What Labour and the Tories could do to defend themselves
Anybody with any doubt about the power of the Lib Dem by-election machine should check out the excellent “British Parliamentary By Elections Since 1945” site where election literature from almost every campaign has been collected and is available to view on line.
Quite simply the party is so far ahead in finding vote-switching messages and creating effective vehicles to communicate them that virtually every Tory and Labour seat in the country is vulnerable.
Just looking at the Bromley and Dunfermline material and you can understand why the party pulled off such spectacular performances. But is there anything that the big party duopoly could do to deal with the challenge? How do you avoid by election disasters at the hands of the Lib Dems? Here’s my four part guide.
1. Try to stop by elections in the first place. Don’t allow self-inflicted wounds like allowing MPs to take jobs that require them to resign. These are optional by elections which can land you in trouble. Also introduce strict health screening for prospective candidates in winnable seats and for those standing again. Provide advice and support so existing MPs can enjoy a healthier life-style.
2. Starve the Lib Dems of cash to fight campaigns. Looking through the by election site archives and it’s clear that the Lib Dems spend the maximum allowed expenses of Â£100,000 very effectively. So the Tories and Labour, as part of the election spending review that seems certain to follow the “cash for peerages” affair, could suggest a much lower limit. This could all be dressed up as “cleaning up” politics but in reality the objective would be to impede Ming Campbell’s party.
3. Choose candidates from the ethnic minorities. In the frenzied atmosphere of a by election they are likely to be less vulnerable to negative campaigning. The Lib Dems would find it harder to use messages like “a local man/woman for the job” for fear of being accused of running a racist campaign. Cynical – yes. Effective – probably.
4. Go negative right from the start. Labour’s successful defences at Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool in 2004 were based on highly effective negative attacks on the Lib Dem candidates. Research and find an aspect of their background that you can make into a campaign issue. Find a chink if their armour and go for it time and time again.
Because by elections provide the oxygen that drives the Lib Dems the party takes them very seriously. Much is run from a central unit that springs into action within hours of a by election becoming a possibility. Labour are quite good here but the Tories appear to be some way behind.
Will all this work? I don’t know – but when the next by election is called I’ll probably be betting on the Lib Dems.