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.


Stephen Glenn said...

Well said Neil. Although ignoring the last by election win Dunfermline and West Fife which would have fitted into the Brent East model. Long time to establish a good candidate, getting out key local issues, established in key parts of the constituency. Enough time to gather data and meet people on their doorsteps.

Of course last summer up her we had the short sharp Glasgow East where we had a good candidate, but little local structure in place before, very little impact on local issues, and little time to gather info so delivering was all that could sensibly been done by the bulk of volunteers for th breivity of that election.

Livingston again was different coming so soon after the GE that with the exception of Labour all the main parties fielded the same candidate as months before so it was like reaching what everyone thought was the finish line only to find you had another lap to run.

Alex Folkes said...

Hear hear. Too much rubbish spouted about by-elections recently - including from one person who will be delivering in Norwich this coming week if she keeps her promise (that's how in touch she was with what was going on).

Rennardism is still right but, as with anything else, the details need to be reviewed regularly to keep it fresh.

Interesting to see an article by a 'former Tory consultant' in the New Statesman this week in which she claims that they won, inter alia, by delivering a totally new style of leaflet - a glossy womens mag style effort.

Perhaps if comment were reserved to those who actually know their arse from their elbows (on all sides and including the media) then we would be a lot better off.

A final thought. Part of the reason that many of our members believe that the Lib Dems used to win every by-election going is that we have allowed this myth to build up. Perhaps we ought not to be so harsh on newer members who simply do not know better. But still come down like a ton of bricks on the prats.

Liberal Neil said...

Stephen - yes, your examples fi my experience too. I remember delivering newspapers in Rosyth on the final weekend and beng greeted warmly by the locals. It was obvious that our campaign had worked because we had had time to get 'Oor Wullie' across to people.

Alex - indeed, I have no problem with newer members not knowing the real facts about our performance in by-elections in the past. My only issue is with those who decide to spout forth without checking their facts first or having any real understanding of how we actually run the campaigns they are criticising..

Andy said...


Thanks for writing this post. I started to write a similar "knee-jerk drivel/agenda pushing round-up" last night, but I had to go out and didn't get it finished. Nice to see someone say it shorter and better than I would've done anyway!

Nich Starling said...

Too many people who never came to Norwich have commented on it as if they are experts.
The interesting thing from our point of view was that in the postal vote the Greens and Labour were doing better than they did in the real result, and thye were also doing better at the start of the campaign (According to the local poll). A Labour agent said another week of campaigning and we'd have been past them. We'd just started getting traction and needed a longer campaign or more so called expert bloggers coming to visit rather than slagging the campaign off.

Oranjepan said...

Love to hear this.

Just to make my addition, I don't think it helps to fetishise the contribution Chris Rennard has made (and it was either clever or lucky of the tories to plant that seed in the collective mind) as that singled him out as a target.

If we do have to fetishise anyone, maybe we could keep it to the long-since dear departed and ascribe the original template to Jo Grimond and the authors of the Orpington by-election.

So, more of the 'grimondism' and less of the 'rennardism', yes?

But let's not be too hard on the impatient young bucks - any failure on their behalf to know the real history is also partly the older generation's failure to teach them well enough.

Liberal Neil said...

Oranjepan - I certainly don't 'fetishise' Chris. Many people seem to define 'Rennardism' as 'whatever they don't like about the party' and blame Chris for it.

I count Chris as a friend, and as someone who has been extremly supportive of my career in the party.

I credit him with a fair chunk of the things that have led the party to success these past few years.

Saying that we have also had many disagreements over the years, both around specific tactics in elections and on more general issus around the development of the party.

In general I would say Chris was usually right about election tactics and the legitimate criticisisms of him lie elsewhere.

Rob Blackie said...

Great article Neil.

Though I feel obliged to point out that in our stronger constituencies we probably have emails for quite a high proportion of voters.

On that note can you drop me an email when you get a chance?

rob dot blackie at bluerubicon dot com