Picture a Liberal Democrat constituency office in a Lib/Con marginal. The words ‘under siege’ spring to mind immediately. But the Lib Dems in Mid Dorset and North Poole were as far from running scared as it’s possible to be in the above scenario. On the day I visited, the mood was never less than upbeat.
On entering the Liberal Democrat offices for MDNP (to which the constituency name is frequently abbreviated) I was greeted by a clerical team of eight or so volunteers working on a blue letter campaign — handwritten envelopes containing targeted messages to voters. Meanwhile, candidate Vikki Slade, current MP Annette Brooke, and a host of other volunteers were out on the doorsteps, leafleting and taking surveys. Another team of campaigners were manning a stall, set up in the forecourt of Molly’s Cafe on Broadstone Broadway .
Molly’s is owned by the Lib Dem candidate Vikki Slade, and is a sometime hub for Lib Dem activity; though I heard from a more experienced campaigner that the spot outside the local bakery had, in the past, been hotly contested between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. The air was of a local campaign in full swing, and certainly not one which considered itself on the back-foot.
Lord Ashcroft’s September 2014 poll puts the Lib Dems here behind six points behind the Conservatives at 32% – with UKIP surging to 19%. Slade’s team still saw the battle as a straight Lib/Con fight.She tells me over lunch that the poll, though certainly a sign that victory can’t be taken for granted, doesn’t reflect where she sees the campaign heading. “Those figures don’t match the reception we’ve had on the doorstep so far. Polls at that stage lean more on general party perceptions, rather than real consideration of the local candidates. The local contests have been very candidate-centred here, and so have general elections in the past.”
Candidate-centred messages work in the Lib Dems’ favour here because of their strength on local councils in the constituency. When I took to the doorsteps with Slade, there were genuine (positive) flickers of recognition on constituents’ faces when the names of candidates for local council were mentioned. The impression was that Lib Dems here come as a package of local individuals; I didn’t actually hear doorstep discussion of the party in national government in the hour I spent shadowing Slade, though the coalition is typically still a hot topic.
There is significant linkage — and fluidity — between different layers of government in the area. Going from local businessperson, to working in community organisations, to local government, to being an MP is a well-trodden route. MP Annette Brooke, with whom Slade has been working since Brooke first stood in 2001, has a strong local profile. She’s also married to the leader of the opposition on the local council. Both joined Slade on the doorsteps when I visited.
How, then, does a party with such local strength drop 13 percentage points from the previous election, while UKIP, who only recently opened their first party office in the constituency, gain 14? One of Slade’s young campaign organisers tells me that UKIP have been visible, and campaigning regularly in the area. They are certainly more visible, he says, than Labour — who got only 5.9% in 2010, and haven’t come close to winning this seat since its creation in 1997.
Slade is not overly concerned by the possible impact of the UKIP surge on the volume of Lib Dem votes. “There’s a certain demographic — a section of retired voters — that more than others blame immigrants for economic problems and the state of the public finances. But actually, these economic problems arise partly because of that very group. They’re living much longer, and form an increasing proportion of the population. The latest figures put unemployment here at 0.7%. That’s 380 people. Immigration isn’t the root of the area’s problems.”
Immigration might not be — but it’s perceptions that matter when voters go to the polls. Slade is still confident that Lib Dems won’t be undermined by anti-immigration sentiment here. “This section of the population are primarily a problem for the Tories here, who are losing votes to UKIP. Older Liberal Democrat voters who have been lifelong supporters of the party tend to support the Lib Dems because of their values. The values of older Liberals are not going to support blaming immigrants for the country’s problems.”
Slade tells me that the party’s failure to be more vocal in government with respect to the positive side of immigration — and to achieve meaningful reform — actually rankles with longtime Lib Dem voters. She delves into the party’s immigration policy, based on Sir Andrew Stunell’s paper Making Migration Work for Britain; she is an enthusiastic advocate for the benefits that controlled immigration can bring.
“The average age of a Brit abroad is over 60. The average age of a migrant living here in the UK is 38. The migrants here pay taxes, they contribute to society. If we sent the migrants here away, and the Brits abroad came home, we’d have a smaller tax base and higher social care bills”.
Slade might not be worried by UKIP — but if the polls are anything to go by, the Lib Dems here are hemorrhaging votes to the Conservatives.When I ask Slade about the wider impact of the coalition on once-loyal Lib Dems, she offers an optimistic assessment: that their role in government actually works in two ways in Mid Dorset and North Poole.
“Some Liberals are angry about compromises that were made. The problems they tend to have often focus on the party’s failure to stop the tuition fee rise, and dissatisfaction with Nick Clegg does come up fairly frequently. Every time I go out canvassing, I expect to hear his name brought up at least once.”
“The impact that works in the other direction is that some ex-Tories are actually coming over to the Lib Dems — they’ve seen that we can take on a national role in government, and they don’t like the extent of austerity that’s being proposed by the Conservatives.”
On the doorsteps in Broadstone, we fairly quickly came across a previous Conservative voter who was open to changing direction, and indeed seemed convinced by Slade’s pitch. She honed in on local issues immediately, in particular MP Annette Brooke’s track record, and mention of local councillors and other local supporters brought on an approving response.
Broadstone is the heartland of Lib Dem support in Mid Dorset and North Poole. Slade lives in the area, as does Annette Brooke MP. But, the constituency as a whole is rather different. The boundaries changed in 2010, which weakened Lib Dem support across the constituency with the addition of more conservative-leaning rural wards and the loss of some yellow strongholds.
Slade told me that the changes have made the campaign tricky to manage — more than ever, there is no one message or concern which runs right across the constituency. “There’s not one big hospital, or one big employer here. Everyone has different needs and concerns, and there are quite distinct communities that all fall within the Mid Dorset and North Poole”. It is possible to identify trends, though: the NHS and immigration are general widespread concerns, as is local transport, anti-social behaviour and housing.
The wider demographics of the area are characterised by the fact that there are very few younger professionals. “There are no universities in the constituency, and house prices are high. So there are lots of people aged 30 to 70+, and lots of children. My profile is strong among the 30-45 group, because I’m one of them.” The area of Broadstone I saw that afternoon was a prime location for families with young children, making it a prime target for Slade’s campaign.
Walking away from each doorstep, Slade gets out her smartphone and enters data into the new canvassing system. Earlier, back at her offices, we discussed her use of technology in the campaign. “We use the same system as Obama!”
Looking at her screen, she showed me how to click on an address and reveal the house occupants — full names, age and gender — complete with a fully digitised record of any accessible survey responses and previous records of voting intent, taken from a back-catalogue of the more familiar clipboard sheets.
As we approached one house, Slade checked in to discover that the wife was a Lib Dem supporter, with the husband undecided, but recorded as voting Conservative 10 years ago on a (presumably once paper-based) survey. The pitch she gave would be different, depending on who answered the door: the point of such extensive data collection is to personalise messages in person and to hone the literature in on specific issues which matter to residents.
But even with the help of technology, running for Parliament is notoriously time consuming. Slade tells me that, when selected, there were a number of people in the party who were reluctant to support her because she has four young children. Women with children often face doubts and questions that men with children don’t.
Slade confronted those she felt doubted her for these reasons in the middle of her hustings speech, diverting from the planned outline to point out her husband at the back of the room. “That’s my husband, and he’ll make a better housewife than I ever will”.
Slade has had some extra help at home besides that of her husband. She recounts that, when discussing her concerns about balancing the campaign with the needs of her kids in an online forum, a complete stranger offered to fund an au pair for her. The benevolent donor wanted to see more women in politics and fewer women unable to join because of family life. Initially Slade was unsure if it was a serious offer; she now has a full time au pair who lives down the road in the spare room of one of her campaigners.
Juggling the personal and the political is about more than work life balance, though. “As soon as you say you’re a politician, people feel entitled to say things to you or about you that they just wouldn’t say to people with other jobs. There’s a level of accountability that’s necessary and expected, but when people say ‘all politicians are the same’, that’s not what is happening.”
“No one would say that all nurses are the same, all mechanics are the same — it seems ridiculous. Most people who I know that have gone into politics have done other things before. They’re not ‘just’ politicians.”
With anti-establishment sentiment an important factor in this election, the point that many mainstream party candidates don’t come from capital-E Establishment backgrounds is an important one to make. Equally, it’s an interesting insight into the experiences of people from ordinary backgrounds who run up against the heat of public opinions – and assumptions – when running for office.
Whether or not the Lib Dems can hang onto traditional strongholds at the general election will come down to whether their local roots are strong enough to fend off the reputational damage that participation in the Coalition has done. The map in Dorset is rather ominous for the Lib Dems: Mid Dorset and North Poole is the last remaining flash of colour in what is otherwise now a sea of blue.
Building a strong personal brand, emphasising a close relationship with a popular incumbent and giving prominence to local connections, as Slade is trying to do, are all rational responses to a bad national picture. But the Lib Dem attempt to hold on here with an already narrow margin rests heavily on the strength of local and personal reputation – especially in the absence of an issue or policy which can unify a rather disparate electorate. Against the national tide and the polls so far, the party’s campaign in MDNP will have to be extraordinarily strong to triumph.