When the general election is called, probably for 5 May, the most intense campaigning will take place in the 100 or so most marginal constituencies. These seats hold the key to the election, so the major political parties will lavish their attention on them.
Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) will throw themselves into the hustings frenzy, pressing the flesh and engaging in myriad photo opportunities. Big guns from their party’s front benches will appear sporadically to provide support and endorsement, and help in drumming up publicity.
Although party political activity reaches fever pitch, election season has traditionally been a quiet period for public affairs practitioners. Many organisations prefer to sit back during a campaign, waiting until the dust has settled before re-engaging with politicians. But some see the election as a great opportunity to garner support for the causes they espouse. And nowhere can pressure be applied more effectively than in marginal seats. Issues raised in these battle hot spots are likely to achieve national attention.
Weber Shandwick takes this view. Among the new products it has unveiled recently is Marginal Momentum, which focuses on helping clients secure objectives in marginal seats.
‘This launch comes in response to the fact that from a commercial perspective general elections have been slightly barren periods, because clients assume everything is on hold politically,’ says Weber Shandwick Public Affairs managing director Jon McLeod. ‘The purpose of Marginal Momentum is to identify the degree of saliency or concern for a client’s issue in a constituency or constituencies and use that information to brief candidates and party headquarters, giving them a key to unlocking the constituency.’
Market research underpins Marginal Momentum. Members of the local electorate would be polled to ascertain their views on key issues, and their findings used to build a case. Clearly this is not a cheap option, but McLeod argues that by bolting on some local and regional PR, plus one-to-one meetings with PPCs and local party headquarters, it can be cost-effective.
As a hypothetical example, he suggests a client might want to target five key marginal seats in the West Midlands. This would cost in the region of £40-50,000, which McLeod accepts is ‘quite a lot for a month’, but contends could be money well spent because it is an ‘ultra-targeted’ approach.
‘Where a seat is a marginal you can get more leverage on an issue,’ says APCO managing director Simon Miller. ‘PPCs don’t have vast resources. If you can get timely, sensible, locally relevant information to them, that’s appreciated. They don’t have a vast machine behind them.’
Miller expects to see the pro-hunting lobby target marginal seats during the forthcoming election campaign, and says he wouldn’t be surprised if one of the trade unions focused on a constituency where lots of jobs had been moved offshore – for example, by relocating a call centre to India. Corporations, he feels, will have less of a direct role to play. ‘I think big business to a degree sits back and watches the catfight of a general election campaign, then normal service resumes,’ he says.
Fishburn Hedges head of public affairs Graham McMillan adds: ‘There’s a certain amount of scope, but you have to be careful not to push this to extremes. You have to pick your issue carefully for best impact. The issues of individual specific clients are often not going to have much cut-through. Elections are about big issues such as crime, defence, and who to trust.’
Nevertheless, contentious local issues, such as controversial developments or school and hospital closures, do figure and can have a bearing on results. Single-interest groups can be strident in election season, and the closer the seat is to call, the greater the chance that someone will accommodate their views in a bid for votes.
McMillan advises that one courts PPCs early, making friends before one needs them, as he puts it. Establishing contact with the local chair of each political party and influential local councillors is a good idea, especially if they can lobby on your behalf.
One lobbying consultancy chief, who prefers to remain unnamed, has some qualms about public affairs firms getting too involved in marginals at election time: ‘I never want people to feel we are inappropriately engaged. Elections are when people decide. I’m worried about perceptions of lobbying companies – they have a role to play, but I’m not sure it lies in direct engagement in the process.’
For NGOs, particularly those involved in campaigning on issues, the election provides a focal point for galvanising activists. RSPB has interviewed the environment spokespeople of the three main political parties for its magazine and urges its members to hold the parties to account on their environmental commitments.
As a charity, the RSPB has to be even-handed in its dealings with political parties. Within these parameters, its public affairs team has selected about 50 marginal seats in which it is encouraging activists to raise the profile of bird and environment issues. ‘The intention is to encourage PPCs to commit themselves to the policies we are interested in,’ says RSPB head of government affairs Martin Harper.
WWF is operating in a similar vein. ‘There can be contradictions between an MP and their party,’ says WWF climate campaigner Robin Webster. ‘In some areas, MPs oppose a local wind farm when their parties are in favour. This is the kind of information people often don’t get locally.’
Using people power to apply pressure in a marginal seat may well be
effective in encouraging a PPC to support an issue – and this is certainly what Webster hopes to achieve.
At mental health charity Rethink, director of public affairs Paul Farmer is busy mapping out key marginal constituencies. The charity will be relying on its network of campaigning volunteers to target PPCs and raise the issue of mental health in those seats where either a serving MP is standing down or where change of political complexion is a strong possibility.
‘For an issue such as mental health, which is not top of an MP’s priority list, the election brings the opportunity for a debate to be held at a very local level,’ says Farmer. ‘When a new MP is coming through the doors of the Commons for the first time, it helps if they have a high awareness of your issue.’
Elections always bring surprises, but one thing is sure: when the vote counting is over, a crop of new faces will be on their way to Westminster. A lot of people are hoping to shape the opinions of this new intake, and on certain issues some will succeed. It’s not only the PPCs who will be fighting for attention in the marginal constituencies.
Sitting MP: Patsy Calton (Liberal Democrat).
Majority in 2001: 33.
Majority as a percentage of the vote: 0.1 per cent
High-profile issues Completion of South Stockport road network and extension of Metrolink service to Manchester Airport and Stockport; no clear commitment to Nimrod MRA4 completion at Woodford BAe Systems; waiting list for diagnostic tests in health service; low government grants for education.
Sitting MP: Adrian Flook (Conservative). Majority in 2001: 235. Majority as a percentage of the vote: 0.4 per cent
High-profile issues There is a general feeling that Taunton residents subsidise the deployment of police officers in the Bristol area; greenfield site development; field sports; a proposed regional assembly, which is something that Flook asserts is ‘not wanted here’
South Sitting MP: Jim Knight (Labour). Majority in 2001: 153. Majority as a percentage of the vote: 0.3 per cent
High-profile issues Anti-social behaviour; affordable housing; transport; pensions; the controversial Weymouth Relief Road, currently at planning stage; the threat to the Portland Prison Ship; the loss of 600 jobs due to relocation by fashion retailer New Look
Sitting MP: Alan Hurst (Labour). Majority in 2001: 358. Majority as a percentage of the vote: 0.7 per cent
High-profile issues The rise in anti-social behaviour; waste and recycling policy, particularly with regard to the proposed development of an incineration plant at Rivenhall airfield; mortgage rates; jobs; health; education