that a respectable second place was the best that could be achieved but if so they did a remarkable job at maintaining morale by keeping such sentiments to themselves. They showed great dedication to the job, leading from the front and working themselves into the ground. For weeks on end they also braved the lowest temperatures that most of us have ever experienced in an election campaign.

(And of course all parties had the same weather, Labour worked through the cold too, and the Party was magnificent in its efforts. Incidentally, to say it was the coldest is to forget Hemsworth which was deep snow almost throughout, I know, I was a sub-agent!)

If the election had taken place in the immediate aftermath of the Court case that saw the MP disbarred then all might have been well. But parliamentary by-elections are not mere local affairs, they command national attention, and it was inevitable that the agenda would move on quickly from Phil Woolas to the record of the Coalition Government.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats were neck and neck last May, separated by just 103 votes. Since then, according to the polls, Labour’s support has risen by 10 points and ours has fallen by at least 13. The tide hasn’t simply turned since May, it has raced out in a torrent. How could we possibly have won such a by-election in these circumstances?

Raced out in a torrent? Really? Yes it would seem so, I have been unable to find any serious LibDem voters who are staying with their party in several weeks of campaigning in Kensington and Fairfield. Is this the end of the LibDems in the NW I wonder?

The challenge was clear enough on the doorstep. During every canvassing session I met a couple of people who had voted Lib Dem in the past but who were not going to do so this time. The mere fact that we were in coalition with the Conservatives was repellent to some, the impression of broken trust over tuition fees saw off the rest. Each time I would return to the campaign HQ feeling that a few more grains of sand had slipped through our fingers.

Can anything be more damning than the above few sentences?

Anyone who assumed that Labour supporters might feel betrayed by the actions of Phil Woolas were quickly disabused. However bad the nature of the divisive and racist (“make the white folks angry”) campaign he ran, Woolas’s past supporters didn’t like him having been thrown out by the Courts. That said, I’m still pleased that Elwyn Watkins mounted his legal challenge; his success drew a line that candidates and agents everywhere may be reluctant to cross in future elections.

(LibDem aggressive campaigners in Liverpool please note. I don't live in Woolton, whatever Frank Doran's hand written letter in 2008 might have suggested...)
On the other hand we DID mount one of the most effective third party squeeze effort in the history of parliamentary by-elections. The Tory vote collapsed as their supporters took the tactical decision to back the Liberal Democrats. But we needed to gain two votes from the Tories for every vote we lost to Labour, and that was too tall an order.

Political commentators question whether the Tories pulled their punches and mounted a campaign that was less than wholehearted. It’s true that they didn’t launch an all out assault on their coalition partners but the Tories don’t have a single borough councillor in the constituency and no party organisation worth mentioning. They were always going to come third, and a more vigorous Tory campaign would have had only one consequence – to increase the size of the Labour majority over the Liberal Democrats. How would that benefit the Coalition Government?


We didn’t win, and realistically we couldn’t have won, but Liberal Democrats secured a creditable result in the circumstances. The question that has to be asked now, as it should be after every such event, is what could we have done differently and better? The OE&S campaign left me convinced that we need to review our approach and learn some lessons for the future.

(Does anyone have a copy of the inevitable "two horse race" graph at this point. Mr Davies is saying "realistically we could not have won" but what did their leaflets say?)
I have no complaints about the organisation; administratively it seemed close to flawless. Campaigns Department pulled together a team of dedicated young people, some of whom were not born when I set about the task of turning derelict wards in the constituency into strongholds of local Liberalism. Amongst them was a great esprit de corps, with apparent rivalry to demonstrate who could go without sleep for the longest period and drink the greatest amount of Diet Coke. Their efforts and tactical planning suffered initially from having too little outside support (it was before Christmas and weather conditions across much of Britain were terrible), yet even with the pavements covered in snow a great many leaflets got delivered.

(Oh yes, leaflets, deliver as many as you like Mr Davies, but what people want is engagement, not bits of paper, your party learns this lesson even more slowly than grind the mills)
My concerns are not with the organisation but with the politics, and particularly with the belief that in some quarters seems to have taken on the mantra of religious doctrine that elections are won by pushing out more paper than our opponents, and that sheer hard work will win the day. I do not share this view. Good graphics and technical wizardry (“look, we are so clever that we can produce individual leaflets with the elector’s own name on them”) do not make up for the lack of effective political content.

(At last someone in your party gets this)

Too much of our election literature in OE&S was simply vacuous, and for all that the Tory squeeze was effective there were some examples (‘personal’ letters in particular) whose content made me squirm with embarrassment. On a number of occasions I delivered pieces of literature that I thought would not persuade a single extra person to vote for us, and sometimes I feared that they might do us actual harm. Voters complained that they were assaulted by the sheer number of leaflets, but a criticism of greater concern is that too much of the paper we distributed said nothing worth saying. If electors felt that our approach was condescending they had good reason.

Why do we do this? I learnt many political lessons in Liverpool from Sir Trevor Jones (‘Jones the Vote’), who used to tell me never to underestimate the stupidity of the electorate. By this he meant that we should distil the messages, keep them simple, and repeat them often. But he countered this by telling me that at the same time I should never underestimate the intelligence of the electorate, by which he warned not to patronise the voters and to make sure that I had something worthwhile to offer and that would hold their attention. I’m not convinced that our present strategists have got the balance right.

It might be argued that Labour’s campaign literature in OE&S was wholly negative; they attacked us for broken pledges on tuition fees and imposing excessive cuts. But if the position had been reversed we would have done the same. We didn’t confront criticisms that found a strong resonance amongst the voters. More importantly, we did very little to counter them by promoting the achievements of Liberal Democrats in office. I know the arguments about not allowing opponents to dictate the agenda but if we are not to celebrate the role of the first Liberal Democrat ministers in our lifetimes then what is the point of us fighting elections in the first place? We surely should adjust our mindsets, treat the voters as adults, and be prepared to address serious issues - while doing it in a way that ensures that the appearance of our literature secures sufficient attention to pass the doormat to dustbin test.


It’s difficult to write these words without implying criticism of people I like and for whose efforts I have admiration, and I am well aware of the rebuttals that can be made. Whatever flaws I might suggest, surely the fact that we not only held our own against the outgoing tide but made a tiny advance in percentage terms speaks for the success of the strategy? How can I prove that the result would not have been worse had we done differently?

It’s possible that we would have done less well if we had devoted more space in our election literature to putting across the arguments of Liberal Democrats in government. It is indeed a risk, but it’s not a question that can be answered because we have not attempted to convey the achievements of our party in an attractive manner. Now we are in government we must start to do so.

I want Liberal Democrats to do well in elections. I also want us to be proud of ourselves and of the political messages we convey. There are lessons to be learnt from the Oldham East & Saddleworth campaign, and there are new approaches that must be explored.

18 January 2011


andrew said...

the bit that cracked me up was the "endless vacuous leaflets" with no real content. as a former member i can well remember how angry the electorate get when they are bombarded with endless drivel that says absolutely nothing. you would have thought they'd have learned that by now. that said getting into bed with the tories and blaming labour for ideologically based front loaded cuts only highlights the stupidity. don't piss down my back and tell me its raining!

Anonymous said...

Anyone who follows political blogs will know how much time Some Liverpool Lib dems spent in Oldham- and my contacts in the constituency all said the same- from the time Woolas was removed it was Endless Lib dem leaflets for weeks on end- -and i believe thats what most of the Imported Libs did- thats what they call campaigning!!!!

As for Mr Davies can anyone confirm how long he was on Lpool city council purely out of curiosity- im sure he was one of the first Liberals to get beaten - 1982 if im right in Abercromby ward

Really, Matron? said...

Oh Louise!

I love, LOVE this post for so many reasons, but i'll share one or two with you here - you lucky thing.

I watched with disgust the live broadcast of the count that early Friday morning. The usual clowns from failed campaigns walking round with etched, forced even, smiles on their faces Morrison would have been proud off - and I don't mean your mate Jake, although he will have to adopt that grimance when he loses against t'Lord.

Clearly, the Lib Dems haven't learned the lessons of the recent past. I've seen leaflets from the Wavertree campaign where the organiser evidently thought an election could be won from behind a desk with meaningless mantras re-written in different versions. God, that kid inspired a generation - to vote Labour.

I love Chris. I understand, from various discussion sites, this email is usually spin written by your predecessor, the great Marbrow. This email was different. Chris actually says what he thinks, I hate to use word "maverick" - but he's the closest to the etymology of that word i've ever come across.

Would you believe it Louise, but there are a callous few on the current council (and i'm thinking specific Lib Dems here, as well as a few Labour darlings) who darn't say what they believe for fear of ruining future career moves. Mind you, when people like Chris DO say something thats on their mind, it promps a blog entry like this, so I suppose it validates the former. So we can congratulate you on your ability to both open up and close in debate! lol. I jest.

Don't get me wrong Louise, I find your brand of left-wing socialism abhorrant, and no doubt the self-mythologised "victimhood" of Liverpool people will lend support to Labour here in legion for a generation, (as well as those who vote Labour much like a trained monkey with symbols - "we're working class so we vote Labour - even if it is the notable feminist McIntosh" etc etc *clank!*) but my god, your opposition, the Lib Dems don't do themselves any favours for the reasons Chris has pointed out. And much more besides.

Just as well Davies didn't open up a discussion on Bradley, but i'm sure Marbrow will save that one up for just after May's locals.

Btw did you know "Jones the Vote" is known as Jesus in some circles for his ability to walk on old Focus leaflets?

(got yaself another vote there).