Tag Archives: by-elections

On the importance of by-elections (Bedford Mayor)

My initial response of Dave Hodgson’s fantastic win in Bedford today was this:

I have to say I’m surprised by the lack of media interest in this. Surely a Mayoral by-election is as newsworthy as a Parliamentary by-election?

To which ‘ollie’s’ response was:

Don’t be ridiculous.

As Nick Barlow went on to say, more people voted in the Bedford Mayoral by-election than in Norwich North earlier this year and indeed Bedford is larger than a parliamentary constituency. So even if we were just playing a numbers game, it affects more people. As Stephen Tall went on to say, elected mayors have actual executive power, something that Chloe Smith is unlikely to wield even after the next general election.

But it is also a test of the Tories’ so-called “open primary” selection process (that is to say, open caucus selection process, but who cares about small things such as terminological accuracy?) and according to some of the local Conservatives it appears to have been found wanting.

That is incredibly significant because with a significant number of candidates selected in this way, if the Tories have miscalculated it may dent their election prospects. We can’t of course read to much into it, but with the media “narrative” being that Cameron is unstoppable, at the very least it makes a significant footnote.

I also question this argument:

“Oh, as for Bedford- it’s a mayoral. Having worked on campaigns where we’ve been soundly beaten by a rogue cop, a monkey and a tory (Not unusual, except the previous Tory had been arrested for child abuse), and then won all the subsepquent parliamentary elections in those seats I’m pretty confident there isn’t much of a correlation between mayoral election and general election results.”

Hopi is right – mayoral elections are generally won by colourful independents. That why, on paper, the Tories’ decision to go for a more open candidate selection process was sound. The fact that this didn’t work – and that the two independents didn’t do better than they did – is significant. Lib Dems have not done terribly well in mayoral elections, outside of Watford anyway.

Lest I be accused of reading too much into this, I assure you that I’m not. A by-election is just a by-election and local factors are at least as significant if not more so as national factors. But perhaps I should have phrased it differently. The question is not really why mayoral by-elections don’t elicit as much interest as parliamentary by-elections but why parliamentary by-elections don’t elicit as little interest as mayoral ones? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read over the past couple of years that the Lib Dems have lost their ability to win by-elections – ignoring the fact that we rarely do well where we aren’t in a clear second place and or are forced to fight a short campaign. Both bloggers and the commentariat have predicted a Lib Dem wipeout at the next election on this basis.

The reason the Lib Dems have historically invested as much as they have in by-elections is for precisely this reason: the media love to extract grand narratives out of tiny victories because it gives them something to write about. The grand victories are as bogus as the grand defeats, but we play the game because on balance it does us more good than harm. My message to those who argue that this mayoral by-election signifies very little is that you may be right, but don’t pretend that parliamentary by-elections somehow mean any more.

ADDENDUM: I should add that I remember campaigning in the first election for Bedford Mayor and what a thankless task it seemed. Just goes to show.

The trouble with “Rennardism” (clue: it isn’t the leaflets)

I find myself in danger of ending up on the wrong side of an important debate. I’ve written before about how Chris Rennard’s departure as Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats is a chance for the party to rethink how it campaigns and last week speculated whether our heavy dependence on “ground” campaigning makes it harder for us to find a more diverse selection of candidates. I hope however people don’t think that I agree with the more crass analyses out there suggesting that the party’s problem is that it delivers leaflets.

Irfan Ahmed suggests we can just switch to emails and achieve the same thing for less. Charlotte Gore asserts that “the most attractive candidate to the electorate nearly always wins irrespective of resources.” Stuart Sharpe seeks to prove this with graphs. But I have to say that when it comes to winning tactics, I’d much rather have Costigan Quist, Stephen Tall and especially Neil Fawcett running my campaign.

Regarding Stuart Sharpe’s “proof,” one is compelled to ask: where is your control group? Of course there isn’t one, nor is there likely to be one since no party would risk the political cost of sitting out a by-election just to satisfy this little theory. There are several factors at play in how a political party does in an election. The number of leaflets delivered is just one of them. But to assume that all you need to do is look at a) where the parties where doing according to public opinion, b) how many leaflets each party delivered and c) the result and extrapolate the marginal effectiveness of delivering a leaflet is simply laughable.

To quote a cliche, Coca-Cola spends literally billions on advertising each year yet doesn’t noticeably increase its market share. Is that billions of dollars wasted? No, it is the price they pay to retain their current market share. In Norwich North, the Lib Dems had several factors pointing against them: the Tories were in a strong second place locally and doing extremely well against Labour in national opinion polls; anti-politics feeling is at an all time high yet and the beneficiaries of that were always going to be predominantly UKIP and the Greens; the Lib Dems’ base in the city was concentrated in the south and thus all local resources up until that point (with the exception of the Broadlands bits) had been concentrated elsewhere; both locally and nationally, the party is established and no longer a repository of protest votes. Despite all that, I can honestly say the we did remarkably well. There was no anti-Labour squeeze to speak of and the Lib Dem vote held up remarkably well despite all those Tory squeeze leaflets.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’m completely uncritical. I remain of the opinion that branding Rupert Read an “extremist” was counter-productive as well as unethical, despite the fact that the more I read about the man the less I like. I do question whether the result was really worth what it cost to achieve it (notwithstanding Neil’s sound points about training and development); the main reason the party invested as much as it did in the campaign was that Broadlands and Norwich South are much stronger prospects and a bad result would have harmed the momentum in both of those seats. This preoccupation with the Greens, too, seemed to be more about their comparative strength in Norwich South: if they had leapfrogged us in the North it would have been a story that Read and his comrades could have used to split the vote in the South and keep Charles Clarke in power. Now they have a bad process story of their own to contend with. Whether that local advantage was worth the substantial national investment is a moot point but one which, frankly, I’m not in a terribly strong position to draw any real conclusion about.

By contrast, the idea that we won Leicester South, Brent East, Romsey, Dunfermline and Fife West and all those other past victories (never mind all those other close second places) due to the relative merits of our respective candidates is, with no insult whatsoever intended to the candidates themselves, completely laughable. They weren’t won by leaflets alone either, but the leafleting was a sine qua non.

No. If you really believe that the problem with “Rennardism” is rooted in our on the ground tactics, you are profoundly missing the point. Far from it, in my view the problem is that this form of campaigning is too successful and has become an end in itself. The problem is that the party has become far too comfortable in making these little gains here and there and more or less abandoned anything like a strategic vision – for either the party or the country – altogether.

There’s plenty of “vision” in the party’s pre-manifesto, published this week, but the launch of this was an interesting case in point. Just like last year’s Make It Happen, the launch was not terribly well handled, with Nick Clegg making some ill-advised comments and local parties and candidates left ill-prepared to deal with any enquiries about the new initiative. As I said earlier in the week, I strongly suspect that the two are inter-related: if someone was spending time working out how local candidates were supposed to be presenting new initiatives like this, they might come to different conclusions about how they are presented nationally.

One of the reasons I suspect the party centrally no longer provides pre-release briefings of major launches like this to candidates is the effective merger of the parliamentary party’s press operation and the federal party’s. Since then, however much better our press work has been (and generally I think it has been), it has been running to serve the front bench agenda and not really focusing on the wider party’s needs at all. During the leadership election, I remember hearing Clegg talk a lot about the need to invest more in a regional media strategy. It hasn’t happened.

The party has become good at producing these professional looking single-issue websites like A Fresh Start for Britain but it isn’t clear what campaign objectives they are supposed to achieve. Where’s the sign up box? Why no interactivity? Why no tools to make it easy for people to disseminate it via social bookmarking, twitter or even email? Why did the PDF version take days to appear and then only in a print-ready 5mb format? The whole thing, along with Take Back Power, screams afterthought and sourcing out.

My time on the party’s Federal Executive was mostly spent fighting trench warfare over things like getting decent funding for the Campaign for Gender Balance. I have no doubt that those battles in turn have delayed any progress we could have made to encourage more BAME candidates. Some things like the decline of Liberal (Democrat) Youth (and Students) (never mind the nonsense that happened earlier this year; the writing has been on the wall for years) required the party to take remedial measures, but those remedial measures never happened – mainly because they would have cost money. Yet I still maintain that all of these would have been sound investments for the party – both financially and in more intangible ways – in the longer term. What they would have cost however was the equivalent of a handful of target seats in the short term and thus were always resisted.

I have my concerns about how the party campaigns on the ground. I do think that the party is relatively complacent about unethical behaviour (although this is exception and not the norm) and I deplore the pettyfogging culture that it engenders. But in terms of what works, the last thing in the world you can criticise Lord Rennard on is his tactical nouse. Distrust anyone who tells you otherwise; they simply don’t get it. It is his strategy we need to move beyond.

UPDATE: Liberal England makes the very sage point that it is “Rennardism” wot won it for the Tories in Norwich North.

Tony Blair “lead from the front” in by-elections? In WHAT universe Mr Cameron?

Having a pop at Gordon Brown for failing to show his face in Crewe and Nantwich is all fair and good, but why does David Cameron have to go and spoil everything by talking unmitigated bullshit like this?

Mr Cameron taunted him by saying his predecessor as PM, Tony Blair, “led from the front” at by-elections.

During the Blair years it was a standing joke, as it is now, that the Prime Minister never attended by-elections. Indeed, in the last general election, using a picture of Tony Blair (almost always with George Bush) on your literature was one of the easiest ways to pick up votes (assuming you aren’t the Labour Party of course). Blair was ballot box poison, at least after 2003.

David Cameron, having as he does a bit of a schoolboy crush on Tony Blair, may like to think different, but that’s the way it goes.

No Solid Crewe

The most amazing thing about the Crewe and Nantwich by-election is the sheer amount of column inches it has generated in the national press. As a by-election veteran (I confess, I haven’t gone to this one), I’m used to fighting the great fight in eminently winnable seats (which of course, we went on to win) and yet have the media completely oblivious to the fact right up until the day before polling day when they finally get around to sending a monkey up to see what is going on.

Not that I’m complaining, mind. The more they ignore a by-election in the run up, the bigger the splash on the front pages when we win. The fact that the Tories are being presented as a near-certainty will dampen the impact if they win and make them look silly if they lose. The fact that Labour’s dirty by-election tricks are finally getting a good airing is also gratifying, although it is a shame it is being presented as a one-off when they play this game every single fucking time.

What is bizarre is the way journalists keep calling it a “safe Labour seat.” Dunwoody only had a 7,000 majority and when you’ve been an MP as long as she has, most of that will be down to a personal vote. I don’t know the area’s political history but the Tories have completely eclipsed Labour in local government.

If the Tories had had as good a prospect as this to fight during their doldrums in 1998, it would still have been amazing if they had gone on to lose.

Make no mistake: this by-election is for the Tories to lose. If they can’t win this, they will be back to where they were last summer. I’m not making any predictions either way here, but let’s not kid ourselves about them having a massive job ahead of them, eh?

Leyton By-election: 14 February

The Leyton by-election has been called for 14 February. It has been suggested to me that many of us who have been blogging about the Miranda Grell affair should be putting our boots where our mouths/keyboards are and help Winnie Smith get elected. I entirely agree.

Details can be found over at the Flock Together website. So far, just two of us are registered on the site for more information about the by-election. My challenge is to get that number up to five as quickly as possible. Anyone with me?

If it is successful, we might want to consider trying to organise a few special Liberal Drinks in order to make it a bit of a social event. Any other ideas about getting people there?

UPDATE: Four registered, one to go!

Grant Shapps is no potty mouth – official

The Conservative Party’s campaigning guru Grant Shapps has had another setback, almost losing a council seat in his Welwyn Hatfield constituency on a 22% swing. Apparently it was all a cunning stunt to undermine Nick Clegg, just as his Ealing Southall Lits-up was a ploy to get rid of Ming.

So much for the partisan willy-waving. What ticked me the most is this follow up comment from Sal Brinton:

I’ve just had an email from Grant, who says he doesn’t swear, and given that it was an amicable (albeit exciting!) count, shall we just say that he certainly made his surprise known.

No, Shapps doesn’t swear. Whenever he feels the urge, he always counts “1234” first.

I promise to start writing about something other than Grant Shapps soon – the stories just keep coming!