I don’t pretend for a second to be an expert on elections but I did want to write something following campaigning for Lib Dem candidates this election. It was an interesting experience for many reasons and unlike any other election I’ve ever campaigned in.
I was a candidate in the last election but not this one. I decided fairly early on I did not have the resources either financially or in terms of time to stand in a winnable seat and had no desire to stand somewhere we couldn’t make inroads. I was under no illusions this was going to be a difficult election for the Liberal Democrats and I preferred instead to focus on places where Lib Dems could win.
My priorities this election were twofold: to do my bit to elect more female women MPs and to support some excellent Lib Dem campaigners (mostly female) i’ve got to know over the years in their fight to keep their seats. Frustratingly this failed to happen in any of these seats and we now end up in a position of having no female Lib Dem MPs in Parliament.
My respect for people prepared to put themselves up for election – particularly in the very tricky circumstances our party faced has increased even further and I take my hat off to all the candidates I campaigned with for putting themselves on the frontline. None of them were under any illusions as to how difficult this election was going to be for Liberal Democrats and the fact they stood anyway is a testament to their commitment.
I spent the election campaigning for my friend Layla Moran in Oxford West & Abingdon, Duncan Hames in Chippenham, Lynne Featherstone in Hornsey & Wood Green, Vikki Slade in Mid Dorset & North Poole, Tessa Munt in Wells, Mike Thornton in Eastleigh and Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire.
Although the majority of time was spent in Oxford West and Abingdon (OxwAb) I knocked on doors in all these constituencies apart from Jo Swinson’s due to the distance so instead I donated to Jo’s campaign and encouraged others to do so online.
Below are some of my reflections after talking to hundreds of would-be voters during the election in the above constituencies.
Tory and Labour strategies and its effects on Lib Dem support in marginal seats
I was struck when I canvassed in Chippenham shortly after the campaign began by a Conservative leaflet I saw that said bluntly ‘this is one of the 23 seats we need to win to form a government’. I thought this was pretty blatant and unambitious as a target but on reflection it backed up all the stuff that has since come out about the ruthless way in which Lib Dem seats were targeted by the Conservative party.
During one particular evening canvass session slightly later on in the election campaign a middle-aged women I spoke to expressed concerns to me about the possibility of a SNP-backed government. This struck me as odd at the time: I was in Somerset and the seat was a Lib Dem – Tory marginal.
In this seat, as doubtless many others our messages were all about the strong local record of our candidate in this case Duncan Hames who had won the seat in 2010 after 80 years of Toryism. I spoke to lots of people who recognised the good work Duncan had done which encouraged me that he had a chance of holding the seat.
That weekend I knocked on doors in Hornsey & Wood Green. A Lib Dem supporter told me she would normally vote for us and was a big fan of Lynne Featherstone but wasn’t going to this time as ‘Labour needs this seat to be able to form a majority government’. She was worried about the SNP too but this time Labour had put that fear in her head. This experience left me reeling – I’d never encountered a response like it before during an election campaign. I was used to campaigns being about one party’s policies vs another and one candidate’s record vs another.
So in two totally different constituencies two different political parties were campaigning against Lib Dem MPs – Labour as part of their narrow ‘35% strategy’ and Tories for their own 23 seat strategy. Politically, we were caught between a pincer movement – left and right.
I drove back to Reading from Haringey wondering how we could effectively counter these messages, genuinely worried about the ability of Lynne – one of the party’s hardest-working, well-known candidates to hold her seat.
As various election results attest, the way Tories manipulated the media debate to stoke up fears about a Labour-SNP government this was a highly-effective strategy which paid massive political dividends — more effectively it seems than even some of the victorious Tory candidates expected .
It seems that Tories got their lethal message across mainly via direct mail and phone calls to voters including and particularly identified Lib Dems. During my entire time campaigning in OxwAb I didn’t see any Tory activists knocking on doors until Polling Day.
Local vs national campaigns
Our literature and campaigns in the seats I fought Lib Dems focussed on the qualities of our candidates, their records in office and our manifesto commitments on education etc this got us so far but did not counter the negative messages the Tories and Labour were putting out about hung parliaments and coalitions.
Interestingly I spoke to a few people who said they wished they could have two votes one for their local candidate and one for a political party.
All defeated candidates should I think take heart from the fact that what happened in our held seats was not so much a rejection of them personally but a response to wider fears about who would form the next government – fear put in people’s heads by the two main parties, but mainly the Tories.
Leadership and Coalition – it depends who you talk to
I retired from being a councillor in 2014. My second term as a councillor 2006 – 2014 coincided with the Coalition being formed. During that time, going on the doorstep in a Labour-facing area was a very difficult indeed.
Looking back, 2011 was probably the low point where I had many doors slammed in my face, we were rapidly losing council seats and I heard many people say they couldn’t vote for us again because of Nick Clegg and Tuition Fees.
So it was with some trepidation that first started knocking on doors for the Lib Dems again at the start of this year. It may well have been because I spent most of my time in a Tory rather Labour-facing seat (Oxford West & Abingdon) but I was genuinely taken aback by the change in tone of doorstep feedback. As I said to activist friends at the time – it was shocking to find not only did people not appear to hate us as they once had but they seemed willing to vote for us again.
This was a big turn around and for the first time in four years I was really enjoying knocking on doors again. People knew about Lib Dem policies we had fought for in government – the increasing of the income tax threshold and they were responding positively to new policies such as a pay rise for public sector workers.
Several people said to me they thought the Lib Dems had been a good brake on the Conservatives in government .
There was no doubt judging from feedback I had on the doorstep from voters that Tories were majoring in their campaign during this election on leadership and who was/wasn’t prime-minister material. They were clearly keen to turn the election into a presidential race – one that Ed Miliband could not win.
I met people who described Nick Clegg as ‘weak’ and ‘spineless’ but I was pleasantly surprised to hear more people say they were impressed by Nick Clegg – quite a few said Lib Dems had been a brake on the Tories, a couple had seen him on ‘Last Leg’ and thought he was a good bloke.
One of my favourite comments someone told me with characteristic sang froid ‘I thought Nick Clegg was going to be rubbish when he first started [in Coalition] but actually he turned out to be pretty good.’ Several times people contrasted Nick Clegg with Ed Miliband and their opinion on Nick was always more favourable
I found it very interesting to hear what people said about the Coalition 2010 – 2015, and coalitions more widely. Some voters I talked to saw it as a positive to see political parties working together (they may have been Lib Dem voters?). A couple of others I spoke to – one in OxWab and one in Wells said they preferred ‘strong’ government e.g. single-party government. This may or may not have been in part a response to the messages found in Tory leaflets promoting their 23 seat strategy.
Judging by our results nationally I’m willing to admit that many of those people I met who were positive about the Liberal Democrat performance in government did not go on to vote for Lib Dem candidates. But I think a fair number of them did. I recruited members during the campaign and I know from talking to other activists that people continued to join the party throughout the campaign.
For this reason I am against us ditching wholesale Lib Dem achievements of the past 5 years in government. Based on what I heard on the doorstep I think a reasonable number of people in the country at large who voted in the election did appreciate our role in government and voted for us because of it. Furthermore I think the party’s standing and Nick Clegg’s reputation will grow rather than decline as time goes on.
As you may have noticed, I’m particularly interested in women in politics. I was delighted to find this election that women I spoke to seemed a lot more engaged than in previous years. One quizzed me about our policies and said she was fed up with political parties assuming women only want to hear about childcare: ‘I’m single and have no children. What are you doing for me?’ she said. In general, the issue women raised most often as their key concern was education followed by the NHS.
I met very few women who said they were planning not to vote which was an improvement on 2010.
Of those that commented about party leaders on the doorstep women tended to be more outspoken critics of Nick Clegg than the men I spoke to describing him as ‘weak’. Of those that criticised him both indicated a preference for a majority government rather than another coalition. I think these voters may have been targeted by Tory literature. It would interesting to read what this said.
‘I’m genuinely undecided’
I heard this in every constituency I campaigned in on a bigger scale than any election I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve been brought up by experienced activists never to take this response at face value when you canvass and to ask the classic follow ups ‘who did you vote for last election? and ‘is there any party you definitely won’t vote for?’ But this time it felt different.
This time people seemed genuinely to be unsure who to vote for.
People were telling me they were undecided right up until the polls closed in OxwAb. This was the first election I campaigned in where people talked to me about visiting vote match websites to try and work out who to vote for. Several people told me they had visited websites and had discovered no-one party matched their views. Everyone who had come out with a result which included UKIP immediately rejected the findings I’m pleased to say.
I think the huge emphasis on polling and hung parliaments by the media might also have had a part to play. That and people seeing via the Leaders Debates that there were more political parties on the menu than just Labour, Lib Dem and Tory.
Electoral reform – back on the agenda in a big way
After the disaster of the AV campaign I was not surprised Lib Dems nationally decided that electoral reform should not feature prominently in our national campaign. This may or may not have been a mistake. To my amazement, voters raised this with me on doorstep after doorstep. Maybe this was their response to the commentators harping on about hung parliaments?
It may also have been a reaction to the fact that they lived in all cases in ultra marginal seats and disliked being effectively forced by Lib Dems or our main opponents to choose between two parties or vote tactically.
Europe – the dog that didn’t bark
Unlike some years (mainly 2005) no-one raised Europe with me on the doorstep. Immigration also came up less frequently than I expected.
As expected the number of people saying they were planning to vote UKIP was tiny in all the places I canvassed apart from Eastleigh (the only place I campaigned where UKIP was active). A few people shouted ‘UKIP!’ at me in the street and on the doorstep – it’s become the new ‘f*** You’.
The Tories won in OxWab and all the seats I campaigned in barring Hornsey and Wood Green and yet I spoke to very few people who canvassed as Tory. I’ve spent most of my career as a political activist campaigning in Labour-facing seats against Labour so this was a new experience for me.
Knocking on doors in OxwAb I met very few people who said they planned to vote Tory right up until Polling Day. I got the strong sense that people voted Tory out of fear of something worse e.g.. a Labour/SNP government. No-one said ‘I’m voting Tory because I like their policy on x’ but then I did not canvass anyone who was down as a Tory from previous data.
On Polling Day itself I spoke to someone who admitted switching away from Lib Dem to Tory because of her fears of a Labour-SNP government. I thanked her for being so candid. This makes me think again that people switching away from us cannot all be attributed to voters’ rejection en masse of our record and our policies – although of course some of it will be that.
The reputation of politics, politicians and political parties
Last election the expenses scandal loomed large and in many cases Lib Dem candidates were the beneficiaries picking up seats from mainly Conservatives. I’m pleased to say this election I heard very few people say that all politicians were corrupt or on the make. I put this largely down to the fact that last election some newspapers namely the Daily Mail and The Telegraph concentrated heavily on stories about MPs expenses.
The reputation of political parties and sadly the Lib Dems continues to be fairly negative. Broken promises has been a big theme of the election and even though everyone has done it the Lib Dems are the poster boy for this thanks to Tuition Fees and Nick Clegg’s apology.
I found it odd in Hornsey & Wood Green where people rejected Labour in large numbers in previous elections as a result of unpopular decisions Labour took in government such as the Iraq War people were going back to supporting them again. Tuition fees continued to loom large on some of the doorsteps I canvassed. However, by the same token this makes me think people will return to the Lib Dems again in the not too distant future.
The national Lib Dem campaign
If you judge a party’s election campaign by electoral results alone it’s hard to see the Lib Dem campaign as anything other than an unmitigated disaster. However, I don’t think this is entirely fair.
Media commentators liked to remind the public on a regular basis that Nick Clegg had a very poor standing in every opinion poll carried out.
You might have expected, then, that the party would choose to leave Nick out of the campaign entirely. However, the national party, bravely or foolishly depending on your view defied this logic by putting Nick at the centre of the Lib Dem campaign.
Not only did this give Nick the opportunity to re-define himself it also helped to remind voters of his positive qualities and why they liked him in the first place.
By putting Nick Clegg on every radio station, TV programme and chat show it reminded the public what an outstanding communicator he is. This was a brave and risky move but I think the right one. Nick’s performance on the final Question Time was authentic and convincing – he spoke like a human being and was the only party leader to really engage with the tough questions the audience threw at him.
I think that Nick Clegg’s strong performance throughout the campaign did genuinely improve his standing with voters. I certainly picked up more positive than negative sentiment about Nick up on the doorstep.
However, the problem was that what was happening in parallel was that Conservative messages on the phones and in direct mail were using Nick Clegg’s words and actions in government against the party’s own supporters. The Tories effectively weaponised Nick Clegg against his own supporters by focussing on his perceived untrustworthiness on Tuition Fees and going into coalition.
This was a cruel irony after Nick Clegg had been the best coalition partner the Tories could wish for, helping to deliver strong and stable government for the full five year term. Tories in turn used this against Lib Dem supporters in Lib Dem held seats.Nasty but clever this tactic appears to have been taken straight out of the Lynton Crosby handbook.
These tactics caught us on the hop but really we should not be surprised. Unlike us, the Tories have been winning elections for hundreds of years. The downside of the Lib Dems getting into the political big time e.g. into government is the other parties take us more seriously and actively campaign against us.
As much as I don’t agree with it fear will always trump hope in elections and we now need to figure out quickly how we deal with this kind of threat in future.
Do I regret the fact Nick Clegg played a prominent part in our national campaign? No I don’t. I’m not sure what realistically we could have done to counter the Tories campaign to decapitate our MPs other than perhaps say more strongly what the Tories would do in government without Liberal Democrat MPs to stop them.
If Nick Clegg had not been at the centre of our national campaign we would have faced questions too – particularly as election campaigns get more and more focussed on leaders and less on policies.
Towards the end of the campaign Danny Alexander brandished a report of what the Tories might have done on welfare cuts but this came too late to make an impact I think and did not resonate in Lib Dem-Tory marginals.
Another unheralded part of our national campaign was the way in which it motivated our members and supporters – including me! When you’re going out voluntarily night after night trying to sell the Lib Dem message you also need to be regularly reminded of why you’re doing it.
The Lib Dem campaign did this brilliantly and I particularly draw attention to the social media campaign which was streets ahead of previous efforts and helped keep morale high throughout.
The Lib Dem fundraising campaign was slick and effective. We are always behind the other parties who can draw on business and trade union fundraising but I loved the way popular personalities such as John Cleese , Paddy Ashdown and Hugh Grant were mobilised to leverage donations.
The impact of polls
As Andrew Marr and Polly Toynbee admitted on BBC News yesterday they based all their commentary on what the polls were saying. Polls that then turned out to be wrong. It seems that what happened was the parties then responded to what the media and the polls were saying which distorted the campaign messages even further.
The primary beneficiaries of this were the Conservatives as fears of a hung Parliament were amplified.
I’ve been taught by more experienced activists to remember that the only opinion polls that matter in elections are the ones on polling day e.g. the results of elections.
It saddened me that the media fell so badly for what the pollsters were saying rather than actually going out and talking to people on doorsteps. As a result the entire election campaign then became about hung parliaments rather than actual issues.
The media made efforts to do more vox pops and get more ‘ordinary people’ involved in their coverage but this struck me as unconvincing and superficial when all their coverage was continually distorted by polls.
I’m still struggling to get my head around the election results and my sadness for the MPs we’ve lost pales into insignificance when I think about how individual MPs and their families must feel.
I don’t blame Nick Clegg for these results and I don’t think blaming him for the situation the party finds itself in gets us any further forward. There were lots of things going on in this election and it is going to take some time to unpick all of them.
I have tried to detail the impact as I saw it of Tory and Labour campaigns in some of our held seats as I think it’s important to consider this when assessing the overall success or failure of our own efforts.
I take heart from the people who are joining and re-joining the Lib Dems in droves. The news that the Tories plan to implement their manifesto in full should be a rallying call for all of us to organise and regroup.
We are a political party not a pressure group though and we will need to consider how we go about winning elections again if we are to have a chance of influencing the direction of British politics and our country.
I’ll leave the last word to our outgoing leader Nick Clegg:
Fear and grievance have won. Liberalism has lost. But it is more precious than ever and we must keep fighting for it.
It is easy to imagine there is no road back. There is.
This is a very dark hour for our party but we cannot and will not allow decent liberal values to be extinguished overnight.