European elections are always tricky campaign-wise. The constituencies are in fact massive regions which makes it harder to mount an intensive campaign. They often come soon after other elections, which means activists are tired. And they tend to be a contest voters are not that interested in – what we politics academics call a second order election.
This time they are even harder because the last-minute decision to go to the polls means that selection and campaign planning was all a bit rushed.
So parties generally have fewer methods to use. I am going to look at what is being done and how it is working out.
1: The Freepost
In Parliamentary elections, the Royal Mail will deliver a leaflet free of charge for each candidate (in this case party list). This is a massive bonus in areas as big as Euro regions.
There are two types of ‘freepost’ delivery. They can be unaddressed, in which case one goes through every letterbox. Or they can be addressed, in which case a household might get a different one for each resident over a number of days.
The addresses come from the electoral roll, and contrary to some of the conspiracy theories on facebook (including by one award-winning journalist – tut, tut) this is perfectly legal and normal.
If you have a look at your freepost deliveries (they all say election communication on them somewhere) you can tell how organised the parties are and how much attention they are paying to the campaign. Unaddressed leaflets – basic level campaigning. Addressed leaflets – more organised and complicated. These parties are also likely to be targeting postal voters among others. No leaflets – no money or no energy.
2: The Media
There are rules about broadcast media being fair to parties. And, of course, there are Party Election Broadcasts.
But every party wants to find a way of making news.
Heidi Allen (of Change UK) challenged Nigel Farage (now of The Brexit Party) to a debate.
This was never likely to happen, but it was a useful story for Change when much of the talk around the elections is crowding them out.
If it had happened, it would also have been a high-risk strategy. Nick Clegg debated with Farage in 2014 after a similar challenge. And the result wasn’t entirely what he had hoped for.
3: The Ground War
It is fascinating to see the different approaches adopted by parties when it comes to the campaigning they can manage. Of course, most parties do more than one thing, but these are the tendencies I have noticed to date, either from paying attention to my own region or from media coverage elsewhere.
The Brexit Party has gone for rallies and large public meetings. This was the previous Ukip tactic and clearly enables them to reach more likely supporters more quickly than walking around door-knocking.
Change UK has gone for handing out leaflets and talking to people at existing events, or places where people tend to congregate. Latest posts on activities show a focus on railway stations and local occasions. It remains to be seen how effective this is. In my experience commuters are not always keen to stop and talk about politics. It is however a useful tactic if numbers are small.
The Lib Dems have gone for leaflet delivery. This party has a network of activists well used to pounding the pavements with bits of paper. This has the advantage of achieving a lot of quick visibility and message repetition.
Labour have also been out on the doorsteps and using street stalls. It’ll be interesting to see how much leeway is given to local areas to ‘depart from the national script’.
As for Ukip and the Conservatives, I have seen nothing yet. The Conservatives are on record as saying they don’t want to spend money on these elections, so frankly I wouldn’t expect a ground operation to speak of.
4: Events, dear boy
It was Harold Macmillan who replied ‘events, dear boy’ when asked what would blow the Government off course. But in campaigns, events and how parties respond can make or break. And some events are carefully timed to have impact.
At the time of writing the Change UK lead candidate in Scotland has announced he will support the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems clearly were ready to publicise this and it’s worked well in supporting a Scottish manifesto launch earlier in the week.
The ‘defection’ doesn’t get David McDonald’s name off the ballot paper, but it does cause problems for Change. How the newer party responds will be worth looking at. (I am aiming to write about crisis communications in my next piece.)
And with just over a week to go there is scope for plenty more events, although it’s worth remembering that as most postal voters have by now had their ballot paper, part of polling day has already gone.
Paula Keaveney, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics