At ALDC we want to make sure that everyone gets the opportunity to vote for a Liberal Democrat at every election – and by-elections are no exception.
By-elections can be a tremendous opportunity to break into new territory or build strength in areas you are already working. Assuming that the by-election will be held on a date outside May elections, it’s a chance for you to deploy all your resources in one place – and get outside help in too!
We should always ensure that there is a Liberal Democrat candidate to vote for in every election. But how much resource should we put behind that candidate? This decision needs to be taken very quickly. The fundamental question you should ask yourself is:
Can you realistically win and what’s your objective if not?
Winning a by-election takes three important things –
1) The right candidate 2) The right message 3) Lots of volunteer time, effort, money
If you don’t have all three of these things, then you probably won’t win and should think very hard about whether this is the best use of your precious resources.
The further behind you start, the stronger you will need to be in each of these three. However if you fight a full campaign you can achieve some spectacular results in which you can come from some distance behind to either win or develop the seat into a strong second place and build it up for future successes.
Some very good recent examples show exactly what we can achieve if we work hard in a local by-election. This by-election in Sunderland in September 2021 saw the Lib Dems come from 6th place in the 2021 Local Elections to a very strong second just missing out by 27 votes – increasing their vote share by 28%. This example is quite typical. If you have the resources to run a full campaign in a by-election you can achieve remarkable results from almost a standing start.
But you must also consider that by-elections can swallow almost all your resources (financial and manpower) for months. Turning a poor third into a decent second place (or even a win) is good progress, but not if it means you put at risk your existing held and target seats. These two questions can lead to tough discussions and need a lot of consideration – call ALDC on 0161 302 7532 if you would like advice on how to manage your resources and to take a decision on what kind of campaign you should fight.
Approval and Selection
The sooner you select a candidate the more quickly they can be out on the doorstep speaking to voters.
You should use ALDC’s Approval and Selection Toolkit to run your candidate selection.
When the seat is declared vacant. This is when the council is informed of the death of a councillor or when a councillor submits their resignation letter to the Council.
Then when the election is called. This is when two electors from the council area (not necessarily the ward concerned) request that an election be called. There is no standard form for this and a simple letter stating they are electors of the council area and requesting that they would like the election to commence will suffice.
When the Returning Officer chooses within strict deadlines the date of the election. In doing so they publish the Notice of Election. This would normally be done on the day they receive a resignation.
The actual date of the election is always at the discretion the Returning Officer. Once the election is “called” by two electors of the borough she/he has a maximum of 35 working days and a minimum of 26 working days to hold the election. If they conform to the convention of Thursday elections that will give them the option of at least two Thursdays (and occasionally three) on which the election may be held.
Thursday elections are not a legal requirement just a common convention. Every year a few elections are held on other days. Once the Returning Officer has decided on the day of the election the deadlines (such as the close of nominations) work backwards from that polling day.
You can try to second guess the intentions of a Returning Officer (RO) and even suggest a preferred date. However most RO’s will set the election day at their own convenience or the perceived convenience of the public.
In the new Electoral Commission guidelines for Returning Officers they are partly assessed on encouraging higher turnouts, it is therefore useful to quote this and argue why your preferred election date would maximise turnout e.g. avoid a big sporting fixture or cultural festival, or positively coincide with one.
Once the formal notice of a vacancy is advertised you need two voters in the relevant electoral division/ward to request that a by-election is held.
It’s worth checking with the elections office whether the vacancy has been advertised though as there is no duty to inform the parties and it could just be a notice on an obscure noticeboard somewhere in the division.
There is no standard form – or form of wording – for asking for the by-election, but use something along the lines of:
“As voters in the electoral division of XXX, we are formally requesting that a by-election is held to fill the vacancy in the ward as soon as legally possible”.
Then just include the full names, addresses and signatures of the two voters (and just to avoid doubt include the electoral roll numbers for them too).
Then include the full names, addresses and signatures of the two voters For Parish Councils or Town Councils ten electors are need to call a by-election.
In many areas, particularly when the sitting councillor had died, there is a convention to allow the party of the deceased councillor to call the election as and when they choose. This has no basis in law and the simple answer is no. If it suits us to call the election quickly we should do so.
By-Election Starter Pack
Alongside our print partners Election Workshop ALDC has produced a By-Election Starter Pack that can be sent out to you immediately once a by-election is called – to give you some resources to begin campaigning straight away while you plan the rest of your campaign.
You can choose the resources that are included in your pack – which include Canvass Cards, Local Issues Survey, Window Posters, Cream / Blue Envelopes, Postal Vote Registration Forms and various instructions and guides. These are easy to localise to your local area – and can be localised for you if required. You can find out more information and order your pack below.
As in any election, preparation and planning are the keys to success. In a local by-election, that can happen very unexpectedly, and there may be far less time to get things moving.
From the moment you become aware of a possible by-election, you could be as little as 5-6 weeks from polling day!
If it takes two weeks to get your campaign moving, then you may have wasted a third or more of the campaigning time! You must move quickly or your campaign can be sunk before it has even started. Before getting going with your planning there are two main things to consider:
What you want to achieve? What type of campaign you can run?
There are lots of different levels of campaigns that you might feel appropriate from:
Paper – nothing but the nomination
Developmental – a two election strategy. Its important (if possible) to get your candidate to commit to fighting the seat at the next one, perhaps two sets of local elections.
Bells and whistles
Suck it and see – If you start early enough, throw the kitchen sink at the election for two weeks and then have a hard assessment based on extensive Voter ID on whether, if trends continue, it will be winnable – or if you need to cut back to a developmental campaign.
There is nothing more annoying than getting to the issue of postal ballots and realising that if you’d fought to win from the start the seat could have been won.
Remember also that whichever level of campaign you decide is appropriate, the by-election is always a great chance to try new campaign tactics, involve new people and learn new skills.
Below are three template campaign plans designed for basic, intermediate and full level by-election campaigns. You can download the plans on the links below the images.
The following paperwork needs to be completed correctly and submitted on time:
Candidate’s consent to nomination
Deposit (not for a local by-election)
Form for the appointment of the agent
Delegated Nominating Officer (DNO) paperwork (for use of the party name and logo on the ballot paper)
Most Returning Officers will supply forms, but some may expect you to supply your own from the Electoral Commission’s website.
You should always use the party’s own DNO paperwork available here.
Some Golden Rules for Nominations
Talk to your Returning Officer and find out what they will and won’t accept and arrange a meeting for an informal check before the deadlines
Get the papers submitted in time so that you can deal with any mistakes and problems.
If you run into serious problems, check with ALDC Download Nomination papers including candidate consent to nomination and agent notification forms (MS Word) – ward specific nomination papers will be available from your council.
Download Certificate of Authorisation / Delegated Nominating Officer (DNO) form England/ Scotland and Wales – ALDC recommends you use this version rather than the one supplied by your Council.
You can access full Nominations Toolkits to help through each step of the process below. Please note there are slightly different rules and forms – and therefore different toolkits – for England, Scotland and Wales.
Expense limits for local government by-elections are the same as they are for other local government elections – £806 per ward/division plus 7p per elector. “Per elector” means every elector shown on the register on the last day for publication of notice of election.
Check and agree the expenses limit with your Returning Officer before you start the election. Be aware though that identifying the correct expenses limit is the responsibility of the agent. If you are given wrong advice by the Returning Officer or other officers, this would not be a valid defence if you then overspent as a result. If you have concerns about the expense limit quoted to you by the Returning Officer call ALDC for advice.
The Electoral register is used for a number of different sorts of elections and not everybody on the register will be eligible to vote in local elections. Voters who may not vote in the relevant election, e.g. EU citizen voters who may not vote in a UK Parliamentary Election, should be excluded from the calculations for that election. Specifically excluded are those with the letter E or F against their name on the register or who have a date (indicating their 18th Birthday) that falls after the date of the election. However, ‘rising 18 year olds’ who are on the register but will attain voting age by election day can be included. However, it is not a good idea to run so close to the expense limit that this small number will be critical.
Expense Tracker Spreadsheet
You can download an Expense Tracker Spreadsheet from ALDC that will help you keep track of your expenses as the campaign progresses by clicking the button below.
The tracker allows you to split expenses between different election returns if you have different elections on the same day. For instance if your by-election takes place on local election polling day.
In most cases you will not have another election at the same time as your by-election so you would need to put 100% of your expenses in the County or District column.
Remember to get in touch with your Local Council Returning Officer and confirm the expense limit with them. If you are unsure about the limit you are given call ALDC for advice.
Further guidance for Election Agents can be in the ALDC article here that links to some further advice on keeping track of election expenses.
Developing Your Campaign Message
With such a short campaign, you can only get across a limited number of messages to the voters. In any election, there are two main things you must get across –
1) Positive reasons to vote for your candidate 2) Reasons why your main opponent is a bad choice for your area
Here is a simple set of messages that may be used in a local council by-election:
● Joe Candidate lives locally and has a strong record of getting things done for local people.
● Joe Candidate is campaigning to get action to clean up our streets and put more police on patrol locally.
● Labour are in a poor third place in our area – they can’t win here.
● *MAIN OPPOSITION* Councillors have sent Council Tax bills soaring and have failed to keep our streets safe and clean.
There is no better way of achieving this than using a barchart in every piece of literature. The point of the barchart is that it shows us and our key opponents in first and second place – with the third party well behind.
As Liberal Democrats, we also have another advantage. More often than not most Labour supporters would prefer to see a Lib Dem Councillor over a Conservative one. The opposite is also true. Squeeze also works very effectively on Green supporters.
This means if we can get the message across that an election is a choice between us and one other party, then many third party voters will switch to back us.
A squeeze message should be part of any universal item of literature you deliver during your campaign.
If a recent election result has put us in a clear first of second place in the ward we are fighting then your leaflets should prominently feature a bar chart showing the election to be a straight choice between you and the main opposition – with all other parties far behind.
If we are coming from further behind than second place in the ward you could use a recent General Election result for the same constituency if we finished second there. Alternatively there are equally effective things we can do to frame the election as a choice between us and our main opposition. For instance a head to head section between our candidate and the main opposition candidate.
These options (bar charts and head-to-heads) should appear as options on all election literature created using ALDC Artworker and ALDC’s Literature Templates.
Further advice on using Squeeze effectively can be found in this ALDC article here.
Get the message right
No election campaign will be successful unless you are talking about issues that really matter to local people. These will vary from area to area.
In every area, crime and anti-social behaviour will be a concern. In every area, health and education will also be a big issue. The environment is also a growing concern for many.
In addition to these big “national issues”, there will be more local concerns including the state of council services, council tax, loss of open spaces, road safety, broken pavements, litter etc.
You have to pick a small number (ideally 2 or 3 of these issues to make your own). Then make sure you run strongly on them – with every leaflet covering your key messages. You should also make sure you produce a briefing for all of your canvassers so they know the campaign messages and when asked – “why should I vote for your candidate?” – they know what to say!
What the best campaigns will do is produce a simple “message sheet or grid”. It is an essential tool for the person writing literature, press releases and using the website.
You can download your own message sheet to adapt as a PDF here and as an Affinity Publisher file here
Funding Your Campaign
It’s important to make financial appeals to members and supporters all year round, just as we should campaign all year round.
But at election time, you will undoubtedly get a very strong response to financial appeal letters, especially if they are specifically tied in to the money you need for the campaign.
You should strongly consider doing a flying start appeal, just as you would with a General Election, and ask for donations to help fund your by-election. You will be surprised at what you can achieve.
Many of your members will be very motivated, especially if there is the possibility of taking a seat of your main opponent and will rightly see their investment in your campaign as a worthwhile opportunity, outside of traditional election times, to help.
Furthermore, always make sure there is an ask in every letter and email that you send to members before polling day. Members will not always know how much elections cost so making this clear and what you will use any funds for is very motivational. Just as charities do, it is always a good idea to show what different donations can buy and you should also make it as easy to return as possible. Don’t forget to make sure anyone who gives donations over the legal threshold must be checked to ensure they are a permissible donor.
If you are not used to making financial appeals via email, a by-election is a really good time to start trying them out as supporters will appreciate the need for urgency in making appeals and getting money in.
Postal voters are a very important group in any election campaign. However they are even more important in by-elections.
Research has shown that in by-elections Polling Day turnout roughly halves. But Postal Vote turnout stays consistent. Therefore Postal Voters make up a much larger share of the ballot box in by-elections than normal elections. Indeed between May 2021 and December 2021 – 47% of all votes cast in local by-elections were postal votes!
Postal voters generally land a couple of weeks before full polling day. The exact date will be set by your Council. You should check with your returning officer what date they intend to send postal ballots – and keep checking in case that date changes. Once you know roughly when postal ballots will be dispatched you need to plan a full Postal Vote Polling Day operation that includes everything you would do in a normal polling day – blue/cream letters pre-knock up canvassing, a full knock up of postal voters within our Shuttleworth and good morning / eve of poll leaflets. You should also target Postal Voters specifically during the early stages of your campaign with direct mail.
A full article on how to fight an effective Postal Vote GOTV operation can be found here.
Digital campaigning is now a vital part of any Lib Dem campaign.
We have seen in recent years just how important it is to keep up with – and beat – the other parties in this respect. Also with elections expenses very tight digital campaigning is a great way to get your campaign messages out there for no cost.
If you are fighting to win, then getting the most votes out of our digital activities may well be what gets you over the winning line. So here are six ideas for things to try:
Send at least one email a week to voters during the campaign. These can include issues you have picked up on the doorsteps, casework you have done during the campaign, or a repeat of your core campaign messages. You can even segment your emails to supporters and squeeze voters to carry particular messages and include links to things like postal voter sign up forms.
Send a ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) email a few days before polling day to supporters. This will not only remind them that polling day is coming up, but you can also include a a link to an online form that lets us know if they are going to vote for us and what time of day roughly they will be voting. Getting people to commit in advance to doing something makes them more likely then to actually do it. You can use Nationbuilder for the survey or a simple tool such as Google Docs.
Record a simple ‘candidate talking to camera’ short video about why they want to represent the area. This can be done on a smartphone, and if our candidate is comfortable in front of a camera it makes for a really effective item to upload as a video to Facebook and attach to tweets. Keep it to 30 seconds or less. Short videos always get more traction on social media.
Run geo-targeted adverts in Facebook. This is not a substitute for leaflets but it is a relatively cheap addition that will guarantee hundreds and probably thousands of voters in the ward will see your key campaign messages on their facebook news feed. When you set up an advert, you can enter a postcode sector in the Location field so that the ads are only seen by people in that area.
Try out using WhatsApp – or another instant messaging service – amongst the regular core helpers. This can help organise when and where you are meeting for action days and canvassing sessions and so on. Many teams who start using WhatsApp have rapidly found it invaluable for making organising things quicker and easier.
Join Community Facebook Pages. The ward in which you are standing might have a strong online community facebook page. Though you cannot be political in these groups and promote yourself as a candidate explicitly – they are good forums to post casework that you are doing, get feedback on local issues, and generally engage with voters. Be disciplined with the time you spend on these pages and don’t get sucked into long discussions or arguments. Use them quickly and positively to promote good news and local action.
Polling Day & The Count
All the effort you have put into your campaign will be wasted if you do not fight an organised polling week operation. Turnouts in by-elections are traditionally low and the winning party will be the one that most effectively gets their voters to polls. You should start organising your polling week and polling day operations at the start of your campaign.
You can find a full advice article on how to organise your Polling Day operation here.
Hopefully you will fight a well organised and efficient polling day that gets as many Lib Dem voters to the polls as possible. But even after polls close at 10pm there is still one major job to do and that is to make sure votes are counted correctly. In very close elections campaigns can be won or lost at the count.
You can find a full advice article no how to organise you Count operation here.
Polling Week and Count Resources
ALDC has gathered together a number of resources that you will need for Polling Week – such as Tellers Pads, Telling Rotas, Committee Room tools and Tally Sheets from the Count.
Election Workshop are here to help with any printing and campaign resource needs you might have. You can find out more about Election Workshop and the support they can provide on the webpage here and they can be rung on 0161 272 6216.
Election Workshop and ALDC provide an online leaflet design system called ‘Artworker‘ – this is a very simple tool that allows you to design leaflets very quickly online without needing an previous artwork experience.
There are over 100 templates available – many of which are Election Leaflets that can be used as part of your by-election campaign. All templates are also available as Affinity Publisher files too.
Young Liberals have produced a fantastic guide to campaigning in by-elections that you can find here.
As well as giving very detailed advice on effective polling day campaigning it also focuses on making sure the personal safety of activists is taken into account. It also covers logistical and legal issues around accommodation and travel. If you are welcoming activists into your campaign from around the region, or even from around the country, make sure you read up on the rules in Young Liberal’s guide.
How Can ALDC Help?
Apply for a Fighting Fund Grant
ALDC can help by providing a grant to help with your by-election campaigning for elections that we have a good chance or winning and will be fighting a full campaign. There are some criteria for applying for a grant:
The person making the application has to be a member of ALDC.
The candidate must be a member of ALDC.
Grants will be made following the submission of a campaign plan.
Town and parish council candidates are only eligible if standing as a Liberal Democrat.
The maximum grant is 50% of the election expenses limit.
Please click on the link before to find out more information on applying for a Fighting Fund Grant.
As an ALDC member you can call the ALDC office at any time for advice and support on your by-election campaign. Our office number is 0161 302 7532. A member of ALDC staff can also go over your campaign plan with you and help make sure that you are equipped to fight the best campaign you possibly can.