Learning the lessons from last week #3: Grassroots campaigns don’t win national elections

Yes to Fairer Votes website screenshot

Liberal Democrats have long known that grassroots campaigns can win a ward, a council or a constituency – but they don’t win national election campaigns. It’s the knowledge that you need both the grassroots campaign and an effective national media and/or advertising campaign that explains why when Chris Rennard was the party’s Chief Executive not only did the Campaigns Department grow hugely in size – but so too did the national press team.

Yet at the heart of the Yes campaign in last week’s AV referendum seems to have been a big mistake: trying to run a grassroots campaign to win a national contest.

Grassroots campaigns can pick off parts of a country. Grassroots campaigns can win when there is no national opponent (cf the campaign against the government’s forestry proposals last year – a very effective use of grassroots mobilisation, but not up against a direct opposing campaign). Grassroots campaigns can also raise the funds that fuel national media and advertising campaigns (cf Barack Obama and his mammoth TV advertising spending for the 2008 Presidential contest).

But where a grassroots campaign is up against a national media and advertising campaign against it, grassroots are not enough.

In its own terms, the Yes campaign’s grassroots efforts were very impressive: dominating local media coverage for the much of the campaign with local events and stunts; huge numbers of volunteers brought into the campaign; impressive online donation figures and levels of web traffic that easily beat the No campaign.

There were, inevitably, some mistakes too – especially  in the very small number of different leaflets available which meant that even where there were people willing to regularly deliver an area it was extremely hard to do more than a couple of deliveries – and frequently the idea was that one leaflet would make a difference. (Just as doing only the one leaflet so often results in someone winning a Parliamentary election. Oh, hang on…)

But even without any of those mistakes none of that would have amounted to nearly enough in the face of a national politician speaking out in the national media. The headline polls moved when David Cameron started speaking out as Tory voters shifted heavily to the No camp in response. The No campaign may have run an extremely intensive online get out the vote campaign, but by then it didn’t really matter.

The combination of David Cameron and the Daily Mail is not a sure-fire election winner by any means (see May 2010 for a start), but the answer does not rest with street stalls and tweets in a national contest.

Of course you cannot magic ideal supporters out of thin air, but in the end it mattered far more that so many Labour MPs, peers and councillors did not follow Ed Miliband’s lead, that no Conservative MPs came out unequivocally for a Yes vote and that only the usual suspects amongst media outlets backed a Yes vote (and many of them half-heartedly).

There are many things political parties and campaigners can learn from the grassroots and online efforts of both sides, but the most important is a reminder of the limitations of both.

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