Hope in the marginals?

June 22, 2009 2:03 pm

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Red Yellow BlueBy Mike Ion

A recent ICM survey of 192 Labour-held marginals suggested that Labour is set to lose 164 of them to the Tories at the next general election. However the mathematics – as Mike Smithson over at PoliticalBetting pointed out – is a little bit more complex than the poll suggested. Smithson argued that a sustained lead of 20+ points would be required to produce such enormous gains for the Tories. Recent polls have given the Tories leads of between 12 and 17 percentage points. What we know clearly from the 2005 election is that when the Tories invest heavily in the tactic of targeting voters in marginal seats it normally proves effective. One of the most important lessons that the Tories learned from the 2005 campaign was that in marginal seats good, long-term local campaigning can make a decisive electoral difference. Much of the campaigning I refer to was “drip feed” in style and purpose. The Tories invested heavily in direct mail leaflets and letters, often paying either the Post Office or private contractors to get out the information on a weekly or fortnightly basis. Today’s Tories understand that money can buy a lot of campaigning, that the more cash you plough into local campaigns the more likely it is that you can secure a win – particularly in the marginal constituencies.

For example, back in 2005 in the seat where I live (The Wrekin) in the six months before the election, the Tory candidate received £55,000 from a fund coordinated by Lord Ashcroft, now deputy chair of the Conservative party. Lord Ashcroft had provided a huge war chest which targeted over £1m at 93 marginal constituencies. In some, the objective was to protect Conservative MPs with slender majorities; in others it was to soften up relatively safe Labour seats for the next election; but in the key seats such as The Wrekin, it was to skew the result in the Tories’ favour. In the weeks running up to polling day, the Tory candidate’s campaign team was able to afford to place whole-page adverts in the local media. The result was that Labour lost The Wrekin (and an excellent local MP) and it is surely no surprise that 24 of the Conservatives’ 36 gains in 2005 had been targeted by their localised funding strategy. In these 24 seats the Conservatives had on average more than twice as much to spend as Labour and secured an average swing of 4.5% compared with a national average of 3.1%. Today the Tories are busy implementing a similar strategy in readiness for the next general election. Candidates are in place and the “drip feed” campaign is in full swing.

The truth is that the next election will, like so many before it, be won or lost in the marginal seats. Labour grasped this back in 1997 and the Tories are building on the lessons learned from the tactics deployed in 2005. Many of the Labour/Conservative marginals are marginal mainly because of the defection of many Labour voters to the Lib Dems in 2005 – chiefly in protest against the war in Iraq. To regain the trust of these one-time supporters, Labour’s best prospects lie not in appealing to what it has done or in defending the status quo, but in campaigning against inequalities in health and education and in showing why these warrant further state action.

The campaigns in the marginals will be critical. Labour should seize the moment and put an end to the era of fuzzy politics by showing the nation that what divides Labour from the Tories is far greater than any of the marginal policies on which they are occasionally united.

To do this, it needs to match the Tory campaign tactics in marginal seats, clarify its own core message to its present and one-time supporters and rediscover its pride and self-confidence. It is not yet too late to secure the foundations for a Labour victory at the next general election, but it very soon will be.

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