How To Win A General Election

Tory, Labour and Lib Dem strategy gurus tell all.

The path to No 10 Downing Street is paved with wayward polls, a hostile media and ‘dead cats’. HuffPost UK spoke to three strategists and communication experts who were central to recent Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat general election campaigns about what went right and went wrong in their quest for success. With the 2017 vote days away, here’s what amounts to a 10-point instruction guide from:

  • Sir Craig Oliver, the Conservative Party’s Director of Communications for the 2015 general election campaign that swept David Cameron to power. A former senior BBC journalist, he left No 10 when Theresa May took office and now works for a lobbying firm.

  • Spencer Livermore, a senior strategy adviser for Labour’s 1997, 2001 and 2005 election campaigns, and Gordon Brown’s Director of Strategy in Downing Street. He was the Labour Party’s General Election Campaign Director in 2015, which saw Ed Miliband defeated. He now sits in the House of Lords and is a partner in a strategy consultancy firm.

  • Polly Mackenzie, Head of Strategy for the Liberal Democrat election campaign in 2010 that led to the party forming a government for the first time in decades. She prepared for coalition talks in 2015. A key adviser to Nick Clegg at No 10, she co-ordinated policy throughout the ex-Deputy Prime Minister’s leadership of the party. Now director of the Money and Mental Health charity.

Top left: Craig Oliver with David CameronBottom left: Polly Mackenzie and Nick CleggTop right: Spencer Livermore and Ed Miliband
Top left: Craig Oliver with David Cameron
Bottom left: Polly Mackenzie and Nick Clegg
Top right: Spencer Livermore and Ed Miliband

1. The strategy

“There are two questions that are absolutely crucial”

Craig Oliver: I think what was interesting in 2015 was that it worked out that the path to victory was through winning over Liberal Democrat seats. What was interesting was that while the ‘air war’ was going on - people throwing stuff at each other, rowing with each other, all that kind of stuff - nobody seemed to pick up on the fact that David Cameron was taking bus loads of journalists to the South West every day. It was extraordinary that actually there was a ‘ground war’ that is going on that was hardly ever picked up, or reported on in the press, or noticed.

This time Theresa May is deliberately visiting lots of places in the North of England. So she’s going deep into the heart of Labour territory, with seats of a majority of 8,000 or less for Labour, and it’s clear that they obviously think they can pick up a lot of those seats. That’s where she’s going, that’s why she’s going there. There are four million UKIP votes that are on the market. She’s basically going round hoovering them up.

David Cameron and his wife Samantha attend a rally at the Royal Cornwall Showground, near Wadebridge, in Cornwall. The Tories won the North Cornwall seat from the Lib Dems
David Cameron and his wife Samantha attend a rally at the Royal Cornwall Showground, near Wadebridge, in Cornwall. The Tories won the North Cornwall seat from the Lib Dems
PA Archive/PA Images

In 2015, I think that we were fairly sure that we would be the largest party. But right up to the death it wasn’t clear that we would actually win a majority. If everything was aligned, we would get a majority, and if our strategy worked then we would. It all fell into place.

In any general election campaign there are two questions that are absolutely crucial. Who has the best leader and who is best suited to deal with the key issue of the day. In 2015, the answer to that question was David Cameron and the Conservatives on the economy. So you try and set and frame those questions for people, and then answer them so that you are the answer. Labour failed on both of those questions. You can maybe fail on one of those questions, but if you fail on both you’re finished. I think that that is a good rule of thumb test to apply to all elections.

“I don’t believe there was a strategy to win power”

Spencer Livermore: In 2015, people like to describe various people as being the campaign guru. But there was (Labour MP) Douglas Alexander, there was (ex-Obama adviser) David Axelrod, there was (Labour MP) Lucy Powell, for a period there was (Labour MP) Michael Dugher. There was me. There was Greg Beales, who was Ed’s head of strategy.

One of the things that (New Labour political strategist) Philip Gould says in The Unfinished Revolution is the importance of a very disciplined campaign structure. It’s probably one of the main problems with 2015: there was no hierarchy, no clear structure, no obvious person who was actually in charge because too many people were in charge. Also, Ed was his own strategist because he had a very clear vision of what he wanted to do, what he wanted to achieve. At the end of the day, he basically would make his own calls. Obviously that adds to that organisational dysfunctionality.

In 2015, I don’t believe there was a strategy to win power. Elections are won and lost on strategy, in my view, and in previous campaigns I’ve worked on there was a very clear strategy, which is rooted in insight into where the voters are and what they think. You can start the strategy really from the ground up in terms of where the voters are, what they think of you, and where you need to move them to in order to win. Really, in 2015, there was an ideological project that was governing all decisions rather than electoral strategy governing all decisions.

Ed Miliband with David Axelrod, a former adviser to Barack Obama
Ed Miliband with David Axelrod, a former adviser to Barack Obama
PA Archive/PA Images

You would struggle, I think, and you would have said this at the time, to articulate ‘this is our strategy to win’. It was more Ed, really, being his own chief strategist, saying: ‘This is what I believe. Let me take that out for a spin. Let’s see how many people rally behind that’. It was much more top-down ideology driven than it was bottom-up strategy driven.

It was very apparent, being a strategy person, having worked on previous campaigns where when those war books were written, I know that’s how you organise a campaign. It was shocking and surprising to come into an environment where strategy was very much secondary and ideology was what drove things.

I would say Gordon Brown, at his best, is the greatest political strategist of his generation, and was incredibly strategic in the way that he developed 2001 in particular and then 2005. Philip Gould was in charge of many of those strategies and wrote those war books, articulated those strategies. I was steeped in that, elections are about strategy and are won on the basis of strategy. It was very noticeable when it was a different approach.

“The TV debates were completely fundamental”

Polly Mackenzie: Power wasn’t really the aim in 2010. It was in the back of people’s minds. The party had done more preparation for being in government than it probably had in 70 years or something, but it still wasn’t the primary goal. It was to defend our seats because we were still at our historic peak. Nick had set an objective for two elections to get to 100 MPs, so maybe we were hoping to get 70, 75 MPs. The way to do that, and especially the way to defend our seats, which was the big priority, was not to be squeezed. We obviously had this enormous surge in 1997 where we more than doubled and then had grown ever since then. And yet, this was the first time that the country was clearly dramatically swinging back from Labour to the Conservatives. Whether that was going to be enough of a swing to let the Conservatives win or not was debatable. But, fundamentally, it was a completely different election than any we’d faced since 1997, and the big fear was that it was just the return of two body politics because the narrative was about the change of government rather than about the nuances of what kind of Labour government you wanted.

We did a lot of prep for the TV debates. We knew about those several months in advance, certainly. We knew that was the big opportunity to make sure we weren’t squeezed out of the narrative. The biggest risk for the Lib Dems is the idea you can’t have your nice local Lib Dem, you need to get involved in the change of government, the big decision for the country. That’s what basically screwed us completely in 2015. Whereas in 2010 we managed to survive it primarily because, I think, of the debates.

'Cleggmania' is born: Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg faces off with David Cameron and Gordon Brown
'Cleggmania' is born: Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg faces off with David Cameron and Gordon Brown
WPA Pool via Getty Images

The TV debates were completely fundamental, we knew that Nick was really good when he was seen by people. But, and I say this as an observation rather than a grievance, we hardly got any media coverage, and hardly anyone really knew who he was. The Lib Dems are a third party in a first-past-the-post system, so what do you expect? Given that we just had to be an option in the front of people’s minds, in all of the different places we existed. A lot of time and effort and thought was put into getting Nick in that prime time slot.

It was Cameron’s idea of having debates. I think again something that was completely different in 2015, where they decided that we were an existential threat and we needed to be assassinated. In 2010, they were very benign towards us really. It wasn’t until that first debate that they saw us as anything other than soggy little Liberal Democrats who weren’t any risk. They only realised that they’d let us into the conversation in a dramatic way that was damaging to them when they saw it happen.

I think Cameron’s team thought he was great and would out perform Gordon Brown. I mean, he did outperform Gordon Brown and did have a certain charm and warmth that people liked. But they were just focused absolutely on how you take Gordon Brown down. Cameron, if you remember, straight off never criticised or attacked Tony Blair, he just blamed everything on Gordon Brown, he knew by the time of the election Blair would have gone. So he just went for Brown and I think they just got slightly blinkered and they hadn’t thought about us at all.

Which is weird. Because a very obvious and easy counter view is that, as 2015 showed, the only way to get to a majority is to completely destroy the Lib Dems.

2. The opposition

“They used a blunderbus approach”

Craig Oliver: I think that what was interesting during the 2015 campaign was that the Labour Party campaign was a lot more noticeable, because it wasn’t very targeted. They used a blunderbus approach, where they would leaflet almost every household saying ‘Save the NHS’. Commentators and political reporters were saying ‘ooh, where are the Conservatives?’ But for the Conservative Party, there’s no point going for this seat because we’re not going win it. There’s no point going for this voter because they’re already voting Labour or Conservative. So they were going for the seats they could win and the voters who were persuadable in those seats.

So it was a much more focused, much more targeted, below the radar thing. As a result in 2015 the campaign was actually criticised throughout as not being very effective. There was all this sort of stuff about Labour having five million conversations. You can have five million conversations with somebody who is a dyed in the wool Ukip supporter, and you’re never going persuade them to vote Labour. There’s no point, you haven’t done your market research properly. But people were fooled into the idea. Labour were lulled into a false sense of security. That they were somehow having an impact there.

“No party’s ever won when behind on leadership and the economy”

Spencer Livermore: I think the election strategy really is about framing the election question on your terms. I think it’s impossible not to have a huge amount of respect for George Osborne throughout that five year Parliament for relentlessly framing the election in terms of debt, and the deficit, and economic credibility. Obviously, it’s where (Tory election guru) Lynton Crosby gets a lot of credit for the election, and I’m sure deserves much of it. George Osborne probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves for that long term, much like Gordon did when Labour was in power, of relentlessly budget after budget framing the question. You put in people’s minds the most important issue.

'George Osborne probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves'
'George Osborne probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves'
PA Archive/PA Images

We obviously did far too little to respond to that and to protect ourselves to be in a strong position when it came to credibility. Often when you’re in government you have all the heavy artillery to frame the election. It’s much easier to do that from the Government than it is to do in Opposition. They were relentlessly framing, we had a responsibility to respond to that framing and to make sure that our position was more bulletproof than it was. Obviously, we didn’t take those decisions. I think all the time it was very obvious but we were fighting against some quite fierce headwinds.

No party’s ever won when they’re behind on leadership and on the economy. We went into 2015 behind on leadership and on the economy. What was 2015 about? It was about those two questions and they did that. It was the message discipline that was coming from the Tories on those two issues, every single thing landed back to either the economy or to leadership. That is a sign of an impressive campaign.

“Cameron was much more dangerous than the previous Tory leaders”

Polly Mackenzie: We always thought that David Cameron was much more dangerous than the previous Tory leaders and he had made a deliberate play for Lib Dem votes. I think he even launched the ‘Lib Dems for David Cameron’ website briefly. The environmental stuff, the huskies, talking about criminal justice reform: that was a big part of their strategy and we felt them breathing down our necks quite a lot. In 2010, we therefore took the view - perhaps incorrectly - that we’d be able to make a lot more gains against Labour and it was really just about kind of holding the defences against the Tories. Actually, those gains against Labour were a hell of a lot harder to come by than we had imagined.

Against Labour, we’d had real successes in their heartland in local government. My one and only experience of actually standing for local government is when the Labour party is well organised: it is a really, really effective machine at getting out the vote. I think we slightly underestimated that because we targeted so many seats where all the indicators were really positive for us. It’s astonishing, really, that Lib Dems have had such a huge involvement in Liverpool politics and never won a bloody parliamentary seat.

We should have won Sheffield Central. We should have won a seat in Newcastle. So many places where we kind of came so close but just couldn’t actually suppress that Labour vote. I don’t know what you call it now, but the people that have used Ukip as a gateway drug to the Conservative Party that are now going to see the north turn blue. Those exact kinds of people who were ready to turn away from Labour. They weren’t actually ready to turn to a bunch of slightly soggy well-meaning liberals.

3. The personal

“4,000 people think that they’re having some massive impact”

Craig Oliver: I mean there’s never a moment where you’re off duty and it’s up early and up late. You’re fighting two battles: you’re fighting a battle which is with the very rarefied narrow group of a few thousand people who are ultra interested and follow every jot. That’s about 4,000 people in the Westminster Village. Then there’s about 40 million voters, who don’t follow it to that degree and that level.

So you’ve got to apply yourself to dealing with that group and the other group as well. The problem with the 4,000 is that they quite often think that they’re having some massive impact with what they’re saying or writing.

“It’s politics at its most pure and fast paced”

Spencer Livermore: First and foremost it is huge fun. There’s a huge sense of camaraderie, almost family, amongst the people on a campaign because you’re with them for so many hours of the day and you all have the same objective: you’re fighting a common enemy. It’s intoxicating, it’s politics at its most pure and fast-paced. If you love politics it’s fantastic fun. One of the things I think that we should be most proud of in 2015 is there was no briefing against the campaign. It’s rare, actually, in politics not to have someone sounding off about the campaign.

HuffPost: Is there an election snack that got you through the day?

Spencer Livermore: Definitely (upmarket fast food chain) Leon, there was a Leon opened around the corner. We probably consumed more brown rice than your average.

“You’re mostly tired all the time”

Polly Mackenzie: It’s really intense. There was like a 6am meeting so I’d get a cab that the party arranged at like 5:30am which I shared with somebody who very conveniently was also working on the campaign and lived three doors down from me. We’d sort of travel in in silence. London at 5:30am is kind of quiet, like there’s been an apocalypse and you’re still kind of half asleep really. Then there’s a 6am meeting where the overnight team download what’s happened, any kind of news developments, they’ve done some monitoring, reports of stuff. You’re mostly just tired all the time, because you then go home at 9pm or 10pm.

There’s food. There’s slightly awful food. I don’t know what the other parties did, but the Lib Dems had a catered dinner every night when you get those big silver warmed up pans. They’re warmed by a tiny little blue flame. The smell of the gas being used to burn the flame just always gives me flashbacks.

That’s the headquarters campaign. The ground war campaign is actually a lot more arduous because you’ve got these volunteers, you’re going out delivering leaflets, you’re hammering posters, you’re trying to go out in the middle of the night and take down the other party’s posters ... or other kind of black ops that you do. I’m sure the Tories do it with actual money, it’s all automated by a computer. But the Lib Dems have the street by street, slightly differentiated leaflets, trying to get your head around what is going to what different place and give it out to the right number of volunteers. It’s an organisational nightmare. So those guys are all incredibly unhealthy because they can’t think about anything except leaflet numbers and they just get curry every night.

4. The gaffes and ‘Thick Of It’ moments

“Nobody could bear that level of scrutiny”

Craig Oliver: There was an op-ed that Michael Fallon did in The Times, which included the line saying that Ed Miliband can’t be trusted, he stabbed his brother in the back (often referred to as a ‘dead cat’ strategy moment). There was quite a lot of people saying that that was not fair, that was not a right thing to say. Then Michael Fallon came in and said ‘I’ve just been booed in Sevenoaks’. So at that moment, those sort of things are like, ‘oh God’. But, of course, there’s reality. It sort of passes and moves on, and actually the truth is it was another reminder to people about things that they didn’t really like about Ed Milliband.

HuffPost: David Cameron not knowing whether, in Devon and Cornwall, which side of the cream tea was jam and which was cream.

Craig Oliver: Yeah, I mean you get moments like that where people try and make that out as if somehow that’s indicative of a politician who’s out of touch or doesn’t understand what he’s doing. You realise that you’re putting people in situations that nobody could bear that level of scrutiny without somebody saying something at some stage. That’s just the nature of the media spotlight. You’ve just got to deal with it and move on and make a joke of it, or just laugh and say: ‘Oh well, these things happen’.

Ed Miliband unveils the 'heaviest suicide note in history'
Ed Miliband unveils the 'heaviest suicide note in history'
PA Archive/PA Images

“Edstone didn’t move a single vote”

Spencer Livermore: (The Edstone) was ridiculous and it was ridiculous from the outset. I was against it from the word go. That’s a good example of an absence of a clear campaign hierarchy. It’s one of those things getting through that shouldn’t have got through when people were tired towards the end of a campaign, and also under a huge amount of pressure.

Of course, on the day people were saying this is ridiculous. But it was more of a laughable thing. In hindsight, people think it was this incredibly significant moment. But it really wasn’t at the time. It certainly didn’t move a single vote. Elections are not determined on ridiculous stunts like that. Elections are determined on fundamental questions.

I remember in 2001 when we had this ludicrous moment where we talked about the Tory’s ‘Trojan horse policy’ on the NHS and we actually turned up one day with a Trojan horse. Completely preposterous. The 2010 campaign I think we brought an Elvis Presley impersonator along. There are utterly absurd moments to every campaign and it’s part of the sort of ridiculousness of it.

Nick Clegg with Humpty the Hedgehog
Nick Clegg with Humpty the Hedgehog
PA Archive/PA Images

“The ‘air war’ is so totally dissociated from the ground”

Polly Mackenzie: In 2015, Nick’s first campaign visit was to a hedgehog sanctuary and that was basically because the event that was scheduled was cancelled with about an hour and a half to go. So my poor mate had to just dredge up a visit and did an amazing job in the end, just calling anything he could think of and found a hedgehog sanctuary who was like ‘Yeah, sure’. That I thought was very strange and bizarre.

The ‘air war’ is so totally dissociated from what is actually happening on the ground, what the real campaign is. I think the Lib Dems had a really successful ‘air war’ campaign in 2015. That didn’t bloody help in the end. But in terms of garnering media coverage, looking like you’re having fun, looking relaxed, communicating your values and your priority policies, I think it was great. It’s just that that’s not what wins elections anymore. Was it ever, I don’t know?

5. The polls

“Polls are a cheap lead for newspapers”

Craig Oliver: In 2015, the whole of the election was run on the idea that nobody could win an overall majority. That was entirely wrong, because we did. So in 2015, I think the polls were a massive distraction.

I think the thing is if everybody is telling you you’re wrong you start to think, ‘well, maybe we are’. But definitely our internal polling was showing it was possible.

Polls are a cheap lead for newspapers, aren’t they? They’re quite often paid for, it’s a cheap poll done overnight, then they become a cheap lead. They’re not brilliantly done and they were weighted and touched up, and moved around. I think that pollsters felt the pain of that pretty badly, and then that was followed up pretty quickly by what happened in the referendum campaign, where all the polls were all wrong.

“Even in 1997 they can drive the mood”

Spencer Livermore: This is not about blaming others or making excuses, because Labour lost in 2015 because Labour hadn’t done the right things in order to win. But the polls definitely dictated the narrative of the campaign and therefore dictated the media’s coverage of the campaign. The polls showed that Labour probably would win but that would probably need to be in a coalition in order to govern. Therefore, all of the scrutiny of the campaign was on Labour, would they go into partnership with the SNP or with the Lib Dems? And what trade-off would there be?

We had numerous press conferences where we tried to scrutinise the Conservative Party’s plans and no one was interested in that. People were saying to us ‘but they’re not going to win. You’re going to win so it’s about you’. Had the polls been more accurate you would have had a completely different dynamic to the campaign and you would have had a different campaign as a result.

I remember back in 1997 everyone was haunted by 1992, and the fact that the hope had grown in 1992 and suddenly everyone was crushed by the results. I think in 1997 people didn’t dare believe almost what was happening. Particularly there was one day when The Guardian had a poll showing that things had narrowed quite markedly. I remember the haunted look on people’s faces that day. ‘Was it going to happen again?’ Even in a campaign like 1997 they can drive the mood. But do they affect what you’re doing day-to-day? No, not really.

'The day the polls turned': How the Guardian reported Labour edging ahead in 2015
'The day the polls turned': How the Guardian reported Labour edging ahead in 2015
The Guardian

“That polling surge distracted everybody”

Polly Mackenzie: There are completely different stories about 2010 and 2015 and the Lib Dems just had the different sets of thoughts on polling primarily because the Lib Dems don’t have any money. It’s a completely different world if you’re in a well-funded campaign like Labour and the Conservatives run.

In 2010, there were lots of downsides to the absolute upsurge in the polls post- the debates. One is that we had raised our head above the parapet and suddenly everyone was shooting at us, and that in the end cost us probably a lot of votes. We got over-excited. I think at one point we were 27 per cent or something and ahead of Labour, and you start fantasising about how many seats you could win. And we expanded our target list at three weeks out. We got some extra funding from donors. I was over-excited but every activist is over-excited. That’s every activist who’s in a 4,000 majority seat that they fantasise about winning, right next door to a 500 majority constituency that could be won. Instead of going over the border to help defeat the really really marginal one, they go ‘oh, but maybe we could win this as well!’ So at every level that polling surge distracted everybody from our targeting approach. We spread ourselves too thinly, definitely.

Polly Mackenzie watches Nick Clegg's 2009 conference speech
Polly Mackenzie watches Nick Clegg's 2009 conference speech
Matt Cardy via Getty Images

Then, in 2015, I think the polling was problematic in a different way. One of our core things that we said to ourselves was the reason we’re underestimated in the national polls is because people think about the local MP and they really like their local Lib Dem MP. So in 2015 we did a lot - for the first time - of seat-by-seat polling. What we missed is that the Conservatives had incredibly successfully made the narrative about the national choice. It wasn’t about your local choice anymore. The people weren’t answering that question that we’d asked them in the polling. They were answering the question that David Cameron was putting to them: Which was ‘do you want me or Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon running the country?’ We thought we were doing okay in a lot more seats than we were, and the most devastating Tory campaign tactic from 2015 was this one of saying: ‘We need 23 seats otherwise Nicola Sturgeon’s running the country’. Our absolute belief that people were thinking about the local not the national was just completely mistaken, unfortunately.

6. The media

“You’ve got to deal with the world as it is”

Craig Oliver: I think if you look at The Mirror and The Guardian and how they treated David Cameron in the 2015 election, I don’t think that he was treated with any degree of care or caution. (The left) can complain about it, but it’s not as if they didn’t have their own cheerleaders or their own people doing that kind of thing too.

Were there newspapers that were campaigning on behalf of the Conservative Party? Yes there were. Were there newspapers that were campaigning on behalf of the Labour Party in 2015? Yes there were. You can complain about it all but I’d say on some of the stuff that The Guardian and The Mirror printed in 2015, I didn’t think was fair, or accurate, or correct. You’ve got to deal with the world as it is rather than as you want it to be.

“Don’t eat a bacon sandwich in public”

Spencer Livermore: I’m not someone who blames the media. It is what it is. The party’s job is to try and navigate that and succeed within that. You have to win with the rules as they are, and the rules in this country are that the media can be quite harsh and hostile to parties on the left. Similar parties have won in the past and you have to do what you can within that context.

The Sun

Of course they were harsh. But don’t try running from the left if that’s not what you want. And don’t eat a bacon sandwich in public if that’s not what you want. Those things are entirely avoidable. You make the choices and you have to deal with the coverage that follows. There’s no point in making those choices and then moaning about the coverage. It’s entirely within your gift to decided where you want to position yourself and how you want to appear in public.

“It occupies just a huge quantity of your time”

Polly Mackenzie: The Lib Dems are never going to assume anybody’s gonna be nice about us. There aren’t house papers that are always on your side and there aren’t papers that will do your bidding either. It’s quite clear that in 2010 after that first debate, the Conservatives went in to see the editor of the Mail with the dossier of ‘here are the 20 things you can run on Nick Clegg’. It’s the accepted narrative that a bunch of Tory material just was given to the Daily Mail. There aren’t enough staff journalists to read through every one of 10 years of Nick Clegg’s Comment is Free articles, you know?

Clegg under attack: repeatedly
Clegg under attack: repeatedly

Dealing with hostile print media occupies just a huge quantity of your time. They have so many questions, lots of them are very legitimate questions. In 2005 when Charles Kennedy messed up the launch of our manifesto by not knowing the answer to some pretty basic questions about local income tax, I was the local government advisor and I spent about the next week working 12 hours a day answering people’s questions.

7. The media ‘bubble’

“It’s not going make a huge amount of difference”

Craig Oliver: I think that Tony Blair wrote in his autobiography something that we always thought was actually quite a good summation of it all. For most people, politics is an irritating problem that they push to the corner of their lives. The great mistake a lot of people in Westminster make is thinking that people are following it to the degree that they are. The reality is that if you have, over a period of time, a lot of headlines that are all very, very negative, or are all very, very positive that can make a difference. Unless it’s absolutely seismic it’s not going to make a huge amount of difference.

“Basically Twitter is Westminster”

Spencer Livermore: Within the campaign, I think there’s a high degree of awareness that basically Twitter is Westminster. It definitely has an effect of the campaign in as much as it usually shortens news cycles. It definitely has an impact within the media and political community, but I think we were self aware enough to know that Twitter is not the real world.

I would say 2015 was probably the first genuine Facebook campaign, and where the Tories were specifically successful at almost under-the-radar messaging. The Tories are good at it and they’re well-funded, and it requires quite a lot of funding. We just didn’t have the resources to match what they were doing. You should give them credit for how successfully they did it.

“The left are just assumes you can get stuff for free, I guess”

Polly Mackenzie: I think the left, which includes the Lib Dems, views that social media is totally useful for actually sharing your message in an organic reach kind of way, that it’s just not true it’s people sharing stuff to people who already agree with them, absolutely creating that own social media bubble. Where as the Conservatives did some of that but primarily they thought of (social) as a paid opportunity. It’s a lot more sophisticated as you’re paid reach, targeting people with the right sorts of messages. The left are, I don’t know, just assumes you can get stuff for free I guess. That’s quite different from the Westminster media bubble is a different sort of bubble.

8. The ‘dirty tricks’

“I don’t think it was a particularly controversial ...”

Craig Oliver: I think you could find quite a few people in the Labour Party who felt very strongly that Ed Miliband shouldn’t have stood on his brother the way he did. I don’t think it was a particularly controversial ... some people might say it’s not fair. But I don’t think many people would say it’s totally untrue, made up, besmirching of a human being. I just think there was a constant sort of sense, you know positioning of David Cameron as if he was some out-of-touch toff who wanted to harm working people, and that was just a constant campaign that was run. I don’t think it was fair, I don’t think it was accurate, and it was just run by newspapers. That’s what they do, they want their people to win. That’s the environment we live in.

“Pretty much everything’s fair game”

Spencer Livermore: I wouldn’t ever describe it as dirty, no. I think attack ads and what have you are just part of the territory, and you have to expect that. That’s just the way it is. Obviously in 2015 there was the famous ‘dead cat’ strategy when Michael Fallon described the situation with his brother. That probably was the closest it got to unacceptable.

HuffPost: Do you think it was unacceptable? Is it fair game and that’s just politics, and you just write it off and move on?

Spencer Livermore: I think I am of that view that politics is politics, and pretty much everything is up for grabs. Pretty much everything’s fair game.

“Politics is kind of awful and yet essential”

Polly Mackenzie: I don’t think a dodgy bar chart really counts as nefarious activity. When I stood for the council in 2006 I was accused in a leaflet of having stolen a council house so I think that’s worse than a dodgy bar chart. I have not stolen a council flat just to be clear.

Obviously we had access to a lot of material about stuff that Conservatives had thought about doing in government. None of which was used because there was a theory of mutually assured destruction that meant that they’d reveal stuff about us if we revealed stuff about them. Plus, people at the top and Nick himself are sort of terribly honourable and take things like government confidentiality seriously. Obviously there’s an exception to that which is the whole Alistair Carmichael … I don’t know what to call it, debacle? Which if anybody thought about secret briefings, that put them off it frankly.

There’s all sorts of clever tricks. I think accusing Nick Clegg of being a Nazi and having secretly stolen money to pay an illegal staff member, that’s a lot worse, you know? That’s a completely different order of things and when they want to take you down for that stuff they really do.

HuffPost UK: What do you think about that kind of stuff, do you think it’s out of order or do you just think, well, this is politics?

Polly Mackenzie: I think both of those things. Politics is kind of awful and yet essential. It’d be wonderful if politics could be better but if you want to get in in order to make it better, sometimes you’ve got to just accept reality.

9. The hindsight

“Politicians do it because they basically have to”

Craig Oliver: I’ve been asked that question about 100 times. Nobody has ever persuaded me that David Cameron was not in a position where he had to call a referendum. It was impossible for a leader of the Conservative Party not to say we’re gonna have a referendum. Also if he’d said he wasn’t going to, you’d also be in a position where he would have been pushed out and somebody would have done.

He couldn’t have not done it in the manifesto. He was boxed in. It wasn’t because, politicians don’t wake up one morning and say ‘I tell you what, I’m just gonna have a referendum and risk my entire future’. But they do it because they basically have to. I’m just bored of people saying that somehow you couldn’t do it, it’s just a silly, silly fantasy. It isn’t based on any understanding of what politics was actually like at the time.

“You have to work with the tools that you’ve been given”

Spencer Livermore: It was too late to do anything fundamental in those last six weeks. You have to work with the tools that you’ve been given. I think given the low expectations for the campaign the wheels never really came off. That is a credit to the whole campaign team that we managed to keep the show on the road. Obviously, the fundamentals of the campaign were in the wrong place. But they were set many years before.

Spencer Livermore with Ed Miliband
Spencer Livermore with Ed Miliband
Progress Online

“I still think it was the right thing to do”

Polly Mackenzie: I don’t think if you’d asked me in 2010 would I have said we’d be that destroyed, no. But we knew it was an existential threat. But I still think it was the right thing to do. I think it was the right thing to do if we had zero MPs. I don’t see the point of going into politics if you don’t want to take the opportunity to help run the country. We made a lot of change, some of which is irreversible. A depressing amount of it is fairly reversible but some of it changes the structure of the way things are run and it improves lives. We’ve made mental health a thing and now everyone talks about mental health being a thing and it’s no longer winning special votes for the Lib Dems. Fine, that’s better that way. I can’t see what you would be in politics to just always be on the outside complaining but then that’s because I’m not a revolutionary Marxist.

It’s really tough to say that because I’m not the one who paid the price, it’s local councillors and lots of our incredibly hard-working MPs. I think it would have been great if the Tories had won a majority of two in 2010 and had to govern alone and we could have ... that would have been strategically great for the Lib Dems. Probably pretty terrible for the country but ...

10. The changes

“I think it was the difference between being the largest party in a hung parliament and having a majority”

Craig Oliver: (Facebook) was vital in 2015. In understanding who people were, and having worked out who they were, what their voting preferences were, then targeting those people who were persuadable was massively important. I think it was the difference between being the largest party in a hung parliament and having a majority. I think it’s almost of no consequence in 2017.

David Cameron with Craig Oliver as the PM receives his constituency result in 2015
David Cameron with Craig Oliver as the PM receives his constituency result in 2015
PA Archive/PA Images

“What’s sustaining the campaign today is much less apparent”

Spencer Livermore: I think a far bigger change to campaigns in the time that I’ve been involved in them has been the introduction of the TV debates. That from 2010 to 2016 totally transformed what a campaign was compared to ‘97, ‘01, and ‘05. Those three new Labour campaigns were traditional campaigns where you had a morning press conference, that gave you the ability to drive the story for the day. The two main parties fought it out who had the better story that day, and that story would then run for the duration of the day. The introduction of the debates abolished those press conferences, focused everything around those three set piece moments, and really revolutionised it.

What’s sustaining the campaign today is much less apparent. I think as a result it feels incredibly flat, incredibly deflated as a campaign. You’ve got neither of those two ways of driving interest, excitement, news stories, and driving the agenda. I think that’s a big open question really. What is the air war now? What does the air war consist of? What are the vehicles to drive the air war? Of course you’ll get new developments in the ground campaign, particularly through the use of digital but again probably, unfortunately, it’s tragic to say but in this election you’ll see the limitations of the ground war in terms of holding back a huge tsunami that’s coming your way that is driven by the national perception.

“It feels like you’re better off doing the hollowed out, empty phoning-in campaign”

Polly Mackenzie: Social media was massive in 2015 in a way that it hadn’t been in 2010. There’s this separation of the national and the local, just a sort of hollowing out of the national campaign. If you launched a poster, there’s almost no substance to it at all. Whereas, and this goes back to 2005, every party had a press conference every weekday where they launched a new policy. [The] 2010 [election] killed those daily press conferences off because everyone was so focused on the debates and so there were only five or six of those national press conferences throughout the whole campaign. But this time there aren’t any. Nobody’s bothering.

It’s funny because Theresa May’s line is that she didn’t want to do debates because she’d rather be out meeting real voters. She’s not really meeting any real voters either. Jeremy Corbyn has his rallies, which he loves obviously. But it’s not the real campaign, it’s just that’s what’s amazing, I think increasingly the case. It feels like you’re better off doing the hollowed out, empty phoning-in campaign that the Conservatives are running incredibly successfully. Turns out the best air war campaign to run is the inflatable hollow man one.


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