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Thursday 15th March 2012 | 10:48
For the party to survive, Liberal Democrat campaigns need to be dragged out of the ancient world.
During the 2010 general election campaign, the Liberal Democrats had the most popular leader in the history of British political polling. The spontaneous ‘I Agree With Nick’ movement proved one of the most unexpected and exciting developments in recent election campaign history. Talk of over 100 seats was mooted by even the most seasoned political cynics. As such, when the BBC/ITV/Sky exit poll predicted a small decrease in seats, there were instant cries that something could not be right. The exit polls, however, had rarely been more accurate – and the result a calamity for Nick Clegg’s party.
There had been an uncoordinated increase in votes – around a million – largely in seats they were not going to win. But what was clear was that the party lacked the kind of national organisation into which to feed the volunteers of Cleggmania, the ability to measure success in given seats (few saw the loss of Harrogate or Evan Harris’ defeat in Oxford coming), target resources at the right voters or communicate with them in the right way.
One senior source, heavily involved in the campaign, told me shortly after that “the press team delivered a win in the air war, but the ground war was a disaster.” Such assertions flip on their head assumptions of a party with a reputation for fighting effective localised campaigns.
It is within this context that current Liberal Democrat problems must be assessed. Even with the unique opportunities presented by the last election campaign, Liberal Democrat campaigns proved a dismal failure. How then, will they cope now? Has ‘the Coalition’ been blamed for so many of the party’s electoral ills that more important pre-existent failings have been ignored?
Quite what the 2015 election will look like for the Liberal Democrats from a messaging point of view, aside for the Coalition, and against their Conservative partners, has been discussed at length. Such questions have surrounded the policy positions, but really they’re about branding: what and who is the party for? What are its values? Can it be trusted?
There is probably no organisation with a spend of even half that of the Liberal Democrats who put less focus on branding. Uniquely, they have no marketing department, no communications department, no polling operation, no graphic designers and no polling operation.
The failure to prioritise the establishment and communication of a strong national brand is exactly what made the party so vulnerable to a Coalition with another party, whose brand and identity is stark. Those who ask why the Conservatives have seen their levels of support increase rather than erode in office, contrasting with an image of Liberal Democrat annihilation, need look no further than this question.
And what of ground campaigning, the party’s supposed strength? The production of election literature plays a similarly central role in Liberal Democrat election campaigning to human sacrifices in the Aztec Empire, with a similar commitment to measuring its effectiveness. Unfortunately, the other parties have begun to take a very similar role to the Spanish in this allegory – coming with new vastly superior campaigns technologies from across the seas (the Republican and Democratic campaigns, in this case) to decimate this faithful traditional civilisation. Among these are voting modeling programmes that track the likelihood of every individual to back the party, enabling the campaigns to target specific types of voters – based on demographic and attitudinal data – and persuade them to vote, volunteer and donate. Such systems, based on thorough research from top statisticians, are increasingly the cornerstone of a modern campaign. Against them, untargeted local leaflets and letters focusing on the good deeds of candidates, reaching the wrong people and focusing on issues not personal to the recipient, are fairly pointless. It is perhaps unsurprising that their headquarters seems to be on overdrive to downplay expectations ahead of any upcoming election.
With such a disastrous national picture, Party President Tim Farron is thought to favour a ‘multiple by-election’ strategy for election day. It is unquestionably true that political parties win in given places, but any suggestion that the importance of the national campaign could ever be diminished should be dismissed. As such, the most important task for the Liberal Democrats over the next year is to conduct the correct research and communications programme to find their voters and potential supporters and start communicating with them in an appropriate way, that ties them into a brand. They can then stop communicating with those who will never support them. This will be seen by some as too expensive given the absence of Short money and pre-existing financial problems. However, not only would the fundraising be boosted from such tactics, just as it was for the Obama campaign, but the waste and inefficiency of running their current untargeted campaign pales into insignificance in comparison.
Only radical and perhaps painful innovations will bring this about, but it is the only way for the Liberal Democrats to survive as a force in British politics.
An edited version of this article appears on page 5 and 6 of this week's House magazine.