Sunday, 24 April 2016

The difference we make...

The show’s not over till the fat lady sings.

Over the next 11 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 their 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 the 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%. 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% 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 6.02% of the electorate is an extreme (though technically accurate) example, but the principle remains the same even if the numbers will change based on turnout and the split of 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 (only 1 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 other. In the southern part of the constituency there were two adjoining wards held by the LibDems. Both were demographically similar, both had LibDem councillors with 50% of the vote, and both had Conservative challengers about 15% behind. With the resources to properly tackle just one, our efforts focussed on Aylesford ward. Both wards received a basic leaflet but Aylesford got all the trimmings of a targeted campaign. On Polling Day 65% of our Pledges voted in Aylesford and we won the seat with ease. In neighbouring Ditton, however, only 40% of pledges voted and the LibDems held on by a wide margin. The difference between these results (25% more Conservatives voting) 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%. With the three parties “of the left” (Labour, LibDem and Green) polling over 70% between them, a Conservative victory was always going to be difficult. We did win, however, because we not only fought the best campaign but we also had the ability to win the battle of differential turnout. We convinced around 50% of identified Conservative supporters to cast their vote on Polling Day – compared with a turnout overall of 25%. 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 that 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 Julie Jenkins might receive a GOTV card talking about childcare, play areas and community safety whilst Vera 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% 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.
At the top of this article I used 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 4 votes.

Tashi’s election was hugely significant. It was not only Labour’s safest seat in Kent, but it had never been won by the Conservative Party before, not even in the post Falklands’ elections of 1982/1983. 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 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 4 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 Gurkha’s – each and every volunteer knew that they had played their part. Without them we would not have won. That is the difference we make.

So when some pompous old fart puffs out his chest and tells you that "campaigning puts people off" puff out your chest even more and tell him that he's wrong. 

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.”

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