How the Lib Dems should learn from Labour’s 2017 campaign

Mark Wallace’s fascinating dissection of the Conservative 2017 general election campaign also includes some insights on Labour which are very relevant to the Liberal Democrats:

How many disparate groups can you think of who were allied to or sympathetic to Labour in the course of the election? Count unions, charities, pressure groups, campaigning social media communities, and crowdfunded advertising campaigns, and you’ll realise there are a lot. Two separate senior Tory campaigners who have been keeping tally estimated to me that the number was in triple figures – not including the many other local groups and even individuals active in specific seats. Conservative policy decisions certainly exacerbated that problem – in particular, the pledge of a free vote on fox hunting and the failure to clearly confirm support for a ban on ivory, neither of which were central issues to the national campaign, nonetheless acted as recruiting sergeants for Labour online.

In the online war, that gave Labour two things: reach and trust. Between them, these third-party allies were able and willing to repeat Labour-supporting messages to many millions more people than were subscribed to or targeted by the official Labour Party outlets. Compounding the impact was the fact that people are more likely to trust a message from a group which is (at least nominally) outside the orbit of a party HQ, and which they’re engaged with in their regular life outside election time.

That was a huge boost to the Opposition, and created a sense of (small-m) momentum which a primarily paid-for Tory campaign struggled to match. “We didn’t see the tide coming,” admitted one source close to the Prime Minister, and the failure of the Conservative Party to nurture a wider movement beyond its own membership proved to be costly.

Improving the ability of the Liberal Democrats to benefit from those sorts of third-party and informal networks is a significant part of the pamphlet I wrote with Jim Williams.

As Mark Wallace rightly highlights, for some tasks such non-official channels are simply better and more effective than official channels can ever be. That’s now a very well-established pattern.

No, the electorate wasn't unusually volatile in 2017

A further snippet from the latest set of British Election Study data: 19% of voters changed their mind on how they would vote between the start and the end of the campaign. more

A small example in its own way in the Lib Dem world is to be found with both Lib Dem Voice and Liberal Democrat Newswire. In our different ways, we can be more interesting and more effective in informing party members because we are not official – such as by highlighting both weakness and strengths in new party policies. It’s also the case that when you add up the big network of diversified and unofficial channels, that’s where huge potential for engagement and audience are.

Recognising that and making the most of it requires a big cultural change for some parts of the Liberal Democrats where the default view is ‘important = employ staff to do it’ and ‘very important = employ more staff to do it’ rather than thinking of the right mix of staff, volunteers and outside allies.

A change in this attitude is starting to take place. But if the Lib Dems want to seriously recover, it’s a change we have to make bigger and faster.

3 responses to “How the Lib Dems should learn from Labour’s 2017 campaign”

  1. There is a massive obstacle to overcome in order to do what you are suggesting. There are many Liberal Democrat campaigners who appear to despise the sort of non-party groups that you are talking about. I think part of it comes from the coalition years when those groups regarded us as the enemy as well as the Tories because of massive errors like supporting the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. As a result many Lib Dems think that groups like 38 Degrees are fronts for the Labour Party, which is complete nonsense, but there are idiots in this party who actually believe that nonsense. I totally agree with you about having outside allies (as well as the local 38 Degrees group I’m involved with the local Transition Town and an anti-fracking group), I think that convincing other people in the party is going to be an uphill struggle! There has been a bit of a shift over Brexit, but generally there is more than just deep suspicion of non-party interest groups.

  2. I certainly agree with Peter Reisdorf about keeping in touch with non-Party groups, which I do, and not just with 38 Degrees, but Unlock Democracy and some others.
    The membership of these organisations is pretty far from the Tories, I would guess, but it’s good that we avoid tunnel vision and take a few risks with listening to others !

  3. Agree with what you say here Mark But there are also other lessons to learn from Mark Wallace’s articles on Conservative Home and the Con Home fringe meeting/election review at their recent Conference.

    One point that leapt out at me was the Cons grassroots anger at the central dictat excercised by the Cons hierarchy over the GE -a ruthless concentration on approved messages about ‘Strong and Stable’ and Theresa May’s leadership; centrally provided/approved literature on those themes; forbidding the raising of local constituency issues; providing lists of voters to be called on that excluded normal Cons supporters and concentrated on those identified by clever computer programmes as ‘Leave leaning’ and so ripe to switch from Labout to Cons. Theresa May has of course apologised for some of this in her Conference speech.

    In the Liberal Democrats though we have some experience of this ourselves. In 2013-15 we had Ryan Coetze and the insistence on ‘Stronger Economy Fairer Society’ with Target Seats having money withheld over half a dozen unaccepted words or a different slogan on a piece of literature. In 2016-2017 we had the single insistence on Remainer messages/voters/constituencies. As if those two electoral disasters were not warning enough we now have suggestions that once a ‘new statement of what we believe’ is agreed and once some ‘key policies’ based on that statement have been produced (who by?) then every LD bit of Social Media, literature, campaigning should concentrate on repeating them.

    So is the lesson that we need lots of diverse volunteer and third party platforms -as long as they all recite the same centrally dictated message? That is not what I would have drawn out from the Wallace articles or the LD experience of the last two GE’s.

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