4 smart things to do in an unwinnable by-election

Batch of letterboxes - CC0 Public Domain

As this topic regularly picks up interest, here’s an expanded re-run of my post about why contesting council by-election is always useful, even if winning looks improbable this time round.

Not every council by-election is worth fighting to win this time around. It may be the lack of past support for the Liberal Democrats in the area combined with the shortness of notice before polling day. It may be the imminence of the next usual round of elections combined with the by-election being at odds with the targeting strategy for those said elections. It may be the exhaustion and low bank balance after another big winnable election.

Whatever the reasons, sometimes the cool judgement is ‘we’ve not got a chance of winning this one’.

So what should you then do? It is something the party almost never does training or gives advice on. So here are four smart things to do. You’ll notice that none of them are ‘printing a few leaflets and deliver a bit of the ward’.

First, stand a candidate. However unwinnable an election, it is a chance to help make a few more people long-term loyal supporters of the party.

We need more long-term loyal supporters of the party. But telling such potential recruits, ‘sorry, we refuse to let you vote for us’ by not standing a candidate is the opposite of helping to create that core vote. It drives them away rather than help form the habit of voting for us. (Remember too that every voter gets to see if there is a Lib Dem logo on the ballot paper but most never come across the exact final result.)

Second, use it as a training opportunity. The lower stress and risks of an election you know we aren’t going to win makes for a much better opportunity for someone to learn to do something new and try it out for real for the first time.

Here is the chance for a new person to try being an agent. Here is the chance of a new group of people to try out Connect’s MiniVAN app. Here is the chance for any local party that is not overrun with too many able people willing to do everything to get bigger and better.

Third, experiment. Try out something new and see if it works. What is, for example, the best trade-off in terms of time, money and results for doing a residents’ survey? Do you really know the answer based on data or do you decide how to do it based on who expresses their hunch most charismatically or insistently?

Fourth, both the previous two steps require doing some campaigning. The benefits from this can be further extended by concentrating on gathering data with long-term benefits.

Voting intention data for people in a non-target, non-winnable ward is of limited benefit. Calling on the former party members in the ward to ask them about rejoining? That has much higher long-term benefits. Or concentrating on gathering email addresses so voters can be easily reached all through the electoral cycles with only minimal distraction from target areas.

Four practical steps – and four steps which will make the next council by-election in a weaker area an opportunity rather than another drag on time to endure.

6 responses to “4 smart things to do in an unwinnable by-election”

  1. How do we increase visibility without wasting limited time and resources where we have no chance of winning?
    This question plagues me. Shoring up of the wards we hold, recruiting members and activists (disenfranchised Lib Dems have more impetus to get active than those whose votes count), expanding into new wards… – all these start with visibility. When we don’t get much nationally and have to create it locally, how do we do it? Any suggestions gratefully received.

  2. Totally agree, we need far more advice and training on what to do in unwinnable seats, what success looks like, how building the membership, database, income and party/candidate profile not only helps but looks good on future selection CVs. This is crucial for new members, the positivity is motivational and tackles apathy without hoisting absurd hopes.

  3. At the last General Election I was told by many Lib Dems that Oxford West and Abingdon was unwinnable. Fortunately the grass roots continued to campaign rather than divert resources to other seats. The result was the election of Layla Moran.

    Some seats may be unwinnable but failure to try is going to make it a self fulfilling prophecy.

  4. Visibility can be very important. A couple of people handing out an A5 leaflet at the primary school gate; or to commuters at the station; or in a high street can meet more people than most other tactics. Also shows self-confidence and belief to the largest number of people for the lowest cost and provides photos and videos for social media and no cost.

  5. Don’t leave leaflets sticking out of letterboxes as in the photo!
    This can annoy householders, and also allows opponents the opportunity to remove and destroy the leaflets.
    (Something Liberal Democrats would never do, would they? !!)

  6. Try using social media. Work on the best way to introduce candidate. Get members to ask a question of two which the candidate answers, (ensure correct spelling) Get good pictures – nice mugshots are useful, but the best is the candidate in the ward … and then in response to an asked question, (Leading a group doing a tidy up of a litter-strewn area etc. Get young members to participate and they will have many more ideas than this octogenarian!

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