This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
When I was campaigning for the Liberal Democrats in Cornwall ahead of the 2005 general election, canvassers would be given a sheet of names, each of which would be marked to show which party they had told us would be likely to get their vote at a future election.
Some would have a ‘D’ or a ‘P’ next to them, revealing that they would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ vote Lib Dem. New canvassers were always sent to areas where there were lots of ‘Ds and Ps’, as they could expect to receive a relatively friendly response and would probably not be chased down the garden path or have abuse hurled at them.
But we soon found that we simply weren’t knocking on enough doors. Campaigners were spending too long chatting to the ‘Ds’ and agreeing that the Lib Dems had all of the answers to the world’s problems, but while they had a good chat, their work was largely unproductive.
They were speaking to people who would already vote for them, instead of convincing others to do so. We ended up limiting the time they could spend on doorsteps and dragging them down the street towards the co-called ‘soft Cons’, ‘soft Labs’ and the odd Mebyon Kernow supporter.
It is understandable. Speaking to someone who agrees with us makes us feel good and boosts our self-confidence. We like nothing more than heading to the pub and putting the world to rights over a couple of pints with our friends. Many of us buy newspapers that tend to reflect our political outlook, and we nod sagely when we agree with the day’s editorial.
But living in a comfort zone won’t get a campaign, whether led by a political party or a major charity, very far. Everything will become too internally focused, and outside audiences will soon lose interest.
The Lib Dems’ bad habit of preaching to the already converted does not stop at the doorstep. Ahead of each of the annual conferences in the run-up to the last election, we would consider ways to take full advantage of the national exposure they attracted. At that time, the party rarely received positive and prominent national coverage, so the opportunities, when it came to reaching new audiences, were obvious.
But nearly every year, conference would become a navel-gazing festival that was of little interest to any of the people whose votes the party had to win. While this is a challenge most parties have to overcome, Lib Dems seem to take it to a whole new level. Lib Dem conference-goers, much to the frustration of the leadership, enjoy nothing more than a big row about some issue which few voters would care about.
Why outline a vision for the country, when instead you can argue over the technicalities of electoral reform or the wisdom of allowing under-18-year-olds to watch and star in pornography? Last year, one of the first debates was on the new registration procedure for conference delegates.
Successful campaigns and campaigning organisations look beyond those who are already on-side. They reach out to new people or work to bring unlikely bedfellows together. The Save Our Forests campaign forced ministers to make a major U-turn.
It succeeded because the campaign built a broad coalition, uniting the left and right. Hard socialists joined forces with Daily Telegraph readers and household names, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dame Judi Dench, to send the government a message.
But the high-profile, anti-tuition fees campaign failed. Students caused carnage in central London, but the Conservatives did not feel threatened by it. It came as no surprise that students wouldn’t like their tuition fees being trebled, but if the NUS had put more effort into reaching out and building a wider coalition, made up of both the usual and unusual suspects, it may have had more success.
While the campaign was hugely uncomfortable for the Lib Dems, significant chunks of the Conservative core vote were not particularly passionate about the issue. For the Tories, a U-turn as a result of this campaign simply wasn’t on the cards.
As the forest campaign demonstrates, broad and focused coalitions are what can really change policy. Campaigns succeed when they attract the support of the unusual suspects and bring diverse voices together.
Make Justice Work (a former client of mine) understands this. The campaign organisation works to highlight the ineffectiveness of short prison sentences, and raise awareness of alternatives to prison. Roma Hooper, the campaign’s founder, a respected figure in the criminal justice sector, wanted to focus on reaching beyond Guardian-reading liberals.
Therefore, Make Justice Work commissioned a national enquiry and recruited Peter Oborne, the conservative commentator and someone who certainly isn’t considered to be soft on crime, to chair it.
The national enquiry visited a number of alternatives to custody, and took evidence from those involved in delivering them. Its final report, published last year, found that effective community sentences are indeed successful at both punishing and rehabilitating criminals.
Given that the publication was not simply another report by a criminal justice campaigner, it enabled Make Justice Work to open conversations with the people it needed to get on board to generate the change it wanted. It also attracted media coverage in a wider range of outlets.
Hooper readily acknowledges the benefits of bringing seemingly disparate figures into campaigns. “By attracting the support of respected figures who few would consider to be soft on crime, we’ve been able to expand considerably the reach of our campaign,” she says.
“Instead of simply speaking to those we know agree with us, we are able to get a fair hearing from more sceptical MPs and engage positively with the policy-making processes.”
Successful political campaigners will also inject considerable effort into targeting, persuading and convincing those who appear to be hostile towards them. This is particularly true when a campaign is struggling or under serious attack, and the temptation is to withdraw.
Indeed, party leaders are often encouraged to focus on their core supporters when times are tough and poll ratings are haemorrhaging.
But such moves should be resisted. Brave politicians will go out of their way to engage with those who appear to disagree with them. It has recently been reported that Nick Clegg is set to embark on a Roosevelt-style ‘bring on the hatred’ strategy over the summer.
This is similar to Tony Blair’s so-called ‘masochism strategy’ in the months before the 2005 general election, which saw angry voters confront him directly. A bunker mentality will only serve to puncture a campaign’s momentum.
But reaching out needs to be done with sincerity. People will quickly realise if they are being used as a campaign tool, rather than genuinely being valued for their support and views. Cameron can testify that this has to be done carefully.
The Conservative leader’s detoxification work was strategically sound. ‘Hug a hoodie’ was clever because it got former Conservative refuseniks listening to what he had to say. It suggested he was prepared to take a new approach to the country’s social challenges.
The trip to the North Pole to demonstrate his commitment to environmental concerns was a good idea, too, and created some great images that could potentially have been fantastic campaign tools. When it emerged, however, that he cycled to work with a car carrying his baggage trailing behind him, few environmentalists would ever trust him again.
Before sleeping with the enemy, there also has to be confidence that their support will strengthen and not undermine the campaign. Those wanting to see a shift away from prison and towards more community sentencing, for example, probably wouldn’t want the support of those who clamour for the return of the stocks.
But it is vital to consider whose support is needed if a campaign’s objectives stand any chance of being achieved. Mapping those who are naturally supportive is helpful and will avoid valuable resources being directed towards those who are already on-side.
It is also worthwhile making a serious effort to grasp other people’s views and consider the arguments that could convince them to change their minds.
Unless a campaigner really understands the people they are targeting, the campaign is unlikely to succeed. That is why it is very damaging if a party leader forgets the price of milk or does not know how much a loaf of bread costs.
Having worked on various campaigns, I know how frustrating it is to spend far too much time at events where attendees seem to do little more than sit in agreement. They may have interesting discussions and speak passionately about the changes they want to be made, but if the voters they need to reach are not present, such inward-facing discussions may make participants feel good but they won’t generate a campaign’s required momentum.
This was a particular problem immediately after the election, when the policy landscape changed. Nimble-footed campaign groups moved to develop relationships with the new government, but many appeared reluctant to do so, having built a network of contacts among the previous government.
They continued to engage with their former government leads and lament about days gone by rather than looking ahead and focusing on how to work with new ministers and the next generation of parliamentarians.
Perhaps all campaigners should take a lesson from the canvassers in Cornwall. Limit the time spent preaching to the party faithful and focus on new pastures. But don’t take supporters for granted – keep them informed and use them as valuable message-carriers.
Sam Cannicott is a former Liberal Democrat adviser and now works for communications consultancy Champollion