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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 November 2007, 09:41 GMT
Taking the fight to the party
Mark Littlewood
Mark Littlewood
Former head of media for the Liberal Democrats

Man on phone
Personal contact by phone to coerce the thinking voter...

In the latest missive from Mark Littlewood on the Liberal Democrat leadership battle, the candidates and their organisations are put to the test - on television and telephone...

The quietest week so far in the Liberal Democrat leadership election - but this could be the calm before the storm.

The next fortnight is when this contest will be won or lost - both organisationally and over the airwaves.

The Liberal Democrats' membership of around 65,000 means the total electorate is about the same as that in a single Parliamentary constituency.

But the Lib Dems, famed skills in winning one-off by-elections, will be of no help to either candidate here.

The leadership race so far...
Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne

The rank-and-file members of the party are scattered to the four corners of the kingdom, so leafleting and door-to-door canvassing is not practical.

The weapon of choice will be the telephone.

Both campaign teams will be trying to pull together lists of names and numbers - without falling foul of either the data protection laws or the strict party election rules.

They will then be seeking to communicate with these members in a more subtle way than in a rough-and-tumble election against the Labour and Conservative parties.

The tele-phony war

Chris Huhne
The time is running out for campaigning...

In a by-election, the overwhelming majority of voters are not particularly pleased to receive your call.

The main objective of a telephone canvasser is to swiftly work out whether the voter is supportive, antagonistic or undecided.

Rarely is much time spent on actually trying to convert them.

But in a leadership election, the aim is rather different.

Most people will be delighted to hear from either camp and a very substantial proportion will be both determined to vote, but presently undecided.

This makes the art of persuasion vital. Whichever candidate has the best 30-second script - explaining why their man is the best option - could reap enormous rewards.

A further consideration is that Lib Dem members are likely to be more receptive to someone they know well, than to an anonymous caller from a Westminster-based campaign headquarters.

This means that both camps need to deploy their network of supporters in a sophisticated fashion.

If the chairman of the Bognor Regis Liberal Democrats is one of your backers, you want him to be phoning other Liberal Democrat member in Bognor, not people he has never heard of in Bolton.

Chris is well ahead in the scale and deployment of his grassroots network - but Nick has many more MPs on side.

If Team Clegg can get their Parliamentarians to deliver the vast majority of members in their own individual constituencies - where party membership is measured in hundreds rather than dozens - that would be an enormous boost to his chances.

For all that is said about the importance of distinctive policy messages and the need to define and promote the personality of each candidate, the bare truth is that this contest could be decided by who has the best telesales team.

And now the airwaves war

Question Time audience
The Question Time audience can be a real grilling...

But the media battle is about to assume real importance too.

Hustings for party members have been held in town halls up and down the country - but these events only get to a small proportion of the party membership and are often attended by staunch supporters of one or other candidate.

The hustings that really matter will be conducted by the BBC.

Tens of thousands of undecided members will be watching the Question Time special on Thursday 15 November.

With the ballot papers being issued six days later, the perceived winner of this contest could gain themselves thousands of votes for just an hour's good work.

The loser will have a chance to redeem himself on the Politics Show on Sunday 18 November.

These set-pieces will need to be tackled by Nick and Chris with all the seriousness that US Presidential candidates treat their do-or-die TV debates on the other side of the Atlantic.

If they are smart, they will also realise that they need to ensure their victory is successfully spun afterwards.

The most important few moments for an American spin-doctor is the 10 minutes after the debate has ended.

It is then that you have a chance to press home your advantage or mitigate any damage to the wider media.

A real victory is scored not just by winning the debate - but by everyone agreeing and reporting that you have done so.

Disagreements bubbling up

Nick Clegg
A "performance" will be needed by both candidates on Question Time

This week has seen the first signs of the leadership contest getting tetchy.

Not overtly hostile, but definitely a lot less cosy than in the first fortnight.

Both Nick and Chris face the problem of wanting to highlight their differences without appearing to throw mud.

This is a difficult line to tread.

Each candidate wants to press home any and every advantage now, but they both know that they will need to work side-by-side for years to come, whoever wins.

Last week, I suggested that sparks may fly over public service reform and, indeed, they have started to do so.

Chris is claiming that Nick is a fan of vouchers in the education system.

Nick is adamant that he is not, but favours a "pupil premium" policy that would target resources on the worst off - although he concedes on this weekend's GMTV interview with Steve Richards that he hasn't yet worked out exactly how to finance it.

When the candidates genuinely disagree about something, a sensible debate can follow.

When they can't even agree about what they disagree about, things can get ugly.

Cigarette paper
It is possibly just a fag-paper between them...

No one knows yet who is really winning.

Anecdotal evidence suggests a very close race and a large number of genuinely undecided voters.

If really pressed, I'd probably have to call it for Nick Clegg, but by a margin so small that Chris Huhne really does have everything to play for.

Mark Littlewood, Communications Director of the classical liberal think tank Progressive Vision, is a former head of media for the Liberal Democrats. This piece, part of a weekly series during the leadership election, is a personal view.

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