Despite that comment the result was still to me a disappointment. I admit that I never went to Henley, which was down to a mixture of election fatigue, distance from Sheffield, needing to catch up with the things I didn’t do whilst I was in Crewe and moving house. Which I suppose might in some people’s eyes make my comments invalid, but the impression I get is that most Liberal Democrat campaigners involved in the election still expected us to do a lot better than we did.
One of the strongest criticisms of the result though was from members who felt that our potential success in the seat was overhyped. From the pleas that I received for me to go and help, both by email and in person, this seems like a valid criticism, but I tend to believe the account given by Alex Folkes, (someone who is close to the campaign team), when he notes that at the time the pleas were sent out, it was entirely believable that we could win.
Despite this, I think that following Crewe & Nantwich and Henley, and ideally before Glasgow East (although that doesn’t give much time), the Liberal Democrats do need to assess how they campaign in by-elections against the Tories or where the Tories/SNP are the more obvious challengers. The political landscape has changed. The Tories are unfortunately more voter-friendly than they used to be and so when it comes to a contest where the Conservatives can clearly win people are more likely to opt for them. But as I said in a previous post, I don’t detect a groundswell of support for them like Labour had in 1997, it is just that people are fed up with Labour. So the task for the Liberal Democrats is to work out our niche in these by-elections and campaign on that. We may not win, but it will at least make us distinctive and get us somewhat closer.
Many have said that what the Liberal Democrats need is to talk more about policy rather than shovelling out more leaflets. I have some sympathy for thie latter part of this view, but feel that it is too simplistic. The Liberal Democrats have won by-elections in the past basically by shovelling out far more literature than the other parties. It worked in Brent East, in Leicester South and nearly worked in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool. The problem is that the other parties now understand that leaflets work, and although one party delivering leaflets on their own wins you votes, if all parties deliver lots then it may well stop making such a difference. From a Liberal Democrat point of view, I think that putting out more leaflets than the others may not lose us votes, but we may have gone way over the number needed to get us the final result. I think it is fair to say that in Crewe & Nantwich we could have delivered fewer leaflets, and as a result saved more money, but still got the same result. That’s because the mood had already been set in the by-election, no matter what we did. Vote Conservative and you get a rid of Labour. No matter what our policies, no matter how many leaflets we delivered, we would have had the same result.
The failure in recent elections seems to have led to a tirade of criticism against Chris Rennard and ‘Rennardism’. This is unfair. Chris has succeeded partly due to an instinctive campaigning ability, (people forget that he started at the grassroots in Liverpool rather than just being top dog in the party), but also through trial and error. I am sure that Chris, never mind the Campaigns Department who are now autonomous of Chris anyway, will be reflecting on both of these results to work out where we go next. Despite being a member of party campaign staff I am not a blinkered follower of everything that Chris Rennard says. I know he has his faults, but I also know he wants the Liberal Democrats to succeed and both he and the whole party will learn from what has happened recently.
Henley was not a failure. We increased our vote after all. But what it was, was a disappointment. What the party needs to do is go away and work out how best to campaign under changed political circumstances and then put it in to practice when it has the chance. The Liberal Democrats have won by being ahead of the other parties on campaigning, it need to look at what it has done recently and reflect on how it can once again pull ahead of the opposition.
Finally, as a footnote to this I must mention my ‘Reflections on Crewe & Nantwich‘ post. I wrote this not long after the by-election itself, but hadn’t realised that it had failed to post properly at the time. I have now put it up on the intended date and as I was heavily involved in that election it goes in to a lot more detail on the way that the Conservatives now campaign.