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!