How the Lib Dems won Watford – Liberal Youth, clear leadership and relentless campaigning

In February, the Liberal Democrats employed me to be their campaign organiser in Watford, a council facing ‘all out’ elections and currently being run by the Lib Dems with only the Mayor’s casting vote.

Upon being appointed, I wrote down the ‘pros and cons’ of the job and quickly became excited with the prospect of doing well, but had my doubts on how to play an all-out election.



The elections in 2015 were a bad year for the Liberal Democrats in Watford. In the council elections we lost 5 councillors, 4 to the Conservatives and 1 to Labour, as well as falling to third in the parliamentary seat.

That said, with my concerns disproved, 2016 was much more successful and was the best council result for the Liberal Democrats in the UK. We held 18 and gained 7 of the 36 council seats, with 5 wins from the Conservatives and 2 from Labour. We gained a seat in Callowland ward, an area that has never been held by the Liberal Democrats, as well as wiping the Conservative group off Watford Borough Council completely.

So how did we get there?

Watford Lib Dems have won the Mayoral elections ever since the position was created in 2002, and in Dorothy Thornill, Peter Taylor and Iain Sharpe have very clear and strategic leadership. Watford has seen very few internal fractions compared to other strong Liberal Democrat councils such as Portsmouth, and appears to be both in practice and morale a good council group.

A strong council group with clear leadership and a record of working hard is absolutely a factor the successes of this election.

This year’s campaign success can be summed up with 5 headers:

  1. Getting on board – this is the message, go and sell it
  2. Literature – less isn’t more and traditional isn’t best
  3. Canvassing the right people – don’t waste time
  4. Cash in favours – ask everyone
  5. Do what needs to be done to win 

Getting on board

The idea of losing more councillors seemed to be accepted by some of the council group because of our performance in 2015, but the reality of the Liberal Democrats losing Watford Borough Council had an ulterior impact. The prospects of winning the 2018 Mayor elections under a Labour administration would be unlikely and nationally we’d be looking at a further decline in our vote at the parliamentary seat.

In March, the message needed to be hit home – we win or we disappear. When we launched our campaign, Dorothy outlined the achievements of the Lib Dems, and I wrote a briefing of what we need to do to win. I set the target of collecting 13,000 voting intentions by polling day, giving a substantial pool of people to ‘knock up’ and a bigger pool to ‘knock off’.



Once the severity of the election was understood by everyone involved, literature was the next focus. A very unpopular, but proven to work, theory of mine is that neither the traditional year round literature or letters should be our primary literature.

From early on, I was of the view that the same hard-hitting message we gave our council group should be the same one given to the electorate. For the first month of me being in Watford I played a very small roll in literature design however, as the election went on and the same hard-hitting message needed to be reinforced, I took a bigger role.

There were three pieces of literature I think had most impact. A Labour look-alike, a switch and squeeze polling week leaflet and a Conservative/Labour addressed good morning leaflet. 

The quantity of leaflets are just as vital as the quality. We delivered just short of 1,000,000 leaflets and letters since May 2015 – without that quantity I don’t believe we would have done so well in some wards.


Canvassing is one of those things that many people don’t like to do, but it has to be done. The importance of canvassing, and most importantly accurate canvassing, is often underestimated and undervalued.

I laid down the gauntlet for Watford to get voting intentions for 13,000 of the electorate by May 3rd, and I’m pleased to say that our candidates and councillors exceeded that target; they’ve canvassed more doors than they’ve ever done in any other local election.

In order to help meet this target, we introduced mass canvassing sessions. Every Friday evening a group of candidates and councillors would pile in to one ward and canvass for 2 ½ hours. This sense of camaraderie and teamwork helped keep the vibe positive and encouraged everyone to work together.

However, the only reason we did well is because all those contacts we made were an accurate reflection of the voters intention, giving us correct and up-to-date information. Inaccurate and rushed canvassing serves no purpose other than self gratification. Accurate data puts us in the strongest position to target our voters and our resources.


Cash in favours and call on mates

Anybody involved in campaigns will know that the most effective way of persuading people to vote Liberal Democrat is by knocking their door. The way I rallied support was not through the cumbersome process of recruiting volunteers – I called in mates and cashed in favours from people I’ve helped in other campaigns.

Asking Norman Lamb to come and talk was a great way to rally friends, further to that a social with free booze at the end of a hard day campaigning. On two occasions we had over 40 people come for a weekend in Watford.

We legitimately would not have won in some wards without them, so I’d like to extend a massive thank you to everyone who came to help out.


Do what needs to be done to win

Often in campaigns there is an invisible barrier to the amount we can do, usually due to capacity. But when all is said and done, people like Dorothy, Peter, Iain, myself and so many more in Watford have that ‘get up and go’ attitude and will do what work they need to do to win.

If you can’t find the capacity to get a leaflet out or canvass that extra 100 doors, lead from the front and do it yourself. If others see you putting 150% into a campaign suddenly you’ll see others around you putting in more effort.

Watford will continue to do well because of committed people like Peter, Iain and Dorothy, and with the help of others, particularly Liberal Youth, I can see them making serious progress ahead of 2020 General Election.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. This is a really well written post Nassar.

    It’s clear, concise, and to the point. There are some inspired choice of vocabulary (my favourite being “internal fractions”).


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