Localising voter-engagement campaigns


Has anyone else tried something similar to the posters I’ve made and put up in local bus stops?

I’ve made a few versions of this poster. Chris Rand has made online guides for the Queen Ediths ward – see here. These both got me thinking about the two big gaps in voter engagement campaigns. They follow on from this blogpost on preparing the public for the 2015 general election. The 2 gaps are:

  1. Limited linked in publicity between the campaigns and political parties that stand candidates
  2. Little localisation of nationally branded campaigns

“Why do these matter?”

The first one inevitably is a tricky one. Established campaigns – especially ones that are charities – are expected (in the latter case by law) to be outside party politics. They must treat all parties equally (and be seen to do so). Difficult given that there are some parties out there that people working on such campaigns would rather not give the time of day to. But democracy is for everyone, not just the people that we like. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t matter how wonderful you or others think you are, or how horrible you & others think that person over there is. Your votes in your constituency still count for the same. Bite The Ballot is trying VoteMatch – which is all well and good. Ditto with the Political Compass. The problem arises with both approaches with the lack of a ‘human face’. This brings me onto the localisation problem

Parties as brands rather than the sum of the people that make them

This is what’s been interesting about the mainstream political parties’ and media’s recent approach towards UKIP. They’ve been trying to ‘toxify’ the brand. With the exception of Ed Miliband who is still playing a ‘lets ignore them and they’ll go away’ tactic – even if his activists have started taking the opposition head on. A number of people commented on Twitter they were surprised it took the broadcast media so long to give the UKIP leader such a challenging interview. Watch it for yourself here. Despite the furore, I don’t think it’ll have a huge impact – my hunch is that most that are going to vote for them have firmly decided. The real question for me is how many wavering ‘may/may not’ voters will be galvanised by what they’ve heard and turnout to vote (for any of the other parties) as a result.

The people behind the local parties

For someone who never has been in a political party, I know personally far more local politicians and political activists than most. What I want to do is to help other people across my side of town get to know them too. This is one of the reasons why for me digital and social media can be really useful tools to complement what activists do offline. It allows people to see and hear councillors and candidates, rather than reading a name on a notice/ballot paper/newspaper article.

Ward-by-ward publicity

That’s what I’ve gone for here. The problem of living on the border of 3 wards and 2 parliamentary constituencies means that I have to make multiple versions of posters at bus stops. (I promise I’ll take them down soon after the election is over!) It’s really basic stuff, but I’ve done them in colour and at my own expense. It’s just as much about reminding people that there is an election on this week, as well as challenging people to get in touch with the local parties standing candidates in the wards. I’ve not put personal contact details – just local party websites and linked social media accounts along with the names of the candidates in the wards. In any case, none of the candidates standing for election in the wards in & around me use social media at all. In that regard, one component of my campaign – encouraging other candidates to use social media for campaigning – has completely failed.

No incentives

For obvious reasons, parties have no incentive to promote their rivals. On one of my frequent wanders around my neighbourhood, Labour boards are noticeable by their presence – which also makes the lack of boards from other parties conspicuous by their absence. Cambridge Labour have run a disciplined offline residential publicity campaign – because all the boards went up in the front gardens of houses all at the same time. That doesn’t happen without planning & co-ordination. Given the affluence in some parts of South Cambridge, I’m surprised that there were only a couple of Liberal Democrat boards, and no Conservative Party boards. The lack of Green Party boards doesn’t surprise me as they’ve not actively campaigned on this side of town – concentrating their efforts in this campaign for Matt Hodgkinson in Petersfield where there are two seats rather than one seat up for grabs.

From a local party activist perspective, a number of people from all parties have said that effort-wise, they’d rather have a safe-as-houses seat rather than a tightly contested one to be active in. Less work you see. And remember that they don’t get paid for their work. It’s all voluntary. In this toxic climate, taking the abuse they get means they have to be dedicated. Perhaps it’s my fear of this that stops me from actively campaigning as myself for myself or a party. At the same time, a couple of people told me privately that I’m not the only one who doesn’t want to get elected. Many of the other candidates don’t want to either, but are only standing as ‘paper’ candidates in order to help boost their party’s overall vote. Yet the path from supporting, to joining, to campaigning, to standing as an active candidate is one that has a very high attrition rate.

“So…Puffles is making more work for people then?”

Perhaps – but creating a series of open goals for them and their parties at the same time. Now, I have no idea what impact this overall campaign will have. My digital democracy challenge didn’t get many people signing up for it, nor has it led to people engaging with local parties using social media at the digital-only end. This week will be interesting in that two of the bus stops I’ve put posters up at are outside colleges where young people catch the bus to go into town. Hence having something to look at/read while waiting for the bus. Will there be a handful of new followers for each of the parties as a result?

Time will tell.

Who will you vote for?
Who will you vote for?






8 thoughts on “Localising voter-engagement campaigns

  1. Hi Antony – just a genuine question: what do you mean by a limited localisation of national campaigns? I can’t speak for the Tories, as we’ve only had one leaflet from them, and I know the Greens don’t do this, but the Lib Dems and Labour go out of their way to try to localise national issues. Which national campaigns do you think are not being sufficiently localised?

  2. Hi Carina – hope all’s well.

    To clarify I’m talking about the ‘Bite the ballots’ of this world – where they have a nationwide brand but where on-the-ground publicity is inevitably limited. ie the tools such campaigns currently have don’t really point towards local parties generally. The bit I’m questioning is how we can remove some of the barriers between local residents and local political parties, but in a manner that’s seen to be independent of political parties. It’s not an easy question to answer.


  3. I think I’ve said to you, I don’t think it is possible. The ideal of some kind of independent non-political politics doesn’t really exist; Bite the ballot is trying to channel people towards voting in general, and I know you’re trying to do that too, but ultimately, years of campaigning have demonstrated that the only single thing that actually raises turnout is political activists talking to voters, either on the doorstep or by phone; second best is leaflets. We don’t avoid other media through ignorance, but through a genuine understanding of what works.

    If you doubt me, here’s a challenge: get some of the local political observers together and award all the local elections a mark out of ten, per ward, for competitiveness. Then see if it correlates with turnout. If there is no correlation, I will have my photo taken with the dragon and a pink glitter wig 🙂

  4. PS – re ‘The people behind the local political parties’. Antony, if we’re doing our job, a decent proportion of the electorate already know us – because we’ve been round to their houses. Do you really think your mum would have liked George better if she’d found his Facebook page than met him in person?

    Always interested to hear your responses,
    Carina x

    1. I’m sure this works in some parts of the city, Carina, and with some candidates. But in the 20 years I lived in Cherry Hinton, in three different houses, I do not recall having had a single door-knock from a councillor campaigning for election. Perhaps this is because it’s not a marginal area? The councillors seem quite engaged once elected. Interestingly, I did get door-knocks from Andrew Lansley and from Julian Huppert. Now I’ve moved to Queen Edith’s, things appear to be different, and we’ve had far more campaigning for our vote. This may be because it’s more marginal, or perhaps it’s because a remarkable number of the past and present councillors and candidates seem to live in our road or within a few hundred metres. But in Cherry Hinton, I’d have loved to have had the chance to follow councillors’ work through their Facebook pages.

  5. If I may. I would like to see political parties and/or the city council producing information similar that which Chris Rand has produced, whether that was published online or in the council’s freebie magazine. (Though not everywhere gets one, for some reason.) Of course door knocking is important, it always will be, clearly, but in some areas you never see your councillor(s) (unless you go to a meeting) and having that additional online medium used either for giving that information and for discussion of what the party was up to in that ward would be much appreciated.

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