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

5th January, 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.

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