The post-Rennard era

Mr Quist has a thoughtful post up about the Conservative and Labour approaches to internet campaigning – thoughtful as much for his assessment of the Guardian’s “analysis” as anything else.

He concludes thusly:

It can be done, though. You can have excellent local websites in those constituencies. You can use the Internet as an additional tool to engage people locally. You can knock on people’s doors, get their email addresses and mobile phone numbers and then communicate with them quickly and easily. You can use local Facebook groups to reach a younger bunch of people.

That’s almost certainly the stuff that really works. It isn’t massively expensive, but it’s hard work and – whisper it – actually involves meeting people face to face and not just coming up with something really cool in your bedroom or office.

Broadly speaking, I’m in agreement with the tone of this. I’m a cynical friend of technology, and I think we (and probably the other parties) devote too much energy to doing web 2.0 stuff “because we can” rather than because there’s any evidence it works. Experimentation with no hope of return is the stuff of progress, of course, but that doesn’t mean that every cost-benefit analysis has to be thrown out of the window.

If only thirty-two people are joining every Facebook group you set up, and it’s the same thirty-two people, and one of them’s your little sister, it’s probably time to start saving even the slight energies required to set up Facebook groups. It just leaves bits of tat all over the internet, and enough tat, I reckon, can actually have an adverse effect on your party’s overall image. I get annoyed by the thousands of Facebook invitations to join groups with the format “So-and-so for Such-and-such a place” and I’m supposed to be a Lib Dem. What these people’s mates think of all this virtual clutter is anybody’s guess. If there was a virtual recycling box on Facebook, most political group invitations would go straight into it in much the same way most leaflets go into meatspace recycling boxes.

But I digress. In its essentials, Mr Q’s call is a familiar one. One hears it, with a greater or lesser degree of exasperation attached, from everyone who regularly hits the doorsteps. Less of this mucking about in your bedroom creating cool stuff, and more actual wear and tear on your shoes. Now, I’m a great believer in the sort of bone-deep expertise long-term campaigners have garnered. Some people can call elections correctly to within ten votes, and it’s probably not a bad idea to listen to them. Furthermore, it just makes sense to me that human contact is a better investment of time than online contact. The kind of balance between shoe-leather and modem that Costigan is advocating makes sense.

It’s in good company too. It finds support in something Karin Robinson, of Obama’s European campaigning team, said at the Lib Dem Voice fringe meeting in Harrogate. She said that they were very careful not to make the websites too good. They had to leave the user wanting something more, something s/he had to go out and knock on doors or join in social events to get.

So yeah, of course it all makes sense. But as any student of statistics knows far better than me, lots of things “make sense” and even “stand to reason” which nonetheless turn out to be totally untrue when you plot them on a graph. This is especially so when there might be variables at work you know nothing about – and what could be more variable than political campaigning? People’s political choices are affected by inputs as far apart as twenty seconds of a politician on TV, a duff bit of local officialdom (whether or not it actually relates to a political group) and the weather on polling day. And yes, even stuff they’ve read on the internet (which I reckon is far more likely to be informal opinion than official party bumf, but again, that’s only what makes sense to me).

We all know this, and yet from talking to some campaigners, you’d think certain techniques have the proven status of hard science. Nowhere is this clearer than in talking to advocates of negative campaigning. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had it asserted to me that “negative campaigning works” with no attempt at back-up whatsoever. Works in comparison to what? The same election taking place in a different dimension on the other side of a wormhole with positive campaigning going on in it? You can’t institute a monopoly and then announce that it works perfectly.

There’s no winning with these people, either. If we win an election where their principles were put into play, it must be because of the negative campaigning. If we lose, it’s because we didn’t do enough negative campaigning. Heads I win, tails you lose. It’s so bananas that I am starting to nurse the horrid suspicion that many of the people who assert that negative campaigning works probably just like doing it.

It’s assertions like this that need, desperately need, to be tested as scientifically as possible against alternatives. And yes, doorstep campaigning does need to be tested against internet campaigning in order for the synthesis between them to be better understood. We can’t afford to spare people’s feelings from either camp. I mentioned cost-benefit analysis. No-one, to my knowledge, has ever come up with a set of roughly reliable equations that states any of the following:

  • x numbers of doors knocked on in month prior to election = x number of votes
  • x numbers of leaflets in month prior to election = x number of votes
  • x numbers of garden boards in month prior to election = x number of votes
  • some combination of the above that reflects their impact upon each other, beyond my tiny mathematical ken
  • all the above repeated, but for terms of three months, six months and a year prior to the election

Why don’t we have a national picture of this knowledge? Partly, it’s difficult to garner, certainly for national elections, because it doesn’t take account of ward targetting. The above equations for one particular ward in a seat may render vastly different answers from the same equations for another ward – but the results at the ballot box won’t be attributable to any particular ward. In local elections, of course, it is possible to separate out results by ward, and see what effect your activity has had there. But people vote differently in local elections.

Perhaps a better way of putting it would be, why aren’t we even trying to acquire this knowledge? Why aren’t we doing more with all the canvassing data and leafleting data local parties undoubtedly collect? Because until we do, and until (harder still) we develop equivalent equations which translate online campaigning activity into votes, then frankly the assertion that on-the-ground campaigning is more effective than internet campaigning remains just that, an assertion. As does the eminently sensible-sounding assertion that what we need is a balance between the two.

We need the beginnings of those equations. Yes, campaigning is an art, and there’s still room for endless art on top of them, but the number of significant campaigning decisions in front of us now are such that we simply can’t afford to charge off down the wrong path. If we do that, we’ll have no way of recognising the mistake we’ve made.  We won’t have anything to compare our performance against. We’ll stay stuck in the “Heads I win, tails you lose” pattern of proof-by-assertion that characterises all discussions on this subject at the moment.

We need a set of proofs, a set of principles, as scientific as possible, and applicable from region to ward-level, to be the foundation of the post-Rennard campaigning era. Assertion won’t cut it any more.



  1. Quite agree. I am frustrated at the inertia of the campaigning dogma – particularly when it comes to European elections that are not won by targetting key seats but by votes everywhere. I imagine part of the resistance to internet campaigning is that its effects are naturally diffused over the whole country – good for PR elections, of which we pretend there are none – and not relevant to winning Little Spalding North.

    Yet if we have any ambition of reaching outside our strongholds, PR elections would seem the ideal opportunity to do it.

    On the other hand, while not scientific, I will admit that there is a lot of folk wisdom in campaigns dogma. Cllr Bob stopped campaigning and lost his seat. Cllr Sally fought hard and held her seat against the tide. People will find excuses not to put out another focus, and so the challenge is to drive the literature machine as hard as possible, deaf to the whining of anybody who wants to stop and think. I daresay this has won many elections that the thinkers would have lost.

    1. “I imagine part of the resistance to internet campaigning is that its effects are naturally diffused over the whole country”

      I see what you’re getting at Joe, but I think you’re wrong as the single most powerful tool is email. Address collection and then the sending of messages can be targeted on very specific geographic areas, so it’s a tool that works very well for first past the post (too), even if you’ve only got one target ward in a large area of weakness for the party.

    2. “that are not won by targetting key seats but by votes everywhere”

      But of course our supporters are more highly concnetrated in key seats and we are more likely to have the organisation to get our message to them and turn them out.

      For a party with limited resources targeting our effort in those areas is likely to be more efficient.

      1. our supporters are more highly concnetrated in key seats

        Not necessarily true. My favourite local example–my branch has three wards, until our current PPC got active across the constituency, the branch was defunct and paper candidates were fielded in each ward. We got 3-400 votes in each.

        Two years ago, the sitting Conservative cllr, who they’d recruited to be a candidate due to his community work, defected to us in my actual ward (just before I moved here). That meant he was up for re-election and we had a real, strong candidate, and we actively campaigned (I joined the local branch about a month before the election, so I say ‘we’ in a general sense).

        We went from 400ish votes to 1200ish, and came within 80 votes of winning from 3rd place.

        Where did those extra supporters come from? They weren’t our natural supporters, and turnout was about the same so it wasn’t stay at home Lib Dems turning out.

        the extra 700ish votes we got were due to local issues, strong candidate, actual campaign presence and, most importantly a belief amongst local voters that our candidate a) could win and b) was the most likely to beat the Tory candidate as well as keep Labour out.

        Most of our votes are from people who are notionally supporting us but are actually voting for us because a) they believe we can win and b) we’re best placed to stop the candidate they dislike most as well.

        If we work an area with a strong candidate and campaign, we can build support, but we need to be organised–the idea that our target seats is where most of our support is is actually false–we do need to target, but we also need to be aware that there’s an underlying group of between 30-50% in most areas who will consider voting for us if they think we’ve got a chance.

        It’s persuading them of that that’s the hardest part, and for that we need to be organised.

  2. Alix

    Negative campaigning ‘works’ because a basic human instinct is to protect what you have (e.g. my money, my safety) and when you fear that someone might take it away, you want to stop them.

    It particularly works in America cos of only two parties: if you can persuade people that the other lot are mad, bad and dangerous, then you have to vote for my lot cos it’s your only option.

    Ask Karl Rove who did it for the Republicans, and look at what happened to Mike Dukakis “he lets murderers out” or John Kerry or Neil Kinnock “tax bombshell”. We remember the negative images from election campaigns more than the positives.

    I suspect Drew Weston’s book “The Political Brain” might provide more ‘academic’ explanation.

    As to internet vs. doorstep campaigning: they are complementary. But to elect an MP or a councillor you need 40%+ of the vote in a specified area. Even the most internet savvy MP (Steve Webb) has a fraction of that number of email addresses.

    I suspect there is rather more evidence for what works and what doesn’t burned into the souls of key campaigners (paid and voluntary) than you seem to allow for.

  3. PS Meant to say I don’t like the fact that negatives motivate people more than positives – but it is a reality. Liberals [and liberals] are essentially positive people so -ve campaigning probably offends us more.

  4. I am always wary of a single model for elections. Local knowledge counts for much and as a party aren’t we all for devolution?

    In ALDC we already have a pretty effective organisation for collating and disseminating good practice. If all local campaigns took their steer from ALDC we’d do ratehr well.

    Let’s not be too dirigiste. After all, we aren’t French!

  5. “Negative campaigning ‘works’ because a basic human instinct is to protect what you have (e.g. my money, my safety) and when you fear that someone might take it away, you want to stop them.”

    Stephen, that is precisely and exactly the sort of totally unquantifiable assertion that does not satisfy me. I have no doubt I could go through the Political Brain and half a dozen other psychology/campaigning/communications tomes and come up with half-a-dozen bullshit “reasons” why both positive and negative campaigning work. But that’s purely an academic argument between us. It may not have anything whatsoever to do with reality.

    In fact I can come up with a counter to your argument without even opening Wikipedia. Under Maslow’s hierarchy of needs system, as outlined by Chris Rose of the “How to Win Campaigns” site, there are three essential “types” of person, the Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers. The essence of this campaigning style is that you need a different message to appeal successfully to each type.

    The Settlers are the old-fashioned small-c conservatives who “look after number one” and value their security, sameness, tradition etc and are opposed to change and nonconformity. The Prospectors are the money-driven go-getters who value status symbols, don’t like nonconformity much and can, essentially, be persuaded to do something because it’s cool. And the Pioneers are the more abstract types who may want to do things because they’re moral, ethical etc or simply because it satisfies their intellectual and emotional curiosity.

    So you see where I’m going with this – the Settlers would probably find negative campaigning appealing. The other two groups (who together outnumber the Settlers, who have been falling as a proportion of the population since the 1960s) would not. The Prospectors might be at best neutral towards it, and they would be far more likely to be influenced by a positive message. The Pioneers would be more likely to be actively repelled by it. Ergo, under Maslow terms, you shouldn’t do negative campaigning (particularly since Settlers are unlikely Lib Dem voters anyway, and by their very stolid nature are unlikely to have their minds changed by campaigning activities of any sort).

    But all this doesn’t matter – you could probably come back with a further equally bullshit psychological received wisdom argument to counter my psychological received wisdom argument. We could do this until we were blue in the face and it wouldn’t do us any good unless and until we saw the numbers. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy to get the numbers, but I am saying that is what we should be aiming for. Not, as I said, more assertion.

    1. Alix – we don’t disagree; you’re being more nuanced. Your distinction btw Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers is not a counter to what I said but a clarification. I agree that -ve campaigning would appeal more to the settlers.

      A sensible campaigner always adjusts their message to their audience.

      The Lib Dems need a world with more Pioneers – so the trend that way is welcome. I suspect there is a high correlation btw Pioneers and higher education. It is certainly true that seats we won in 2005 had higher than average numbers of graduates e.g. Withington, Bristol W, Leeds NW and Cambridge.

      1. Yes, I’m inclined to think that, insofar as the model works, Pioneers are our natural constituency. Another thing I wonder (though this is getting removed from reality again) is whether Pioneers tend to take more notice of the air war than the ground war.

  6. On the other hand, this I completely agree with:

    “I suspect there is rather more evidence for what works and what doesn’t burned into the souls of key campaigners (paid and voluntary) than you seem to allow for.”

    But it ain’t much good to struggling parties in other areas there is it? I want it out of their souls and onto a spreadsheet.

    1. Remember Mr Kellogg? “50% of my advertising budget does not work; the trouble is I don’t know which 50%”. If he and his massive budget could not get it “onto a spreadsheet” we stand little chance.

      If people from ‘struggling parties in other areas’ *want* to learn how to campaign better, there are LOADS of opportunities – elections to help in; experienced campaigners who will talk to them; booklets to read; training to attend. The problem is that too many people do not want to learn new ideas. (Some people from a nearby local party came along to see why we are doing so well in Chelmsford and won seats themselves on 4th June.)

      People willing to learn should get themselves to Norwich! Ideally for more than one day, so they don’t just do leaflet delivering. I’m doing exactly that next week by taking some new volunteers.

      See also this in The Guardian about Obama:

      1. Re: Kellogg, that’s totemic received wisdom at play again. Every set of data has vastly different variables and you cannot generalise from one set. I don’t know much maths, but I do know that. For all we know, there might be internal reasons why our data is easier to analyse in this respect than Mr Kellogg’s was. But we won’t know until we try, will we?

        I once heard a probably urban mythical story on Woman’s Hour or some such, about a newly married couple who were making a roast dinner together. The woman cut the ends off the gammon she was going to roast before putting it in the tray. Her husband asked her why she did this, and she said that her mother had always done it. So he went to his mother-in-law and asked why she prepared gammon for roasting in that way. She replied that her mother had always done it.

        So he went to his grandmother-in-law (who, fortunately for the story, was still alive) and asked “Why did you always cut the ends off a joint of gammon before you put it in the roasting tin?”

        And she said, “Because we didn’t have a roasting tin big enough to take a full joint.”

        See, I can do totemic received wisdom, too 😉

  7. W&W, you may well be right about ALDC and I wouldn’t know – do they have or are they developing any national roughly scientific observations on how our activities render into votes? These are *observations* remember, they’re not rules to follow. They would just (we hope) demonstrate the effectiveness or not-so-effectiveness of a particular technique at a particular time.

    If they are developing these observations, we should get to work on the online equivalent so we can make the comparison/synthesis I mentioned.

    1. Most if not all of what ALDC advises is based on observing what has worked and what has not worked in a huge number of places.

  8. Well Alix, no formal research has been done but I am aware of a number of places where, over several years, a full ALDC campaign has been planned and executed and the sitting councillor/MP is pretty good testament to its sffectiveness.

    It is not foolproof – I helped out in the Henley paperchase where the kitchen sink was at one stage proferred – but there is excellent anecdotal evidence of how successful it is and how, when transferred to a neighbouring seat or a nearby area prospects improved similarly.

    I’d be wary of wishing for a ‘one size fits all’ campaign model beyond what is already available.

  9. It’s not a model to follow I’m advocating, that’s the whole point. The inflexible model with set rules is the one that exists at the moment. What I am advocating is a set of questions to ask of your data – now I would expect that many parties already do this locally, and many seasoned campaigning already do it in their heads instinctively, so why not get them to do it in the same way, using the same equations, and tot them all up to look for local, regional and then national trends? What is there to lose by contemplating this idea? In any other line of work it would be basic market research.

    1. “The inflexible model with set rules is the one that exists at the moment.”

      But what is provided at the moment isn’t an ‘inflexible’ model. It is an outline or blueprint if you like, which is given out alongside encouragement to fit it to your local circumstances and issues.

  10. I might comment with a more thoughtful response later but my initial reaction is that you are asking the wrong question. How do you define ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ campaigning. I’ve heard wildly divergent definitions over the years (in 2001 in Leeds North West I had criticisms for running a ‘negative’ campaign of predominantly tactical messages from people whose idea of ‘positive’ campaigning was lambasting the council at every opportunity). Until you can define the question properly, you can’t hope to answer it.

  11. I definitely like the idea of trying to ground campaigning in numbers. My initial thoughts would be that what you are essentially advocating is embarking on a massive data-mining expedition. Do we, as a party, a) have the resources and b) have the data. I think both of the answers are no. The first point could be overcome by using the lib Dem Hive-mind, but I have as yet not seen much coming out of the Technology Board so whether that would work I do not know. The second point is much more difficult to overcome. You would have to get ever local party to collect exactly the same data, which could possibly be done but I would think would not be the top priority at election time. You also can’t run any decent experiments because no-one is going to let play with their election strategy (“Hi there, I’m from Cowley Street, We were wondering whether during this election period you wouldn’t mind not doing any door-to-door knock-ups and only putting out leaflets that call your opponents cat-rapists? Hello? Hello?”). You then have the problem that, as the big J has said, campaigning is subjective. To determine whether a leaflet is positive/negative you would need a selected group of people to judge each one.

    Even if you could do all that, you then need to overcome the cognitive biases that you originally talked about to get people to put whatever findings you uncover into action.

    I guess it comes down to whether all that is worth it. I think if you could very closely define exactly what it is you want to find out then you could set-up the data-collection and analysis.

    Having said all that, I’m not a knocker-upper (not many people in North Carolina vote Lib Dem) so I may be talking tosh, but I have thought similar thoughts (mainly around the time of the bones commission as people were complaining about EARS – it seemed possibility to build data analysis techniques into its successor).

    If I am honest, I think banging on at every conceivable opportunity about how we are not going to tax the shit out of poor people is the most useful.

  12. Alix: re. evidence, especially over negative campaigning – there’s quite a lot of evidence available. There’s a lot of academic research, often in the US but also in the UK, both at the level of individuals (e.g. screening TV ads and testing people’s views before and after) and at the aggregate (e.g. modelling election results).

    What’s less accessible is the data that comes from daily tracking canvass returns and seeing how they vary in response to, for example, a negative leaflet or a positive target letter going out across the seat.

    That data tends not to be publicised much, mainly I think because you can imagine how interested we’d all be if other parties published such evidence.

    But it is used to inform party training. The difficulty of course then is for people to judge whether they should take on trust that the training is being done by good people with well grounded beliefs or not.

    There isn’t an easy answer to that, I agree.

  13. Mark, it isn’t just that

    But it is used to inform party training. The difficulty of course then is for people to judge whether they should take on trust that the training is being done by good people with well grounded beliefs or not.

    but also that this is essentially a technocratic trust-the-expert solution to local campaigning, of the sort that we are always saying leads to government that is out of touch, and doesn’t address people’s needs on the ground.

  14. “is the data that comes from daily tracking canvass returns and seeing how they vary in response to, for example, a negative leaflet or a positive target letter going out across the seat.”

    That’s what I think we need. I’m sure there is lots of evidence for negative campaigning “working” in abstract terms. And probably lots of evidence for positive campaigning “working” too. But given the variables at work in political campaigning, that’s a lot less use to us than the, as you say, day-to-day proof.

    “That data tends not to be publicised much…”

    Now this is the point I thought we’d run up against, a suggestion that this stuff is being done, after a fashion, somewhere. I might almost be content with this, except that a significant sprinkling of experienced campaigners, who ought to be among those “in the know”, tend to agree with me when I write these sorts of rants (including, in past discussions, a local party chair). It’s all right to exclude some nuisance blogger from the question-formulating and data-crunching process, but there must come a point where the (understandable) secrecy around these figures is counter-productive. I’d say that point is when party chairs are feeling excluded and not satisfied that data is being crunched and cascaded in a way that is useful to them.

  15. Surprised you can still remember VMs Alix! What with them never, ever, updating their fucking site despite the fact that people like me are atill waiting…

    Yes, I speak as someone who is not partisan but I think this applies to you too: do you not view it as equally important that liberal & otherwise worthwhile ideas are disseminated, than that a party gets support?

    Because I myself have grown enormously, if you cast your mind back to what a fucking car crash I was when I first tipped onto the blogosphere. I like to think I’ve made some modest contributions to helping a few people get introduced to ideas here & there.

    You’ll recall that most pioneers don’t want to be locked into a set of opinions & be told “If you’re X you are obliged to be Y”, etc. etc. So we won’t necessarily be party joiners, loyalists or activists. (Especially someone who like me is a “concerned ethical” & is, if on the brink of supporting a candidate, likely to walk out as a result of being outraged by their taking a stance on some issue I find unaccaptable).

    Also, of course, there’s the fact that the great majority of bloggers will be pioneers, including those on the right (especially libertarians) & this is perhaps why online campaigns that cut across party lines so often work. It is also why you’re less likely than ever to get a group of partisans recruited.

    I think that despite an appearance of being all over the place, I’ve actually had a fairly consistent stance for several months now. The only problem is it isn’t a line held by anyone else on the face of the earth 🙂

    PS- Have you ever thought of blogging about religion? I think we’d be right buzzing if we got a post about, say, this burqa issue.

  16. “No-one, to my knowledge, has ever come up with a set of roughly reliable equations that states any of the following:

    * x numbers of doors knocked on in month prior to election = x number of votes
    * x numbers of leaflets in month prior to election = x number of votes
    * x numbers of garden boards in month prior to election = x number of votes
    * some combination of the above that reflects their impact upon each other, beyond my tiny mathematical ken
    * all the above repeated, but for terms of three months, six months and a year prior to the election

    Too many variables is the reason. There are so many things going on during an election period that its impossible to do an empirical study into how campaigning changes the voting, because you can’t eliminate enough of those variables to make that test fair e.g. if the Lib Dems do some different strategy of campaigning at the next general election, not much can be concluded from it by comparing to the previous election in 2005 since there were local elections at the same time, but not this time, and this time, people might vote LD due to the expenses scandal, whereas in 2005 they may have voted LD because of Iraq, which is less of an issue anymore.

    Even if all those variables could somehow be eliminated, fat chance getting someone to do an experiment in the middle of their election campaign.

    1. Quite true.

      But what you can do, over time, is identify the common elements of campaigning in areas where we win or come close, compared to those that don’t.

      This the party has done in the past and the results have always been pretty consistent. The result is the range of best practice campaign guides, training and advice available throughout the party.

      In brief, the more of every type of campaigning you do (literature, canvassing, posters etc) the better result you are likely to get, other things being equal.

      BUT you also need a winning message and it helps to have a credible candidate.

      Looking at it he other way, there a lots of places that do little campaigning every year and, by and large, they lose.

  17. Why not set up a think-tank to investigate the data and see if there are any interesting patterns?

    Check out votes by ward, etc. and compare with the number of leaflets sent out, etc. Sure, you probably won’t be able to investigate things like canvassing but even then many local associations from various parties will send out e-mails thanking those who canvassed, so data on numbers and possibly even doors knocked may be available if you ask nicely enough.

    1. Yeah, this may well be the best shot I’ve got. As you rightly imply we’re not necessarily after perfect data here, just stuff that’s good enough to show broad patterns. Once I’ve got some correlations, then I can start worrying about variables and whether it’s possible to eliminate all/any of them.

    2. Check out votes by ward, etc. and compare with the number of leaflets sent out, etc.

      Would give you a completely false picture of success.

      Example, I live in a target ward, we came within a sliver of winning it last year and hope to take it next year. Two of the neighbouring wards are incredibly safe Tory wards. We haven’t got the resources to campaign in all three, so we concentrate on the one we can win.

      So virtually no leaflets and no canvassing was done in the non-target wards, and loads of both was done in the ward we knew we could win. Even if we had campaigned heavily in one of the other wards instead, we would’ve been unlikely to even come close.

      Parties concentrate resources in wards where they’re likely to either gain or lose a seat. Comparing the results to wards where this is unlikely to happen is going to give massively distorted results.

      It might be possible to get some data from a ward over time, my ward being a fairly new target, but how to you decide the increase in vote cause? Did the LDs in Brighouse get a massive increase in votes because they actively campaigned and put out many leaflets, or did they get a massive increase in votes because the candidate was popular local Cllr Nick Yates who’d joined the party from the Independent benches? Was the leafletting and canvassing responsible, or was it a massive personal vote? Did both combine with the tactical factor to make us the anti-Tory vote of choice?

      Believe me, I’m studying this closely (I’m now Brighouse branch chair and on the constituency campaign coordinating team), but there is no way of separating the data out clearly.

      The real answer is that all factors have an effect, and the affect of internet campaigning being a completely unknown factor.

  18. Alix, I suspect that the formulas you ask for are best devised locked in your bedroom when you would be better off knocking on doors. It is the sort of desk top exercise that takes up an enormous amount of time that would be spent more productively campaigning.

    1. Sorry, Peter, but I hate knocking on doors. The party either gets desk-top exercises and some leaflets from me or it gets nothing.

    2. Problem there Peter. I hate delivering leaflets, I’m not that keen on knocking on doors. I’ll do both because, as branch chair, such things are expected of me. I’d rather be running a psephology analysis of where we should be targeting next and making sure our squeeze message is accurate and backed up with solid facts (fortunately I’m able to do both with the clear support of our PPC and campaign organiser).

      I’m very aware that a large number of our members are not currently activists because they also dislike, don’t want or are otherwise disinclined to carry out traditional activist activities.

      The line “you would be better off knocking on doors” is both incredibly patronising and very offputting to potential activists who would like to put their talents and specialist abilities to use in ways that they actually enjoy.

      Clear example: Charlotte Gore lives in the neighbouring ward to me, where Jennie works. She wants to have nothing whatsoever to do with delivering and door knocking. Should we thus patronisingly tell her to go away (which is what you’re inadvertently doing), or should we recruit her to run the branch website and maybe do some design and artworking?

      Why are we so illiberal when it comes to campaigning that we want all our activists to fit into one mold, despite wanting a liberal pluralist society as part of our stated raison d’etre?

      1. You misunderstand my comment Matt. It is not meant as a patronising command. It is intended to underline that in terms of winning a seat knocking on doors or delivering leaflets is a far more effective pastime than sitting at home working out complex formulas. Having said that I accept that all sorts of people have different things to offer and it is right that we should not ask of them any more than they are prepared to give. The sum of the parts adds up to a winning campaign. I am certainly not illiberal nor do I want to mould activists a certain way, nor am I rejecting activists who will not get out on doorsteps. If I did that I would not have a local party and a ward where we get 70% of the vote. If however you ever perfect cloning techniques please let me know.

        1. Hi Peter. I actually know completely that you don’t mean it to be patronising–and those that regularly turn up in comments boxes making “why are you wasting time online when you could be delivering” don’t realise they’re being patronising, but the phrasing you used unfortunately made it look like you were in their camp (and I know you’re not but as always a blog comment is aimed not just at the person you’re directly talking to but also the wider audience).

          The problem with your response is that you think Alix would be better spending time campaigning instead of analysing what makes up a succesful campaign.

          Problem is that this misses the point: what if the time you spend campaigning is in fact counter productive and loses votes, or the campaign has reached the point of diminishing returns and further campaigning is pointless?

          For example. I know that delivering a leaflet in my ward during a campaign will increase the vote share and turnout. Delivering three will likely do more. Delivering 5? 7? If I could get a leaflet out every day in a 3 week campaign, would that actually help?

          Or would it annoy lots of people. At what point does diminishing returns kick in and campaigning time (and resources) should be better placed elsewhere? Do we know?

          Obviously, having a website is not a substitute for delivering, so it’s more important to get at least one leaflet out than it is to update or create a site. But if I can do both, which is more productive to put more effort in, at what point does delivering more leaflets cease to be effective, etc?

          We don’t actually know this. Or at least, if we (the party) do, neither I nor my (very active) PPC has been told.

          (and apologies for the tone BTW, the “better off leafleting” comment can at times be a bit of a red rag to me because of the way some people over use it)

      2. I barely campaign these days. It bores me utterly. The right campaign and the right candidate might be a different story, but I feel I’ve done my bit.

        But I don’t think it is patronising to suggest to people that they would be better off campaigning than doing this sort of analysis. In fact, I think it would be absurdly patronising to suggest the opposite.

        Not everyone wants to go out an deliver leaflets, knock on doors, etc. and that’s fair enough. But let’s not kid ourselves that they are helping the cause by sitting at home – even if they are blogging.

        The solution is to figure out more ways to encourage as many people as possible to do a little – even if that little is no more than forwarding emails or delivering 10 letters down their street. That’s a huge untapped resource. It might even lead to a proportion of micro-campaigners getting more involved. I’m all for that.

        But flattering people’s prejudices? Sorry if the truth hurts people, but elections are only won because of hard work.

  19. While I tend to agree with those who say that trying to work out the formula behind all this would be a wasted exercise, to an extent that is to miss Alix’s underlying point. That is, such assertions are made all the time and yet lack a solid evidence base.

    Post-Rennard, we shouldn’t junk everything the party has learned about campaigning but it is a good opportunity to be a little more sceptical and willing to experiment. Re-examining our strategy from first principles instead of mindlessly going along with The Method (every campaign must have at least 6 leaflets; every leaflet must have a bar chart on it – even if that bar chart is tangential to the election at best – and 6 ‘action’ photographs; send out armies of people to take photographs of ‘grotspots’ to enforce the impression that the area is drowning under a sea of grafitti and litter even if it isn’t; put out a ‘blue ink’ letter a few days before polling day; etc.).

    1. Quite, and there are two directions from which to approach that re-examination (both necessary, i would think). One, re-examine the “first principles” element in the light of the last ten years’ R&D into marketing, comms etc. Two, start from The Method and try to work out if there’s any statistical way of telling which of its bits are essential, and which aren’t. Like I say, until we try with some sample figures, we just won’t know whether it’s feasible to do that or not.

  20. @ Alix “I hate knocking on doors.”

    So do I, but I’m actually not too bad at it – and it’s not as bad as I thought it might be!

  21. I spent years as an acolyte of the ALC methodology – it undoubtedly helped me to get (and stay) elected. Eight consecutive victories, 26 years, in a previously strong Labour area.

    But, but … I’m increasingly of the view that other approaches can work.

    And having seen the Crewe & Nantwich byelection from VERY close quarters, I’m strongly of the view that parliamentary byelection strategies need to be reviewed.

  22. I suppose the problem is, there can only be a very rough correlation. Even taking just one of the stats you’re interested in:

    “x numbers of leaflets in month prior to election = x number of votes”

    At least a part of that (and possibly a greater part) is what’s on those leaflets in terms of content & your candidate, and how well designed they are, whether you hold the council or parliamentary seat/run the council/come second/come last etc.

    My own view is that this kind of precise statistical analysis is going to be impossible.

    My own personal view is that it’s about momentum – if you can build and maintain it you can win (“where we work we win” – except where we don’t). All the factors above are about showing momentum.

    1. I sort of agree with Our Mutual Friend here, it is possible, with a good message and candidate to go from distant 3rd place to strong challenger in one election if you have the message and momentum right.

      It’s about persuading people you can win, leaflets, canvassing, etc all help with this.

      I strongly believe internet campaigns should be linked strongly to on the ground campaigns, and leaflets should have “for more on this story see our website” with a link at the footer of every story.

      Very few people will look at the site, but the people most likely to are potential activists and supporters.

      1. Yes – a link at the footer of every story.

        Methoders will object that you will spend more time writing the website than writing the leaflets, and very few people will read it.

        They will be ignoring that the writing is a tiny fraction of the work of printing, distributing and delivering. It is a fraction, however, performed by a paid organiser and according to the method, so perhaps that makes it seem more valuable.

        But you are right – we are failing to reach out to want a bit more meat in their politics, and are good activist material.

  23. I won’t comment on The Method, but I will say there is one solid rule – more campaigning is better than less (so long as it’s not *even more* of the same).

    And on this note any benefits of negative campaigning are counterbalanced by the reduction in capacity lost.

    I’m turned off by negative campaigning because it is harmful to our democracy – if I see it I will steer clear of any campaign which employs it just as I will be motivated to oppose anyone who uses it.

    The problem with negative campaigning is that it says you are doing it for purely partisan reasons, not because your cause is just. I think this article from my monitoring list gives a perfect summary of the relevant marketing rules.

    My personal premise is that competitors are not fighting against each other, instead the fight is to raise standards; negative campaigning wishes to abandon that fight by abolishing the competition.

    Negative campaigning is authoritarian politics because the measure of success is power, but in democratic politics success is measured by the participation rate and public confidence in policy: if you believe in negative campaigning then you are no believer in freedom and democracy.

    I’m not interested in politics which screws other people over – I want the best for all.

    1. Again, it depends on how you define negative campaigning. Most academics appear to define tactical messages as “negative” yet it is arguably a positive emphasis on making the most of your vote. There was nothing “authoritarian” about criticising Labour repeatedly in literature of taking us into the Iraq War but it was certainly negative.

      I don’t believe that political discourse can exist without political parties criticising each other – it is one of the ways in which parties and politicians are held to account. People say they hate negative campaigning, but are they really saying that people should be able to evade scrutiny?

      The real question is, where do you draw the line between justified and unjustified criticism.

      1. Hi James,
        that’s why I gave the link: criticise what opponents say and what they do (and the gaps in between the two), but never ever ever get involved in ad hominems.

        As far as I’m concerned ‘negative’ campaigning means trying to minimise your opponent’s vote, while ‘positive’ campaigning means trying to maximise your own.

        I find the tactical messages you describe perfectly acceptable because they fall into both categories at worst – it is often necessary to provide context.

        1. I see nothing wrong in such a minimization attempt. It is one approach.

          If Mr Cameron were to portray Mr Brown as incompetent as part of his election campaign, would that be acceptable to you?

          Competence is a big issue for me and things that encourage that would seem to be welcome. My favoured voting system Weighted STV would allow people to punish parties by reducing the number of MPs they have at Westminster

    1. Some people might say that ethics is a luxury which cannot be afforded in politics if you want to be elected.

      Election literature would have to contain things like “well, we messed up here” which could be unpalatable to the party.

      Personally, I like open government and campaigning.

      Nick Clegg said in his spring conference speech “A never-ending cycle of red-blue, blue-red government has got us into this mess”

      This may inspire the faithful but is it truly fair? Is it ethical?

      1. Actually, I think it is fair. But there is a difference between making a political argument which can be contested and smearing people. The idea that you shouldn’t even try to keep smears out of literature because then you’d have to fill your leaflets with the sort of absurd hand-wringing that you suggest is simply nonsense.

        1. The simple difference is that a smear is schtick which doesn’t stick.

          If you can’t make an argument stick then it reflects back on you. Badly.

          So really it is all about the supporting evidence.

        2. There are all sorts of assertions that can be made and can be contested. I do not think this is a satisfactory situation and it gives people cover to make claims that they could never back up.

          The ethical situation is clear. If you cannot make the argument, then withdraw it. Saying “it’s only a political argument” is not good enough for me I am afraid

        3. I am reminded of a Babylon 5 episode where one character talked of real-facts and good-facts. The good-facts were the official ones that sounded good. The real-facts were the reality.

          Allowing Nick Clegg to make the claim that red and blue is to blame and not yellow is off-putting to me and seems to lean in favour of “good-facts”.

          Who is to say that yellow might not have been just as bad?

          Politicians are held in low esteem. Perhaps this is because they are so willing to go for things that seem nice.

          Why not take a more evidence-led approach? See if the evidence allows you to support the case. If it does, then fine, do your nice conference soundbites. Otherwise keep quiet

        4. But voter, how can yellow be to blame if yellow has not been in government.

          Red and blue are necessarily to blame for the failures of government, and should be credited with the successes.

          But there’s not much to say about the successes, is there? They’re like good news.

        5. The blame is not determined by who is in government. To say that it is, means that being in opposition is a virtue in itself!

          “Vote for me – I am not Gordon Brown”. Is that really the best message one can do? Not very hopeful, just a simple anti-incumbent message.

          The Lib Dems have a number of MPs and some influence. If the Lib Dems make a powerful argument, then they can influence the debate.

          If they make a strong argument and are ignored, then they can take some credit.

          But that is not Nick Clegg’s pitch as I understand it. He is just taking the approach – “Oh well, we were not in government”.

          Well, if that is your approach, if you are not prepared to learn from your mistakes and take responsibility for them, why should you be trusted with government?

          Pleading for power is not impressive. Actually demonstrating that you are worthy of power is.

          There is a world of difference between the two but modern politics does not seem to recognise that rational evaluation should play any part.

        6. Excuse me voter, but the yellows have made serious contributions from the oppositions benches (from Berveridge’s report laying the foundation of the NHS, David Steel and the legalisation of abortion through to Vince Cable prevention of the convicted fraud Richard Branson from buying Northern Rock – and much more in between).

          Liberals and LibDems are a growing parliamentary force precisely because of this long track record of successes, which have not only lasted the test of time but gained more popular support over time.

          It is a perverse world where the persistent failure of both parties in government and a third’s success whilst in opposition makes a case for the status quo – you almost seem to be suggesting we defect en masse so that we can introduce watered down versions of our ideas while giving support to the continuing distortions which prevent the wholesale improvements required.

          Choose any issue and hindsight shows liberalism to have offered the correct answers – why not try a little foresight for once and exchange the pain of perpetual struggle for liberation? Does politics need to hurt to work?

        7. Voter said: “If they make a strong argument and are ignored, then they can take some credit.”

          But that is pretty much what happened on the economic downturn, isn’t it. I know – because we’ve had this conversation in the past – that your response will be “Well, it wasn’t strong enough to get through” or similar. No, true. But by definition if an argument is ignored then obviously it hasn’t got through however “strong” (in the sense of “being right”) it is. There’s a paradox there.

  24. Hey Alix.
    I have just reread the section in the 2005 manifesto “Building
    Prosperity for Brtain” by Mr Cable.

    It is not too long and you might want to cast your eye over it.

    I was looking for a warning about the recession and any claim that
    voting Lib Dem is vital to prevent such a recession.

    I found nothing.

    My interpretation of this is that even the Lib Dem were unsure about
    the dangers of recession and what to do to forestall it.

    Now, four years later and after the event, the Lib Dems are claiming
    it is all the fault of red blue.

    Did red blue force you to write your manifesto? Of course not.

  25. Alix

    The section starts “When Labour was first elected” and ends “for Britain’s future prosperity”.

    Do you think that that section of the manifesto makes the case for a particular measure which would have prevented the recession?

  26. In terms of going beyond “what makes sense”, one interesting question is:
    can you project the outcome of an election for a seat by obtaining information knocking on doors?

    People sometimes lie about their political preferences and, of course, it may be hard to get a representative sample of people.

    Another interesting question is:
    can you determine what to do to attract votes by obtaining information knocking on door?

  27. Voter – the general answer to your question is yes. BUT it is impossible to be absolutely accurate and other factors can come into play late in a campaign which shift voting intentions after you have done the bulk of your canvassing.

    It is also far easier to make predictions in seat where you have canvassd in previous elections so that you have previous data to compare to and spot trends.

  28. I was putting forward those two questions as ones which could be examined using the data as Alix proposes in the article.

    The Lib Dems could have a big database with information from door canvassing.

    Then it would be possible to say something of the form:

    In local elections, the door canvassing produced a prediction which was accurate to within 2% of the actual result for the three main parties candidates, on 27% of the occasions when the canvassing was done.

    Perhaps such a database already exists

    1. Perhaps such a database already exists

      It does, although it’s not centralised, it’s maintained by local parties, and results are analysed.

      But more importantly, all the pre-election day campaigning is done to identify probably and definite supporters. On election day, the database is used to knock on the doors and telephone just those likely supporters–what Americans call GOTV, and we call ‘knocking up’.

      Canvass data is never 100% accurate, but it’s fairly good within a certain margin of error, and is very good at what it’s needed for, which is supporter identification.

      1. GOTV is important but I would think that increasing support would be important too.

        There you need to see why people are not voting for you and how you can address this

  29. Voter, there are several very simple reasons why LibDems only do as well at elections as we do.

    Firstly, if more people voted more people would vote LibDem.
    That they don’t is a reflection on the two parties which have been in power during the decline, because cynicism and apathy are only built up in reaction to the cumulative failings of successive regimes. This is why we support making it more worthwhile to use your vote through electoral change (we don’t just think we’d benefit from more proportional representation, we’re also confident we’d get a higher share of the proportion on a higher turnout).

    Democratic elections are inherently liberal because they are open and free and they lead to better governance. Even if our party doesn’t win this time elections give us the opportunity to say goodbye to bad rubbish – I wouldn’t go round registering hundreds of voters every year who’ve been left off the list in my local area if I didn’t think there would be some general benefit!

    Secondly, people don’t just vote on partisan grounds. A large part of the reason we choose to vote one way or another is the personal response to a candidate and the visibility of the local team. Where there are black holes of LibDem activism and nothing happens we only retain residual support. Local activism requires local leadership to inspire and motivate the troops on the ground through the long slog between elections and ensure nobody loses sight of the real targets (campaigning must never become an end in itself). Because other parties rely on inbuilt tribal votes activism is largely a threat to them – ampaigning breaks down assumed loyalties by concentrating on the issues.

    Maybe it is a big drawback to an ambitious political party that the holding of power is less important than what is actually done with it, but I think we should give credit to the LibDems that the party still styles itself as a collection of pragmatic problem-solvers rather than just a political platform for an electoral machine. Frankly, the colour of the rosette is unimportant – what matters is that we get lasting solutions – it just happens that I think supporting the LibDems is an essential part of doing that at this time.

    If you like I can recite a list of areas where LibDems have made a positive difference (and I mean recently in my locality, not just nationally or historically).

  30. Well, I think Mr Clegg has tried to produce a platform. He said that red-blue had got us into this mess. This seems to say that yellow would have been better. I think caution is to be praised in politics and a temptation to oversell should be resisted.

    There is credit to be won in thinking carefully about how you present yourself.

    You need to gain power before you can do much with it or you resign yourself to have influence on various occasions

  31. Yes, was going to say something but didn’t.

    go on, hit the keyboard: The BNP on the BBC? The implications of the al-Megrahi decision for devolution? Edlington vs Bulger? Something that no-one else has written yet?*


    *If the Times can devote an entire page to ‘Diet Coke addiction’ then I daresay you can have a free hand; the economy measured in terms of hummous? Ballet Terrorism? An ethnography of the voting patterns of Pratchett fans? Meerkats and Racism? Actually, that one’s been done

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