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.
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.