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Lib Dems Will Get More Election Campaign Cash If They Up Their Doorknocking

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey following the party's by-election victory in Somerton and Frome (Alamy)

5 min read

Liberal Democrat campaigners who deliver more leaflets and knock on more doors will have their general election budgets boosted by HQ as the party escalates its ground game for 2024.

PoliticsHome understands that recruiting new party members and raising more funds locally will also be among the indicators that will see regional activists in the party’s target seats rise in internal party league tables and be rewarded with more campaigning cash. 

The Lib Dems, led by Ed Davey, are hoping to make significant gains in Tory heartlands at the next general election, which must be called before the end of 2024. Many of these are in the so-called ‘Blue Wall’ in the south of England, traditionally Tory seats where a large number of voters backed Remain in 2016, and where the Lib Dems have already enjoyed a number of by-election victories.

In the 2019 general election, Brexit dominated campaigning across all major parties, but five years later, the absence of a universally divisive issue means that parties are likely to run hyper-local campaigns in order to lure out reluctant voters. 

A Lib Dem source said that the business-like KPIs (key performance indicators) including amount of leaflets delivered, doors knocked, funds raised and members recruited will form an important part of local campaigning strategy. Activists will need to hit all four in order to unlock the extra cash. 

More campaign managers are also being recruited across individual seats, and the party’s Westminster office has been downsized, as they pump more money into activity outside of London. 

“If you want to win you’ve got to prove yourself, and then you get more HQ resource,” a Lib Dem source said. 

Digital ads will run in target seats, and traditional media campaigning will also form a key part of efforts to attract voters, but party figures acknowledge they are unlikely to match spend by the cash-rich Conservatives in these areas, making ground work all the more important. Plus, there is a belief that undecided people are more likely to switch their allegiance after a face-to-face conversation.  

Although campaign fairness rules mean that the Lib Dems will have increased media airtime immediately preceding an election, there is an understanding that Labour and the Conservatives can naturally “rely a little bit more” visibility on radio and television between now and then as their greater prominence means “they’re constantly mentioned on the news all the time”.

“That's why as a party, we're so reliant on people getting our message across locally on doorsteps to people,” the Lib Dem source said.

“You’ve got to go back to the bread and butter, that’s how you win elections.”

Dr Alan Wager, a Research Associate at UK in a Changing Europe estimates that the party will be fighting “three dozen or so” individual contests rather than a broad, unified national campaign. 

“While the 2019 campaign was disappointing for the Liberal Democrats, it left the party positioned in dozens of constituencies as the principal challenger to the Conservative Party,” Wager wrote in their Public Opinion 2023 report. 

“If the party targets its resources effectively in the places where it remains a clear second, its anti-Conservative stance is likely to bear real dividends.” 

While the Lib Dems succeeded in taking Somerset and Frome and Tiverton and Honiton from the Tories in by-elections this year, Labour won Nadine Dorries’ former Mid-Bedfordshire seat with 13,872 votes. The three-way contest left the Tories in second place with 12,680, while the Lib Dem candidate trailed with 9,420. The contest has been viewed by the Lib Dems as a lesson in why they’re better off focussing on seats where they are already the second biggest party, particularly where there’s a strong chance of tactical voting. 

Andrew Russell, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool told PoliticsHome that voters who want to vote tactically against the Conservatives will be considering who the “most viable” opposition is. 

Pointing to the Mid-Bedfordshire contest – held on the same day of another by-election in Tamworth, which Labour also won –  Russell said that the Lib Dems “thought they could play the card of saying ‘we’ll have this seat and Labour will have the other one’.

“That didn’t work out because Labour proved themselves in the early days of ground campaigning to be viable at the local level, to have the infrastructure to have the activists with local knowledge to be able to segment that electorate. 

“That's easy to do in a by-election, it's very hard to do in a general election.”

Will Jennings, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Southampton, thinks the big campaigning question at the election will be mobilisation: how will people be convinced to come out and vote? 

Compared to 2019 where frustration over Brexit drove turnout on both sides of the argument, Jennings is uncertain whether there will be a single issue that succeeds in cutting through voter malaise.  

“Can the Conservatives use a stop the boats campaign to deliver this wedge?,” Jennings asked. 

“My view is no. It’s a salient issue, but it’s not as salient an issue as Brexit was. It’s not as easy to draw dividing lines.”

Russell however, believes that “the types of seats that could make the difference between a majority and a minority government will be performance in particular areas". 

He added: “You will get a regionalised, localised campaign within the national campaign and for that parties will, I think, sink some of their resources into the bespoke campaigning.”

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