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Why do the Lib Dems love leaflets so much?

23 August 2012

7:04 PM

23 August 2012

7:04 PM

Polling analyst Mark Gettleson has a fascinating piece of research on ConHome today about the implications for the Conservatives of a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote in 2015. In summary, it will be bad news for the Tories. Gettleson argues that in seats where the Lib Dems come third, those who had supported the party did so on the basis of national political messages. He says:

‘It is with these voters that an obvious left-right split becomes important – more precisely a Labour vs Coalition one. While Liberal Democrat voters who feel favourably towards the Coalition may well stick with Mr Clegg rather than leap to the defence of their incumbent Conservative, those who find the idea of going into bed with the Tories revolting will switch directly to Labour. In such a way, the Coalition has united the centre-left and split the centre-right for the first time in a century.’

Gettleson’s full piece is essential reading for Conservatives. But are the Lib Dems also thinking about ways of at least mitigating the electoral meltdown they could be heading for? In an effort to improve their campaigns, they bought – at quite some expense – the voter database used by the Obama campaign, called the Voter Activation Network. This is an incredibly powerful piece of software. It can help the party identify which subsets of voters are interested in certain issues – and target them accordingly.


Unfortunately, like a powerful car, the VAN is pretty useless if you don’t give it fuel. And the Lib Dems, having bought this database, haven’t powered it with data. I understand that the voter profiles they hold represent an absurdly small percentage of the population and date back more than a decade. The party has bought a Ferrari and is treating it like a lawnmower.

It’s a shame – not just from a value-for-money point of view – for the party, because if it did spend a relatively small amount of money collating sufficient information on voters in the same way as Labour and the Conservatives have, then it might change its campaigning practices quite considerably. Nothing gets Liberal Democrats more excited than a really nice bright orange leaflet, preferably about local recycling problems, or maybe even potholes. They even have their own leaflet banter: at last year’s autumn conference, local government minister Andrew Stunell told members to ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare the RISO’. The members loved it, but hacks and other civilians listening to the minister’s speech were baffled, and joked that he probably meant ‘prepare the risotto’, which after a week of being served fried plantain and teeny-tiny ham sandwiches at fringe events sounded rather tempting. It turns out that RISOs are the printers local Lib Dem parties use to produce their lovely orange leaflets. They are so beloved by the party that RISO even rents a stall at Lib Dem conferences.

The enthusiasm of local Lib Dems for sticking these leaflets through letterboxes on a weekly basis is astonishing and the other parties wouldn’t even be able to come close in replicating it. The other parties wouldn’t want to, though, as this kind of scattergun leafletting doesn’t work. Research by Experian suggests that the only people likely to actually read and appreciate leaflets about generic local issues are older single people. That’s quite a specific group. But I understand that the VAN is now mainly being used to draw up maps for delivering leaflets, rather than discovering how best to target specific voters who aren’t elderly and living alone. One campaigner tells me the party’s response to discovering that one-size-fits-all leaflets might not appeal to all voters is to apply a ‘doorstep to bin’ test, which assumes that a constituent might pick up some key messages on the way to the trash.

The party needs to devote some serious work to understanding who the voters are that it needs to target. Leaflets about the party’s local success on recycling are not going to swing it at the ballot box, especially if most of them are thrown, unread, into the recycling bin.

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Show comments
  • Ann-Marie

    If Lib Dem leaflets are such a waste of time why was the Focus leaflet copied by Tories with their In Touch? A piece of paper through a door has better potential coverage than any local paper or online communication.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Because they are the sort of people who read them. I never do, on principle. Life is far too short to read political pamphlets.Consequently I neither know nor care what anyone has promised and vote Tory out of deep conviction. And that Mr Cameron seems a nice fellow, well-educated and well-spoken. Clegg, on theother had, is an obvious cad, and Miliband the sort of dreadful oik who WOULD have a leftie academic

  • Andrew Bower

    Why do Lib Dems leaflet so much? Because it *works*. Lazy people who like to pontificate behind their computer keyboards might scoff at this but the ‘doorstep to bin’ test isn’t a resignation about the futility of the exercise, it is a cynical method designed to get the key message across as efficiently as possible. Too-posh-to-campaign-on-the-doorstep types should learn from them rather than scoffing from the sidelines and wondering why the left wins the elections.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    It’s a shame LibDems aren’t as recyclable as their leaflets.

  • james

    I guess that’s why using VAN I’ve help two people get elected in the last few weeks. It’s ace for telephoning people!

  • james

    I guess that’s why using VAN I’ve help two people get elected in the last few weeks. It’s ace for telephoning people!

  • Omar Salem

    Do you think Experian might have an interest in research that shows non-targeted leaflet communications do not work, given that they sell data for targeting communications?

  • William Blakes Ghost

    For a poor out of touch Westminster Freakshow piece of lobby fodder the idea that the very creation of Coalition did what 13 years of Labour Government couldn’t (reunite the left to the detriment of the right) but for those paying attention to whats really going on its old news. Exactly what did the Freakshow think has accounted for the polls for the last two years? We are almost back to two party politics.

    The most interesting thing from that article from Gettleson is that he provides no solutions to the Libdems woes and the Tories consequent difficulties. It’s as if he was saying “We’re screwed and with a bit of luck we’re going to take you Tories down with us!”

    In reality he’s right the Libdems are screwed. They have breached the sort of fundamental trust that usually ends the perpetrators up at the end of a rope. For many of their former supporters by joining the coalition they were consorting with the enemy. To them it was a betrayal of faith. WHat came after this betrayal (Tuition Fees, AV+, HoL Reform) has just added insult to injury. Even worse having made their bed they wouldn’t accept they had to lie in it and have acted like three years olds having a tantrum ever since.

    They have then compounded their betrayal by their complete failure in government. They have either lost or reversed what were policy articles of faith to their party. They have acted like hysterical infants (Cable and Oakeshott’s behaviour, in particular, has been as atrocious as Brown and Balls during the Blair years) in the face of the democratic views of the electorate and the realities of being the JUNIOR partner in a Coalition. The have undermined necessary legislation purely out of self-indulgent narcissism. They are an ill-disciplined self self serving rabble unfit for government, in fact they are unfit to represent voters.

    There is nothing that will now help them in my view. Like their leaflets they are in the process of being rightly discarded by the electorate.

    The key question is what do the Tories do to mitigate Cameron’s greatest cock-up of them all (creating the coalition and reuniting the left?) ? Keep wasting their time chasing Guardianistas and attempting to seek the approval of an urban liberal ‘intelligentsia’ (sic) who will have nothing to do with them or change tact and actually attempt to reach out to this country’s working and middle classes?

  • Axstane

    This is the same person as LibDem Councillor Gettleson of Bermondsey. Isn’t he a bit close to the matter to be polling? Or does it not matter if polls are not indepedent?

  • Owen_Morgan

    I remember seeing two old dears interviewed on the goggle-box in Devon (I think), around the time of a euro-election long ago. They were voting for libdims, because they were opposed to Britain’s membership of the ec, as it probably was then (post-eec, pre-eu). The libdims in their area had been shamelessly presenting themselves as eurosceptics, when the national party – and the actual local libdim candidate – were prepared, as always, then as now, to sign up to any anti-democratic nonsense which emerged from Brussels.

    Unless the libdims ever learn to be able to tell the truth, I can’t see how they will learn much from national polling. They aren’t a national party – just a club of pathological liars.

  • Gina Dean

    So they profess to being green this does not look good using so much paper which goes into the bin. Maybe that is why they can say how much they have saved in recycling.

  • Left-Handed Londoner

    I’m not sure the author understands either VAN (called Connect) or local political communications. Just because you want something to be true doesn’t make it so. It’s a shame, as there is potentially some good insight about modern political communication and campaigning, but this article doesn’t show any . . .

    • AnotherDaveB

      Perhaps you could point out these errors for us?

  • 2trueblue

    2015 is a long way away and electorate in the UK is very different to the US electorate. By the time we get there, and it could be sooner, the data in question will be very outdated.
    The BBC will be the greatest asset for Labour and poison for the Conservatives. Unless the situation there changes the BBC will colour the field for Labour and we are stuffed. Right now the rant is that Osbourne i a terrible job and yet other economies in the EU are going backwards or slowing but no adverse comments about the route they are taking. Whether we like it or not we are affected by the EU economy and the news there is dire.
    The LibDums are not doing their job and do not deserve to get anywhere when the next election comes around. Labour are only interested i telling us what they would do now, but who is to say that if they were in power we would not be where the southern European countries are right now? The economists who have a lot to say right now had little of use to impart when things went wrong so what do we care what they say now. They are carefully selected by the BBC anyway so ……
    Leaflets are not what we need right now. We need less ranting on the TV and some real journalists who have some real expertise and can impart to the public a balanced view.

    • NIcholas

      The BBC behaves like the propaganda broadcaster for a single-party state before we have even got there. By the time that happens they will be well-practiced in the art. I wake up to the news on Radio 3 and listen with increasing disgust to the way these stories are being manipulated by the use of scripted code words exactly similar to those used by Labour. The mildly surprising thing is that the Conservatives seem oblivious of this conspiracy and continue to do FA about it.

  • tomdaylight

    …it’s not just the Lib Dems that do this…

  • alexsandr

    any shite from the limp dems that comes through my letterbox goes straight in the recycle bin along with the indian takeaway menus.
    suspect I am not alone.

    • Andy

      You are not.

    • AnotherDaveB

      The volume of leaflets does show a desire to win though. If candidates don’t even bother to leaflet a ward, you assume they can’t be bothered. That’s not something you typically associate with the LD candidate.

  • Douglas Carter

    …’the VAN is pretty useless if you don’t give it fuel. And the Lib Dems, having bought this database, haven’t powered it with data’…
    More to the point, it’s an exercise in futility unless the messages recieved from those public approached are in tune with LibDem opinion. Where it deviates from the traditonal LibDem delusional grandstanding, they will naturally revert to type, and ignore the public.

  • Thomas Paine

    Never mind anything else they have done, the Liberals lost ALL credibility on a single issue – tuition fees – which has cost them a generation’s worth of progress. We are back in Jeremy Thorpe ‘Join the Liberals, feel a man’ days in terms of the toxicity of the Liberal brand and their overall electoral prospects (6 seats maybe, if they are lucky?). Only this time there’s no David Owen to rescue the notion of ‘middle’ politics.

    Personally I can’t wait to watch their extinction on election night 2015 (or sooner, hopefully). Good riddance to very bad rubbish.

  • Manners

    Leaflet banter is the best kind of banter

  • cass_android

    @tele_machus Where does the Lib Dem party find mung beans of the week like Steve Webb? Stuck in Robert Runcie’s beard?

    • Fergus Pickering

      Robert Runcie doesn’t have a beard. You’ve got the wrong arch.

  • tele_machus

    They need to get Bath Professor of Social Policy Steve Webb Coalition Minister(LibDem) in the Department of work and pensions onto this instead of screwing pensions by supporting the monstrous economic policy and lining the pockets of private companies his department hires for assessment
    To wit- the government contract with privateer Atos to deliver “fitness for work” assessments needs renegotiation.
    Atos was paid £112 million to assess people claiming disability benefits, but the National Audit Office has said that the firm hasn’t been taken to task for “underperformance” and had not been set “sufficiently challenging targets.”It found that nearly four out of 10 of its employees’ decisions are overturned on appeal.As a result taxpayers are still being forced to pay £60m spent on clearing up errors on top of the original deal.Auditors criticised the DWP for not seeking “financial redress” for delays in carrying out tests, with just 10 per cent of the possible penalties that should be triggered by poor performance actually being applied.The watchdog said the department’s “inaccurate forecasting” of the number of people likely to need a medical test had damaged its negotiating position.
    Steve Webb would be better at the RISO and if he masters that graduate to VAN

  • Michael990

    We have no centre right.

    • AnotherDaveB

      The Conservatives and UKIP are centre right!