Vauxhall was an opportunity for the Lib Dems in the 2017 General Election. Traditionally about as safe a Labour seat as you can get, it had a hard Brexiteer MP in an area that voted heavily to Remain. When Theresa May stepped out on to Downing Street that Monday morning to announce that she was going to the country, this was the type of seat that no doubt had a big ring around it at Lib Dem HQ. Labour would of course go on to win by over 20,000 votes but that doesn’t tell half the story.
George Turner was the candidate and he expressed some of his thoughts in an article entitled Losing in Vauxhall to Brexit Kate. It is a fairly open and honest piece that seems to have hit home for many.
The main parts that are worth noting are the slow reaction of Lib Dem HQ to the moving barometer of Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity. He started the campaign as an electoral liability but the moment people started to look at Theresa May with more laser like focus coupled with his populist policies, he became Nick Clegg in 2010 but unlike Clegg, he had the party with deep pockets and infrastructure in a great deal more in-play seats. This financial and infrastructure factor cannot be overlooked.
I’ll start copying and pasting bits of the article with some comments…
All our data at the beginning of the campaign showed that we were significantly ahead of Labour in Vauxhall, and yet on polling day we finished 30 points behind. The data was not wrong. There was a genuine, large and late swing towards Labour. In the relatively short period of the election campaign, tens of thousands of people in Vauxhall, and millions across the country, switched their vote from Liberal Democrat to Labour.
This adds up to what the rumours were. Essentially at the start of the campaign when it was being fought on a Brexit ticket and everything else relegated to the back pages, the Lib Dems had every right to think they were set to make sweeping gains, even overturning such long odds such as downing Kate Hoey in Vauxhall. The problem was the party nationally never really had a strong Brexit message. The whole ‘you know what, we’ll have a second referendum on the terms of the deal’ was weak, weak, weak. Most knew it then, everyone knows it now. When the accelerator should have been pressed, the party cruised along in neutral. A huge miss.
Into this mess entered Jeremy Corbyn with a leaked manifesto and public opinion started to shift dramatically. For the first time there was a major political party offering a clear and credible way out of the dismal spiral of tax cuts followed by more cuts to services.
As Labour’s poll rating increased people started to believe there could be a Labour government. Voters began to think that their decision was about much more than who was going to be their local MP, it was about what kind of government they wanted.
At that point Brexit dropped off the agenda.
Ding, ding, ding and we have a winner. You win elections by giving people hope or scaring them. Jeremy Corbyn gave them hope and as national polls shifted to the possibility of a hung parliament or even a Labour majority, people weren’t just thinking about who will represent them in parliament but who could actually form that government. The Lib Dems kept banging on about no coalition deals ever (no matter who with) so that told people that to get rid of the Tories and Theresa May, you had to vote Labour.
I know the party are still salty about coalitions but by telling the electorate that, it didn’t calm down those who were worried about them propping up the Tories again but scared the Anti-Tory voters that they only had one way to get rid of May…and it wasn’t by lending the Lib Dems a vote.
The moment Brexit dropped off the top line of the ticket it opened up opportunities for a handful of Lib Dems, the Norman Lamb’s of the world but it also opened up the door to Labour for their extremely appealing domestic policies. People didn’t care whether they could afford them or not, they were fed up of the deficit and less money for public services.
When people are fed up they just do something they shouldn’t anyway. If you are in a foul mood and it is still a few days until payday, do you look at the Chinese takeaway menu and say, ‘No, maybe when I’ve been paid…’ or do you say, ‘fuck it, can I please have Set Menu B?’ I know that is a pretty simplistic analogy but the electorate weren’t thinking about the small print, they only wanted the headlines and the Labour headlines were very enticing.
Part of the national campaign was to flood each target constituency in direct mail, produced by Lib Dem HQ on behalf of the national campaign. On day one we told Great George Street in no uncertain terms that the last thing we needed was anti-Corbyn literature going though the doors of voters in Vauxhall. In order to win Vauxhall we needed to convince tens of thousands of Labour voters to change their vote to us in a one-time deal to kick out Kate Hoey. That would just be made harder if we were perceived to be anti-Labour.
Our advice was almost completely ignored. Voters in Vauxhall received a stream of literature, sent out by Lib Dem HQ featuring Comrade Corbyn in a silly hat. As the polls swung towards Labour that message became more and more damaging. The vilification of the Labour leader cost us volunteers and voters. When we complained we were told there was nothing we could do about it.
This seems to have been a big problem that the party needs to address. This wasn’t a one-size fits all election, not for the Lib Dems and nor will it ever be for us. The party have to look closely at every seat and listen to what the people on the ground are saying. If you are in an office in London with focus groups, are what they tell you going to be the same that people are thinking in Leeds North West or Ceredigion for example? I highly doubt it.
Even if going into the campaign HQ thought they had put in place a smart tactic, they certainly were not flexible enough to adapt to the changing face of what was going on. As we went from an easy Tory landslide to an election where the keys to number ten downing street were genuinely up for grabs, the party didn’t seem to change course. The mind boggles. This is not an indictment at all on how hard people worked but sometimes you have to realise that working hard isn’t the only key to success, if it was the party would probably have won at least 50 seats on June 8.
If you are planning on an insurgency campaign then it has to be just that. In Vauxhall that seemed to be the plan and everyone was on board. This was about removing Kate Hoey, not for being in favour of Brexit but about how adamant she was about it and how how of step she was with her electorate. If that is the plan (and the seat was given target seat status) then you have to leave those who are in charge of the campaign locally to run the operation. By flooding the area with national literature, all it did was muddy the waters. This happened in several other seats too so I’ve been told, where the candidate’s views were overridden by HQ who wouldn’t listen.
What must be learned from this fiasco is two-fold. First of all, all plans must be adaptable. You must be able to change course to some degree during a campaign. If things outside of your control change then you shouldn’t stay on the same course. The world around us is very volatile and momentum can stall or change a campaign, even if you don’t have anything to do with it, another party’s rise or fall can and will affect how the electorate see you.
Secondly, more power should be given to campaign manager’s in target seats. If you have employed someone to run the campaign then let them do so at a local level. Candidates should be able to opt-in and opt-out of certain targeted mailings as they see fit. They have the people on the ground to see how the message is going across on their particular patch and why people don’t listen to these expertise and insight I’ll never know. The more data and knowledge you have, the more informed you are and you have a better chance of reaching the best decision. If you ignore that data and knowledge then you are setting yourself up to fail.
I have written on multiple occasions about the campaign. It was piss poor. I think most now know this and have taken it on the chin. I’ve heard on the grapevine that some at HQ prefer to point the finger at bad local campaigns than look inwards in the immediate aftermath. This now has surely evaporated to some degree. If it hasn’t then oh boy.
I know betting markets are just that but at the start of the campaign the spread on Lib Dem seats was around the 30 mark. Not all these local parties put together poor campaigns and fuck ups at local level. The sad truth is Tim Farron made little impact apart from having gay sex related issues and HQ’s plan was to target the soft Con vote only as they thought the majority Labour Remainers would come over without too much fuss. When all is said and done the party actually got fewer votes in 2017 than it did in 2015. That is just a damning statistic.
The Labour Remain vote stayed where it was because they fell for Corbyn’s magical charms on where he stood on the issue and whilst the party did see moderate success in LD/Con battles primarily in heavy Remain areas, the fact the party had Twickenham pretty much sown up weeks in advance and allowed Sarah Olney to lose Richmond Park by 45 votes to a man like Zac Goldsmith is a fitting epitaph to the 2017 Liberal Democrat General Election campaign.
I don’t know George Turner but he comes across as a highly intelligent and articulate individual. The party needs to nurture this type of candidate and listen to what they have to say. If they continue to stick fingers in their ears and say it wasn’t their fault, no progress will ever be made. Also where is the survey we were all promised on how the campaign went? I suspect quite a few activists have quite a fair bit to say…
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