A By-election strategy won’t save the Lib Dems in 2015

January 5, 2013 2:54 pm

Today in the Guardian there’s an interesting bit of briefing from the Lib Dems on their proposed general election strategy. It’s worth reading the piece by Patrick Wintour in full.

The argument goes that the Lib Dems will treat the General Election as a series of 57 localised elections (in each of the seats currently held by the Lib Dems), deploying a superior ground game and focussing their resources in order to exploit the power of incumbency. Effectively turning their general election campaign into 57 simultaneous by-elections. Clearly this plan is based on the idea that the Lib Dems are a ruthless campaigning machine, which is personified by their fabled excellence in by-elections. However their recent performances in Westminster by-elections is dreadful (4th, 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 8th, 3rd, 4th in 2012 – and even when they came 2nd or 3rd their vote more than halved as a %). The last time they won a by-election seat was in February 2006.

But Lib Dems will argue, quite rightly, that all of the by-elections held so far in this parliament have been in Labour-held (and in the case of Corby, Tory-held) seats. And therefore their superior campaigning prowess hasn’t had an opportunity to come into its own yet.

About that superior campaigning prowess…

An internal Lib Dem briefing (leaked to the Spectator in September) contained such admissions as “We have no evidence our tactics are working”. As for data – which anyone who has ever run a successful campaign knows is vital – the briefing admitted that the Lib Dems “Only have functional political data on <2% of the population”. The Lib Dems have the most advanced canvassing/data system in British politics (VAN) but they aren’t using it effectively – or as Isabel hardman put it “The party has bought a Ferrari and is treating it like a lawnmower.”

If you don’t have data, you can’t target voters effectively, and you can’t get your vote out (because you don’t know where they are). And getting more “political data” on the electorate conventionally means having activists doing door knocking and phone canvassing. Yet membership of the Lib Dems fell by 25% in their first year in government – meaning they have less than 50,000 members across the country (around a quarter of the membership of the Labour Party). Their membership is likely to have fallen further since.

So the Lib Dem plan for 2015 is to run 57 by-election campaigns, but without a proven strategy, without sufficient data and with a declining membership base. In my experience of campaigning against the Lib Dems, that may mean they fall back on widespread leafleting which can be done by a small number of dedicated activists. And that’s a strategy which (again, based on personal experience) doesn’t really work…

This plan seems intended to encourage Lib Dem MPs to stick with their leader and not get trigger happy with the leadership ahead of the general election. But any savvy Lib Dem MPs will realise that if this is their best hope of saving their seats, they are even more screwed than they might have imagined.

  • http://twitter.com/politicalhackuk John O’Shea

    A by-election strategy depends on focussing resources on one or two seats at a time. They will wind up spreading themselves too thinly. Some seats will have to be abandoned to electoral reality or they will be deluding themselves into losing other seats that they could hold by deploying people elsewhere.

  • Amber_Star

    Personally, I’d like their incredible campaigning prowess to be true for Con/Dem marginals. It would make beating the Tories a bit easier!

    • aracataca

      ‘their incredible campaigning prowess’
      My experience of them on the ground in elections is that they are petty, unpleasant and knowingly untruthful. Prowess doesn’t enter into it.

  • http://twitter.com/Ceilidhann Kayleigh Anne

    Surely the strategy is just to get some of their deposits back. I bet that’ll be their new marker for success. “Hey, we got our money back this time. An astounding victory for the Liberal Democrats!”

    We’re already seeing something of a strategy/saving one’s own skin happening with people like Sarah “I’m a government minister” Teather suddenly coming out swinging against the stuff they voted for. That’s always fun to watch.

  • NT86

    Where the Lib Dems have a strong presence in local government (e.g. Eastleigh, Portsmouth, South Lakeland), the party shouldn’t have too much trouble mobilising activists on the ground to campaign and leaflet. Those are possibly the seats they’ll hold in 2015.

    It’s going to be a lot harder in places like Brent Central (Sarah Teather) and Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) which, according to an Indy report I read about 7 months ago, said that membership of the party locally has plummeted.

    With the exception of seats which the party has embedded itself into (including mine), no amount of savvy strategy will save them in 2015. When you let down most of the 6 million people who voted for you within months (on balance, I know Labour did its fair share of betrayals too but it was around the 6 year point that it got ugly for them), they will not forget.

  • billbat

    Grant Schapps is convinced that all sitting Tory MP’s will be re-elected because of incumbency. Was he pretending to be Michael Green in 1997 and missed the best night since 1979?

  • robertcp

    It is not a great strategy but they do not have any better option. My guess is that the Lib Dems will get about 30 MPs in 2015, which could still be enough for the balance of power in a hung Parliament. Incidentally, British history since 1918 suggests that Labour does well when there is a high Liberal vote, so it will not just be the Lib Dems that will be in trouble if their vote collapses.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001102865655 John Ruddy

    Bear in mind, its possible that they could achieve nationally only 8-10% of the vote, yet retain most of their existing MPs. Much as we might wish otherwise, Lib Dems such as Clegg and Laws are in such safe seats, that they can afford to lose some votes to Labour.

    I expect a lot of lost deposits in 2015 for them, though, as they go from challenging to nowhere….

    • Alexwilliamz

      Not sure Clegg will be all that safe as a Northern seat he might be seen as a legitimate target for dissatisfied voters (including Iib Dems) to give him a good kicking. I’d imagine they will hold on in the south west heartlands better.

      • NT86

        I live in his constituency. He has a very big majority here of about 15,000. It’s one of those seats which has remained consistently Lib Dem since 1997. The local party has been losing members as with other places although they’ve managed to hold off challenges to council seats on this side of Sheffield at least.

        The Tories have been losing support here for years (a seat they previously held) and Labour would need a swing of about 18% to unseat Clegg. It’s one of those seats which even Blair couldn’t capture back in the day so a Labour candidate would have their work cut out for them.

        • Alexwilliamz

          You are probably right, I just get this kind of ‘portillo’ kind of moment feel about Clegg!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Graeme-Hancocks/1156294498 Graeme Hancocks

    I think they (the libdems) are screwed.

  • David

    Good article, but don’t use the word screwed. It’s the amateurish and childish language that turns people off.

    • markfergusonuk

      Or it’s the kind of language that people use in everyday life…

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