I’m sorry. I did something stupid. I didn’t read the paperwork properly before a Liberal Democrat meeting. I assumed that at least someone else would have. So for what follows blame me as much as anyone else.
The agenda item was about a new prospective candidate compact. It sets out what the party expects of people going for selection in target seats and what the party in turn will provide in terms of support. A brief glance through showed lots of good thing. These include support for would-be candidates from under-represented groups so that they can compete on a level playing field with others.In there too was a requirement that would-be target seat candidates agree their campaigns will participate in campaign experiments run by Lib Dem HQ in Great George Street with the data from them being shared with other campaigners.
For example, LDHQ might want to run a field test comparing how effective it is to do a ‘knock and drop’ resident survey versus a direct mail resident survey. Would-be target seat candidates will have to agree to participate in such tests and for the data about how they worked in their seat to be shared with other Lib Dem campaigners.
That might sound a bit of an open-ended commitment, so the paper also detailed in an appendix what the research questions are the party might seek to answer. For each, there is a listing of existing academic research illustrating what is or is not known so far and hence why this topic should be in the list.
All good. Except that I did not (and, I think it’s fair to say, none of my fellow committee members did either) read the appendix properly.
Which means we’ve just voted through that would-be candidates can be required to take part in experiments around the findings of Webber, R., C. Rallings, G. Borisyuk, and M. Thrasher. 2014, “Ballot Order Positional Effects in British Local Elections, 1973-2011” Parliamentary Affairs 67: 119-36.
As this paper finds, “This examination of alphabetic bias uses data from local council election results in Britain… Comparing votes cast for last- and first-placed candidates in the ballot order demonstrates a clear advantage to those placed first.” (This runs counter to my own findings in Lib Dem internal contests but that was only about internal contests.)
All of which means, um, that we voted through a policy of requiring some candidates to change their surnames to move up the ballot paper and see if that produces an electoral benefit for the party.
As the appendix helpfully points out the direct legal cost of changing your name is zero, making this “potentially a very high ROI method for increasing party votes, though it may have knock-on effects on people’s willingness to participate as a candidate”.
Bizarre or brilliant?
The party is short of cash and short of votes, so you can see where the motivation came from. In defence of ‘brilliant’, moreover, not only was selecting names to get positional advantage a long-established tactic for minicab firms with an eye on the phone book, it was also a reason Steve Jobs went for naming his firm Apple, placing it ahead of Atari in the phone book.
But those were decisions about the names of firms, not people. So I’ve asked the committee chair if we can look at this again when we meet next month. Chair Loof Lirpa has agreed with my request.