Tag Archives: campaigning

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.

The Lib Dems don’t need a blogging strategy. They need a Lembit strategy

Alex Singleton has written a wonderfully charmless little attack post on about the state of Lib Dem blogosphere (it is always nice to find an article like this has been written by someone I have already dismissed as an idiot).

Leaving aside the usual crap about the Lib Dems not standing for anything (bizarrely, he seems to think that Cameron’s Conservatives are a good example of a consistent party – clearly he has never read ConHome – in particular he clearly hasn’t read this article about the Tory’s own internet fail), one can marvel at the sheer ignorance about the subject matter in question. Describing Lib Dem Voice and Lib Dem Blogs as “rivals” is simply gigglesome. It is as if he has never come across the idea of an aggregator before (let alone the fact that Ryan Cullen is in fact the sinister puppetmaster pulling the strings behind the scenes of both websites). He cites Guido Fawkes for attacking Labour’s blog activities, yet seems to fundamentally misunderstand Paul’s real complaint. As I understand it (and I did speak to him on the topic last week), the Guido analysis is that any blogging strategy is fundamentally a waste of time because it will only reach out to the usual suspects.

I broadly agree with that, which is why I’ve never really gone in for this whole puffing about the party via my blog thing. This blog is a way for me to develop my thoughts, to mouth off and to relieve tension (a bit like wanking). Engaging in a dialogue with similarly interested individuals is a plus. Proselytising isn’t even on the radar.

There are good examples of blogging to the unconverted, but you won’t find them at the “top” of the blogosphere but rather in the long tail. Take Mary Reid for example. A great community blog with crossover appeal between political hacks and Kingston upon Thames residents. Mary’s blog works in that way because Mary gets that engagement is about more than blogging – she’s one of the party’s (indeed the UK’s) leading e-mancipators. But you won’t see her at the top of the Wikio rankings or the Total Politics league table any time soon – to do that she would have to make compromises, talking to the political hardcore at the expense of local residents. That would lead her to disengage and ultimately be self-defeating. But Alex Singleton would of course approve.

Generally speaking it is fascinating how journalists consistently fail to “get” the internet, even at its most basic. A couple of weeks ago, a PR Week journalist by the name of David Singleton (coincidence?) reported that the Lib Dems are going to hold a “bloggers’ summit” at Cowley Street on 28 March. Not so – the party is holding a coders’ summit, a far more productive exercise. And of course, there is this incessant and persistant attack on Twitter – which sounds remarkably similar in tone to the incessant and persistant attack by the mainstream media on blogging before every journo and his/her dog started blogging. The phenomenon of mainstream journalists confusing the medium for the message is one of the great mysteries of the age (perhaps it is something Charlie Brooker should investigate on his new Newswipe series).

Are the Lib Dems getting everything right with their internet strategy? Of course not. I would suggest the following:

  • The party doesn’t send out anything like enough emails and the emails it does send tend to be a bit haphazzard. I’m a bit of a social bookmarking evangelist myself, but even I would question the point in encouraging everyone on our email list to help promote the latest Nick Clegg video via Digg. By all means put Digg buttons everywhere, but every second you spend explaining it to the general public is a second you should be communicating the party’s vision and policies.
  • Every party campaign and initiative should be focussed around collecting email addresses (legally of course). Never mind Digg, we should be letting individuals forward information about our campaigns to their address books in a way that is now old hat on sites such as Avaaz.
  • With the Liberal Youth currently mid-nervous breakdown, it is time for the party to make a strategic decision about how it intends to communicate with young people. For years now, it has tended to be left for the youth wing to organise. That was fine when they were the innovators (launching scraptuitionfees.com for instance), but they’ve been bungling it for years now. Following on from Alix Mortimer’s seminal piece last week, it is probably time a group of 20-30 somethings got together and had a serious chat about an alternative that isn’t modelled around a quaint 19th century private members club but rather is a serious attempt to create a liberal grassroots movement that is has strong ties to, but ultimately independent of, the Lib Dems.

Finally, if there is to be a Lib Dem blogging strategy, then the thing it should be focussed around is building up our existing personalities’ web presence. At the start of this year, I avowed a wish to see Lembit Opik start blogging. I’m serious. Lembit’s claim that turning up on light entertainment programmes (catch him tonight on Ant and Dec) helps him reach out to people the rest of the party doesn’t reach is a perfectly sound argument but is poorly executed. Imagine what a plus it would be if he gave people who had seen him on these programmes a place to go; a website which bridged his particular obsession with celebrity and politics? Sadly, he is so steeped in denial that he will no doubt assume this constructive criticism is yet another “pernicious” attack on him.

To a degree, the same could be said about Vince, although his particular brand of personality lends itself better to helping to promote the party. But if you think the party’s success is dependent on having yet another blog to feed the obsessives, you are so wrong you ought to begin a career as a Telegraph journalist.

Ros Scott: it wos the internet wot won it

I was rather irritated this morning to read this article on the Guardian website which, apart from ignoring whole aspects of the internet campaigning (about which I may blog later, but may not), included this sentence:

A more colourful Lib Dem, Lembit Opik, has been using Facebook in his bid for the party leadership.

Even leaving aside the fact that Lembit was standing for president, not leader, to even think of writing that sentence exposes you as a hack journalist who doesn’t really know what he is talking about. Because in this election, as with the Obama triumph, Facebook was a mere sideshow. The interesting stuff was what was happening elsewhere.

Lembit was not the Lib Dems’ answer to Barack Obama; in terms of campaigning style, Ros was. To go from nowhere to 72% of the vote is a victory earned only by reaching out to the grassroots and achieving what Obama achieved: killer word of mouth. In the final stages, Lembit liked to present himself as the anti-establishment candidate but as a Vice President, former front bencher and former Welsh leader, he was anything but: he was our Hillary. Ros only became the establishment’s chosen one because she had demonstrated skills during the campaign that the party’s establishment valued.

But it isn’t really fair to call Ros our Obama. No disrespect to her, but that comparison does not flatter her. But she may yet turn out to be our Howard Dean. Dean, if you recall, was briefly the grassroots-de-jeur during the 2004 primaries. He didn’t win, but he did go one to become the Chair of the Democratic National Congress, roughly equivalent to our own President. His understanding of Politics 2.0 was crucial to Obama’s success (not to mention 2006’s midterms); we can only hope that Ros will prove to be as much of a visionary in her new post.

This is the first Lib Dem election where the internet has played a crucial role in deciding the result, although it came pretty close in last year’s leadership contest. The world of political campaigning has changed; we need to respond to it.

Lembit versus Lembit

Lembit OpikLembit is making a great deal out of the fact that he has more Facebook supporters than Ros Scott, which is fair enough. I’ve never bought into this idea that this election is a shoe-in for Ros Scott. He can also claim a mini-coup in the fact that Mark Littlewood has abandoned ship and is backing Lembit over and above his Liberal Vision colleague Chandila Fernando.

One thing that confuses me about the Lembit Facebook strategy though is how come he has two, apparently official Facebook groups? One has 516 members, the other features an official video. It’s almost as if they launched an official Facebook group but it was less successful than a disparate group of supporters who had managed to get more people to sign up in the same amount of time, so they abanoned ship. With the website change as well, it certainly does seem as if there has been a mini-coup d’etat within Team Opik. But if you have to save your candidate from himself, is he really worth saving?

Connecting with Clegg

I attended a speech by Nick Clegg in the Commons this evening to a nascent group of thrusting young politicos. Mostly I tended to agree with him: the party is to focussed on the minutiae of policy and not enough on how it presents itself; the party does have to develop distinctive ‘surprising’ positions on topical issues; we do need to have another look at how we run conferences; the party’s shameless pitch for the grey vote was both scandalous and dreadfully ineffective. Much of what he said has already been covered by the likes of Duncan Borrowman, Chris Keating and Rob Fenwick so I won’t repeat it here.

My big concern was that the party has been debating all of this since 2005 – we set up the Meeting the Challenge process, held a big one-day conference on it, passed a policy paper on the subject (pdf)… yet we are still asking the questions and not answering them. Like a lot else, Nick didn’t have answer for why this is either.

What he did say, and I agree with him up to the point, is that part of the problem is the party’s love of committees and internal democracy, which has got in the way. I agree that the party’s practice of having setting up a working group which has a year-long, genial deliberative discussion on the subject and then puts its findings up for approval by party conference lacks the urgency and the flexibility that we need in a lot of areas. The party simply doesn’t need the level of policy that it passes year after year and could put much of the space on the conference agenda to better use. The problem I have with what he had to say however was that to an extent he was encroaching onto the ‘blame the party’ territory that frontbenchers are prone to make in the party from time to time, most famously Charles Kennedy himself when he attacked the party for passing “specific and controversial policies on the basis of a brief, desultory debate in a largely empty hall“. To be clear, when I challenged on this, he did row back and accept the front bench has a responsibility to be pro-active, but with almost the same breath suggested that people like me were the problem because, and I’m paraphrasing here “if someone came out and made a big announcement like this, you’d be the first person to complain about it on your blog”. My answer to that is: try me.

Last year, when the leadership sought to get the party to drop the 50p rate, I not only agreed with the substance of the proposal, I supported the fact that the front bench took such an assertive lead on the issue. I wasn’t at Harrogate, and remain sceptical about Ming’s “wait-and-see” approach to Trident, but I am completely unfazed by the fact that the leadership so aggressively promoted its stance. This is what leaders do. Caricaturing this as “engineering Clause 4 moments” in the way that Liberator does is simply daft. Personally, I’m much less worried about what our elected politicians and elected leader does than what our unelected party bureaucracy gets up to. We suffer from too little leadership from the front, not too much. And I write that as someone who last week was saying leadership was a necessary evil.

None of that is to say that Lib Dem party democracy is a bad thing: indeed, the tax and Trident debates show what a valuable forum conference can be. I happen to think that Nick over-egged the pudding by suggesting that the Tories have made all the running on making their conferences more relevant to the public. A one week flash in the pan, maybe, but does anyone take “Dragon’s Den” style sessions with Ann Widdecombe seriously? I think the public knows when it is being patronised.

The trick for the party is to integrate campaigning and policy development better. We don’t need detailed policy to convey our principles. So long as the latter remains firmly under the control of the party, we should be less afraid at opening up our development of the former. I lobbied, and failed, to convince the party that the Meeting the Challenge exercise ought to borrow heavily from Labour’s experiences with the Big Conversation. Despite our much-vaunted democratic constitution, Lib Dem local parties generally take less of an active role in policy development than their Labour or Conservative counterparts (plug). I wanted to see us using the exercise to get local parties feeding into a national consultation via their focus leaflets and surveys. It could have been a fantastic opportunity for us to communicate our core values, while at the same time opening the door for people to join. We will have similar opportunities in the future and should take them. But such a system needs the membership, campaigns and policy departments working in unison. They require the Parliamentary Party to commit to going around the country encouraging it. We already have the core infrastructure for such an initiative, but it needs leadership to make it happen.

If Nick, or Ming for that matter, have better ideas, let’s see them. Using the excuse that nasty people like me might criticise them on our largely unread blogs is simply not good enough. My suspicion is that it is not me, or even the dreaded Federal Conference Committee that are preventing the party from the sort of radical rebranding exercise that it needs, but a lack of self-confidence which is stifling imagination.

Downing Street Petitions: Initiative without Resolution

Well done to anti-road user charging campaigners for getting a million petition signatures on their Downing Street petition. As someone who has railed against this proposal, not from a motorist perspective but from an environmental and civil libertarian one, it is gratifying to see such a disastrous policy being given such a rough ride.

It does however present present me with a bit of a problem. We desperately need to rebalance direct and representative democracy in this country, but I can’t help but think that this sort of half-measure may end up doing more harm than good.

The Road User Charging example is a good example: government has already made it clear that it has decided to do this. To back down now would make them look very foolish indeed. Yet there is no formal mechanism for what happens next. From what I can make out from the website, Blair will just refer it to Milliband, who will write a curt “thanks for your input, but, no” letter to the petitioners and that’s it.

The problem is, there is simply no way of resolving whether these million plus individuals are representative of the wider population, or just a particularly animated minority. It has to be said that car users get particularly wound up about constant infiringements on the divine rights of motorists. Just the other day, an acquaintance of mine informed me that he was emigrating to Australia because “I’m just sick of draconian traffic laws…makes me feel like sending letter bombs… but someone beat me to it!” How’s that for a balanced perspective?

In my experience, campaigners on all issues have a tendency to assume that they are riding on a crest of popular support, and astroturfing is a standard tool in the modern campaigners’ repertoire. The Downing Street Petition Engine allows people to hang onto these beliefs, without providing a means for testing it out whatsoever. Not surprising, coming from a Prime Minister who much prefers religious leaders to scientists. In short, everyone who uses this system and doesn’t see immediate results will have a right to feel aggrieved and feel that issues are simply being cherry picked to suit the government’s agenda – because that is exactly what they are doing.

At least in Scotland, petitions go to a Parliamentary committee and get deliberated on. The Petitioners may not get what they want, but at least they get more of a formal hearing. In truth, the fact that Blair has done this before Parliament did demonstrates quite how inward looking the Westminster Bubble has become (all the guff from all sides last week about preferential voting marking the end of civilisation would lend credence to that view).

What we really need, of course, is a system of Initiative and Referendum. Far from undermining representative democracy, I’m increasingly coming to the view that this would be its salvation. With a system in place with clear ground rules, the lazy slur of “politicians never listen” would be exposed for what it is – if not enough enthusiasm can be generated to get an initiative started on an issue, then why should we be surprised if politicians aren’t leaping on that particular bandwagon. Conversely, faced with a process that could effectively overrule them, you can bet that politicians will be all too keen to address issues that are generating a lot of real public debate, with a view to nipping them in the bud before they have their hands tied.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that a referendum to legalise abortion has just been won in Portugal, and the Centre for Policy Studies have just published a new pamphlet on CI.

Top 100 Tree Huggers

I should declare an interest as he is one of my bosses, but I was disappointed to see that Ron Bailey didn’t make the Department of the Environment’s Top 100 Environmentalists.

Pretty much anyone who has campaigned nationally on environmental issues in the last 20 years must have come across Ron, or worked on one of Ron’s project at some point. And he has a tremendous record of success at a time when it was much less easy to be green: the Home Energy Conservation Act, Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act and the Road Traffic Reduction Act. The Bailey-masterminded Local Sustainability Bill (note – contrary to what certain people would have you believe, this didn’t spring perfectly formed out of David Cameron’s arse) has just been adopted by Nick Hurd MP, who came top of the private members’ ballot. Supported by 363 MPs (a majority – and that includes all 63 Lib Dem MPs I’m pleased to say), it has a real chance of becoming law.

If that isn’t enough to be Swampy, for Pete’s sake, what is?

New Generation Network

Writing this post later than I would have liked, I’m surprised that there has been so little commentary today about the launch today of the New Generation Network, founded by Pickled Politics‘ Sunny Hundal.

I think Sunny has hit on something here, something not all that dissimilar to my own contributions on the subject recently. In my own view, what we seem to have seen over the last five or so years, is an importation of the worst kind of multicultural politics that we see at a local (particularly Northern metropolitan) level into the national stage.

When I first got involved in Lib Dem politics, I’m ashamed to say that the first campaign I worked on was a blatant and cynical attempt to court the Pakistani vote in Rusholme, Manchester. In my defense, I was young and naive, but we were also inheriting a situation exacerbated by Labour’s own approach.

I would imagine that most people who have had a similar background would recognise the technique. Find a few ‘community leaders’ from the Pakistani or Bangladeshi community, beef up their egos and work on the assumption that they can single-handedly deliver you thousands of votes, simply through talking to the right clerics and family leaders. The fact that we weren’t particularly adept at it in the mid-90s was simply because Labour had got in there first, something which held firm until the Iraq War in 2003. This wasn’t about representation, dealing with basic needs such as housing and crime, it was about buying off the ‘right’ people with things like money for religion-based community centres and ‘partnerships’ with schools in Kashmir. And it has only helped to increase tensions and divisions.

This all should have reached its nadir with the 2001 riots. Much of the reportage at the time reflected on the complete failure of both ‘community leaders’ and mainstream politics to connect with the second- and third-generation of black and Asian communities. But 911 seemed to end what looked like the beginning of a sensible national conversation about race, religion and identity. Since then, national government seems to have treated ethnic communities in a remarkably similar way to what we’ve seen on the streets on Rochdale and Bradford. And the result seems to have lead to even greater tension and lunacy such as Trevor Phillips’ monthly predictions of race riots.

So I welcome NGN, its manifesto and its unequivocal call against prejudice, for equality and for freedom of speech (in light of some of the rows I’ve had in recent months I particularly welcome the line “we reject the idea that representation should mean ‘ethnic faces for ethnic areas’, which would ghettoise minority representation.”). I would urge my fellow bloggers and Lib Dems to sign up.

Flock to London on 4 November

I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before, but I’ve added the National Climate Change March and the iCount Trafalgar Square Rally, both on 4 November, to Flocktogether.

Remember when over 2,000 Lib Dems came together on 15 February 2003 as part of the anti-war demonstrations? This march and rally should be less controversial and, if anything, more important.

As a party, the Lib Dems must be seen to be standing with the Green Movement on this day. It would mark the perfect culmination to our months of campaigning as part of the Green Switch campaign.

I’ll be there, and I’m planning to write to the Federal Executive to get the party to formally back the Rally and encourage members to be there, just as it did in 2003. The more other people do the same, the more successful it will be.