Not so long ago, both main parties had essentially identical campaigning machines and approaches – and, apart from struggles with various forms of malfunctioning databases, the way each worked was largely unchanged for many years.
Now, rather like the armies deadlocked on the Western front, we’re starting to see that change. They’re being driven to innovate by each other, each looking for a way to outflank or break through. They’re being driven to innovate by their own limitations, reduced as the party memberships are. And they’re being driven to innovate by the electorate most of all, who are now the most sophisticated (and sceptical) in the democratic world - things that once worked are blunted, and the rise of new technology is changing what messages people consume and how they do so (reflected most radically in Nigel Farage’s only half-joking message yesterday that in 2020 UKIP could stop talking to the media and just advertise).
The effectiveness of the machines will inevitably be difficult to tease out from the effectiveness of the policies, messages, party reputations and personalities. But today is a test of those machines nonetheless.
In the red corner we have Labour:
- They have a somewhat larger in membership.
- They are deploying what appears to be a carpet-bombing approach.
- Their targeting strategy featured an eyebrow-raising 106 seats.
- They boast of having had over four million individual conversations with voters, and they are routinely ahead in the percentage of voters in the Ashcroft marginal polls who report being contacted by one or more parties.
- They also have union money and personnel bolstering their ground campaign, and a well-developed database to back up their Get Out The Vote operation.
In the blue corner are the Conservatives:
- They have a smaller (but, at last, growing) membership.
- Put simply, the plan is to win through efficient targeting.
- Compared to Labour’s overly ambitious 106 targets, they have the 40/40 strategy – 40 Tory seats to defend and 40 target seats to win in order to secure a majority.
- With a smaller number of people on the ground, CCHQ has strained every sinew to focus the party’s grassroots into fighting in these battlegrounds. Anyone on the party’s mailing list will have received numerous (and sometimes contradictory) emails and phone calls urging them to leave their own seat and head to their allotted target. Indeed, today in large parts of the country Conservative candidates won’t be fighting where they are standing but in the 40/40 instead.
- That grassroots effort is bolstered by shock troops, with regional and national battle buses bring Team 2015 and Roadtrip 2015 activists into the marginals. It can undoubtedly give a local campaign a major bump for a day – but is it a sustainable replacement for a sustained local presence?
- Within each seat, the campaigns are hyper-targeted, with huge numbers of hand-addressed letters going out over the last few days addressing numerous different concerns expressed by undecided voters on the doorstep or in surveys – the SNP, the deficit, fuel taxes, local issues, jobs and so on.
- On the technology front, the Conservatives have VoteSource – a replacement for the thrice-cursed Merlin, but only introduced a few months ago and still being updated. Various campaigns have reported glitches, problems or the loss of hard-won voter data.
There are some early signs that the two approaches are having different effects. For example, while Labour seem to be speaking to more people in the battlegrounds, there is no correlation between that activity and any lead in the polls, suggesting that at best they are having unconvincing conversations or are speaking to those who have immovably made their mind up one way or the other. In some seats I’m sure we’ll see very different swings and squeezes than in others tonight, too.
Of course, it’s still possible that a party with the better campaign techniques may lose the election – reputations, personalities, policies and the “air war” all have a great influence on the outcome, too. There will need to be a detailed analysis of all the evidence once the dust has settled to really work out which new techniques work and which ones don’t. While the last few years has undoubtedly seen an increase in campaigning innovation, that process clearly isn’t over – there’s a long way to go before all the options for new technologies and tactics are fully explored and a new normal is established in political campaigns. We’re just at the start of that race.