The Liberal Democrat General Election Campaign 2001

Expectations and Achievements by Chris Rennard

Prior to the campaign Liberal Democrats knew that there were low expectations outside the party about what we could achieve in the General Election campaign of June 2001. Professor Bob Worcester confidently forecast that the Liberal Democrats would be down to 32 seats.  The Guardian regularly reported ICM polling analysis saying that we would win only around 25 seats.  Early in the campaign the Sun reported that Simon Hughes in North Southwark and Bermondsey and that Steve Webb in Northavon would be amongst the many Liberal Democrat casualties.

The journalistic community did not expect us to do very well. Our Conservative rivals, in particular, were confident of gaining large numbers of our seats.  In 1997 we had made 28 net gains – more gains than we or our predecessor parties had made in any election since 1906.  It was described as a high water mark, and many expectations were that we would lose many or most of these gains.

On June 7th, our increased representation to 52 MPs gave us our largest number of MPs since 1929.  It is also the largest number of Liberal Democrat, Liberal SDP Alliance, or Liberal MPs ever elected in three‑way contests.  Earlier triumphs such as in 1906 had been largely in constituencies with only Tory opponents.  The net gain of six seats compared to a Tory net gain of one, and a Labour net loss of six seats.  Predictions of this would have attracted very long odds at the bookmakers.

Share of Support

The Liberal Democrat share of the vote was up 1.6% on 1997 to 18.8% (GB figures).  Significantly for us, it was our first increase in share of support since 1983, having seen a steady decline since the Alliance vote of 1983.  It was important objective of the campaign to reverse that 18‑year decline in our share of support.  During the campaign itself, we went from 13% at the outset of the campaign to 19% on polling day.

MORI polling suggests that 75% of people had made up their minds before the election began, with only 25% of those people who voted making their minds up during the course of the campaign.  We started at 13%, and ended up with 19%; the Liberal Democrats must have won the support of 36% or 37% of those people who made up their minds how to vote during the course of the campaign.  I do not think many people would have thought that it would be possible for us to do better than that in the course of the campaign. 

Targeted Campaign

Our campaign was carefully targeted, to achieve not just as many successes as possible, but also to achieve representation of Liberal Democrat MPs in every region in Great Britain, which we achieved for the first time by winning Chesterfield in the East Midlands.   Our breakthroughs were significant in counties such as Surrey, Dorset and Shropshire, where we elected the first Liberal Democrat or Alliance or Liberal MPs for 50 years. 

Those people who have watched the Liberal Democrats advance in various places will have noted how clusters tend to grow from initial breakthroughs of Liberal or Liberal Democrat seats.  This is particularly important for the future. 

We were particularly pleased by results in Scotland, where we not only retained the ten seats we had, against many expectations, but for the first time we actually polled more votes than the Conservatives across the whole of Scotland, only 4% in national vote, behind the SNP. 

We were pleased to make modest progress, but not nearly enough, in electing more women Liberal Democrat MPs.  Of the eight gains we made in addition to those of 1997, four were with women Liberal Democrat candidates (including Sandra Gidley, victor of the Romsey by-election).

Our Message

Our message was popular and we were consistent in making it. On day one of the General Election campaign; as Tony Blair went to Buckingham Palace, Charles Kennedy described the difference between the Labour government and the Conservative Party as being the difference between a disappointment and a disaster.  We felt this was a fair appraisal of the two other parties, and being honest about this earned us considerable credit. 

We felt that this chimed with the public perception that the Labour government had been a disappointment in failing to deliver against the high expectations raised in 1997.  It was also right for us to remind people that, prior to 1997, the Conservatives had been a disaster, particularly in relation to the public services such as health and education.  William Hague’s Conservatives, were they ever to be in power, would be even more of a disaster. 

Lib Dem Campaign Themes – tested in Romsey

Our key themes in the campaign were in many ways tested out in the Romsey by‑election a year before the General Election.  Before the Romsey by-election campaign began, we tested two alternative propositions in a poll with Romsey voters.

We believed that the Conservative campaign was going to be based on saving the pound, and that they could not fight on the issues of health, education and the economy and so on because of their record in government. 

We resolved to fight our campaign largely on the issues of public services, investing more money in health and education, even if it means paying more in taxes to pay for the services. 

Our poll in Romsey had two simple options: We told people that they were about to

elect a new MP for the Romsey constituency.  We asked if that new MP’s priorities be saving the pound and stopping Britain joining the single currency, or spending more money on health and education – even if you have to pay more tax in order to pay for that investment. 

In Romsey (a very Conservative constituency that in 1992 had a 22,000 Conservative majority), 17% chose the first option, 81% chose the second, and only 2% were undecided. The Romsey by-election illustrated that Liberal Democrats had a good case to make, fighting hard on the issue of more investment in public services, as opposed to the Conservative campaign based largely upon “keeping the pound”.

Effective Opposition

Our campaign moved onto the concept of effective opposition.  We were very keen to stress that it was an issue of quality not quantity.  We did not want to say that we were necessarily going to come second in the popular vote, or win the second largest number of MPs (although we would not have minded if that had happened!)  We hoped that the gap might have been narrowed between the Conservatives and ourselves in the campaign, which would have given the story a greater lease of life. 

We felt this was an important argument for us to make because of the issues we were addressing during the campaign.  The criticisms that people made of the Labour government suggested that they had not delivered or done enough on health, education, public transport, pensions, providing police and so on.  The Conservative opposition to what Labour had done in government was to say that even less should be spent on these services, as that would be the natural assumption to make if tax cuts were the priority for the party. 

We took the view that if you were to criticise the Labour government for its failures, the best criticisms would come from people who said you should do more, and more quickly, even if you have to raise more taxes in order to pay for it, rather than people saying the government does too much, and wanting to cut back on “big government”. 

We also felt that opposition would be more effective if it came from a party that was united, as the Liberal Democrats clearly were, and would not be effective from the Conservatives, who were anything but united.  We felt our opposition was credible; we were looking to the long‑term, and we were being honest.  We tested out the various ways in which people thought that an effective opposition was important for the achievement of good government, and we felt that the Liberal Democrats could fit the bill. 

Message Summation

On the eve of the poll, Charles Kennedy summed up our message very simply by saying, ‘if you are happy with things as they are, if you think the pensioners have enough money, health and education are going fine, and you do not think more should be done,  then you should vote Labour. 

If you think less should be done on these things, and tax cuts should be the priority, then vote Conservative.

If you want to make a difference in these services; if you want to see many more teachers and nurses more quickly; if you want to see more books and equipment and smaller class sizes and shorter NHS waiting times, and you are prepared to pay a little bit more to achieve those things, and you value a party that looks to the long term, and wants to protect the environment, then you can only vote Liberal Democrat.’

Constituency Campaign

Our strategy for the constituency campaign was based on careful targeting.  Our 1997 breakthrough gave us 28 gains and in 2001 we made 8 gains on top of this (including Romsey, but whilst losing 2 seats).

The gains that we made were a triumph for targeting.  Applying a simple national swing to the seats that the Alliance had in 1983, we should have won 24 constituencies in 2001.  But we won 52 seats this time.  Unlike other parties with more national credibility, the single most important thing for us in the constituencies was to create the impression that we could win.  Attacks upon us by our opponents actually helped to convey this impression.

For us, constituency campaigning was very much more important than it was for the Labour or Conservative parties, who perhaps had stronger national support and the backing of a few newspapers (in Labour’s case, very many newspapers).  MORI did a very important poll for us in February, asking people how they would vote in a General Election tomorrow.  They came up with the standard 13% for the Liberal Democrats. 

They then said, ‘if you thought the Liberal Democrats could win in your constituency, not nationally, how would you vote?’  The findings of that poll were Liberal Democrats 36%, Labour 36%, and Conservative 23%. 

It showed the potential for the Liberal Democrat vote in those constituencies where we believed we could win.  Indeed, in the eight constituencies in which we gained compared to 1997, Charles Kennedy visited all of the constituencies in the course of the campaign, and in each seat he forecast that we would win.  

Media Strategy

Of course, every party tries to plan any campaign on the strengths of the leader, and Charles Kennedy’s great strengths are with the media. In the run up to the Election, I spoke to many journalists about how I thought he would be the star of the election campaign, because of his strength to communicate a powerful message through the broadcast media. 

There was much talk about the 2001 General Election revealing a wholly new style of campaigning, and how the internet might perhaps dominate, and that perhaps the campaign buses might be redundant and that 24 hour broadcast coverage might make the election very different. 

From the Liberal Democrat point of view, we fought a very traditional campaign, and were right to do so.  We had a daily early morning press conference in a central London venue, with our spokesman on the issue of the day and our leader addressing the issue. 

We did a conventional bus tour around many regions, and we gave journalists direct access on a frequent and regular basis to our party leader and senior figures.  We undoubtedly benefited from doing that.  We held traditional rallies, and we were the only party to invite members of the public to come along to them. 

Our Party Election Broadcasts were generally positive and policy orientated, featuring Charles at the centre of the campaign.  The only innovation that was significant in the campaign was publishing our manifesto in a more accessible tabloid newspaper format.

Campaign Conclusion – the public opinion.

In conclusion, a MORI poll of 1 010 British adults on 4 and 5 June, at the very tail end of the campaign asked, ‘which political party if any has impressed you most in the election campaign?’  The result was:-

Labour                         20%,

Liberal Democrats      30%,

Conservative               11%

Liberal Democrats are understandably proud of our campaign.

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