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The Knowledge

The Liberal Democrats’ problems with the voters pre-date Nick Clegg, writes Mark Gettleson

WORDS: MARK GETTLESON

The knives are out for Nick Clegg. Well, not really – largely because the two most obvious replacements, party President Tim Farron and Business Secretary Vince Cable have no earthly reason to want the job before the anticipated catastrophe of the 2015 election.

Some say the problem is not Mr Clegg himself, who hit a record approval rating low of -58% in a YouGov poll last weekend, but a natural consequence of the Coalition.

In this world view, the outcome of the 2010 election necessitated the formation of a government with the Conservatives – which, due to the fact a vast proportion of Liberal Democrat voters are left-leaning, was bound to lead to an electoral haemorrhage. Messrs’ Farron and Cable may themselves be thinking along similar lines.

There may be a large amount of truth in such ideas, but in many ways the chronology is wrong. At the last election, the Liberal Democrats had the most popular leader in the history of British political polling and a public and media narrative which wanted to see the back of Gordon Brown, but didn’t think David Cameron was necessarily the right man to lead the UK out of recession. Even amid this perfect storm, the Liberal Democrats somehow managed to lose seats.

The truth is that the party is not kitted out to run a 21st century political campaign. Its campaigns team has no polling operation, no graphic designers, no marketing department (this existed for a year after the 2010 election), no statisticians or any communications professionals to speak of. Beyond what they can get covered in the press, there is no real national campaign to speak of. It is for this reason that they were unable to consolidate the gains made during the 2010 election campaign and why they are wholly unable to communicate anything positive about the Coalition.

Indeed, former Liberal Democrat campaigns staffer Mark Pack, noted that the 2015 election would be run as “75 by-elections” – that an unwavering focus of resources would be aimed at a small number of seats. Dr Pack reminds us that “although the party’s vote fell in 1997, the number of seats won soared”; failing to recall the opposite happenstance just over two years ago.

This approach is precisely the party’s problem. General elections are not by-elections and can’t be made into one. Like local elections, by-elections are low-salience (i.e. the voters really don’t care), low turnout and perhaps most importantly, will not change who is in Number 10. Due to the small number of people involved, even inefficient campaigning techniques, such as leafleting, can mobilise the relatively small number of people needed to win.

Despite their not having actually won a parliamentary by-election since February 2006, Liberal Democrat campaigns are designed precisely with the by-election model in mind; firmly rooted in bits of paper and the idea that it is possible to ‘win locally’. The developments in national campaigning that have professionalised political strategy here and in the USA, using techniques that rely on research, marketing and a strong understanding of voter psychology, have entirely passed them by.

Instead they rely on a local patchwork of constituencies, the ‘winnable’ of which (based on little or no strategic research) receive large amounts of money for literature from HQ.

If logic weren’t enough, almost every academic study brought out on campaigning in the past decade reveals the fallacy of an approach which relies on localised untargeted leafleting operations to get a message across. Prof. Alan Gerber of Yale University, a world expert in voter behaviour, conducted countless field experiments on the effect of communications methods on voting patterns for his phenomenal book ‘Get Out The Vote’. He concludes that leaflets reach one out of every 189 voters to which they’re delivered and that their impact was “not significantly greater than zero”. The marketing firm Experian has published several UK reports showing a similar trend. Simply put, only a very strange subset of the public (largely old and alone) respond to this old method of advertising. Almost every study concurs as does a brief glance at the activity of any other campaigning organisation – but when leaflets are all you know, you carry on.

Until the Liberal Democrats develop a 21st century campaigns machine that can compete with the other parties and desist from their almost cultish adoration of the ‘perfect leaflet’, they will lose and lose badly. The Coalition only exacerbates these pre-existing conditions.