Book review: General Election 2005 – What the voters saw

29 March 2009

I wrote this review of General Election 2005 – What the voters saw, by E Robinson & J Fisher, in 2005.

The United Kingdom’s 2005 general election has already seen a plethora of books published, ranging from the latest volume in the Nuffield elections studies (D Kavanagh and D Butler, The British General Election of 2005) through to probably the most detailed polling analysis ever published of a campaign, the fruits of the extensive opinion polls commissioned (at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds) by Tory peer, Lord Ashcroft (Smell the coffee: a wake-up call for the Conservative party).

In this menagerie, Robinson and Fisher have found a distinctive and interesting niche as their work reports on a study, conducted by the New Politics Network and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, into what electors really received through their letterbox, over the phone or in person on the doorstep during the election. A panel of 313 volunteers across 223 different seats recorded all the contacts they received and this book analyses the results.

To Liberal Democrat campaigners many of the results will be less surprising perhaps than to others – but as it is a staple complaint of Lib Dem election organisers that academics and pundits do not understand how their local campaigns really work, that is not necessarily a bad thing. (Though doubtless quite a few eyebrows will be raised at the omission of the Liberal Democrats from the list of parties who it is said – on page 11 – “have the capability to target different voters with different leaflets within the same constituency”!).

The study provides very clear evidence for more leaflets bringing more votes, with the seats the Lib Dems gained often showing double-figure number of contacts for electors from the Liberal Democrats. One lucky or unlucky soul (depending on your point of view) in Hornsey and Wood Green received no less than eighteen different leaflets from the Liberal Democrats. The authors understandably conclude, “The Liberal Democrats were determined to win this seat.” The result? A Liberal Democrat gain, with a swing of 15%. Similar double-figure levels of contact were recorded in other dramatic wins in Manchester Withington and Westmorland and Lonsdale.

A more detailed reading of the figures shows some strong results for Charles Kennedy’s party on more modest campaigns but the overall picture is a clear link between very heavy levels of Lib Dem contact and good Lib Dem results. What is also clear is that in many of these seats the “classic ALDC” type campaign of four or five leaflets is now seen as barely breaking sweat. This is partly a reaction to the increasing difficulty of getting a political message across as advertising and marketing material have encroached more and more on every aspect of life (and through the letterbox). On the other hand, in many seats the Liberal Democrats clearly still struggle to reach this level of intensive campaigning activity across a Parliamentary seat – and as a result across the country as a whole the Lib Dem leaflets come out as the least local due to the reliance on standard national artwork in many of the weaker seats.

The connection between activity and results appears much looser for the other parties, again a reflection of the wider world, in this case the higher core support and media coverage for Labour and the Conservatives.

The book is rounded off with a detailed analysis of what the parties said on immigration –the most contentious issue of campaign ethics during the campaign – and a sketch of the campaign in five individual constituencies.

At £7.50 for just 40 pages the book is rather pricey, but there is enough interest in this brief book to make it worthwhile – and brevity does mean a busy political activist may actually have the time to read it!

Mark Pack works in the Liberal Democrats Campaigns Department and, in his spare time, wrote most of the eighteen letters and leaflets the lucky Hornsey and Wood Green resident received.

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