Election to be fought with boots on the ground

‘Unsolicited materials’ such as leaflets were where parties spent most in 2010, and probably will be again in 2015 thanks to the rise of smaller parties and the Conservatives’ unassailable ad budget.

The so-called ‘long campaign’ for the May 2015 general election has now begun, meaning political parties’ marketing spending has come under the scrutiny of the Electoral Commission. According to the Labour Party, the Conservatives are expected to spend three times more than them before polling day, having raised around £78m in the past four years.

This is not much less than the £100m all parties have spent on the past three elections combined. Overall spending hit £31.5m at the last poll in 2010, down from a high of £42.3m in 2005, but still up on the £26.7m invested in 2001.

This is dwarfed by the US, however, where campaign spending has fewer limits. The Democrats and Republicans spent a total of $2.3bn (£1.5bn) in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.

In the UK in 2010, unsolicited material such as leaflets – many hand-delivered by acitvists – accounted for 39.4% of all parties’ spending at £12.5m, overtaking the £9.4m that was spent on campaign advertising.

The trend is likely to continue in 2015, given the rise in popularity of smaller parties such as UKIP and the inability of any party to match the Conservatives’ advertising budget.

Labour election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander wrote in The Guardian recently: “When I first ran a general election campaign in 2001, my main focus was the election air war of posters and press conferences. The job description has changed. The air war still has its place, but it is on the ground where this election will be won or lost.”

The Tories and Labour both unveiled their first campaign posters for the 2015 parliamentary election last week but their attitudes toward traditional advertising differ somewhat.

Over the past decade the Conservative Party has spent far more than its rivals on advertising. In both 2005 and 2010 its ad spend accounted for almost half its overall campaign budget.

It spent £7.5m on advertising at the last general election, around £700,000 less than in 2005 but nearly 10 times Labour’s ad budget of £785,509, which represented just 9.8% of its overall campaign costs. That was a precipitous drop for Labour from 2005, when it dedicated 29.5% of its budget to advertising, a sum of £5.3m. In 2010, Labour instead assigned its largest chunk of cash, £4.2m, to unsolicited material, which represented more than half its overall budget (51.9%).

And it’s a strategy that is likely to continue this year judging by Labour leader Ed Milliband’s insistence that the party will win this election “not by buying up thousands of poster sites but by having millions of conversations”. As candidates and activists go knocking on doors, many unsolicited leaflets are likely to go with them.

So in spite of UK parties’ attempts to emulate US president Barack Obama’s digital campaigning in 2008, it seems the election here will mostly be fought by old-fashioned means. Indeed, Paul Baines, professor of political marketing at Cranfield University, believes digital activity alone will not be that relevant to the outcome of the vote.

“I don’t think the online social media aspect will have anywhere near as big an influence as it has in the US. We’ll see a lot of spoofing [of opposition] adverts and possibly election broadcasts on YouTube. I also expect to see some element of a social media campaign but I don’t think it will alter the course of the election.”

Baines, who is currently undertaking a study into voters’ experiences of political campaigning, suggests it won’t be paid-for marketing but televised debates that will have the most influence over the public if they go ahead. This is still in doubt, as prime minister David Cameron has said he won’t take part if the Green Party is excluded.

But Baines argues: “Overwhelmingly the key influencer of this campaign will be the debates, which will be a bit different this time around because of UKIP.” Only, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats took part in 2010.

Baines adds: “Although only 8-9 million people watch the actual debates, it has a far stronger influence because of how it is reported in the press.”

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