Friday, April 22, 2011

Why the LibDems are as "stuffed" as our letter boxes

Liberal Democrat Chris Davies MEP, who I have blogged about before, has issued another missive to the Party faithful, advising them on the best way to campaign. Once again I find my jaw dropping in disbelief. They have absolutely zero idea of how to win elections - which can only be great news to everyone in the North West of England.

On the 20th April he wrote to LibDem members (such few as there are left) with the following message.

Leaflets, Letterboxes and Liverpool

It is amazing that a single sheet of paper pushed through a few letterboxes can make such a difference.

Here we are with all the wonders of the internet, not to mention televisions, radios, texts and newspapers that contain pages and pages and pages of words and pictures, news and opinions. Yet a sheet of paper - often bearing the masthead ‘FOCUS’ – can change the political composition of a council ward.

To be fair it usually takes more than one such piece of paper, and the words and their presentation make all the difference, but half a dozen single sheets of A4 can transform the local political scene.

I learnt most that I know about them in Liverpool during the late 70s and early 80s.

I learnt that a very effective election campaign could be mounted in just 4-5 weeks, although it always helped if as many pieces of paper as would be delivered to homes during this period had also been delivered over the months before the close of nominations.

I learnt to think in terms of a leaflet every weekend.

The first would grab the reader’s attention by highlighting a local problem or three. It would also introduce the Liberal candidate and point to some of their achievements or hopes for local improvement.

The second would be a plain typed letter from the candidate to local residents, again drawing attention to problems that needed fixing and making a commitment to act if elected.

The third would emphasise strongly the failings of the other parties, contrasting them with the demands for positive action being taken up by the Liberals.

And the fourth would emphasise that more and more people in the area were promising their support to the Liberals (quite accurately by this time), would again highlight the things that needed to be done to bring about improvements locally, and would remind voters that our candidate would be a local champion.

Then we would be into election week.

The fifth leaflet, delivered on the Monday and Tuesday and into Wednesday, would be a last minute call for action, perhaps a petition of some kind.

Finally, there would be the ‘Good Evening’ and ‘Good Morning’ leaflets to be delivered on Wednesday evening and polling day morning – a short and simple letter from the candidate thanking residents for their reception during the campaign, summarising the key issues, and reminding them that good wishes were nice but they only counted if turned into votes.

Every leaflet, without exception, would identify that the real contest was between the Liberal candidate and whoever was their closest rival. With a first-past-the-post election system votes for other candidates would effectively be wasted. (People like to back potential winners, not certain losers).

When I sketch out this campaign plan to candidates they often cry, “But I can’t put out six pieces of paper!” My response is, “Well, why not?” Ignoring the 5% of properties that are out of the way or have very long drives, there aren’t many council wards in which the vast majority of homes cannot be reached by one person delivering over 24 separate hours. So you go out for 3 hours each evening, and for two sessions on Saturday, and the job is done.

Then you start delivering the next one (and yes, the leaflets have to be written when you get home).

And, of course, you book a holiday from work during election week so that you have the time to do what is needed.

Of course, most candidates (I hope) have a few friends who will help, especially in the last few days. Perhaps there are even some Liberal Democrat members in the ward to share a bit of delivery. So the actual time commitment needed may be less than I have suggested. If they are lucky the candidate might even have enough time to do a spot of canvassing to get a better idea of what’s on people’s minds.

I put these lessons into practice in Liverpool, and the result was that I won the safest Labour council ward in England – although in truth it took me two elections to do it..

Later I took the lessons I had learnt to the old Littleborough & Saddleworth constituency when I became parliamentary candidate in 1985. The following year we applied them in a couple of wards where the Liberals usually came a poor third.

We won Shaw with the biggest swing in the country from Labour to the Liberals.

We won Littleborough with the biggest swing in the country from the Conservatives to the Liberals.

Of course, a few things have changed since then. Most important is that the extension of postal voting means that now there are in effect two election days so the campaign has to start a bit earlier and a special effort has to be made when the postal votes go out.

But the basic task of communication remains the same, and many of us across the country have Liverpool Liberals to thank for teaching us the lessons, although I’m not sure whether they are sticking by them themselves these days.

Even though our hard working candidates are still winning plenty of support it is difficult to hear some past Liberal Democrat supporters saying they will not vote for us this time.

Difficult, and sometimes ridiculous.

“I don’t like what you are doing in government,” said one woman to me. “Well if you were in our position what would you be doing instead?” “I don’t know but I don’t like what you are doing.”

We’ve exploited the protest vote ourselves in the past, and finding that people are protesting against US is a new experience for many Liberal Democrats.

But I’ve known it a lot worse. I’ve been out canvassing when our former party leader was on trial charged with conspiracy to murder. Now THAT was difficult!

Having the opportunity to wield political power is the reason that political parties exist (another lesson I learnt in Liverpool). Liberal Democrats will be in government until 2015. We’re going to build up a record of achievement, but we are also going to have to accept responsibility for the hard and unpopular decisions that come with governing.

My worry is that, despite all the training opportunities now provided by the party nationally and regionally, some of our candidates have not yet learnt the old lessons of Liverpool campaigning, and some of our councillors have forgotten them.

The secret to success continues to lie with those few pieces of paper.

Chris Davies MEP

Far be it from me to point out a few strategy failings to the Liberal Democrats, however, safe in the knowledge that they wont listen and they don't care, I will make the following points.

In no particular order, I give you the following tips;

1. Some voters cannot read very well - or at all
2. Some voters can read but English is not their first language
3. Most voters like to meet their candidates and talk to them about their concerns, not be told via a leaflet what they are told their concerns are
4. People vote for people, not for bits of paper
5. Labour has been putting out leaflets too, the battle of the leaflets is at least honours even, although lately we have been winning on that front. So you need considerably more up your sleeve than that.
6. Some of your LibDem colleagues in Liverpool (Old Swan for example) have started putting out red topped leaflets with no mention of the LibDem party or the logo, in the hope of riding on our coat-tails, how will that help your party?
7. It is not 1980 any more, you cannot keep relying on the old ways, that is why you have lost pretty much everything other than Southport in the last few years.
8. On GE day in 2010 in Livepool Wavertree we were knocking on the doors of Labour Promises (people who said they were voting Labour) and reminding them and encouraging them to vote. We knew who they were because we spent months finding out by talking to them. Your guys were putting out "Today is Polling Day" leaflets until at least the early afternoon, and guess who won?

Errr, that will do for now...

Keep up the campaign advice Chris, you are doing a great job of ensuring that LibDems NEVER win here


Anonymous said...

You really are smug aren't you.

Louise Baldock said...

Yes indeed, guilty as charged. I am incredibly smug. Because at last you lot are getting yours - and in the fairest of ways - at the ballot box! If you thought I was smug after the Liverpool Wavertree General Election, then you aint seen nothing yet! I am going to be absolutely and utterly unbearable after May 5th!