It reveals naivety on my part that it was only after the polls had closed in Oldham East & Saddleworth that I learnt that no opposition party had lost a by-election in a seat it held since 1982, when Labour was beaten by the Conservatives at a time when the latter were riding the crest of the wave after Britain had recaptured the Falkland Isles. Had I known this beforehand I would not have placed a small bet on the Liberal Democrats to win, even with the odds at 10-1 against.
We campaigned to win OE&S. There may have been some in the organising team who realised from the beginning that a respectable second place was the best that could be achieved but if so they did a remarkable job at maintaining morale by keeping such sentiments to themselves. They showed great dedication to the job, leading from the front and working themselves into the ground. For weeks on end they also braved the lowest temperatures that most of us have ever experienced in an election campaign.
If the election had taken place in the immediate aftermath of the Court case that saw the MP disbarred then all might have been well. But parliamentary by-elections are not mere local affairs, they command national attention, and it was inevitable that the agenda would move on quickly from Phil Woolas to the record of the Coalition Government.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats were neck and neck last May, separated by just 103 votes. Since then, according to the polls, Labour’s support has risen by 10 points and ours has fallen by at least 13. The tide hasn’t simply turned since May, it has raced out in a torrent. How could we possibly have won such a by-election in these circumstances?
The challenge was clear enough on the doorstep. During every canvassing session I met a couple of people who had voted Lib Dem in the past but who were not going to do so this time. The mere fact that we were in coalition with the Conservatives was repellent to some, the impression of broken trust over tuition fees saw off the rest. Each time I would return to the campaign HQ feeling that a few more grains of sand had slipped through our fingers.
Anyone who assumed that Labour supporters might feel betrayed by the actions of Phil Woolas were quickly disabused. However bad the nature of the divisive and racist (“make the white folks angry”) campaign he ran, Woolas’s past supporters didn’t like him having been thrown out by the Courts. That said, I’m still pleased that Elwyn Watkins mounted his legal challenge; his success drew a line that candidates and agents everywhere may be reluctant to cross in future elections.
On the other hand we DID mount one of the most effective third party squeeze effort in the history of parliamentary by-elections. The Tory vote collapsed as their supporters took the tactical decision to back the Liberal Democrats. But we needed to gain two votes from the Tories for every vote we lost to Labour, and that was too tall an order.
Political commentators question whether the Tories pulled their punches and mounted a campaign that was less than wholehearted. It’s true that they didn’t launch an all out assault on their coalition partners but the Tories don’t have a single borough councillor in the constituency and no party organisation worth mentioning. They were always going to come third, and a more vigorous Tory campaign would have had only one consequence – to increase the size of the Labour majority over the Liberal Democrats. How would that benefit the Coalition Government?
We didn’t win, and realistically we couldn’t have won, but Liberal Democrats secured a creditable result in the circumstances. The question that has to be asked now, as it should be after every such event, is what could we have done differently and better? The OE&S campaign left me convinced that we need to review our approach and learn some lessons for the future.
I have no complaints about the organisation; administratively it seemed close to flawless. Campaigns Department pulled together a team of dedicated young people, some of whom were not born when I set about the task of turning derelict wards in the constituency into strongholds of local Liberalism. Amongst them was a great esprit de corps, with apparent rivalry to demonstrate who could go without sleep for the longest period and drink the greatest amount of Diet Coke. Their efforts and tactical planning suffered initially from having too little outside support (it was before Christmas and weather conditions across much of Britain were terrible), yet even with the pavements covered in snow a great many leaflets got delivered.
My concerns are not with the organisation but with the politics, and particularly with the belief that in some quarters seems to have taken on the mantra of religious doctrine that elections are won by pushing out more paper than our opponents, and that sheer hard work will win the day. I do not share this view. Good graphics and technical wizardry (“look, we are so clever that we can produce individual leaflets with the elector’s own name on them”) do not make up for the lack of effective political content.
Too much of our election literature in OE&S was simply vacuous, and for all that the Tory squeeze was effective there were some examples (‘personal’ letters in particular) whose content made me squirm with embarrassment. On a number of occasions I delivered pieces of literature that I thought would not persuade a single extra person to vote for us, and sometimes I feared that they might do us actual harm. Voters complained that they were assaulted by the sheer number of leaflets, but a criticism of greater concern is that too much of the paper we distributed said nothing worth saying. If electors felt that our approach was condescending they had good reason.
Why do we do this? I learnt many political lessons in Liverpool from Sir Trevor Jones (‘Jones the Vote’), who used to tell me never to underestimate the stupidity of the electorate. By this he meant that we should distil the messages, keep them simple, and repeat them often. But he countered this by telling me that at the same time I should never underestimate the intelligence of the electorate, by which he warned not to patronise the voters and to make sure that I had something worthwhile to offer and that would hold their attention. I’m not convinced that our present strategists have got the balance right.
It might be argued that Labour’s campaign literature in OE&S was wholly negative; they attacked us for broken pledges on tuition fees and imposing excessive cuts. But if the position had been reversed we would have done the same. We didn’t confront criticisms that found a strong resonance amongst the voters. More importantly, we did very little to counter them by promoting the achievements of Liberal Democrats in office. I know the arguments about not allowing opponents to dictate the agenda but if we are not to celebrate the role of the first Liberal Democrat ministers in our lifetimes then what is the point of us fighting elections in the first place? We surely should adjust our mindsets, treat the voters as adults, and be prepared to address serious issues - while doing it in a way that ensures that the appearance of our literature secures sufficient attention to pass the doormat to dustbin test.
It’s difficult to write these words without implying criticism of people I like and for whose efforts I have admiration, and I am well aware of the rebuttals that can be made. Whatever flaws I might suggest, surely the fact that we not only held our own against the outgoing tide but made a tiny advance in percentage terms speaks for the success of the strategy? How can I prove that the result would not have been worse had we done differently?
It’s possible that we would have done less well if we had devoted more space in our election literature to putting across the arguments of Liberal Democrats in government. It is indeed a risk, but it’s not a question that can be answered because we have not attempted to convey the achievements of our party in an attractive manner. Now we are in government we must start to do so.
I want Liberal Democrats to do well in elections. I also want us to be proud of ourselves and of the political messages we convey. There are lessons to be learnt from the Oldham East & Saddleworth campaign, and there are new approaches that must be explored.