All by-elections fascinate the commentariat and political classes because they can provide important insights into public opinion. With less than a year until the next general election, the Norwich North by-election will be studied carefully by media commentators and party strategists alike. But Norwich North is interesting not just because it preceded the general election, but because it followed the political crisis caused by the controversy over MPs’ expenses.
For the last month or so, I was based in Norwich, overseeing the Conservative campaign that led to the election of the newest and youngest Member of Parliament, Chloe Smith. How local people felt about the political crisis, how the parties reacted to popular disenchantment with the political system, and how voters responded to the very different campaigns run by each party tells us a great deal about post-expenses politics.
In Norwich, as across the whole country, local people were outraged by the revelations about MPs’ expenses. But the local picture was made all the more complicated by the fact that Ian Gibson, the outgoing MP, was popular and respected for his independence. Opinion on the doorstep was mixed. Some voters explained their admiration for Dr Gibson, but felt let down by his actions on expenses. Others felt he had been badly treated by the Labour Party. But while they liked him, and didn’t exactly welcome the need for a by-election, they wanted the parties to show that we ‘get’ the depth of the crisis and that we know we need to change the way we do politics.
Each of the mainstream parties reacted to this challenge in remarkably different ways.
The Conservative campaign was notable for its positivity and plain-speaking honesty. By-elections are notorious for dirty tricks, personal attacks and negative campaigning – but Chloe’s campaign was relentlessly positive, talking about MPs’ expenses, the debt crisis, the recession and the many local issues she had already been championing over the last eighteen months.
Chloe started the campaign by publishing a detailed and tough ‘transparency pledge’ on her expenses. She ended it by distributing a ‘contract’ between her and the people of Norwich, in which she set out exactly what she plans to do for the community as the local MP. Both documents explicitly invited voters to kick her out at the general election if she were elected and then broke her promises.
And in what I believe was an unprecedented act, the Conservatives and the Greens signed a ‘clean campaign’ pledge, inviting all other parties to do so too. Sadly, neither the Labour Party nor the Liberal Democrats felt able to sign up with us. And when you examine their campaigns, you can see why.
Whereas our response to people’s loss of faith in politics was to run a relentlessly positive campaign, Labour’s response was to go negative. Gordon Brown’s attacks against Conservative spending plans were localised and repeated ad nauseam. According to Labour, the Conservatives had plans to take away pensioners’ free TV licences and bus passes, to sack sixty local police officers, and to close down local Sure Start centres. Despite her attendance at several hustings debates and live radio and TV programmes, Chloe was said to be “running away from the debate” and “arrogantly assuming” she had already won the election.
It was a dry-run for how Gordon Brown hopes to fight the next general election. It was negative, dishonest and only served to turn people off the campaign. If Labour run the same campaign next year, it will fail them just as it failed them in Norwich.
It was interesting, too, to study the Liberal Democrat campaign. The Lib Dems have a reputation for negative campaigning, but they also have a reputation for fighting brilliantly effective by-election campaigns. After the defeats in Crewe and Nantwich, Henley and now Norwich North, only the reputation for negative campaigning survives.
An official Lib Dem campaign guide tells their candidates to “be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly”, “don’t be afraid to exaggerate”, and “positive campaigning will NOT be enough to win”. In Norwich North, they followed the advice to the letter. Chloe had “spent most of her working life in Westminster working for Conservative MPs”, even though they knew that she had worked as a management consultant for Deloitte since leaving university. We had “failed to mention” her recent secondment from Deloitte to work for the Conservatives, even though we’d made this clear on Chloe’s website, in her campaign material and even in a private letter I had sent to the Lib Dem campaign team. They even tried to link her to controversial expenses claims made by specific MPs, even though she had never had anything to do with any MP’s expenses claims.
The days when this sort of negative campaigning worked in by-elections are now gone. People don’t listen to parties they consider to be nasty – they reward parties that stay positive, tackle the issues and are honest about the challenges facing the country.
So that is the true lesson of the Norwich North by-election. Yes, the result shows that people desperately want change. But it also shows that people want politics to be different. Media commentators and party strategists take note: we can change the way we do politics. It is possible to fight honest and positive campaigns and win.