Thursday, July 30, 2009

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bloggers talk balls about by-elections

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.


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

We don't!

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.

In conclusion

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.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Winning in Redcar again, and again, and again

I grew up in the north eastern and largely working class town of Redcar. (Known by racing enthusiasts for the Racecourse and by Geography students of the 70s and 80s for its steel industry).

I did my first campaigning there during the 1987 General Election - canvassing in Chris Abbott's ward and was signed up to the Liberal Party by his then ward colleague Stan Wilson.

In those days Redcar was not a hotbed of Liberalism although both the Liberals and the SDP had a few seats locally.

More recently however the Lib Dems have really been gaining ground. The part of town where I grew up was Tory held when I was there, but we have held it for years now. We have now established ourselves as the main opposition to Labour and came a creditable, if still some distance behind, second place last time.

More recently we have been winning local by-elections and last night completed our hattrick with Eric Howden's sensational victory in Dormanstown.

Eric took 52% of the vote with a 22.9% swing from Labour.

So what, you might think, particularly as you probably haven't the first clue where Redcar is, let alone Dormanstown.

Well Dormanstown is about as Labour as it gets.


It is real vote for a donkey with a red rosette territory.

If Labour are losing places like Dormanstown they really are up a brown smelly creek without a handily shaped wooden implement.

So well done Eric, Ian, Chris and team.

Have a virtual pint on me, and keep up the good work.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Fresh Start for Britain

The party has published a key paper which is to be debated at party Conference in September.

A Fresh Start for Britain sets out our priorities in the run up to the General Election and how we intend to go through the process of prioritising our spending ambitions in the light of the mess the economy is in.

The document set out on the website is, in effect, the introductory section setting out the main themes we want to concentrate on: Creating a sustainable economy, Building a fairer society and Cleaning up politics.

I an confident that it does a pretty good job of setting out a platform that the party can unite around, draws on previous policy development but is at the same tme honest about the reality of the financial situation.

The full document which will go to conference will also include a lot more detail summarising our key policies across the whole range.

Alex Wilcock has written a lot more about it than I will (in fact I think his blog piece may well be longer than the document!) but makes some very good points.

He is right that 'freedom' is not as prominent as it might have been, but readers will be reassured to know that that is not because there are any plans to drop or change our policies on the issue.

He is also right that the real debate will be about prioritisiation. In a tight financial situation, which spending commitments will be included in the actual manifesto? Let the debate begin ...

Will it be April this July?

The Norwich North by-election is the first in the south eastern part of England that I haven't been involved with for more than 15 years. Had I still been Deputy Director of Campaigns I would have spent much of the last few weeks in Norwich.

It feels a little odd to know that as I write this our excellent by-election team, ably supported by my successor Victoria Marsom, will now be into the feverish last 24 hours or so of campaigning.

I'm not in a position to know exactly how we are doing, but I do know that April Pond is a doughty candidate and that the Lib Dem team behind her campaign are highly experienced and skilled campaigners.

The literature I have seen certainly suggests that we have hit on some good issues and that April is on the right side of them.

I'm not surprised to hear that the Labour campaign has been weak. There is little in general to motivate Labour activists at present, and the particular circumstances that led to Dr Gibsons' resignation probably killed any residual local activity stone dead anyway.

I am surprised that the Greens do not appear to have done more. That's not to say they won't necessarily get a solid vote, there is still a strong 'anti-main parties' vote out there, but I can't understand why they didn't treat this as a serious opportunity to win thir first MP.

Some people have wrongly characterised the Lib Dem approach to by-elections as being just about delivering more leaflets than your opponents. Well we DO have to deliver a lot of leaflets but we also need a clear message that resonates and all the other elements of a well organised campaign too.

From what I have seen and heard our small team in Norwich have achieved a lot of this on a short timescale and with limited resources. Well done to them.

If you are in a position to get over and help this evening or tomorrow, please do so!

Bread and Jam

A day off today, and a chance to do some bread-making with Emma.

We make bread every so often, she enjoys it, and it is surprisingly easy (as Liz Williams regularly describes on her blog).

We use flour grown locally (the farms are listed on the back of the packet) and milled at the Wessex Mill in Wantage bought at Added Ingredients in Abingdon.

Today we used 'Six Seed Flour' which has produced lovely brown bread and rolls full of flavour and texture.

We're sitting here eating it with some lovely Raspberry and Kiwi jam from Local Roots, another newish Abingdon shop that sources all its stock from within a few miles of the town.

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Tap into Wembley

After waiting for nearly 25 years I finally got to see one of my favourite rock bands last night - the mighty Spinal Tap (Simply 'Tap' to their fans).

Despite their early success (initially as The Thamesmen) they never hit the bigtime in the UK as much as they did in the US and Japan, and tours have been few and far between.

Tap now join Rush, ZZ Top and The Police on the list of bands I thought I might not get to see live but finally have.

Having made the brave (it's a fine line between clever and stupid) decision to do a 'One Night Only' World Tour at Wembley Stadium, just a few miles from their origins in Squatney in London's East End, there was a real sense of anticipation as the metal hordes gathered for the gig. (They did get to do a short warm up set at a smallscale Somerset festival at the weekend).

Tap have made two previous visits to Wembley, to play Live Earth and the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, and both in the bigger venue of Wembley Stadium. On these occasions they played to 80,000 people live with countless millions more watching at home. Their performances at both events were considered 'extraordinary'.

Support last night was from The Folksmen, the traditional US folk three-piece whose return to fame was documented in the recent documentary, or, if you will, folkumentray, A Mighty Wind.

They played a short but accomplished set featuring several classics from their past including their big hit 'Old Joe's Place', the very moving 'Blood on the Coals' (most US folk songs are about either mining disasters or train crashes, this song covers both eventualities) and an enjoyable cover of the Stones' 'Start Me Up'.

Unfortunately Marty Shrubb was just introducing their last song, an epic about the Spanish Civil War, when a roadie came onstage and told them they had run out of time.

They were warmly received despite the level of anticipation for Tap.

The stage was cleared ready for Tap's set and after a while the call went out over the PA for Tap to come to the stage. For some reason there was a bit of a delay and the backstage cameras made it clear why - the Tap were still busy playing video games and apparantly hadn't heard the call.

We were then entertained by the video of 'Majesty of Rock' and, after a further unexplained delay, the band appeared on stage to a raptuous welcome.

A wide ranging set followed including the well known tracks that featured in the 'This Is Spinal Tap' documentary, or, if you will, rockumentary: 'Rock N Rocll Creation', 'Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You' and 'Hell Hole'.

They also went back to their routes to perform the old Thamesmen tracks (a pre-Tap name of the band) 'Listen To the Flower People', 'Cups and Cakes' and 'Gimme Some Money' as well as David and Nigel's first ever song, 'All The Way Home'.

They played a 'funked up' version of 'Sex Farm' which, if you closed your eyes, could have the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

A real treat was their first ever performance of 'Saucy Jack', the first (and so far only) track from their musical tribute to Jack The Ripper.

The response from the audience was ecstatic throughout, but went to a whole new level when the opening chords of 'Stonehenge' rang out. the bands performance was spot on, but they were once again let down by poor stage management. The sight of two dwarves and a roadie trying to help erect an inflatable 12 foot high Stonehenge was, frankly, laughable, and the only real bad point of the night. David St Hubbins was visibly irritated by this incident, but it didn't put him off his stride.

The Tap core of St Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls was as tight as ever, and their current keyboad play and drummer are top notch.

Tap have influenced many a musician in recent years and there was a huge cheer when the legendary Keith Emerson joined the band onstage for an excellent rendition of 'Short & Sweet'. He was clearly delighted to get to play with some of his heroes.

They then finished with their all time classic 'Big Bottom' with guests (all on bass) Justin Hawkins (The Darkness/Hot Leg), Andy Scott (The Sweet) and Freddie Washington (Steely Dan et al) which led to much singing along.

After such a fantastic and lively set it was no surprise that they were called back for encores.

The first saw Keith Emerson return to the stage for 'Heavy Duty' and for the second encore we were treated with the rarely played title track of their 1992 (and 15th!) album 'Break Like the Wind'.

All in all it was a great gig and the crowd loved it. Shame they don't tour more often.