News Analysis: Politicians give media the push

The 2005 election has seen the main parties use new ways to connect directly with voters. Here, the Conservative candidate for Slough explains how.

Two per cent of voters in this country will have had every right to feel extremely important over the past month. They will have received personally addressed letters from leading politicians, making promises on the very issues that worry them most. Aspiring MPs, sometimes accompanied by a better-known politician, would have come knocking on their door.

Again, they would address these voters by name and may refer to a specific topic that concerns them.

As if that were not enough, they are likely to have received telephone calls from different parties. The caller would address them by name and may let drop something that indicates they understand something about their life, their job or their age group.

Younger voters in this group will have received e-mails or text messages from the parties. And if they still doubted their importance, a personally addressed video of the local candidate would drop through the postbox.

This is because the main parties believe that these people - the key swing voters in target seats - will have decided their fate on 5 May.

Voter-targeting and Get Out The Vote tactics are nothing new. What changed in this general election was the precision and coordination involved; yet another example of how we are importing US campaign techniques.

It has come about because our political classes are frustrated at the media's attitude and coverage of their campaigns and policies. Using the media to reach voters has always been an inexact science - which is, perhaps, as it should be. Overt political allegiance among newspapers and TV channels lends an unhealthy taint to news coverage.

Information technology

How have the new techniques emerged? A huge amount of information exists about us without our knowledge. Obviously our place of residence and postcode will tell something about us. Add in the marketing information accumulated through all our transactions - from holidays to satellite TV to favourite supermarket - and a clearer picture is outlined.

Labour and Conservative HQs have bought this information and, combining it with locally acquired knowledge from party activists, possess sharper and more accurate targeting 'ammunition' for this crucial small percentage of voters in marginal seats.

Labour calls its computer system for identifying swing voters Labour Contact, while the Conservatives' set-up is called Voter Vault, in honour of the Republicans' chief strategist Karl Rove. Equipped with this information, the parties spew out literature personalised to maximise the chances of stimulating the voters' interest, instead of being consigned to the bin unread.

The Liberal Democrats appear to be ahead of everyone in collating e-mail addresses, but Labour and the Conservatives put far more weight on reaching these voters by telephone. Both the main parties have been operating telephone call centres for months. Labour's, with a staff of 100, is based on Tyneside, while the Conservatives have smaller centres in London and Coleshill, Birmingham.

Just as canvassing and delivering around the constituencies lifts my admiration for postal staff, so stints in a Conservative call centre left me in awe of anyone spending more than one day in a similar environment.

Videos of candidates in target seats were used effectively by Labour in 2001. Some parties are using them in certain seats this time, but the main parties understand that they will need to rethink whether the format should be video or DVD in future elections.

Personalised messages

However, the main parties have extensively used the personalised voice message system. It sends a short telephone message to a computerised set of numbers and is used by candidates to their 'pledge' voters and party chiefs to reach activists. It is supposed to be a quick, cheap means of contact.

It could be argued that many voters, on hearing a politician on the other end of the line, would quickly replace the receiver. However, the US political parties have used this system during the past three presidential campaigns and more than 175 senatorial and congressional campaigns.

These devices are intended to back up our political parties' local resources, since none of the main parties are awash with willing volunteers at local level any more. More precisely, those keen to help are often in the wrong places. When they are asked to devote their energies to helping in other, key constituencies, they too often find other, more pressing commitments.

Voter 'education'

It is not only the political parties that have been using more sophisticated techniques during this campaign. Mainly via e-mail, I have received dozens of approaches from pressure groups, attempting to 'educate' me about their issues.

However, a short analysis of some candidates, gauging what impressed and what failed to impress after the election, may be worthwhile. A few look suspiciously as if they are bent on mischief - provoking me to proffer ill-considered views.

I would love to be able to say that I've been able to adopt the newest marketing techniques here in Slough. But it is not a target seat for the main parties - and even now as I write, with three days to polling day, I have no agreed budget. I am also writing this exactly four weeks after receiving the telephone call that 'parachuted' me into this candidature, so I have tended to resort to less sophisticated methods of contacting voters.

One is an old journalistic tactic that I strongly recommend to political parties for judging the suitability or otherwise of potential candidates.

It is to spend the first few hours going around the constituency, using your eyes, listening to people, asking questions. Then you draw up a list of major issues and observations. If you have that particular knack, it is surprisingly accurate. Trainee journalists are usually set a similar exercise, which soon indicates if they have the motivation for the job.

Maybe my feet and car would be in better shape if I had access to more modern marketing methods. But perhaps I would not have been forced to spend more time listening - and less talking. By the time you read this, you are likely to know the result. Hence it is up to you to judge the success - or otherwise - of traditional versus modern.

Sheila Gunn is a senior policy adviser at Fleishman-Hillard International and the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Slough at the general election.She was press secretary to former Prime Minister John Major.

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