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James Frayne: Target, target, target

Frayne JamesJames Frayne is a political and corporate communications consultant. He was previously a Director of Communications in Government and worked for a number of independent political campaigns in the UK. 

Political campaigns are about winning and parties must ruthlessly prioritise time and campaign resources for the best chance to secure power. The reality is that Tories will not make meaningful gains in the North East of England and Scotland in the next election, and Labour will struggle in the rural South. That could change in time, but not in two years. Barring a very serious shift in the national polling, victory or defeat depends on a relatively small number of identifiable seats, clustered particularly around the West and East Midlands, Yorkshire and the North West of England. These are the key battlegrounds.  

The parties have been developing sophisticated target seats campaigns to allocate resources accordingly. Taking their lead from some of the best US campaigns, parties have been making extensive use of polling, local intelligence from voters, and additional useful information like consumer data, to produce microtargeted campaigns to raise turnout amongst specific groups in target seats. As Lord Ashcroft has shown, these campaigns significantly increase candidates' prospects and there are signs that these campaigns will be even more effective in the coming election.  

However, despite operational progress, the parties do not demonstrate the total commitment to a genuinely targeted approach you might expect given the possible closeness of the next campaign. Fundamentally, they seem to see target seats campaigns as being highly specialised, niche campaigns that sit away from the main campaign effort. The very fact that parties have "target seats" campaigns at all is a reflection of this point. A campaign that really believed the next election was about a relatively small number of battlegrounds would simply have The Campaign, and that would be ruthlessly focused on persuading voters in identified battleground seats. This is not where the political parties are at the moment. 

If the parties truly embraced a targeted approach their campaigns would differ in three ways. Firstly, they would construct their message to more visibly reflect battleground areas. Secondly, the party leaders and senior politicians would spend their time differently. Thirdly, the parties would construct policy with geography as much in mind as other characteristics. In this way, the party campaigns would more closely resemble the Presidential and Senate campaigns you see in the US where the targeted approach is a fact of life. Let us look at these briefly in turn. 

In a country like the UK, which believes it is better for a small number of journalists to explain party policy to the public than allowing parties to do this directly through TV ads, the creation of a clear and persuasive national message is the single biggest thing a campaign can get right. But such a message must be created with swing voters in mind. If the parties genuinely accepted that these Midlands and Northern battlegrounds are all important, their message would be biased in favour of a broadly provincial, upper-working class / lower-middle class audience. Polling will clarify this (Lord Ashcroft's work will help) but in recent times this audience has mostly been interested in those core ssues like the economy, the cost of living, childcare, healthcare, and crime. They tend to be moved by messages on these issues that emphasise emotional appeals around hard-work, fairness, decency, and community. To be clear, such a targeted message does not mean a national message that talks about "the North and Midlands", it means a message that is biased in favour of their interests and values.  

If anything, parties often seem to be going in the other direction. Look at the themes the parties chose to amplify at the beginning of the year - the time when they should be starting to define the political debate. Labour chose to talk about a prospective ban on the cereals that ordinary people grew up with, and the Conservatives chose to talk about Europe. As a former committed campaign staffer at Business for Sterling, I understand Europe has real world importance, but in raw campaign terms it makes no sense to amplify this issue above all others. These small decisions reflect a wider reluctance from the parties to construct messages that appeal to the key battlegrounds. 

Secondly, a genuinely targeted approach would see the party leaders and their main politicians spend even more time doing meaningful campaigning in battleground areas. To be fair, there is a pattern you can see here - Cameron recently did a tour of the North West, for example - but too much action takes place in London and not enough in places like Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds, and Manchester. Virtually every major speech and announcement should take place in these cities. Similarly, spokespeople from these areas should be used to a much greater extent by the parties on the national media and politicians should start to re-evaluate the weight they attach to the regional media. If a targeted campaign really is important then the leaders and their main political spokespeople should do far more with the regional lobby. 

Thirdly, such a campaign would start to design policy platforms for their manifestos with an explicitly regional focus in mind. At the moment, it seems like political parties design policy with virtually everything except geography in mind. For example, they think about policy in relation to voters' age, values, family status, and job, but they largely ignore policy designed to appeal to those that actually live in key battleground areas. Clearly, parties cannot cynically propose massive increases in spending in particular constituencies - this would be absurd - but it is equally absurd not to consider the most important areas electorally when writing manifesto policy, while considering nearly everything else. 

British campaigns cannot easily replicate the approach taken by the US Presidential campaigns. It is much easier to construct a geographically focused campaign where you have massive swing states and no spending limits rather than clusters of small constituencies with spending restrictions. The microtargeting operations run by the parties do therefore make sense. But these operations can and should be supplemented by a more fundamental rebalancing of the parties' overall campaigning. We will know that the parties are serious about this when it feels like the wider campaign effort has been folded into the target seats campaign, not the other way around.


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