5 Lessons Learnt from the Danish Election Campaign
Bold, new thinking on volunteer management & campaign messaging.
Before the world of work I spent 3 exciting years running the international programme of a political party youth wing. This was originally written for my old blog in June 2015 but the reflections still hold huge value.
After almost a year’s build-up, the Danish General Election was finally called for the 18th June 2015. The candidates, who’d been long selected and building up their constituency profiles whilst they waited, sprung into action with their teams across the country for the three weeks they had to campaign in until the big day.
As the International Officer for the Liberal Democrats’ youth wing here in the UK, I’m a big advocate of co-operation between our sister parties abroad — not only in lending a hand where we can, but also to learn best practice from each other too. With this in mind I booked flights to Copenhagen to join our liberal sister youth party there, Radikal Ungdom (there mother party in the parliament is Radikale Venstre, which is part of the red electoral block) for the last few days of the campaign.
Bearing in mind that Denmark’s electoral system is quite different (i.e. better) to ours, and the fact that Radikale Venstre are a pretty minor party still, I know there are some huge lessons from it that we can learn here in Britain as Liberal Democrats. Here are just a few.
1. Make abstract policies into something tangible & memorable
We have a big problem here of thinking that simply bleating out our policies and beliefs on XYZ will get them to stick in people’s minds when they come to vote or decide on a particular issue. Newsflash; it doesn’t. What does stick in people’s minds and make an actual difference is when you take something complex and abstract (as pretty much any aspect of politics is) and make it straightforward and real. Bonus points for amusing too.
The Danes are brilliant at this — one candidate’s election video featured him in his wheelchair lining up for a race with able-bodied competitors. The start gun went off and of course Kristian was left trundling along behind them as they sprinted off into the distance. But this is reinforcing his whole message — which was ‘at least you know I won’t run away from my electoral promises’. It’s memorable, amusing and brilliant in its simplicity.
Another example is that when essentially anti-EU parties have complained about the need for borders and a desire to limit freedom of movement, Radikal Ungdom responded with a street stunt where they built faux-blockades down busy pedestrian roads to represent borders, literally pointing out how it benefited no-one to limit freedom of movement when it’s always a two-way street.
2. Be unashamed in your beliefs
This isn’t about winning votes — this is just about the whole reason you ever got involved in politics. Any small liberal party knows that our members’ core convictions are rarely the flavour of the day, with the media or the voters. But we also know those core convictions are bang-on right. Time often tells, but rarely there is anything to gain by the party machine whispering them, half-hoping they aren’t heard, rather than shouting them loud.
The day before the elections I joined Radikal Ungdom in taking some cakes iced with ‘we are glad you’re here’ to a special house in Copenhagen for asylum seekers. It was a surprisingly moving experience Every other party but Radikale had spoken out against immigrants and asylum seekers when these are some of the most marginalised people in Danish society and deserve nothing but support, so this was RU’s way of taking a stand for what was right but no-one else had enough backbone to say.
It’s probably rare to find someone who’ll vote for us because we spoke out for those who have not even have a vote. But we should remember that voters don’t not vote for us because we give a shit about asylum seekers or real equal rights or proper mental health care. Yet voters and activists don’t vote and campaign for parties when they have no idea where you really stand. And the change you want to see in the country and the world is unlikely to ever happen if you don’t actually ever ask for it.
3. Give your youth wing has the budget & freedom it deserves
Anyone who knows anything about Liberal Youth will know there’s a long-standing polite struggle with the governing party about how much budget and independence we are able to have. Given the behaviour of some previous exec members I can understand the fear about facilitating that monetary and political freedom, but seeing how Radikal Ungdom operates should eliminate that.
RU members were the driving force behind so many candidates’ campaigns — either as the campaign managers or key team-members, and their office was their national campaign HQ; allowing members from outside central Copenhagen to sleep there (with two showers and full kitchen) to stay working on the campaign almost round the clock. They funded and distributed their own campaign materials, planned election stunts to draw attention to the party’s policies and managed the campaign bus on a few successful tours.
This is a testament to the fact that if you give young people the freedom and resources to run a political youth wing properly they will rise to the responsibility — not only keeping you in moral check, but getting the policies to the public in innovative ways and ultimately getting your people elected. Obviously the Danish state funding of youth wings is incredible but the Liberal Democrats are certainly able to step up their game over how LY is funded, more autonomy over how it is spent, and support rather than interference over how we choose to campaign in a General Election. In return they’ll get a stronger youth wing with more power in the hands of young people.
4. Watch how your female activists are treated, then we’ll run the damn show
Something which was noticeably different in the Danish youth wing (and mother party) was the number of women which were hugely involved in co-coordinating the campaigns and general activities. Of course we have many great and hugely active female campaigners over here, but it remains a clearly very male-dominated activity.
Obviously this is a direct reflection of the wider issue of women (and particularly young women)’s lack of political involvement in the country, and we could hypothesise at great length as to why that is — but from my own experience as a woman, when out campaigning men, who you know believe in equal rights and whatever, they can have an awful habit of cutting me (and other women) out of conversations, and other frustrating behaviour that’s hard to get people to recognise in themselves. Also some of the creepier guys can speak to the young women in really inappropriate ways — which luckily isn’t something I’ve witnessed an awful lot myself, but certainly heard stories of such from friends in the party.
However this is not the case with the Danish liberals. It’s almost like if you ensure that the political environment doesn’t make women feel uncomfortable or not listened to, they will run shit just fine. Shocker.
5. Always feed your activists
Every night at either the HQ of Radikal Ungdom or one of the candidates there was a big evening meal cooked for everyone helping out with the campaigns. It was only a small portion of the budget and needed one or two volunteers to sort out the meal each night, but I can see that it created an atmosphere very different to a majority of our campaigns — everyone came together to eat, have a beer and share the news on the ground that day.
Sharing a meal not only ensures you’re activists are properly fed after a day working for you, which is the decent thing to do regardless, but establishes a feeling of community and de-stressing, which in turn encourages people to go out campaigning again for you and be happy to work hard because they are taken care of and have strong social bonds with others out working for you, rather than feel stressed, not motivated by the social side of campaigning and unable to work as hard.
Where I’m based campaigning in Oxford the team are good at making sure we are fed with pizza and pints, but I know this is certainly not the case for most local parties around the country. Activists are often given no time as part of the campaign to relax and refuel. Sure people can go home (though there can be pressure to stay out, and that’s another issue) but communally eating or drinking for a break is often regarded as a chance to do some clerical work simultaneously rather than make sure your volunteers have a proper break. With the pressure those doing the pushing are under over here I can see how taking care of your activists in the final weeks of a campaign can be overlooked, but, as taking care of them will absolutely ensure that they are rejuvenated and motivated to work, it can only benefit everyone over time.