I’m currently working with Shaun Roberts on updating the old ‘how to win your ward’ ALDC publication. The publication has a long heritage going back through the Liberal Party and there is an interesting indication of how the party has developed as you follow the literary thread from the old Community Politics pamphlet by John Smithson via Chris Rennard’s Winning Local Elections manual and other publications and ending up with the three volume Winning Local Elections series by various people including myself.
As the publications have got longer there has been a steadily increasing emphasis on the technicalities of election campaigning with the local campaigning – and community politics – getting rather overshadowed.
The draft table of contents Shaun and I are working on deliberately tries to take a big step away from that, returning to the local community politics roots. I’m sure some of that clarity will get worn away at the edges as the writing process commences but if nothing else I hope we can get over the spirit behind the original invention of Focus newsletters – that is, you do campaigning and therefore you have news you want to impart and feedback you want to get, so you do a newsletter to let people know.
That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to think about and improve on the election campaigning side too, and one aspect of that I looked at in my most recent column for ALDC’s Campaigner:
Learning the constituency campaigning lessons after the 1997 and 2001 general elections was fairly easy. Almost without exception, those seats which followed the key seat best practice plan did well and those which did not, didn’t. Most strikingly, the two incumbent MPs in 2001 who insisted on doing something different both lost even as seats elsewhere which followed the template were gained.
However, many people’s immediate reaction after the May 2010 election is one of bafflement. Those simple patterns, which also mostly held in 2005, seem to be shattered. Some intensive ‘traditional’ key seat campaigns scored spectacular swings or saw incumbents re-elected with increased majorities, but a good number of other campaigns which superficially followed the same template did not.
So what was going on?
A significant part of the answer, I suspect, comes from campaigns that were so hard-pressed to meet the necessary scale of a winning campaign that the quality of the campaign suffered. Perhaps the clearest example of this is with direct mail.
The volume of direct mail which key seats aim to do has hugely increased in the last ten years – and rightly so, given the successful experiences of direct mail intensive campaigns in particular seats in 1997 and 2001 in particular. Direct mail gets better readership and response rates than leaflets and allows for the variation in message that an increasingly fragmented electorate requires.
Moreover, the tradition used to be that volumes of direct mail were primarily driven by the volumes of canvass data and a very limited amount of demographic data held in EARS. So a third party squeeze letter would go to the identified third party voters from canvass returns and no-one else – even if that might mean the letters went to only a small fraction of the third party vote.
In order to deal with this mismatch between volume of data and in EARS and volume of letters needed to bring about the right political outcome, campaigners increasingly looked to other ways to increase the reach of letters. Mosaic has been a valuable part of this, as has been categorising areas as Labour or Conservative.
Many of these concepts and lessons were brought together and then more widely publicised following the party’s review of key seat campaigns in 2005. It was in the summer of that year that I coined the phrase “the pool” and “pool mailings” – words which are now uttered repeatedly by campaign organisers as they stand cursing over jamming laser printers or misfiring stuffing machines.
The idea behind the pool was simple: rather than let direct mail be driven by the volume and type of data immediately to hand, have direct mail driven by the political needs (particularly in terms of volume) and then work backwards to figure out what data to use. It meant that many campaigns started to be really stretched to do far more direct mail than they had done before.
It was the right lesson based on successful experiences such as Harrogate in 1997, Chesterfield in 2001 and Hornsey and Wood Green in 2005.
It has also come at a cost. Often campaigns have been so stretched trying to hit the necessary volumes that the quality and variation of the direct mail suffered. That has been both because of the increase in volume of direct mail and also because of the increase in the range of our key seats, with the growth in winnable seats taking in seats with far lower levels of organisation than would have previously been considered necessary.
So whilst in Chesterfield in 2001 what we would come to call a pool mailing might have included letters to new voters, letters to pensioners, letters to Tory areas, letters to supporters and letters to petition signers all in the one delivery, by 2010 in many campaigns a pool mailing meant pretty much everyone in the pool got the same letter.
Similarly, whilst Chesterfield in many ways pioneered widespread double-delivery, that in origin was driven by necessity – too many targeted messages to get out in direct mail and not enough delivery slots. Over time double-delivery has mutated from an enforced economy of delivery in order to ensure all the different niche mailings go out into an almost automatic doubling up where letters are done because letters are done.
One clear challenge for the future therefore looks to be learning how to maintain the volume whilst increasing the quality – both in terms of better and cleverer use of data to make-up the pool and also in more varied and more carefully targeted letters sent out to the pool.
We have won a string of constituencies assisted by large scale, high quality direct mail campaigns. When the letters are good and varied, people are happy to receive far more than our deliverers and bank balances can put out. Where the letters are formulaic, repetitive or produced in a rush, people’s tolerance drops swiftly.
I’m a great believer in the power of direct mail, because I’ve had the joy of hearing the Returning Officer read out results in many elections won with the help of direct mail. Collectively though having cracked the quantity issue in recent years, we now need to crack the quality one too.