Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Keeping your local campaign going during the EU referendum debate

This post on the US Campaigns and Elections blog highlights the plight of Lib Dems (and other parties) campaigning in the run up to the May elections.

For the Presidential primaries in the original post, read the EU referendum. It is the big beast dominating the media, around which local campaigns are struggling to find any daylight for their own campaigns.

There are elections in May for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, police and crime commissioners in most English forces, Greater London Assembly and local councils in (most of) England. Fortunately for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and London, they have their own dedicated and very good media streams which will help to get around the EU problem to some extent. And when it comes to PCC elections, no one really cared last time and I suspect no one will particularly care this time either. Sorry.

But what about local council elections? How does a candidate campaign and be noticed. There are two options. Follow the herd and talk about EU issues (If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em) or talk about local issues and recognise that you may have to work a lot harder than usual to be noticed.

For Lib Dems campaigning in local elections, I think it has to be option number two. Campaigning in favour of Remain is not going to surprise anyone. And, although potential Lib Dem voters align fairly well with the party’s own views on the EU, it is not as if the party is the only group campaigning for In. Most of the Labour Party, almost half of Conservatives and most minor parties are there too. The danger is that the Lib Dems strive to be the most Europhile in an effort to differentiate and that is when we start to leave our own voters behind.

Sadly, at least for Lib Dems, it seems that the media is currently swallowing the Conservative party whole when it comes to EU coverage. On the one hand you have the Prime Minister and the majority of the cabinet and on the other you have Boris and the group John Major referred to as the bastards. Why should the media want to reach out further - even as far as Labour, the Lib Dems or UKIP - when they have plenty of Tories willing to pile into each other? If the media want a non-Conservative they are more likely to look to a non-party business-type than someone from the opposition benches.

In the long run, this may well do the Lib Dems (and even Labour) good. If the Tories rip into themselves enough over the EU then they will appear divided to voters and lose support. But that doesn’t help much if your seat is up in May.

Campaigning on local issues may be harder, but it is going to be all the more important. With the air war being dominated by the EU, it will be vital to have a winning ground game. For this election, perhaps running counter to the general tide of elections over recent years, it will be important for Lib Dems to go back to what they are best at - lots of leaflets and knocking on doors. Over the past few weeks there have been some very good by-election results for Lib Dems in local government. Those have been achieved in the teeth of the early referendum coverage.

I have heard some campaigners claim that they have to talk about the EU because it is all the voters are interested in. To which I would suggest that this is only because you fail to offer any alternative. My sense is that people are already becoming bored by the referendum debate. They may well tell pollsters that they don’t think they know enough. But I struggle to believe that this will lead to a low turnout. I think the initial skirmishes have taken place and people will get back on board with the big picture in the final month of that campaign. In the meantime, they want to get on with their lives. And that means streetlights, pavements, housing and sports centres.

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