Poll positioning

June 11, 1999

Kissing babies may have been an effective way of winning votes in the past, but today's politicians rely on techniques that are rather more sophisticated, according to researchers at Lancaster University.

Lancaster academics David Denver and Gordon Hands surveyed constituency campaigning patterns during the last general election. "We asked election agents across the country to submit details of how much they did and how they did it," said Professor Denver. "From the results we could work out a campaign intensity score, which we then compared to their election performance."

The 1997 election results not only confirmed that constituency campaigning does have an effect, but also revealed the new, improved marketing tactics used by new Labour's "Operation Victory" programme.

"New Labour ran an incredibly professional campaign," said Professor Denver. "Their co-ordination was very much from the centre, and they looked at the whole picture instead of so many constituencies. This is something that the Conservatives are trying to reform."

Although the Conservatives employed a similar strategy to new Labour, they put most of their human resources into safe seats, meaning that they failed where the Labour Party succeeded. "During the two years before the election, Labour headquarters made regular contact with the people on the ground in target seats to remind them of what they should be doing and when," Professor Denver said.

Floating voters were targeted by telephone canvassers in a tightly controlled operation. "The whole process was so thoroughly thought out from the centre that to a large extent the initiative in the constituency campaign had ceased to lie with the candidate," the researchers said.

The success of Labour's marketing machine could signal the decline of local campaigning. "Party headquarters are going to take over more and more of the local constituency's work," said Professor Denver. "The people on the ground are not trusted to do it all properly."

The Liberal Democrats were praised for their targeting skills, but were described as being "an election behind" in terms of electioneering methods. The Scottish National Party showed a wide knowledge of modern canvassing, but Plaid Cymru still has a lot to learn.

"All of the parties have shown a great deal of interest in the research. They were all very forthcoming with data and the information we needed," said Professor Denver. "But they should all be ready to start campaigning for the next election by now."

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