Norwich North: what to make of all that, then? #nnbe

by Stephen Tall on July 25, 2009

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: if you fight a by-election in which both your total number of votes, and your percentage of votes cast, declines since the previous general election then the result is disappointing. There, I’ve said it, disappointing.

Now let’s look a bit harder, and try and work out what’s going on, addressing directly the three questions:
1) should we have done better,
2) is our campaigning stuck in a rut, and
3) is the leadership to blame?

1) Should we have done better?

The verdict that we should have done better – at least come second – was encapsulated by the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson in his blog-post, How to unspin Norwich:

Lib Dems: “This is a truly shocking result for Labour.”
Translation: “Oh no. Why don’t we win by-elections any more?”

Except, of course, it’s not that simple. There seems to be a fantasy among some Lib Dem supporters, shared by journalists like Nick, that the Lib Dems have talismanic by-elections skills – that the party need only show up in any constituency in the UK, and the electorate will be hypnotically seduced into voting Lib Dem. This isn’t true now, and nor has it ever been true, a fact statistically proved by Lib Dem blogger ‘Costigan Quist’ HERE.

There was, perhaps, one exception: the last Parliament, when we won two of the six by-elections contested – Brent East and Leicester South – and also recorded hefty swings in two others, Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool. (The South Wales result in Ogmore, when the Lib Dem vote fell 4%, is usually happily ignored: it spoils the story).

But to judge this Parliament by last Parliament’s standards is silly, in any case, for it witnessed a perfect storm that is very unlikely to be repeated: a wildly unpopular policy – Iraq – on which the Lib Dems had a distinct, well-known, poular position; and a main opposition party, the Tories when led by Iain Duncan Smith, which was an utter campaigning shambles. The Lib Dems’ Iraq USP has now receded, while the Tories are, once again, a professional outfit. To expect the Lib Dems to conjure up by-election magic dust in vastly changed circumstances is utterly fanciful.

And the idea that, even if the Lib Dems won’t actually win, our vote must always, automatically increase is also profoundly un-historical. To me, the current Parliament most closely resembles the 1992-97 Parliament: a tired, imploding governing party, seemingly at the mercy of events, and a main opposition party on the up. So let’s compare the by-election results of now with then:

  • 2005-present: Lib Dems contested 12 by-elections, vote percentage increased in seven;
  • 1992-97: Lib Dems contested 16 by-elections, vote percentage increased in eight.

It’s true that the 1992-97 Parliament included some spectacular Lib Dem successes, most notably Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh, and Littleborough and Saddleworth. In each of those by-elections, of course, the party started in second place to the governing party – just as we did in Dunfermline.

Yet there were many results, too, in 1992-97 which mirror yesterday’s Norwich North by-election:

  • Barking (1 Feb ‘94): Lib Dem vote down 2.5%
  • Dagenham (17 May ’94): down 3.1%
  • Monklands East (12 May ’94): down 2%
  • Dudley West (12 Oct ’94): down 2.8%
  • Hemsworth (31 Oct ’95): down 3.7%
  • SE Staffordshire (12 Dec ’95): down 4.9%
  • Barnsley East (11 Oct ’96): down 0.3%
  • Wirral South (3 Nov ’96): down 3%

In each of those eight by-elections the party started the campaign in third place, or lower. Go figure.

(Historical endnote: let’s not forget either the Newham North East by election (2 Mar ’94), when the nominated Lib Dem candidate, AJ Kellaway, announced at a news conference on the eve of poll that he had resigned from the Liberal Democrats and joined the Labour Party. Imagine if that happened today, and the doom-laden blogosphere commentary that would accompany it!)

2) Is our campaigning stuck in a rut?

Here we move from the objective of historical fact – our by-election performance today is equivalent to 1992-97 – to subjective question so beloved of all armchair generals. The argument is familiar … our bar-charts are ‘dodgy’ and don’t work, bombarding the electorate with leaflets is so last millennium, the other parties have copied our tactics, etc.

Now, maybe it’s me, but I don’t quite get the logical train of thought which runs: ‘The Tories have copied the Lib Dems’ successful by-election campaigning strategy and are starting to win by-elections by using it. Therefore the Lib Dem strategy does not work and we should ditch it.’

It’s quite simple: the ‘Rennard technique’ – leaflets, target mail, bar-charts etc – works spectacularly well when the party is the main challenger. Trouble is, the Lib Dems have not had a by-election since Dunfermline in which we have been the undisputed main challengers to the governing party.

The ‘Rennard technique’ is not – and has never been – fool-proof. It has delivered by-election success for the party over almost two decades, from Eastbourne to Dunfermline, where the circumstances are right. But it has also failed on numerous occasions to work when the circumstances were not right. And they weren’t right in Norwich North.

The true test of the party’s strategy in such by-elections, then, is not ‘Can we win?’ It is, and should be, ‘Can we start building success here for the future’?

The most important campaigning questions are, for instance: has Lib Dem membership increased in Norwich North since the start of the campaign; have we built a delivery network to ensure the Lib Dem message is delivered beyond the end of the campaign; have we boosted our chances in target council seats; and have we increased the profile of our general election candidate?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, though my guess is ‘Yes’ will be the answer to most or all. In particular, it was canny tactics to select April Pond as our candidate, given that she is destined to be our candidate for the soon-to-be-overlapping constituency of Broadlands, and where her name recognition will now be much higher.

3) Is the leadership to blame?

The easiest to answer: no. Of course, the ‘Do you like Nick Clegg?’ question is another subjective one. But if there is an objective measure, it’s opinion polls: the latest Mori opinion poll showed 44% are satisfied with him, 28% dissatisfied – a net satisfaction score of +16%. For comparison, David Cameron’s net satisfaction is lower, at +9%, and Nick has been leading Mr Cameron for the past three months. So my view is that we should at least wait until the Tories decide their leader is a failure before deciding to ditch ours.

Ah, you say, but look at the current political circumstances – an exhausted governing party, the most severe recession in living memory, public contempt for politicians at an all-time high. Surely the Lib Dems should be benefiting? Why is it that Ukip and the Greens are attracting more votes than before, and not us?

There are any number of answers to this.

First, I think the party (and in particular the Parliamentary party) must face up to the fact that we did long-term damage to the Lib Dem ‘brand’ as a direct result of Charles Kennedy’s messy resignation. There’s no point going into the right and wrongs, again, here: views are pretty much fixed. You either think our MPs behaved disgracefully, or (my view) you reckon they reacted in the rather confused, inadequate and human way that people do when forced to confront difficult, private, personal problems. But, sadly for the party, I think that episode left us looking ‘just like the others’.

Then there is MPs’ expenses: though Lib Dem MPs emerged by and large unscathed, certainly not guilty of the fraudulent activities of Labour and Tory MPs, the overwhelming effect on the public was ‘they’re all at it’. As it happens, the Lib Dems – alone among the mainstream parties – have maintained or even increased our poll ratings in the wake of the scandal.

In essence, you see, the Lib Dems are no longer viewed as an insignificant protest party. We should be delighted: for years, we have tried to convince the public that we are major players, a party capable of becoming the next official opposition, and forming a future government. And, finally, the public is taking us at our word.

We have 63 MPs, are in second place in a further 190 constituencies, control large councils up and down the country. So, if you’re a voter trying to give the politicians a kick up the proverbial, who would you choose? It’s less likely now to be the Lib Dems.

We may just have to accept, at least for the moment, that Ukip and the Greens are the most likely repository of ‘right’ and ‘left’ protest votes respectively: safe to vote for in elections which won’t determine the next government, just as the Lib Dems used to be, before we started winning power.

Finally…

Let me re-iterate how I started. Disappointment is the right reaction to this result: we didn’t win more votes, we didn’t increase our percentage of the vote. Of course, therefore, we should look carefully at the lessons to be learned. But, equally, this has to be tempered with a sense of realism of what was possible in a short campaign in a seat where we started in a very clear third place.

This by-election was never about us. On a relatively low turn-out, the voters took the opportunity to do two things: give the Labour party a bloody nose, and give mainstream parties a kick in the shins. They achieved both objectives supremely well.