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British Political Communication – Local and Direct

Here we examine some of the methods used in British politics for local and direct political communication.


As the electorate expanded from 1867 onwards, parties, especially in the towns, began to use door-to-door contact with the voters.

The purpose was partly to identify supporters who could then be reminded to vote on election day but also to persuade wavering voters.

From the 1970s the Liberal Party, later copied by the other parties, began to go door-to-door between elections and concentrate on local problems which they would try to resolve and build up support that would lead to the winning of council seats.

Both types of canvassing are still used and the evidence is that face-to-face contact with voters still increases support for the parties and for MPs and Councillors.

The Leaflet and The Targeted Letter

The political leaflet became established as a means of communicating with voters once a larger male electorate was created in 1885.[amazon_link asins=’B01FKWC5NC’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’brituniversity-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’c9b9e46f-f494-4b1e-96a4-c0cb1207e915′]

By the 1920s, with women also voting, the amount of literature distributed was huge; in the 1929 general election the Conservatives produced 90 million leaflets and pamphlets and Labour 40 million.

The use of leaflets continued post-war and, together with a candidate’s election address which is distributed free through the post, were mainly aimed at mobilising the vote at elections.[amazon_link asins=’3319409336′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’brituniversity-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’10b48e89-2826-4072-8628-c28a109c6009′]

Laura Beer Media and the Making of the Labour Party, 2010, Dominic Wring The Politics of Marketing the Labour Party, 2004, and Tim Bale The Conservatives since 1945, 2012, also give good accounts of how party election campaigns worked in the first part of the twentieth century.

In the 1970s, the Liberals developed the Focus newsletter which mainly picked up local issues, down to cracked pavements, and showed what local activists were doing about them. Delivered regularly and tailored to each locality, they helped the party to win seats in local elections and then in targeted Parliamentary constituencies where a nucleus of Liberal local councillors was established.

This was adopted by the other parties and then by sitting MPs as a way of reaching the public and building up personal support.[amazon_link asins=’0198757905′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’brituniversity-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’5bb9ea5e-c1ab-4664-947d-38cd6403bbc0′]

Leaflets are still very much in evidence during and between elections. IPSIS-Mori found that 93% of voters recalled receiving a party leaflet, much higher than the 50% in 1979. However, the change in party strategy has moved away from standard leaflets to mobilise the voter base to instead targeting individual voters.

The electorate is now less loyal to a particular party, more varied in terms of social identity and more consumerist in their concern for issues that they are interested in, or which particularly affect them.

Parties look to pick up these details in canvassing and, if they hold the seat, information about issues that people raise with their MP. A targeted letter is then sent to the individual voter about the issue.

In 2005 14% of voters received a letter from the Conservatives, 12% from Labour and 10% from the Liberal Democrats and, since not many will have received a letter from all three parties, this amounts to over a quarter of the electorate contacted directly.

Although leader and party image and some key policies are promoted nationally, the parties are increasingly looking to develop a local and individual appeal to the voter.

The New Media

The development of the new media have provided new opportunities for parties to communicate directly with the voters and bypass the major media outlets.

The national parties, local parties, MPs and, mostly, candidates now have a website with messages to convince the voters, information about activity and details of party policies. 10% of voters looked at a party website in the last election campaign, especially younger, middle class and Liberal Democrat voters, and an MP’s website, which has topics of local interest, may be looked at by more people than the local newspaper. MPs now receive most of their correspondence from constituents in emails and often answer these themselves.

Party websites that aim to appeal to younger voters need to think about how they use these.

Roman Gerodimus found , in a study of young people looking at charity and NGO websites, that they were looking for information, in a consumerist way for easy online solutions and for emotional engagement through images and videos (Information, Communication and Society, Volume 15 No 2, 2012). The Online Petition is something that Government and Opposition both use.

Candidates now regularly use Facebook and Twitter and may put Youtube clips on their websites.

In 2009 only 8% of MPs had a Twitter account but by 2013 it was over 60% and the Liberal Democrats and Labour had a party strategy for Twitter in 2010. However, politicians are only just beginning to come to terms with the potential of the social media.

Voters increasingly want a two-way dialogue with politicians through website blogs and Twitter and Facebook conversations because this is the way that they use these media.

Politicians are still tending to use the social media to broadcast messages and rebut the view of the other parties as they are used to doing with the traditional media. Dialogue, of course, takes a lot more time.

The social media is not without danger as well; in the last two general elections a candidate has had to stand down because of an injudicious comment on social media and now any remark on the doorstep can be recorded and appear on Youtube within an hour.

Todd Graham and others give a detailed account on the use of Twitter in the 2010 general election in Information, Communication and Society Volume 16 No 5, 2013.

(Mark Pack’s blog on ‘ How the Internet is Changing Politics – and what 2010 will Bring’ has some good points 1st March 2010)