In the wake of the Lib Dems shock by-election victory in North Shropshire, Jonathan Quin explores how the Labour Party should respond to the tactics used by the Lib Dems during the campaign.
The Fabian Society has a proud history of being the main intellectual organisation helping develop and flesh-out ideas for left-wing progressives in Britain. While many of these ideas focus on policies, the role of Fabians in fighting elections on the doorstep should never be understated. Having been dubbed the ‘nerdy brains’ of the Labour movement, I believe many Fabians approach their electioneering with a scientific mindset, a preference for a pragmatic balance between policy and data-led campaigning.
However, it is this desire to focus on policy that causes so much frustration when faced with the strategy of our opponents. Rather than debating policy issues and the areas where we disagree with the Greens and Liberal Democrats, the only discourse around recent by-elections has been the so-called ‘tactical vote’ to defeat the Conservatives.
Of course, we must credit the Liberal Democrats for their incredible campaign and victory in North Shropshire, a remarkable win that was possible without the support of Labour switchers. However, the tone towards the end of the campaign was at times vicious, and the dispute over tactical voting became one of the biggest ‘mud-slinging’ matches at a recent by-election. When it comes to claiming you are the tactical vote, any semblance of policy discussion simply vanishes. While Labour activists are not perfect protagonists in this, it was the tactics of the Liberal Democrats that drew the most attention throughout this particular campaign.
For example, many Fabians will likely know their way around a bar chart. They can be used as a simple way of indicating which policies are preferable when it comes to things such as cost/benefit analysis. A good bar chart has labelled axes, bar heights that correspond to the figures, and a clear link to the source data. Therefore, it is incredibly painful when the Liberal Democrats came out with what I can only describe as sacrilege to the political and data science communities. Graphs on their initial set of leaflets in North Shropshire claimed that Labour was the fourth-placed party in the constituency with a corresponding greyed-out bar to boot. This was despite Labour receiving the second-highest number of votes in the constituency for the 1997, 2001, 2005, 2015, 2017 and 2019 General Elections. While the effect of these leaflets will never be known, it is clear their purpose was to mislead and deceive voters.
The dodgy bar charts were then accompanied by very underhand tactics both on the ground in North Shropshire and by prominent Liberal Democrat members online. In a viral tweet, Dr John Timperley, sporting a Green Party face mask, claimed to be a member in North Shropshire altruistically campaigning for the Lib Dems in aid of the ‘progressive alliance’. Whether he had defected to the Greens or not, Timperley failed to mention he stood as a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate just two years earlier. Prominent Liberal Democrats also engaged in a war of disinformation online with their claim that Ben Wood, the Labour candidate, was a former staffer for the sleazy Owen Paterson. As it turned out, Ben Wood had completed an unpaid work experience placement, while at school, in the office of his local MP. The ends do not justify the means and we should not condone this unusual and dishonest campaigning even if the result was positive.
The question remains about how Fabians should use their skills on the Labour doorstep to prevent Labour from being misrepresented by our opponents. In the future, Labour must ‘go hard or go home’. A party serious about entering government takes no election loss for granted and should not be pigeonholed simply as a party for towns and cities. In future by-elections, Labour activists should not wait to begin leafleting or knocking on doors. Instead, our focus should be shifted to the start of the campaign when voting decisions are not yet made and when voters are not yet faced with a deluge of campaign material. This would allow campaigns to better focus on policy and what makes Labour distinctive, rather than handing the head start away to others. While sticking to our principles and being honest in our campaigning techniques, we should also never be frightened of sticking up for our own candidate.
Jonathan Quin is a Politics and Economics student, Labour member and Vice Chair of Surrey Heath CLP. He tweets at @_JonathanQuin.