This is intended in the first of a series to help explain how the Lib Dems campaign, and how to beat them. While focused on the Lib Dems, the techniques mentioned are also relevant whether your local opponents are Tories, fascists, Greens, Respect, nationalists, independents or whatever. The interactive element is that people are encouraged to leave examples of successful Lib Dem campaigning that they have suffered from, and examples of how they've managed to beat the Lib Dems. I'll update this guide regularly with the information which other Labour campaigners provide. This first post will just be a general overview. It is based on camapigning against the Lib Dems, reading their campaign manuals, and one very enlightening local by-election campaign signed up to their campaign e-mail list (I sent them a thank you e-mail the day after we beat them in that election).
The Liberals used to be known for their 'pavement politics', and it is quite interesting that over the last thirty years, they have largely abandoned this in favour of a generic campaign strategy which they apply everywhere - a Lib Dem leaflet in London, in Oxford, in Liverpool looks very similar and is based on implementing the same basic strategy. Because they have an extremely small 'core vote', something like 2% of the population, they have to build a coalition at every single election based not on a common set of values, but on uniting people who are against something. That's why they have their bar charts, which are always designed to persuade everyone who is opposed to Labour to vote for them, and they always pick one or at most two issues which they will claim the election is 'about', which might be local: 'vote Lib Dem to save the local hospital', or national: 'vote Lib Dem to send a message to Tony Blair'. A variant on this which they sometimes use is to send round leaflets which appear to be from Labour, saying that a vote for Labour is a vote for the war on Iraq, higher council tax and so on. These messages are always required to fit into a simple set of '3 things to remember' which they repeat on all their leaflets. Because they are building a coalition of people without referring to any consistent set of values, they have no problem in agreeing with whatever the voter who they are talking to happens to think, even if it is the opposite of what the previous person who they have agreed with thinks.
But at the same time as running an essentially negative campaign relying on uniting people to vote against things, they also try to appear to be 'not like the other politicians'. They'll often claim to be running a positive campaign and will mention local improvements and claim credit for them whether or not it is justified. Their election material, at its most sophisticated, includes 'handwritten' letters from their candidates with the addresses of the electors handwritten by volunteers (which don't look anything like political leaflets) and therefore get read by people who throw leaflets straight in the bin.
There's lots more to their campaigning, but that is enough to be getting on with - whenever you face the Lib Dems, they will be running a negative campaign while spinning that they are being positive. It is very effective, and because it is generic and doesn't require a lot of local skill, is a strategy which they can run anywhere in the country. To kick off the discussion, here's some suggestions about how to respond:
1. Don't let them decide what the election is about.
Going into any election, you have to know what the main issues that people who will be voting care about, and keep your campaign about these issues. The Tories in the hilariously bad campaign in Bromley decided to spend the last week talking about the EU, which is exactly the way not to beat the Lib Dems. To find out what people care about, you have to go and talk to them. One weakness of Lib Dem campaigning is that they often don't do this - they assume that council tax or George Bush are what people must be interested in because those are the main issues on the Today programme. The test for this is whether your leaflets are about the same things that people are raising on the doorstep. If they are not, then they need changing. People won't vote for us unless they have a positive reason to do so.
2. Don't let them take the credit for Labour achievements.
The only people to blame if the Lib Dems get the credit for things that we have done is...
Us. If good things happen as a result of Labour policies, then we have to tell people about them, whinging that people think that the Lib Dems have done these things when we have sat back and expected people to work it out by some weird form of osmosis is worse than useless. More people get their information about the local area from leaflets than from the local newspaper or radio, if you do something good then you have to tell people about it. Over and over again.
In my ward there was a community resource centre which lots of people cared about. I wrote about it on all my leaflets, got a story about it with my picture in the local paper about every three months, and kept on going on about it to the point where other Labour councillors would groan audibly at having to sit through yet another update. When the Lib Dems took control of the council, they voted to stop funding the centre, and then put out leaflets blaming 'Labour's mismanagement'. In this case, though, no one believed it because they had never heard the Lib Dems talking about it before, and had heard masses from us.
3. Learn from their good ideas.
One complaint that I hear sometimes is that the Lib Dems put forward candidates who 'weren't even party members of theirs'. Turns out that getting people to stand for the council who are well known in their community is quite effective. We should get much better at finding people who haven't joined up but who would be good Labour councillors (one difference is that we would only want to do this with people who share our values).
Another clever trick the Lib Dems have is that they put on their leaflets 'the person who usually delivers this leaflet in your street has recently moved away. If you would be interested in helping keep people informed by delivering leaflets, contact us'. Now often when the Lib Dems do this, it is just a lie, but it helps to give their leaflets a 'community' feel and reinforces the idea that they aren't like other politicians. Getting local deliverers, regular leaflets outside of election time, and making our leaflets less party political and more about local community news should all be priorities.
4. Break up their coalition of support.
Because they have very little core vote, the Lib Dems are very vulnerable to people finding out about what they really stand for. In particular, in most urban areas, their vote is a combination of people who used to vote Tory in the 1980's and early 90's and people who think Labour has got too right-wing. These people think diametrically opposite things. In many areas, Labour has used the issue of crime and anti-social behaviour very effectively, because the Lib Dem policy on this issue is way out of line with what their voters think. But these aren't 'magic bullet' issues, because if people think that we have done nothing about crime in an area, or if it is not a major issue for them, then they aren't going to be persuaded.
5. Don't get mad, get even.
Campaigning against the Lib Dems can be infuriating, with their dishonest bar charts, leaflets claiming credit for things that they had nothing to do with, campaigns urging people to send a message on an issue which local councils have no control over. But while these are cynical and ruthless campaign techniques, they only work where we let them by failing to persuade enough people that we are on their side and that we have the best ideas for their local area.
That's enough for now. But I've only scratched the surface of Lib Dem tactics, and of ways to beat them. So leave your problems or solutions in the comments.