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350 – Alice in Wonderland
14 December 2011 (23:41:24)

The decision not to run Liberal Democrat police commissioner candidates is a disastrous error, says Paul Crossley

Next autumn, there will be an election across virtually all of England and Wales, and the party is recommending that Liberal Democrats do not participate.

This is Alice in Wonderland logic. We do not approve of police commissioners so we will not take part and we will say it is a matter of principle that politicians should not meddle in police matters. Bah Humbug. Life is about politics, and politics is about choice and priorities.

The elections are going to happen and the Conservatives, Labour, other political parties and several mavericks and others will be taking part and they will portray our absence not as a principled stand but as one of a party in despair and crisis and lacking in confidence.

We should present our unique message on law and order and police priorities to the electorate in every seat. We do not approve of the move to elected mayors but we certainly contest them with vigour, and even win some of them.

The problem is that the party seems unable to imagine how it can contest these elections in any other way than delivering shed loads of paper that we can’t afford to produce, lots of which will not be delivered and, of those delivered, only a small percentage will be read. The party has not learnt how to campaign over large constituencies. We have a campaign model that is perfected on small skirmishes and small by-elections.

We should be using these elections to try out innovations and new techniques that can be used for free by engaging and involving people through the web. We should be using these elections to get people knocking on doors and talking to residents and building up relationships with our electors rather than just pushing yet more unwanted literature through their letterboxes.

Let’s use our financial pain not as an excuse not to compete but as a rallying call to try some new campaign ideas. After all, there can be nothing to lose except deposits and it may even help us develop new ideas that can be used in elections.

The last general election started well with a huge boost from the televised debate, which we threw away as we acted like rabbits caught in the headlights and did not know how to respond to the new opportunities. We know we have no friends in the media.

Police commissioner seats cover 15 or more parliamentary seats and so make our current campaign methodology impossible to apply. But with modern techniques, we have the ability to generate and control our own press and publishing – blogs, websites, on-line interactions, YouTube, social media and systems for e-news such as mailchimp or Constant Contact.

Using these tools requires a different methodology to the traditional seven leaflet campaign. It requires us to start door knocking now and to have to discuss our policies and to build up trust with voters so that they do not feel they have been simply data mugged for a voting intention.

When you have had a conversation on the doorstep and have got casework, you will be able to get either their email address or Facebook ID. Web publishing requires a much more positive approach to writing, as people simply do not want to receive negative attacking literature in their inbox. They want to know what we are proposing.

Knocking on doors is the way to lance the boil of discontent among those who voted for us but are distressed by the coalition. It is also the way to find those who like the coalition and who may not have identified as Liberal Democrat previously.

The party is making a huge mistake to not take police commissioner elections seriously and is doing so for the wrong reasons. The sticking plaster excuse will wash off on the first day. It would be a sad day indeed to see national ballot papers containing Conservative, Labour, UKIP, Green, a variety of independents and BNP candidates and not Liberal Democrats.

At the Western Counties conference, the regional party leadership presented the party line from on high but the activists challenged and reversed it to one of encouraging participation. However, the party has made the hurdles to competing high. The party hierarchy seems determined to lead the party down a wrong route and the justifications used will simply seem more risible the closer we get to the election.

The party hierarchy has simply got the call on these elections completely wrong. The excuse of not politicising the role is laughable.

Law and order is a significant and distinctive part of our manifesto. We must take part in these elections and the party should be working on strategies for campaigns that do not cost us a fortune, and make a virtue of the fact.

We should be proud of our message on law and order, and the grassroots of the party should start demanding that the Liberal Democrats participate and get out on the streets calling on people.

Paul Crossley is leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council

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