‘How can Lib Dems avoid oblivion?’ asks PoliticsHome

by Stephen Tall on March 18, 2012

Over at PoliticsHome, Mark Gettleson puts Lib Dem campaigning under the microscope to ask what the 2015 general election might hold for the party. He makes four points:

1. In 2010, the Lib Dems won the air war and lost the ground war

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.

I think that’s a slight over-simplification: the TV debates created an artificially optimistic bubble early enough for Labour and the Conservatives (and their friends in the media) to train their campaigning firepower against a party without the resources to fight back. As we’ve seen with Mitt Romney’s gruelling success in the contest for the Republican nomination it’s hard for underdogs to withstand such pressure. But it’s certainly true that the party found its ground-war much tougher going, with other parties adopting (and magnifying) Lib Dems’ localised voter-targeting.

2. The Lib Dems fail on marketing and communication

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 question of what the party stands for in the minds of voters — how would they define the party in a simple sentence — is one that’s been discussed at length. It’s one I described here as ‘The Lib Dem quest for the Holy Grail’ back in 2008. The ‘radical centre’ is probably as close and as accurate as we’ve yet got, but it’s an internal description which means little to most voters.

3. Labour and the Tories have overtaken the Lib Dems’ campaigning

[The other parties have come] with new vastly superior campaigns technologies from across the seas (the Republican and Democratic campaigns, in this case) … 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.

While true at the last election, this may not be the case in 2015, as the Lib Dems roll out Connect, database technology pioneered by the Obama campaign: time will tell.

4. Is a 2015 ‘multiple by-election’ strategy the only hope?

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.

In a sense, of course, every Lib Dem general election campaign is a ‘multiple by-election’ strategy, with party members (with varying degrees of willingness) helping campaigns in near-by winnable seats in preference to their own. As it stands, it’s inevitable the Lib Dem campaign will in 2015 be more about defence than expansion. But three years is a long time in politics.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.