Surveying the Battlefield: The Lib Dems

In a series of blogs we’ll be looking beyond the party leaders to the teams behind the scenes. From student door knockers to £10k an hour consultants we’ll be opening the hood of the Election 2015 campaign machines.

The Team: As with Labour and the Tories, the Lib Dems have a good sized press office, albeit one with more of a sense of humour. Influential spin doctors include Clegg’s Chief of Staff Jonny Oates and top special adviser James McGrory.

The campaign is being run by Paddy Ashdown, in suitably military fashion — the chief campaign committee is called the wheelhouse, for example. As an aside, one reason for the relative security of Clegg’s position in the party, which might look odd to some outsiders, has been the unflinching loyalty shown to him by respected former leader Ashdown and, to a lesser extent, Menzies Campbell. There’s also a campaign support role being played by president Sal Brinton who, candidates whisper, is a very safe Clegg ally. It’s notable that both Tim Farron and Vince Cable (potential future leaders) were wandering quite significantly off message a little before the short campaign but have now more or less been dragged back into line.

Strategy: The Lib Dems were always going to struggle in this campaign; as a party of government they won’t get the “novelty bounce” they used to have in the short campaign when they were in opposition, but while they aren't outsiders, they lack an insider’s budget.

The general tack they've gone for since at least the middle of last year is to emphasise the likelihood of another hung parliament and put themselves up as the most responsible, and thus desirable, kingmakers. Their manifesto reinforced this -almost twice as long as Labour or the Tories’- it framed its very cautious pledges in the context of what the Lib Dems have already done, and what they would have to negotiate.

That’s allowed them to have lots of fun at the other parties’ expense, most notably coming up with a formulation called “Blukip” — an alliance of the Tories, DUP and Ukip — to scare voters. They made a fake party website for it and even Top Trumps cards, which they handed out to slightly bemused hacks on the battle bus.

Clearly, though, this week they decided this was too nebulous a message for the average voter, who wasn't quite sure what they were getting with the Lib Dems, so they've started setting coalition “red lines” (just a couple of months ago Brinton told me they wouldn't be doing so. Oh well.) This might have an adverse effect on the Lib Dems’ chances of government, though — one senior Lib Dem involved with the “orange booker” faction which paved the way for coalition with the Tories, says they slightly despair of Tory and Liberal moves to set red lines as they significantly weaken the chances for another coalition, and thus increase the chances of a second election.

Key “air war” tactics: This is where they've really struggled — party insiders were livid at how little exposure Clegg got in the debates, for example. Their attempts at cut through have ranged from this week’s “red lines” (clearly pitched at giving hacks something solid to report) to the rather more jovial. A few weeks back Clegg had an encounter with Joey Essex, of TOWIE fame, who thought the party were called “the Liberal Demo-Cats.” Within hours they had changed their logo on their website accordingly, as a means of picking up some quick column inches on viral sites like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.

Key “ground war” tactics: This is where the Lib Dems are really hopeful. They’ve historically had a good ground game, stemming from the days when that was really all they had, and have for example been following for some time the sort of American community organiser structure that Labour only caught up with a couple of years ago. Their contact rates — the extent to which they’ve managed to get in touch with voters — is pretty high in their key targets. Plus, as all Lib Dem spinners will invariably tell you, their individual MPs poll higher when talked about to voters by name. A good example would be Julian Huppert in Cambridge, who despite the tuition fees debacle recently won a debate held by local students.