Have the Lib Dems lost the plot in Norwich?

If I were a Green Party member, I’d be ashamed to have a candidate like Rupert Read. Aside from being a bit of a whinger, while he likes to claim the moral high ground he isn’t above telling the odd lie here and there, such as his repeated insistance that the Lib Dems supported the Iraq war (there is also this incident).

His initiative of a “clean campaign pledge” is both extremely cynical – essentially putting himself as final arbitrator of what is clean and what isn’t (the pledge is cunningly worded so that he can continue telling lies about other parties, so long as he “honestly” believes it) while paradoxically manages to be extremely naive in that it is now being used as propaganda by the Tories (one thing that is particularly telling is that whilst bragging about signing this pledge, Rupert’s newfound friend Chloe isn’t above making some vague innuendo-laden smears of her own).

By the same token, I have been generally happy with what I’ve seen of the Lib Dem conduct of this campaign. I think some Lib Dem activists invest mystical properties in the Power of the Bar Chart as much as their critics and wonder if it is really that useful putting out lots of leaflets with the national result of this year’s local elections on them, but by the same token I don’t accept that is misleading: people have rather more common sense than that.

But one aspect of this campaign does concern me, and that has been the emphasis that seems to have been placed in the campaign in attacking the Greens generally and Rupert Read in particular. A couple of weeks ago there were reports that the party had branded Read as an “extremist” in a press release. In and of itself that was unfortunate, but you could at least dismiss it as a one-off action by an over-enthusiastic press officer.

However, it appears the same language has now appeared in a campaign leaflet:

From the Lib Dem campaign leaflet on Twitpic

(the full – pfff – “magazine” can be found here)

Is Rupert Read really an “extremist”? I don’t know him well enough to draw a conclusion. But I’d need stronger evidence than some vague allusion to him saying something unfortunate about 7/7 – especially when I would go at least partially along with what he is alleged to have said (for the record, I do think we made ourselves a target for terrorist attacks by invading Iraq – if anyone would like to have me thrown out of the party for believing that, the address is 4 Cowley Street, London SW1P 3NB).

And even if he was an “extremist”, unless he said something truly outrageous, I’d be very wary of calling him that and would focus more on what he had said than the fact that unnamed “people” “are turning against him.”

Last but not least, I simply don’t understand why the party is attacking him at all. On paper, the party is going into this by-election in third place – with the Greens not so very far behind. If the goal is to get first or second place, then part of the strategy should be to bring Green supporters on board. By all means point out that they don’t have a chance of winning, but don’t waste any time talking about them – and certainly don’t refer to their candidate by name. You won’t persuade Green voters to switch their vote by attacking their party – the most that will achieve is encourage them to stay at home on polling day.

What this leaflet suggests to me is that the real goal in the campaign isn’t to win, or even get a good second place, but to ensure that the Greens don’t overtake and put the Lib Dems in fourth place. That isn’t a campaign I would personally be the slightest bit interested in fighting and – notwithstanding how marginally useful it might be for neighbouring target seats – it is frankly a waste of resources.

The Lib Dems are trashing their own brand each time they indulge in this sort of nastiness and we no longer live in a world where we can expect the odd leaflet like this to be ignored by the outside world. Projects like The Straight Choice exist to challenge that.

Generally, the Lib Dems have a respectable record when it comes to campaigning. We certainly have never suggested one of our opponents is a rapist for example. But there have far too many examples of bad practice and the myth that the Lib Dems are more dirty than their opponents has gained currency within political circles (partly because it is a convenient one for our opponents to push). It is high time the party centrally recognised how dangerous this could be for our future prospects.


  1. The attacks on the Greens have been one small part of an 8 page leaflet. One single article. If you read my blog and looked at the leaflet you would know that. Instead you appear to have been reading the biased news and working on hearsay.

    Why not come to Norwich and find out the truth.

  2. The whole leaflet, in context, can be found on the Straight Choice website I linked to. And aside from one snarky tweet, I haven’t read any news about this leaflet or heard any “hearsay” – I simply read the leaflet and drew my own conclusions.

    Why should I waste the train fare to fight a campaign that the local team themselves aren’t fighting to win?

  3. James, the Lib Dems have consistently engaged in this sort of nastiness. I am struggling to understand why this is only now becoming an issue for you. As for the bar charts, no one would have a problem with them if they were actually in proportion and to scale, with the text justified with the same spacing for all bars. But then, that would reveal how poor Lib Dem performance is and your chaps would not want to publish that.

  4. Tony,

    I’ve worked in most by-elections over the years, was an agent in 2001, a campaign manager in 2005 and worked as a campaign organiser in 2000-2002 and I can honestly say that in my experience the Lib Dems’ conduct has been better than the other parties. Where do I start? Racist Labour leaflets about our Asian candidates? Suggestions of ficticious rape convictions by the Tories? Labour’s notorious “the Lib Dems love Ian Huntley” leaflet from 2005? The travesty that was Labour’s campaign in 2004’s Hodge Hill by-election, or the Tories’ 2007 Ealing Southall campaign?

    But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? We are all guilty of seeing fault in other parties that we fail to see in our own. I, at least, can cite numerous incidents of where I’ve publically criticised my own party in the past; can you?

    As for bar charts, why does it matter if they are slightly out of proportion? People either look at them for a split second or (if they are party activists) pore over them. Some are more dubious than others but the dubious ones tend to wind up on the internet within minutes these days; uncannily, for some reason our opponents don’t take the time to scan in the dozens of accurate bar charts.

    The story that the Lib Dems play “dirtier” than the other parties has all the characteristics of an urban myth. It is fuelled by anecdote, a biased media and the “irony” of the “nice” party being “nasty.” There simply isn’t any objective evidence to suggest they are worse than the other parties.

  5. I have used bar-charts on various occasions over the years (I am a Lib Dem).

    They have always been “in proportion and to scale”. So they should be …

    Some Lib Dems distort the scale … so do candidates/agents from other parties.

    They shouldn’t.

    But I have yet to see evidence that any one party is more/less susceptible to such behaviour.

  6. Some Conservatives argue that my blog was nothing but public criticism of my own party. You would know that if you had read it.

    You are being far too coy with your attempt to sweep the infamous Lib Dem bar chart under the carpet. Slightly out of proportion? Those bar charts are carefully constructed to present a misleading visual representation of Lib Dem strength and electoral prospects. The fact is it is a deception. No party should do it, but the Lib Dems use it like a crutch when trying to make their prospects better than the reality.

    In the years I spent campaigning I have never, not once, seen an honest Lib Dem leaflet. Perhaps that does not satisfy the threshold of evidence you seek, but it is nonetheless a fact. There remains something both curious and distasteful about the Lib Dems’ campaigning methods, even after all these years.

  7. “I have never, not once, seen an honest Lib Dem leaflet”

    Since that is such transparent, mendacious, self-serving bullshit, why should anyone take you seriously?

  8. “I have never, not once, seen an honest Lib Dem leaflet”

    I’ll send you one of mine if you like?

    The Labour Party spent years accusing us of “telling lies” but never quite got around to saying how exactly ….

  9. Ethics and morality is essential because it is the study of how and why things work, not whether or not they are nice.

    Being negative about an opponent just doesn’t work because it plays to the prejudices of the audience. Even if it seems to work for a while it only lowers the standard of debate. Presenting facts honestly is another thing entirely – if the facts cast a candidate in a bad light then don’t blame the messenger.

    Green Party tactics? Can’t say much about them as I’ve never recieved a leaflet from them and the only time I’ve seen any of their candidates was when I sought them out. Just my opinion, but I wasn’t impressed – they seem to be nothing more than a protest vote.

    Much as I wish LibDems to gain maximum votes I’d rather win with the endorsement of a positive mandate from people who know what they are supporting, so I’m actually quite positive about the LibDem transition to a party which can hold power while jettisoning the permanent discontents and perpetual oppositionists.

    We’ll never gain widespread respect by pandering to the most radical sections of society, so, counterintuitively, I think our current form at parliamentary by-elections is indicative of boost at the next general election.

    I also regularly pick up indications that Clegg is considered more seriously as a potential PM by non-members than any other leader we’ve had in my lifetime, so I can’t help but be optimistic for our medium-to-long term future.

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