European elections: saving the Lib Dems from wipeout

Winner Lib Dem Golden Dozen Blogs – 9 December 2012

The Liberal Democrats have just selected their candidates for elections to the European Parliament in June 2014.  These elections are important to the party – it takes itself seriously as a player in this forum, and it contributes a lot to the party’s strength and depth nationally.  But the party faces a wipe-out.  It needs some radical thinking to have a chance of avoiding such a fate.

The problems start with the party’s low opinion poll standing.  The typical 9-10% is not enough to get the party representation in any of the regional constituencies, except the South East, under the PR system that is used.  But it is worse than that.  The party has always underperformed in these elections.  Its usual campaigning methods are worse than useless.  The party’s appalling showing in the London 2012 elections is a much better guide: closer to 5-6%.  Complete wipe-out.  How to save the party?

The first point is that the party needs to acknowledge the root causes of its campaigning weakness in this type of election.  The party’s electoral successes in local and Westminster elections have been achieved using campaigns that focus on three things in particular: identifying local issues that stir the passions of floating voters, a ruthless third party squeeze (“Labour can’t win here, etc”), and identifying voters and getting to them to the polling stations.  All three are useless in Euro elections – and yet they are so deeply embedded in Lib Dem campaigners’ thinking that they infect everything the party does.  The party fails to put over a message that motivates voters, and since canvassing covers such a small proportion of the potential electors (and usually they are based on other sorts of elections anyway), the polling day knock up has very little impact on the result.

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  The party’s Euro candidates tend not to be, shall we say, the party’s most inspiring campaigners. They are very interested in the goings of the European Union.  This makes them well qualified to be Euro MPs – and indeed the party punches well above its weight there.  But they are not good at finding messages that connect with voters.  Even when they think they have found a killer, like using European arrest warrants to catch terrorists and paedophiles, this in practice has little resonance with the public.

So the party’s normal messages and techniques are ineffective, and the Euro candidates struggle to find an alternative.  In the last election I remember delivering piles of tabloid newspapers that were clearly going to have little or no effect.  Motivating the activists is a real problem, never mind the voters.

So what to do?  The basic strategy is quite clear, and has been talked about for some time.  Find enough voters who feel positive about the EU’s role in Britian’s future to turn up and vote to reach about 15-20% of the vote share.  No other significant party is rallying that vote.  The Labour Party is trying get these voters by default, but without prejudicing its chances with the more sceptical majority.  The Tories don’t seem to think these voters even exist.

Next, how can effective campaign be mounted?  What will be needed is poster and Internet advertising, mass direct mail based on promising demographics, and a good freepost (the single leaflet delivered for free by the post office).  This is supported by an online and social media campaign.  All this activity, combined with the right messaging, will draw in media attention.  Almost no need for local activists to do much legwork – they can get on with their local campaigns.  This will cost a lot of money – so the first priority will be to raise it.

The party is getting better at fundraising, but many party activists have little idea about how it works.  Donors, rich and not so rich, need to be motivated in a very similar way to ordinary voters.  They need to be inspired by the campaign’s messages, and think they might catch on with the wider public. You don’t raise the funds first, then decide on the campaign’s messages; it is the other way round.  So the work on messaging needs to start now.

Here is my humble suggestion.  The campaign theme should be “Save Europe!”.  No doubt this can be improved on, but note the key features.  First and foremost it is pitched as a response to a threat.  People are more motivated by response to threats than positive ideas, and motivation is critical.  The “No” campaign for the AV referendum was highly successful as it pitched AV as a threat to the status quo.  So is pulling out of the EU a threat to the status quo.  The party can be progressive and conservative at the same time!  Further is the idea of “Europe” – vague and big.  The idea is to appeal to people with an international consciousness.  There is a double meaning: first to save Britain from leaving the EU, and second for the country to play its full part in solving a continental crisis that will affect us anyway.

How to build on this idea to make the threat seem real?  “Save jobs” and “Save the Environment” should be the focus.  Messing around with EU membership is a clear threat to jobs – and indeed one of the main appeals will be to businessmen who fear for the future of Britian’s relationship with the EU.  The environment allows the party to play on its international outlook.  Indeed it is an appealing idea to use an Earth from space picture with Europe visible on the surface as a campaign logo.  It also sets the party up for some skirmishing that may be needed with the Greens.  And it contrasts with Ukip’s outlook.

Ukip are the rising starts of Euro elections, which frightens the two main parties.  But if the Lib Dems are after core voters rather than floaters then Ukip’s strength is an opportunity.  It helps define the party: “We are the party which is against everything Ukip is for.”  The more they know about Ukip, the more they know about us.  The party should indulge in some relentless negative campaigning against Ukip – including how they have behaved in the European Parliament – though not straying into accusations of racism.

So you get the general idea.  The best next step would be to appoint a national organiser to work on messaging and strategy.  This needs to be somebody comfortable with challenging the Lib Dem conventional wisdom on campaigning, but with a degree of political realism (contrast some of the Yes to AV campaign types).  Though much of the campaigning needs to be done in the regional constituencies, a lot of the design effort can be done nationally – and the Internet and media campaign needs to be led nationally too.

I do hope the party wakes up to the danger and tries to a bit radical!

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15 Responses to European elections: saving the Lib Dems from wipeout

  1. Alex Macfie says:

    It’s not that the European arrest warrant doesn’t resonate with the public: rather, it resonates the wrong way. Most people don’t hear about its use to catch terrorists and paedophiles; they hear about Garry Mann (extradited to Portugal to serve a sentence passed by a kangaroo court), Deborah Dark (whom France tried to extradite to serve a sentence 20 years after she had been convicted in absentia (without her knowledge, and after being previously acquitted) of drug trafficking, and France took two years to withdraw the EAW after extradition was refused in two countries), Edmond Arapi (for whom the UK court allowed extradition to serve a sentence for murder in Italy (another conviction in absentia and without his knowledge of it), even though he could prove that he was in the UK at the time he was supposed to have committed it; Italy dropped the warrant only after political pressure), or any number of people sent to Poland over trivial or ancient indictments. The EAW is an excellent idea in principle, but the way it works in practice is not acceptable for anyone who calls themselves liberal. The question should not be whether we have an EU-wide arrest warrant system, but whether such a system is consistent with the principles of natural justice. Our Euro campaign should focus on the reforms that Lib Dem MEPs would push to ensure that it is: not just praise the system as if there is nothing wrong with it. Such reforms should include a proportionality test to prevent its use over trivial allegations, the automatic invalidation of any arrest warrant that any court refuses to execute, and giving courts discretion to refuse extradition where it would not be in the interests of justice.

  2. Matthew says:

    Thanks Alex. I think the problem is that it is so difficult to get heard on issues like the EAW when the conventional wisdom and so much of the media is Eurosceptic. Our message that it is a fundamentally good idea but needs to be reformed (as indeed is our message on the EU as a whole) just gets trampled. That means that our message needs to be simplistic and focused on bigger European issues, even if out of the EP’s remit (that hasn’t done Ukip any harm, after all). We do need the more detailed messages on reforms, etc to sit behind this message though – if only to show that we are a serious political party. It should impress business donors too, which will be a vital part of a successful campaign. But impact of detailed messages on the wider press and public will. I fear, be almost negligible.

  3. Alex Macfie says:

    There is a big problem with your suggested campaign strategy, namely that the UK’s membership of the EU is a UK domestic political issue, not a European issue. Whether any EU country remains part of the EU is primarily a matter for that country’s domestic law, and MEPs have little influence over it. So whatever the result of the European election of 2014, it will make no difference whatsoever to the UK’s relationship with the EU.
    The European Parliament legislates for the EU as a whole, so we need to campaign on the issues affecting the EU as a whole in European elections. We may campaign on them in terms of how they affect the Euro-region in which we are campaigning, but they are still EU-wide issues.
    And we need to give a specific liberal slant to our European election campaigning. Just as inUK elections we campaign on our liberal vision for the UK, in European elections we need to campaign on how we, as the Lib Dems and as part of ALDE, would make the EU more liberal. I have given one example just now on the European Arrest Warrant. We need to do this for all aspects of EU policy and be unapologetic Euro-Reformists — NOT uncritical EU supporters! We must smash the perception, ecouraged by the media and Eurosceptics, that EU law is something that is handed down on tablets of stone from up on high, by hammering home the message that elections to the European Parliament is where voters can democratically influence it, and pushing our specifically *liberal* programme for the EU.

    And our negative campaigning should be targetted most strongly at the Tories. Forget UKIP: people who vote UKIP in Euro-elections are never going to vote for us in them. And UKIP are an obviously loony bunch. However, the Tories maintain an acceptable face, even while the party in the European Parliament are a bunch of raving loonies with most unsavoury bedfellows. So if we can show this to Lib Dem-Tory waverers, we might be able to get them to support us.

  4. Matthew says:

    Ah! But Alex, the genius of UKIP – the most successful party when it comes to campaigning for the European parliament – is that their policies have nothing to do with the EP’s remit. If it works for them, it should work for us. The media just aren’t interested in what the EP actually does – the only thing they will give airtime to is whether or not the UK should be part of the EU at all. So let’s talk about just that. We should say to our voters that they should send a message to politicians and the press that they will stand up and be counted for Britian being in Europe…while Labour runs scared.

    The idea about attacking UKIP is not that we will persuade their voters to come our way – but to define our party’s message more clearly. It so happens that on a whole range of issues UKIP stands for the opposite of what we do. And UKIP are important – some pollsters say they could be the biggest party. If they are the silly party, that helps us define ourselves as the sensible party, while Labour and the Tories hum and har because so many of their voters are tempted by the UKIP message. The Tories have too many friends in the media for our negative camapigning to make traction; leave that to Labour. This is what I mean when I say that our electoral message in PR elections has to be very different from normal elections. We wouldn’t get away with what I’m suggesting in a FPTP election – but it win a core vote for us in a poorly publicised and misunderstood PR, and save our bacon.

  5. Taking on board Alex’s comments, it seems to me they can easily be incorporated in Matthew’s proposed ‘Save Europe!’ slogan – not merely save Britain’s place in it and save it economically and ecologically but also save it from illiberal forces that threaten to hold it back. As Matthew says, Europe is ‘a fundamentally good idea but needs to be reformed’ and as Alex says, ‘be unapologetic Euro-Reformists’. If we’re going to stand up for the EU, let’s stand up for it to be liberal and democratic, too – that will really emphasize the contrast against UKIP!

  6. Pingback: Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #303

  7. Andrew Duff says:

    Good stuff, Matthew.

  8. Peter says:

    I agree with most of your ideas, Matthew. It will be a media dominated campaign so our campaign needs to reflect that. The ideas need to be big, straightforward and repeated ad nauseum. We need about three key messages ideally common amongst the regions. Attacking UKIP is an excellent strategy at least in Tory facing areas as the extra publicity they gain will hopefully be at their expense.

  9. Neil Craig says:

    I will welcome a serious campaign in favour of the EU, as a UKIP supporter it will be good to see somebody willing to actually debate the issue. Assuming the LDs don’t decline to debate as you do over global warming.

    One problem you have is having gone into both the last UK elections with manifesto promises to support a referendum – and broken them on both occasions.

  10. Matthew says:

    as I understand it the Lib Dems stuck to the letter of their promises on EU referendums – but I have to admit that even I struggle with the way the party’s attitudes to a referendum change on this.

    I’m not sure that British political life is capable of having a sensible debate on anything, especially if it’s important, like the EU (or global warming). The lobbyists on either side pile and quickly drown out anything sensible. Whether you will accept the sort of robust pro EU campaign I am advocating as “debate” is open to doubt, especially if you don’t think that the party’s attitude to climate change isn’t debate.

  11. Neil Craig says:

    The formal rules of debate are well worked out – equal speakers on each side getting equal time.

    I regard the existence of formal debate (in a mass society that means broadcast formal debate) as a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for a free democracy.

    Obviously we do not have any of that stuff on our state owned broadcaster. QT is either 4 or 5 out of 5 plus the moderator on one side & sometimes, as many as 1 on the other.

    On alleged global warming – some time ago I chaired a public debate on warming. Not one single Lib Dem (nor to be fair any other MSP/MP in the whole of Scotland) was willing to speak.

    So no, I do not regard the pseudo-Liberals as being willing to debate the facts on “catastrophic warming”. The only reason I can see for that refusal is that you know it is propaganda that cannot survive even a little honest appraisal.

  12. Matthew says:

    If only equality of time could ensure quality of debate. There are a million other issues, from the choice of question to prejudices of the audience. Equal time to how many points of view? You have to draw a line somewhere. I am still very scarred from the travesty of the AV referendum “debate”. Most people who took part (especially on the No side) had not the faintest idea of what they were debating and did not care how spurious were their arguments. When this was pointed out they tended to shrug and say “that’s politics: if you don’t like the heat, get out the kitchen.” After that I have tended to think that if you can’t beat them, join them, and that the Pro Europe referendum side should be just as unscrupulous as the No side were then.

    You are being disingenuous there on global warming. Most liberals simply don’t want to give the sceptics the oxygen of publicity, rightly or wrongly. Apart from challenging a few important details, and questioning whether the cure is worse than the disease (i.e. the sensible strategy is to adapt rather than to reverse the change – which I think is Nigel Lawson’s line) , I have not seen much coherent and convincing from the warming sceptic camp – though I take a lot of my judgements second hand from such organs as The Economist rather than spend much time reading their stuff directly.

    What I find interesting on this that on a debate that is allegedly about establishing facts, opinions seem largely determined by political views.

  13. Neil Craig says:

    The problem with the AV referendum was precisely that the BBC decided there was to be no debate on the issues. Which meant it was fought on the personality of Nick Clegg. This is the inevitable result of censoring debate.

    On catastrophic global warming I suggest that your answer is the disingenuous one. You acknowledge that LDs are refusing to debate and in admitting that this is done to prevent public discussion, that there is general censorship. 28 gate proves, beyond any doubt, that the state broadcaster has known for many years that the story is, at least in large measure, a fraud and that they are censoring to promote a fraud. If the LDs thought they would benefit from honest debate they would have no objection to it. Indeed if the party were in any way liberal they would not wish to suppress discussion either way.

    • Matthew says:

      I shouldn’t really prolong this conversation which is way off topic. I suggest that the reason that Lib Dems aren’t taking up the debate on climate change is precisely because they do not feel that the proposed format of the debate would be honest. A quick google on 28 gate and review of John O’Sullivan’s blog will (or should) show you why. It’s just virulent conspiracy-theory laden bile against the climate change consensus and no debate, never mind honest debate, at all. (If you’re not convinced just read that article on “heat streams one way not two”). I am sure not all climate change sceptics are like this (Lord Lawson isn’t for one) but there’s so much of this rubbish around that you can see why respectable politicians want to avoid it.

      • Alex Macfie says:

        Matthew: Just for your information, if this Neil Craig is the one I think he is, then it is not worth debating with him at all. He is a troll who enjoys taking discussions off on a tangent. He is a former LD who was expelled from the party some years ago.

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