Isabel Hardman

Why do the Lib Dems love leaflets so much?

Why do the Lib Dems love leaflets so much?
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Polling analyst Mark Gettleson has a fascinating piece of research on ConHome today about the implications for the Conservatives of a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote in 2015. In summary, it will be bad news for the Tories. Gettleson argues that in seats where the Lib Dems come third, those who had supported the party did so on the basis of national political messages. He says:

'It is with these voters that an obvious left-right split becomes important - more precisely a Labour vs Coalition one. While Liberal Democrat voters who feel favourably towards the Coalition may well stick with Mr Clegg rather than leap to the defence of their incumbent Conservative, those who find the idea of going into bed with the Tories revolting will switch directly to Labour. In such a way, the Coalition has united the centre-left and split the centre-right for the first time in a century.'

Gettleson's full piece is essential reading for Conservatives. But are the Lib Dems also thinking about ways of at least mitigating the electoral meltdown they could be heading for? In an effort to improve their campaigns, they bought - at quite some expense - the voter database used by the Obama campaign, called the Voter Activation Network. This is an incredibly powerful piece of software. It can help the party identify which subsets of voters are interested in certain issues - and target them accordingly.

Unfortunately, like a powerful car, the VAN is pretty useless if you don't give it fuel. And the Lib Dems, having bought this database, haven't powered it with data. I understand that the voter profiles they hold represent an absurdly small percentage of the population and date back more than a decade. The party has bought a Ferrari and is treating it like a lawnmower.

It's a shame - not just from a value-for-money point of view - for the party, because if it did spend a relatively small amount of money collating sufficient information on voters in the same way as Labour and the Conservatives have, then it might change its campaigning practices quite considerably. Nothing gets Liberal Democrats more excited than a really nice bright orange leaflet, preferably about local recycling problems, or maybe even potholes. They even have their own leaflet banter: at last year's autumn conference, local government minister Andrew Stunell told members to 'go back to your constituencies and prepare the RISO'. The members loved it, but hacks and other civilians listening to the minister's speech were baffled, and joked that he probably meant 'prepare the risotto', which after a week of being served fried plantain and teeny-tiny ham sandwiches at fringe events sounded rather tempting. It turns out that RISOs are the printers local Lib Dem parties use to produce their lovely orange leaflets. They are so beloved by the party that RISO even rents a stall at Lib Dem conferences.

The enthusiasm of local Lib Dems for sticking these leaflets through letterboxes on a weekly basis is astonishing and the other parties wouldn't even be able to come close in replicating it. The other parties wouldn't want to, though, as this kind of scattergun leafletting doesn't work. Research by Experian suggests that the only people likely to actually read and appreciate leaflets about generic local issues are older single people. That's quite a specific group. But I understand that the VAN is now mainly being used to draw up maps for delivering leaflets, rather than discovering how best to target specific voters who aren't elderly and living alone. One campaigner tells me the party's response to discovering that one-size-fits-all leaflets might not appeal to all voters is to apply a 'doorstep to bin' test, which assumes that a constituent might pick up some key messages on the way to the trash.

The party needs to devote some serious work to understanding who the voters are that it needs to target. Leaflets about the party's local success on recycling are not going to swing it at the ballot box, especially if most of them are thrown, unread, into the recycling bin.