Regardless of the political conclusions to be drawn from Wirral
South, it did tell us quite a lot about the way the parties are going to
conduct the campaign when the future of how we are governed is at stake
in a few weeks’ time.
The election machines have become much more sophisticated and the
revolution that has taken place in the Labour Party’s campaigning
machinery has pulled the other parties along with it in organisational
Wirral South was something of a triumph and there is no escaping that,
but the verdict of the Independent, reperesented by its headline:
’Labour machine minces hapless Tories’ seems somewhat over the top.
If this was yet another ’teach them a lesson’ by-election, Labour could
have fielded an anonymous bureaucrat with little political experience -
which is exactly what they did.
Elections are now to be about the personality of leaders, single issues,
thorough analysis of floating voters, detailed briefing packs, closely
targeted direct mail, closely ’minded’ candidates, the avoidance of risk
and thorough organisation.
In Wirral South, the bland Ben Chapman was simply the name on the ballot
paper. He just had to smile a bit and tramp the streets shaking as many
hands as possible and reminding people that there was actually a
candidate, not just a machine.
Mr Chapman - the same Independent piece also said he would need a
miracle to retain the seat in May - was not even allowed to talk to the
The constituency-based daily press conferences that used to be a feature
of by-elections are now judged to be much too risky.
What Wirral South demonstrated above everything is the sophistication of
voter targeting - whether these voters be ’switchers’, ’floaters’,
’waverers’ or ’the disenchanted ones’. Wirral South confirmed that
Labour and the Conservatives have added greatly to their ability to
target and address - especially in the marginals - the votes that have
the potential to move back and forth between the parties.
No doubt we will go on debating the merits of positive and negative
campaigning, the virtues or otherwise of posters, the value of party
political broadcasts and the importance or otherwise of staying ’on
message’. Meanwhile in backrooms in Smith Square and on Millbank, men
like Mr Chapman will be beating at calculators. Oh for a soapbox.