The combination of Watford Liberal Democrats’ excellent victory in a council by-election last week and Iain Dale's ongoing criticism of Lib Dem campaign techniques prompts me to muse on the morality of election leaflets.
I have been writing Focus leaflets and the like for 20 years’ now, with some success and the inevitable accusations of dirty tricks from opponents of various stripes. It is noticeable that such charges have been levelled against us in Watford are usually very generalised, as if the mere fact of campaigning for a Lib Dem victory is itself a dirty trick. But there is precious little of what I have written and published down the years that I couldn’t justify as factually true and/or fair comment.
For what it’s worth I have two key rules:
1. Don’t write anything that I know to be untrue
2. Don’t write anything that undermines Liberal Democrat principles and values
For present purposes I’ll just comment on two key criticisms made against Lib Dems: regarding localness of candidates and bar charts on leaflets.
Over the years all four parties in Watford (and no doubt everywhere else) have had a mixture of candidates who live in their wards and ones who don’t. All four have used the ‘our candidate lives in the ward’ line at time, especially if they can draw a favourable contrast with their opponents. All four will also play down the importance of localness if their candidate does not live in the ward. The unwritten rule is surely that we all play up our candidate’s strengths and our opponents’ weaknesses. If there was a party that either only ever stood candidates who were ‘local’ or who never made an issue of ‘localness’ they might be able to climb the moral high ground. As it is, we are all pretty much on the same moral plane.
But I notice that the Conservatives in particular get all sanctimonious about this, being quite happy to criticise opponents for where they live and then complaining about Lib Dem dirty tricks if we use the same tactic.
The same is true of tactical voting arguments. Because Lib Dems have to work harder to establish our electoral credibility, we are great users of bar charts, showing us as serious contenders in ‘two-horse races’. But in fact no candidate with sense is ever going to come out and say ‘Actually I haven’t got a hope so you might as well back one of my opponents.’ In the recent Mayoral election in Watford, the Conservatives quoted national opinion polls to show us as in third place and out of the running (even though we had won last time). In a sense, fair enough. Had they tried to pass off the national poll as last time’s mayoral result that would have been dishonest. The electorate had enough sense to see that national opinion polls were not directly relevant to the situation in Watford and voted Lib Dem anyway. But I suspect that if the roles had been reversed, the Conservatives would have complained of dishonest Lib Dems trying to mislead the electorate.
In the end, all parties use remarkably similar techniques and tricks to win elections. There is no charge that is levelled at the Lib Dems that could not equally be made against one of the other parties.