stuffing envelopes and getting stuffed

Mark Pack has a very good post up on how the Lib Dems’ distinctive approach to campaigning evolved, and what that meant for the party. Essentially, since the 1980s, the party was reshaped entirely around one particular technique: direct mail.

I didn’t know that the LDs’ identification of target seats isn’t, or isn’t just, based on their psephology or demography, but rather on how many leaflets the local party has dropped relative to their target. More leaflets mean more resources, and specifically, more resources to help you generate more leaflets and deliver them. In a functional sense, the organisation within the party headed by Chris “Wandering Hans” Rennard was a direct mail agency, designing, printing, and delivering bulk leaflets, selecting the targets, and vetting their content.

This essentially, although Pack won’t say as much, hollowed out the party’s incredibly complicated structures for internal democracy and paved the way for the jump into coalition with the Tories. Eventually it took over the press office and the staffers supporting MPs. Nothing that mattered, as far as I can see, was left under the control of the federal executive or the conference or the regional federations or God knows what, and as activists, we sure as hell weren’t consulted or even informed. There were leaflets to get out!

In a wider sense, you get the impression that the real role of the Lib Dems has been to publicise an incredibly cynical version of politics. You set the message and dump the leaflets out. Interestingly, direct mail played a really big role in the growth of movement conservatism in the States through the 1970s, with people like Richard Viguerie.

If you get elected, you say whatever the opposite of the local council says on any issue, but most of all, you turn around correspondence as fast as possible. The role of activists is unpaid direct mail. The role of MPs or councillors is as a sort of service function processing public whining in an expeditious fashion. The role of the party is to get in a position where it can buy electoral reform off another party, in order that it can stay in that position forever.

And if you want to be an MP, you better do whatever it takes to please Lord Rennard, because he’s got all the leaflets. In that sense, Pack’s closing remark is on the money:

electoral politics in Britain has followed where the third party led

12 Comments on "stuffing envelopes and getting stuffed"

  1. Have you read Ian Mikardo’s autobiography? He’s a very Ranter-esque figure: production consultant for an aircraft factory during World War II, focusing on wooden propellor laminates (from memory) and then going on to write a seminal pamphlet on organising an election campaign for the UKLP, then ends up Party Chair for a while in the 60s and 70s.

    I think this stuff is one of the underrated aspects of political history – the underlying material basis & processes of a political party.


  2. As I may have mentioned before, a Liberator-leaning friend did once explain LD community opportunism populism politics to me in terms that made it sound just about credible – if you’re on the Left you do want to do something about the issues actual people actually care about, don’t you? Well, er, maybe. It’s a problematic approach (coughClactoncough) but has a certain coherence. Or had, rather – in the Rennard era it seems to have degenerated into a ‘local politics for local people’ spin on Blairish consensus-chasing.

    Fascinating piece, though. I’d no idea Rennard had been quite so powerful. It certainly explains why he wasn’t hung out to dry much sooner (or indeed at all) – half the parliamentary party literally owed their jobs to him.

    This has the ring of indirect speech:

    Rennard’s response to [criticism] was partly that it was a better approach than anything that anyone else had tried or suggested

    Stay classy, Chris.


  3. Interesting; it surprises me, given this, that the actual leaflets are so shitty. Direct mail is probably the most scientifically analysed form of human communication there is (the catalogue people make “big data” startups look like hobbyists) and it is a skill with clear rules, none of which I ever seem to remember being followed by LD leaflets. You’d have thought that someone would have coughed up for a course — iirc it’s possible to get an MSc in direct marketing from London Guildhall or at least it used to be


    1. This. It’s a very LibDem thing to specialise in an area without really gaining much competence. Reminiscent of the RFL perhaps…

      I think what bothers me the most about the top end of the Lib Dems is not that they “sold out” (to use a pejorative shorthand) but they did so with such incompetence and thus for such meagre rewards…


      1. It really depends whether you’re in a target area or not; there is a central leaflet design group that makes them for seats they care about, but elsewhere it’s up to who gets to the care home photocopier first.

        But I think they do have pretty clear rules: mention a prominent local issue, say “can’t win here”, and include a dodgy bar chart. and most of all, shift units.

        I was a weirdo in the LDs because I used to talk to people on the doorstep.


  4. A comment from America: direct mail was pioneered by elements of both parties in America: Viguerie on the Right, for sure, but Gary Hart and Morris Dees (a long-running antiracist campaigner) also pioneered the technique for George McGovern, and the so-called “machine” of Henry Waxman and Howard Berman in Los Angeles was essentially based on early adoption of direct-mail techniques. Direct mail is not essentially linked to any particular ideology: it’s a fundraising technique that was useful to anyone trying to overcome an established system of canvassing and winning elections: more or less the 1970s-80s counterpart of internet fundraising today. You can be for or against it if you want–and perhaps even U.S. “liberalism” scans as technocratic and undemocratic in the U.K.–but it would be misleading to associate direct mail specifically with the history of the American Right.


      1. These are different senses of direct mail, aren’t they? I.e. “direct mail” as fundraising tool vs “direct mail” as campaigning tool?


  5. Mark Pack’s article is interesting in its own right, and isn’t just about leaflets.

    About poor quality newspapers (though the same could be said about poor quality leaflets):-

    “The newspaper produced for high-profile by-elections usually had production quality matching the independent local media. However, the format of the item showed up particularly harshly any falling short of such standards, with local campaign teams not in receipt of direct central artwork support not infrequently producing newspapers so amateurish in appearance as to undermine the concept.”

    This a key part of Rennard’s strategy was focus on winnable seats, with considerable resources going into those seats. The effect in other seats of poor quality leaflets with bizarre graphs may have been negative. In a few areas the result of the strategy has been to build support to certain MPs and councillors because of their supposed hard work and commitment to local concerns. It may be hard to transfer this allegiance to the party as a whole or outside these core areas. Hard work by the LibDems in opposing the Tories has not been much in evidence.


  6. Apart from the bonus “wider sense” comments this is interesting, as it points up a tension in Lib Dem activism during the last two decades.

    The typical activist I have met seems to like an empowered distributed learning democratic organisation. In the days of jumble-sale Liberalism you could find this. You raised your own money and put up council candidates. Printing was done using whatever you could afford, and this could be pretty poor kit. However skills were shared and techniques slowly improved. A good description of this can be found in the early chapters of Ashdown’s memoirs. You worked your own patch and an individual could know one Ward very well and gain a following.

    However at least as early as the Thrope era there was a “leader’s fund” designed to help target seats from the centre. He describes this in his memoirs. You can view this as part of a long process of assembling a party that could seriously contest a general election. This was the complement of such flash-in-the-pan antics as rolling conferences and media appearances by such talking heads as pleased the media of the day. You invested a few bob in tomorrow. Spending decisions were of necessity pretty ruthless. This looked to be paying off by early 2010, but that’s another story.

    On the way some economies of scale turned up. Some of these worked and some did not. The Tories do central printing but the Lib-Dems do not, and the reasons are probably as much cultural as economic. What this post seems to show is that form and content were centralised, even as delivery remained diverse.

    To some extent this is understandable. The DTP and writing skills available to a 3rd tier local party look rather “80s” to a media savvy public. Now you could outsource this, a la New Labour. But you won’t for reasons explained above. You can either try to find a local DTP whiz but the age demographic of your volunteers is against that. Or you could use the stuff from HQ.

    The alternative is to build a viable local group that can represent local electors and control its own form and content. Which does not scale. Nor does it attract that additional money. The local Tories out-spend you and their literature looks suitable for said media savvy public.

    The same centripetal forces must exist in other parties, and we know it does, for Gordon met Sarah when she worked at a PR agency. The impact on jumble-sale Liberalism seems to have been pronounced though. Dumping a ton of money on a Gestetner coop is likely to generate more heat than light.


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