Rarely is so much rubbish written by Lib Dem bloggers than after an entirely normal by-election result.
'Rennardism is dead', 'leafets don't work', 'we should do it by email', 'the Lib Dem by-election machine doesn't work any more', 'we should deliver a pamphlet setting out our principles and detailed policies to each voter and trust them to come to the right decision' (OK, I made that last one up, but you get my drift).
I do accept that there some other points of view that have a case. It IS reasonable to question whether the impact of parliamentary by-elections is enough to warrent the resources we spend on them, for example (see end).
But when the debate is about how to win by-elections, then a lot of the commentary is sadly lacking in any basis in fact.
It would be helpful if people first look at the actual history of the party's performance in parliamentary by-elections. The extremly inteligent and insightful Mr Quist helpfully set this out here.
There was no 'golden age'
The reality is that there never was a 'golden age' for the party in by-elections. We have only ever won a minority of by-elections, and generally the victories have been in seats where we started with a reasonable base of credibility and had long enough to build up some momentum.
For every one we have won there have been five or six we have lost, and I'm sure that after every one of those losses there was a group of people claiming that our by-election strategy was a 'busted flush'.
You don't understand 'Rennardism'
Many bloggers have talked about 'Rennardism'. Or at least, what they apparently believe 'Rennardism. to be - simply delivering more leaflets.
Well if that was all Chris Rennard's approach to parliamentary by-elections consisted of we would probably never have won a single by-election.
And again, before commenting on 'Rennardism' why not actually read some of the campaign manuals Chris has written about campaigning rather than criticising from a base of ignorance.
The simple fact is that no party wins a by-election without delivering a lot of leaflets. In order to stand a chance of winning you have to establish that you are in the fight, get your message through to people, turn your vote out and persuade supporters of other parties to switch to you.
And you simply can't do that without a lot of literature.
THAT IS NOT THE SAME AS SAYING THAT ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS DELIVER LOTS OF LEAFLETS!
The real difference comes with other factors. Do the Local Party select a good candidate? Are there any big issues affecting the constituency or the country that give us a hook to base our campaign on? Do the circumstances give us a good line of attack? How much effort is each of the other parties putting in?
A large part of winning a by-election (and this IS what 'Rennardism' is, if it is anything) is developing a convincing messge that deals with the primary issues of concern to the voters.
Email and other new media
Several people have commented that we should not be doing leaflets, we should be using email and other new media to win the campaign.
Well yes, we should make as much use of email and other new media that we can, and in fact that is exactly what recent by-elections have done.
But there is a fatal flaw in the idea that email and the like could replace leaflets.
We KNOW where every letterbox in a constituency is.
We DO NOT KNOW very many people's email addresses.
Two factors that make a real big difference
In my experience of by-elections there are two very big factors that have a huge impact on our chances of winning:
1 Length of campaign. The longer we have to establish our candidate and messages, to identify key local issues and campaign on them, and to deliver leaflets and knock on doors, the more chance we have of winning. (Brent East is the best recent example of this - I still remember lots of people arguing that we couldn't possibly win it and challenging the resources that were being given to it. We won because we had time to dig in and build credibility and momentum.)
2 Local credibility. The more credibility we have locally at the start of the campaign, the better we will eventually do. (This was certainly the big differnce between Leicester South on the one hand and Hartlepool or Hodge Hill on the other - in Leicester we had a strong local base and record of campaigning in most wards in the constituency)
We shouldn't run a 'full' campaign every time
Only people who really don't know what they are talking about would believe that we do.
Fighting by-elections hard doesn't stop us doing other things right
There are also those who argue that we shouldn't busy ourselves fighting by-elections, we should be concentrating on getting the message (or 'narrative' even)right, or doing longer term development.
Well yes, we do need to be doing those things. But fighting by-elections as they come along doesn't stop us doing those things as well.
There clearly will be some opportunity cost as far as the money is concerned (although a lot of the figures bandied about are nonsense, and we do get donations in for by-elections) but we actually need to sort out our message, do long term development AND fight by-elections.
I am not arguing that everything we have evr done in every by-election is right. In fact I have had strong disagreements with some of the tactics and some of the messaging in several of the ones I've worked on.
But frankly a LOT of the comments about how we should or should not run by-elections appear to be based on complete and utter ignorance of how the party actually runs by-elections campaigns, and/or on a completely unrealistic expectation that we should some how be winning every time.
As to the sensible question of whether by-elections are worth the resources I would make two points:
1 If you look at our current parliamentary party about a fifth of the seats we hold were first won in by-elections, or were held in by-elections, or had had by-elections that built a base to win from later.
2 Even though we didn't win in Norwich this time, the group of relatively inexperienced party organisers who made up the bulk of the campaign team will be heading back to their constituencies this weekend far better prepared than they would be by months of theoretical trainign about what running a serious campaign involves.