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Liberal Democrat Newswire #32
Welcome to the 32nd edition of my newsletter about the Liberal Democrats, the first to have the new name of Liberal Democrat Newswire. Thank you to everyone who made suggestions as to the best name for it.
This time I’m taking a look at who the Liberal Democrat winners are from the Eastleigh by-election. Mike Thornton is the new MP, but who else in the party can claim a victory from the campaign?
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In this newsletter:
Election agents and campaign managers often joke about the candidate being simply “a legal necessity”. However if there was ever a case where the achievements and contributions of an election agent overshadowed that of the candidate, then Eastleigh was the occasion.
For Keith House was not simply Mike Thornton MP’s winning election agent, he is also the leader of Eastleigh Council and the person who has led the Liberal Democrats to such a position of overwhelming strength that the party not only held on when the incumbent MP stood down in 2005 (often a point at which the party loses a seat) but also put the party in with any chance of holding the seat in 2013.
Mike Thornton may have wanted to be the new MP. It is Keith House’s leadership that means he is.
Victoria Marsom and Austin Rathe
Two party HQ staffers come out of the Eastleigh by-election with their reputations particularly enhanced.
Victoria Marsom was the Campaign Manager in Eastleigh, having previously been the winning election agent in the 2003 Brent East by-election. Being at the heart of two such significant by-election victories for the party is a record matched by only a handful of others, now almost all out of active campaign management. She now returns to being Head of Strategic Seat Operations at party HQ.
Meanwhile Austin Rathe, the party’s Head of Member and Supporter Development, played a key role in heading up the online operation for Eastleigh, including an extremely skillful use of the internet to use Obama-inspired tactics to recruit, motivate and get the most out of volunteers.
There has been a very lively debate amongst party campaigners, especially staff, about how much or how little the party really can learn from the Obama 2012 campaign. The work of Austin and his team, supported by Victoria and the rest of the by-election operation, showed how well the Obama volunteer mobilisation approach can be applied to British politics, helped in no small part by the party’s use of the same electoral database software as was used by the Obama campaign.
So closely did some of the tactics mirror the Obama campaign that it rapidly became possible to play a game of ‘Obama bingo’ with the party’s emails and videos, spotting the same phrases in the emails and scenes in the videos as had been used by the Obama campaign itself.
Not only did the Liberal Democrat ground operation beat the Conservative one, knocking on more doors, phoning more voters (peaking at 2 phone calls a second during polling day), putting up more posters and delivering more leaflets, it also did so despite the Conservatives relying on huge amounts of work from their much greater number of MPs. Fully a third of the leafleting and canvassing for the Conservative campaign was done by the party’s MPs. When it came to non-MP helpers, the Liberal Democrats completely swamped the efforts of the Tories.
Two catering details are very telling when it comes to the different approach of the two parties. The Tories charged their volunteers 90p for a cup of coffee. Liberal Democrat volunteers were so keen to help they baked over 100kg of cake for each other. One campaign expected volunteers to pay up and relied heavily on MPs; the other benefited from volunteer grassroots enthusiasm.
For an illustration of quite what a difference all this made to the ability of the campaigns to deliver their message, compare the number of leaflets from each candidate collated by one resident:
Nick Clegg’s strategy adviser since last year, Ryan Coetzee has been instrumental in trying to make the party’s ‘David Owen’ strategy work. The combination of tough but tender – a strong economy and a fair society – ran strongly through the Liberal Democrat campaign in Eastleigh.
Keith House has long been a sceptic about the electoral value of the party talking too much about what it is achieving in government. The Eastleigh campaign produced an effective synthesis of a very strong local Liberal Democrat record along with selected national achievements that directly supported the local record, in particular the repeated references to tax cuts for Eastleigh residents which accompanied talk of the party’s achievements in creating local jobs. A stronger economy and a fairer society combined.
Ryan Coetzee’s success in winning broad support through the party for the national part of this approach was most strikingly demonstrated in the campaign’s garden and window posters, which broke from party tradition by not having a local slogan or a ‘winning here’ slogan but by instead having a national slogan on them.
His success in helping to pull together a consistent national message which supported the local message stands in particular contrast to the messaging mess that was the Conservative party campaign, and the near total absence from the scene of the Conservative person who is meant to be a wizard at ensuring effective organisation and strong message discipline, Lynton Crosby. Instead, Crosby was absent from the fray and busy – as Andrew Neil acerbically pointed out – appearing in photo spreads for a left-wing magazine instead.
The days when the leaders of parties in government did not turn up at by-elections, even in seats held by their own party, are long gone.
Nick Clegg, however, did not just do the minimum number of visits to avoid ‘where’s Clegg?’ stories in the media. He visited five times during the campaign (with a sixth visit on the morning after).
This was not a campaign won despite Nick Clegg; it was a campaign won with Nick Clegg.
The candidate system
The system for approving would-be Liberal Democrat candidates and then for selecting the person to fight a particular seat has often been criticised in the past (and indeed there are parts of it I still think could do with major improvement).
However, it would be churlish in the extreme not to acknowledge that the Liberal Democrat candidate system served the party vastly better than the Conservative system served them.
Not only was Maria Hutchings a regular figure of ridicule in the press during the campaign, her policy views were frequently at odds with the direction in which David Cameron wants to take his party. The by-election polling shows she was a disaster at appealing to voters outside the Conservative base – a base that is too small to win in Eastleigh or nationally. And all of that was despite the party having passed Maria Hutchings through its A list system and having had the chance to see how she performed in 2010. For anyone paying attention to 2010, the only surprise about her 2013 performance was that the Conservative Party opted to have her as their candidate again.
By contrast, the Liberal Democrat candidate system produced a safe choice in a contest where a safe choice was needed – a solid candidate with strong local roots (the sort of local roots that research shows the voters love).
Other events are likely to make the question of the huge gender imbalance in the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party an issue once more, and the party’s MPs are still all white. However, there’s no doubt that the Liberal Democrats were much better served by their candidate system this time than the Conservatives were by theirs.
The name of Liberal Democrat minister Lynne Featherstone did not feature in any of the reports of the Eastleigh by-election. So why is she one of the winners?
Simple: look at the main issues which are causing huge tensions and disagreement with Conservative activist ranks, demoralising activists and reducing the party’s ability to campaign effectively on the ground. Prime among them is same sex marriage, especially given David Cameron’s high profile support for it.
And why is same sex marriage not merely happening but happening with David Cameron’s repeated public support? Because he and the Tory party were manoeuvred into taking something that they supported but had made no commitment to actually progress during this Parliament by then Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone during the first year of the Parliament.
Her success meant that rather than David Cameron blocking the measure, he tried to co-opt it as a Conservative initiative – both helping ensure its passage through Parliament and also increasing the damage to his own party. Pushing your own party’s policies whilst dividing the other party and demotivating many of its activists: that’s an extremely effective combo.
Comedy interlude: the perils of political canvassing
Two all too true scenes from Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton:
I think the Tories could do with reading this…
101 Ways To Win An Election is available from Amazon (paperback and Kindle editions).
For Apple fans it is available on iTunes as an iBook for iPad, iPhone and iPod.
Users of Kobo readers are also catered for with the Kobo ebook version.
And the winner of the hotly-contested award for the Liberal Democrat MP who turned up to help Mike Thornton’s campaign most often?
Duncan Hames by a short head, with honourable mentions for Andrew Stunell and Nick Harvey.
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