Why is targeting important?
Just 14,332 more votes in the right places in 2015 would have given us a Parliamentary Party double (yes, double) the size it was. That’s a tiny, tiny margin of votes given that even in 2015 we polled 2,415,862 votes in total.
It’s also a pretty small number of votes compared to the party’s membership – back then it was around 45,000. So for each three members we had, securing just one extra vote between them in the most marginal seats would have doubled the party’s tally of MPs.
These are the sorts of calculations which explain why many in the party are so fervent about saying ‘you really must do all you can in target seats’. Even a tiny diversion of resources can have a dramatic impact on the result. There is though more to it than that, but first one other point about the importance of targeting…
Winning more MPs benefits the whole party
The number of MPs you have is the basic currency of British politics – influencing greatly media coverage, party funding and political power. Perhaps most strikingly, having just one MP in a media region compared to zero is often the difference between regular regional media coverage and just about none.
Helping in target seats and building up our strength elsewhere are complimentary processes
Being part of a winning campaign also helps motivate members and helpers massively. It’s not a coincidence that if you look at winning candidates in target seats and then track back through their earlier elections, going to help in target seats during elections is a widespread and normal part of building up a seat from weak to winning. You get knowledge, experience and motivation from being part of a winning team during that building process.
Successful targeting and building up the wider strength of the party has as a result often gone together, such as in the decade from the mid-1990s where we both dramatically increased our focus on targeting, won more Parliamentary seats and also built up many new seats to be target seats.
Getting that combo right is something I set out in detail in Targeting Plus – a plan both to win target seats and build up our broader strength.
A short version is: if you are part of a team in a non-target seat, it’s possible to plan activity which both helps us win more MPs helps us do better in future elections in your own patch too. Good local leadership and smart planning can identify many ways to do both in a mutually supportive way rather than seeing then at odds with each other. Hence the track record of others having done this before as party of building up their own area to be a target seat in future. I’ve done just this before. If I can do it, I’ve no doubt you can too.
If you don’t ask, you don’t get
Now, helping in target seats should be a two-way process – those in target seats should ask nicely, train new people properly and say thank you afterwards, not to mention offer to help in return after polling day.
Likewise, there’s a leadership role for candidates, local party chairs and other key figures in non-target seats. Are you making it easy for members to help in a target seat? Have you organised a car trip? Did you put together a local telephone canvassing session where the phone calls were for a target seat)? Are you doing clerical work locally to help a target seat? Is the candidate doing a welcome phone call to every new member in which they ask them to put up a poster locally and also invite them on the next trip to a target seat?
You may notice that all these examples are ones that will end up with a local team which is bigger, better and more motivated at the same time as helping in a target seat – done smartly, the two are compatible, not competitive.
As one non-target seat candidate put it well recently, he’s going to spend all the rest of the year working really hard to build up the local party in his own area – but between now and polling day he knows the biggest boost he can give the local area’s long-term prospects is helping the party come out of the election with the maximum number of seats.
People make mistakes – and they’re almost always too optimistic
The party’s track record at getting targeting decisions right is far from perfect. I’ve been pretty critical of some decisions in the past. One pattern, however, is remarkably consistent – when HQ has made mistakes, and all the more so when people outside HQ have second-guessed them with different decisions, the mistake has almost always been in the direction of being too optimistic and spreading effort too thinly. The result? We lose some seats by tiny margins whilst other seats get effort put into them which then lose by big margins.
Past patterns are not guaranteed to be repeated, of course, but wise judgement realises when it’s making a prediction that would be a massive departure from past experience and so roots it very firmly in solid, carefully considered evidence.
There’s no reason, of course, for a new member in paricular to know something such as the past track record of targeting decisions being so consistently over-optimistic. I’ve no doubt there is as basic information about other organisations which I don’t know. The point, rather, is to say that the best decisions will be made with both an openness to new ideas and an understanding of the evidence we already have. Insisting that one simply trumps the other and makes it irrelevant might make for great rhetoric. It doesn’t make for helping the Liberal Democrats.
Or in video form:
(This is all also true for targeting at local election time.)
Fancy going to help in a target seat after having read all this? Find out where here.