Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thoughts from the Train*: is there anybody out there?

As I commute from a safe Conservative seat in mid Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds, majority 10,031), I am puzzled by how quiet it is in terms of campaigning. No leaflets from the Conservatives, none from Labour, and one from the Liberal Democrats (well, I did produce it myself, and I am the District Council candidate for next year). I suspect that I'm not alone in wondering, so where is this election one hears so much about?

Of course, I am a political insider, so I have a pretty good idea what is actually happening. But what if I wasn't? How would I get an idea about which party should get my vote? The answer? Move to a marginal seat. The stories that I hear indicate that industrial volumes of paper are going through letterboxes, delivered by volunteers in some cases, by paid staff in others. And for the rest of us? Keep your fingers crossed that you have keenly contested local elections, or that you have a local councillor who reports back regularly.

In fairness, there was no 'golden age' when political parties communicated directly with the voter. Instead, voters relied on newspapers, local, regional or national, to report what their local representatives were doing, and the occasional public meeting would allow them to see their MP or councillor in the flesh. Stories of MPs who might visit their constituency once a year or so, whilst unusual, were not unheard of.

Nowadays, the local newspapers cover little of what goes on in the political arena. Sales of local and regional newspapers have declined, whilst regional television news has been cut to the core, especially by ITV. As membership of political parties declines, there are less people locally to make the case for their chosen team. If the British Electoral Survey is to be believed, only 25% of voters recall receiving contact from a political party since last July. So, if we're not coming to you, can you come to us?

Well, yes, after a fashion. The internet is a popular means of obtaining information. However, most people use the internet to find out things that they need to know. Price comparison sites, airlines, banking, that sort of thing. They don't have much time to browse. In other words, they're normal people, more likely to use the internet to pursue hobbies and interests, than to 'do politics'.

Contacting your local political party is quite difficult too. The telephone directories don't have a lot of information, and the party websites tend to provide the telephone contact for a volunteer who may, or may not, get back to you. Even if they do, they may not be best equipped to answer your questions.

So, all in all, most political parties have decided that, for the most part, your vote is decided upon, and they won't pursue it actively. That isn't a criticism, merely a recognition that political parties don't have the funds or the manpower to compete everywhere and an acceptance that targetting your resources is the best way to get value for them.

I have, of course, tested my theory on an average group of Londoners, and discovered that two of them have been contacted in some way, and three haven't. The two that have live in Harrow West (a Labour-held marginal) and Brent Central (a newly-created seat where Labour and the Liberal Democrats both have legitimate hopes). The others live in safe Conservative seats. They aren't expecting to see much until the freeposts turn up...

My gut feeling is that this increasing focus on a smaller and smaller core of seats and voters is not good for our democracy. After all, if nobody appears to care how you vote, why bother? Time to break up the old structures, I suggest...

* Alright, I've finished this at my desk. The thoughts came to me on the train though...

1 comment:

MatGB said...


Differential turnout between marginals and 'safe' seats explains a lot of the fall in turnout overall, and it's accentuated in Labour held safe seats, making the whole "who got the most votes" question a really bad one to look at.

Many people will vote regardless. Many more will vote if you ask them to, and in safe seats, why bother?

PLS2BSTV soon now?