Here is an article I wrote for the conference special (October 2010) issue of Total Politics. The brief was to provide practical advice to a Labour candidate campaigning against a Lib Dem incumbent.
Before May 2010, the Liberal Democrats were viewed by many Labour and Conservative activists with distaste and derision. Labour and Tories could unite in agreement that Lib Dems were not principled or serious and often downright dishonest.
From a Labour activist’s perspective, Lib Dems are more than ever these things. I suspect many Tories lie awake at night hoping for a chance to win an outright majority and kick Clegg, Cable et al out of the Whitehall bed.
With Lib Dem hands on the levers of government, it’s possible to show what a vote for them really means. It will be a struggle for Lib Dem politicians, blooded by government, to maintain the image of well-meaning community insurgents. Every pothole is now theirs to fix, not just point at.
But challenging a Lib Dem incumbent is tough. They have local profile, good name recognition, media contacts and the resources of town hall or Parliament. They live in constant campaign mode, living the ‘working all year round, not just at election time’ mantra of many a Lib Dem Focus.
Establishing yourself early as a serious, active contender is vital. As soon as you are selected as a Labour candidate, you must start campaigning. And you must not stop. Your opponent certainly won’t. A good candidate devotes weekends and most weekday evenings to campaigning, and forgets about holidays of more than a fortnight.
An early start is a good opportunity to test out voters’ attitudes to your Lib Dem opponent, distil the issues that might sway their vote towards you, and build your own local profile by attending public meetings, the school gate and the church fete. It is also a chance, crucially, to define your opponent in contrast to you.
Analyse and define your opponent in the context of the ConDem coalition. Whether they support it or not, they will be standing on a local or national manifesto that is defined in some way by the actions of the ConDem government. Work out how ConDem public sector cuts will affect local hospitals, schools and policing. How jobs lost will impact on voters. Lead local – and vocal – campaigns against unfair cuts.
Take on the mantle the Lib Dems love to wear: be the candidate with the positive local offer, the hard-working local champion, on the side of local residents. But be more than local – people rarely vote out an incumbent unless someone seeming better comes along. Be that better candidate, show you also have a positive vision for the ward, the constituency or the country, and energy to deliver.
At the same time, set the agenda in your favour. Let’s suppose the major issue for near-future elections will be government cuts. Challenge your opponent on their support for the ConDem coalition and their support for cuts. If police numbers are cut locally, force your opponent to defend that. If they are in favour, go for them. If they hesitate or wobble, go for them. If they go off-message, go for them. Depending on their stance, you can define them as either uncaring, irresponsible, incompetent, slippery or weak. They will hate it.
The Lib Dems have never been in such an awkward position before. Seize the advantage. Campaign on trust and betrayal. Did people vote Lib Dem for a Tory government? Do they feel betrayed by the Lib Dems? Do they feel let down? ‘Lib Dem let downs’ could be a major theme for your campaign literature. The more you rattle Lib Dems, the less effective their campaigning becomes.
Build your support over time, allowing word of mouth to help you. A common mistake is thinking that the short campaign is when most voters make up their minds. Actually it’s important to get your message across long before, and keep restating it.
Don’t be afraid of repeating messages again and again in every leaflet, direct mail, petition or on the doorstep. In political communication it’s only when voters start reciting your message on the doorstep that it’s starting to get through.
Set yourself contact targets. Conversational quality in canvassing is important, but there’s no point if you are only speaking to five voters a week.
Pace yourself with a different doorstep technique for different phases of a campaign. A year out you will have the opportunity to listen to concerns or get petitions signed. Six weeks out, you need speed.
Because Lib Dems say different things on different doorsteps, they work most effectively as lone operatives. Labour campaigners work best as a team. Grow a campaign team of members, family and friends and make sure you thank them after every session.
Study your canvass data. Is it reliable? Is it up to date? If not, it needs to be. Approach known Lib Dem voters and listen to their concerns. Find common cause through issues large and small. Keep gently reminding them that a vote for the Lib Dems has now been scientifically proven to be a vote for the Tories.
Using the marked register, target people who vote but are previously uncontacted. A local survey with a question about voting intentions, delivered to every home can be a great way of finding friendly voters. When you find people who aren’t registered to vote, get them registered. Engage with those who don’t vote to encourage them to vote Labour. Explain how a postal vote makes voting easier.
Make yourself as contactable as possible. A regularly updated blog giving your contact details is a must. Not only is it a place to express your views, it shows the amount of work you do, building incrementally with each update. Use Facebook and Twitter to build online networks, but don’t think they will win it for you.
In the end, the only way to beat a Lib Dem opponent is by mounting a strongly organised ground campaign, defining yourself as the better candidate, setting an agenda that favours your messages and policy positions, canvassing like mad and getting out your vote on the day.