Politicians are well acquainted with the art of pressing the flesh, kissing a few babies and speaking on the odd soapbox during elections, but Ed Miliband’s pledge for Labour to hold four million conversations with the electorate between now and polling day is ambitious. For Labour candidates, this turbo-charged activity is both welcome in its scope, but daunting in its expectations for delivery.
Miliband has shown a preference for grassroots activism over big spending national campaigning, insisting that “we will win this election, not by buying up thousands of poster sites, but by having millions of conversations.” This also allows Miliband to play up his party’s claim to be a people’s party, contrasting it with the (perceived) big donors and big spending of the Conservatives. But will it work?
Parties campaign on the ground for four broad reasons: to convert, to mobilise, to identify and to fight. The first, in its rarest form, is for a party campaigner to convert someone on the doorstep. Face-to-face campaigning can help electors realise the nuances of local issues, or indeed local electoral realities – the constant refrain of ‘party X cannot win here’ is a more important narrative in an era of multi-party politics.
The second objective of party campaigns is to mobilise supporters, including persuading those willing to vote for a party to deliver leaflets, put up posters or actually join up.
Thirdly, to identify where supporters are, which is crucial for getting out the vote come election day (offering lifts to polling stations and reminding supporters of how close a result could be, can make all the difference.)
Finally, campaigns help parties identify where other parties are strongest, leading to decisions on whether to shift resources to other areas where they would be more effective, or to change key messaging to fight a party on its own policy strengths.
Local campaigning makes a huge difference. This is crucial in assessing the likely prospects for the Liberal Democrats, who’s local campaigners are all that prevent the party being reduced to just a taxi full of MPs. The Green Party too has seen grassroots politicking work for them, as evidenced in Brighton where the party gained its first ever MP and took control of the council, despite a relatively low national profile.
Incumbency can play a role, as party members use an MP’s profile and work within Parliament to wage a continuous campaigning war on the electorate. Local party members are crucial in hammering home a local message about the sitting MP; no amount of national campaigning can deliver this. However, as Cicero’s James Plaskitt has argued, multi-party politics has eroded this ‘incumbency bonus’ as party affiliations weaken and tactical voting plays an ever greater role. The chief doorstep conversation may now be ‘party X cannot win here’, rather than ‘your MP has delivered Y’.
Local campaigning also breathes life into a party’s social media presence, as broad-brush messaging can be accompanied by local issues, show that a party and its candidate are grounded in the local community, and ultimately humanise a party. Social media will play a greater role than ever before, and having a multitude of supportive voices could help to capture first time voters, the under 30s and tech-savvy non-voters.
Seeing local people campaigning on behalf of a party also delivers greater appeal as the ‘people like me’ effect can be potent. People respond better to those they recognise, be they councillors, neighbours or active members of local groups. National campaign ads attempt the personal anglel through depicting families, pensioners or ‘hard-working’ types supporting particular policies or decrying the policies of others; local campaigning aims to deliver this in a more targeted, nuanced and, above all, ‘real’ way.
National campaigns do set a mood, giving activists further ammunition at a local level. Messaging, in leaflets and doorstep conversations, aims to echo a national narrative, ramming home core policies and values. The framework is delivered by the national campaign ads and posters, but elections are essentially won on the doorstep.
Posters can prove effective at visualising a key campaign message – the Conservatives’ ‘Labour isn’t working’ ad from 1979 being a good example. However, a blunt national message can misfire, exemplified by Winston Churchill’s ill-judged broadcast in June 1945 in which he stated that Labour would need ‘some form of Gestapo’ to introduce socialism. National campaigns give reach, but local campaigning gives depth, and crucially, warmth.
Elections are often remembered for the hard-hitting political posters and election broadcasts they contain, but the reality behind this are the teams of activists knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and ultimately getting out the vote on polling day. With just 39,000 members, five thousand less than the Liberal Democrats, UKIP’s national popularity might be undone by a lack of activists on the ground and a danger of overstretch, as it currently has more candidates in place than its rival to be the third party of British politics.
At a time when campaign spending will be tight, PPCs need to focus on the inexpensive ways to reach as many people as possible, in a meaningful way. Street stalls, soap box speeches, and school and company visits give candidates an opportunity to engage, but just as importantly, to be seen to be engaging. Courage in the face of potentially hostile questioning is more meaningful than stage managed interactions, as authenticity, an ability to listen and a willingness to engage are more important than ever. Social media and the issuing of press releases are important, but all candidates need to find an authentic, local voice in order to succeed.
In an era of multi-party politics, expect the General Election to throw up unusual results, based partly on local factors. National messaging matters, but local issues, tactical voting and one-to-one conversations, at a time when politics and politicians are viewed with suspicion, matter more. National campaigning helps target the 46 million electors in the UK, but four million interactions could make a greater difference, particularly if they are targeted to make the most of the first-past-the-post system. The quality of conversations, not their quantity, will matter most. Politics isn’t supposed to be a spectator sport after all.