Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
Over the next eleven days, the majority of readers of this column will be fighting like tigers to Get Out The Vote on behalf of their local Conservative candidates. If your area is anything like mine, someone will send your blood pressure over the edge by pompously proclaiming: “I’m not sure this campaigning malarkey actually makes any difference.” This self-indulgent claptrap will invariably be spoken by someone who has never knocked on a door or delivered a leaflet, and will be used solely to justify his own idleness. So for the edification of those who should know better, and to encourage those who are working their socks off across the UK, let’s examine difference we make.,
In a low turnout election, almost anything is possible. I am going to use the fictional Barchester ward as my example. Barchester has 4,000 registered voters and a turnout of 30 per cent. With five competing parties, a candidate could technically win with just 241 votes. Too often we approach a campaign thinking we must convince at least 50 per cent of the electorate that we are right. Not true. Our job as campaigners is to find the 241 people who agree with us and will turn out to vote. Winning with the support of just six per cent of the electorate is an extreme (though technically accurate) example, but the principle remains the same, even if numbers change based on turnout and the distribution of the vote to opposition candidates.
Fifteen years ago, Chatham & Aylesford Conservatives were in a bad place – politically, financially and emotionally. The constituency had been recently redrawn by the Boundary Commission, combining the politically weakest parts of two adjoining safe Conservative seats. The BBC had predicted a notional Conservative majority of 15,000, but the cold political landscape of the time saw Labour win by 2,800. By the time I arrived, the Association was demoralised and its local government base destroyed. (There was only one Conservative councillor out of 29!).
We all accepted that rebuilding our local government base and winning the parliamentary seat would likely be a two-term project; we had neither the money nor the manpower to do anything else. In the southern part of the constituency, there were two adjoining wards held by the LibDems. Both were demographically similar, both had Liberal Democrat councillors with 50 per cent of the vote, and both had Conservative challengers about 15 per cent behind.
With the resources to properly tackle just one, our efforts focused on Aylesford ward. Both wards received a basic leaflet, but Aylesford got all the trimmings of a targeted campaign. On Polling Day 65 per cent of our pledges voted in Aylesford, and we won the seat with ease. In neighbouring Ditton, however, only 40 per cent of pledges voted and the LibDems held on by a wide margin. The difference between these results (25 per cent more Conservatives voting in one ward) is the difference we can make on the doorsteps: 250 more Conservatives voted because of our campaign. This is the difference we make.
Last year, West Kent faced a difficult by-election in Maidstone’s most marginal council seat. Fant ward had regularly swung between the three major parties, with the successful candidate’s vote share seldom topping 30 per cent. With the three parties of the Left” (Labour, LibDem and Green) polling over 70 per per cent between them, a Conservative victory was always going to be difficult.
We did win, however, not only because we fought the best campaign, but because we also had the ability to win the battle of differential turnout. We convinced around 50 per cent of identified Conservative supporters to cast their vote on polling day, compared with a turnout overall of 25 per cent. This advantage delivered victory, but would not have been possible without our amazing team of activists knocking on doors – so we knew who those supporters were and the key messages which would encourage them to vote. This is the difference we make.
As the electorate become more fickle in their party political allegiances, so political parties must become smarter in how they communicate. But the building block for every victory is simply boots on the ground. Without gathering that vital data, there can be no targeted campaigning. This is the difference we make.
CCHQ have developed their own tool-kit of campaign support, much of which is excellent – but there is much more we can do locally to drive up turnout and maximise our advantage,
For example, in target seats the West Kent office can now localise leaflets on a road-by-road basis. By using our incumbent councillors’ local knowledge and achievements, and linking these by “variable paragraph mail-merging” we can produce tailor-made content for each road (or, in some cases, sections of a road), ensuring that the literature is relevant to those reading it.
Similarly, by recording door-step and postal survey responses, and by using the same technology, we will this year be producing voter-specific GOTV material focussing on the candidates’ responses to issues raised by individual voters, so Mrs Jenkins might receive a GOTV card talking about childcare, play areas and community safety whilst Ms Dobson next door will hear from us about the local pensioners’ group, anti-social behaviour and public transport.
And, finally, by using “Propensity to Vote” (PTV) data, we now have the increasing ability to target messages based on a voter’s second preference. For example, in our target wards we now know how almost 70 per cent of UKIP voters would vote if there wasn’t a UKIP candidate, opening up new opportunities for targeted campaigning during GOTV.
With dwindling resources, political parties must also learn how to work smarter. In some of our wards we are now not only recording voter turnout from the tellers-slips, but also what time of day people voted. This enables us to build a picture of morning/afternoon/evening voters, allowing our doorstep teams to focus on the right people at the right time of day – another initiative we have developed locally to help ensure our resources are used effectively. This is the difference we make.
The headline of this article uses the phrase “the show’s not over until the fat lady sings”. In Kent, the fat lady sang for Labour at 2.15am on 3rd September 2009. That was when the Medway Returning Officer declared that Tashi Tamang Bhutia had been elected as Conservative Councillor for Luton & Wayfield ward…by a majority of four votes. Tashi’s election was hugely significant. It was not only Labour’s safest seat in Kent, but had never been won by the Conservative Party before, not even in the post-Falklands War elections of 1982 and 1983.
Labour’s inability to hold their Chatham heartland (which included some of Europe’s most economically deprived neighbourhoods) was probably the moment they realised the show was indeed over. At the victory party that followed, every single activist told me the story of the four people that they had personally convinced to vote - from the family of four who were persuaded to break their journey to the airport, to the old couple who went to vote in their dressing-gowns at 9.15pm, to the disabled serviceman who wanted to vote for a former member of the Brigade of Gurkhas:each and every volunteer knew that they had played their part. Without them we would not have won. That is the difference we make.
Whether you are fighting for your local councillor, your City Mayor, or your Police & Crime Commissioner, I wish you the best of luck over the next 10 days. As my good friend, and a former Agent, Louise Parry, once told me, “Winning elections isn’t difficult – it’s just hard work.”