The heavy cost of free mailshots

On Tuesday night a major marketing initiative, by some estimates worth £15m, hung in the balance as the House of Lords went into an acrimonious division.

Last night a major marketing initiative, by some estimates worth &£15m, hung in the balance as the House of Lords went into an acrimonious division.

It’s not often that peers (other than Lords Bell and Saatchi) condescend to such lowly commercial matters. But this was different: this was about the London mayoral election and whether its candidates should be armed with their own marketing budget in the ‘race’ for the finishing line.

Common sense might suggest it was a non-issue. Of course candidates should dispose of an electioneering war-chest, even if it is at the taxpayers’ expense. How else are they supposed to communicate, on a fair and equal platform, their points of difference to the voting public?

After all, this is supposed to be a serious election – involving 5 million voters – for a serious position. If it were not, why would the Government spend &£4m on an advertising campaign through WCRS to encourage people to vote?

Admittedly the two leading political parties have so far done their best to turn it into a pantomime. But now is surely the time to discover just what the issues are and how the candidates measure up to them.

Not so, apparently. For this is the devious world of politics. The Government objects to a budget hand-out on two grounds. First, that this is a ‘local’ election and there is therefore no mandate for spending taxpayers’ money on publicity. Second, and somewhat contradictorily, that it would be too expensive anyway. If candidates were assured they would be marketed at public expense, more would emerge from the woodwork, driving the potential cost of a mailshot to over &£15m.

Both of these objections rest on pretty shaky foundations. In the first place, the mayoral election is less local than regional – rather like the Welsh assembly, whose candidates were publicly funded despite having to canvass a considerably smaller electorate. The problem with the second objection is that it suspends disbelief: a publicly funded marketing campaign would benefit not so much the many small candidates who might enter the fray as one big, and rather intractable, candidate who is considering running as an independent.

The objections are in any case academic. An overpowering combination of Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers has used the free mailshot issue to vote down the Bill creating the Greater London Authority. The Government is now faced with a stark choice: change – with enormous loss of face – the date of the May 4 election, or cave in to the Opposition’s demands.

Expect to see a free mailshot campaign shortly. Of course, it’s anyone’s guess what form it will take… but a one-envelope-fits-all-candidates variant will no doubt be the Government’s preferred fall-back.

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