Word of mouth election? That’s so 1997

Douglas Alexander’s soundbite about wanting to make 2010 the “word of mouth” election has got a fair amount of coverage in the last few days, such as in this mostly thoughtful piece by Andrew Rawnsley.

Why do I only say “mostly thoughtful”?

That’s because it’s a good piece, but also displays a weakness so common in contemporary British political commentary. It’s the feeling that it’s more important to talk about what an American did a couple of years ago than how the British political system has worked over the last few elections.

Because if you want “word of mouth”, and you know in at least as much detail about how the 1997 British election played out as the 2008 US Presidential election, then 1997 should leap out as the comparator to talk about.

That’s because the 1997 election results were a curio. In the run-up to polling day much praise was heaped on the Labour key seats operation. Its technology, its finances, its messaging, its existence. Yet when the votes were counted, Labour did no better in its key seats, with all their targeted help, than it did in the next tranche of seats down.

The reason? Once the academics had surveyed the public, segmented the answers and chewed over the results, one explanation stood out: the power of word of mouth. So many people were willing to talk to their neighbours and friends about their political choices, and to influence how they voted, that the power of word of mouth meant those seats which got less formal Labour campaigning nonetheless saw sufficient informal campaigning to achieve the same end result.

So yes, the word of mouth can be powerful. But please, when we talk about its impact on a British general election can we talk a little more about what’s happened in the past in Britain and a little less about what’s happened in the past in the US?

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