Brexit, party ‘sophistication’ and the ignored electors

Dafydd Trystan Davies explores how party campaigning has contributed to a disengaged electorate.

Brexit – and more specifically the Leave majorities across much of Wales – has led to considerable discussion about how areas who objectively benefit significantly from the EU decided to stick two fingers up at the political establishment on June 23rd.  Professor Richard Wyn Jones highlights a number of factors in his Guardian article here but I’d like to consider a little further the role of the political parties and longer term trends on party campaigning. Specifically, my suggestion is that the New Labour revolution in campaigning techniques created the conditions for the Brexit vote.

New Labour developed a formidable campaigning machine and honed sophisticated data-driven mechanisms for targeting electors. This was part of the ‘success’ of 1997 – and even more clearly when the shine began to wear off the New Labour project – the elections of 2001 and 2005, where despite losing millions of voters, Labour emerged with majorities the like of which Cameron could only dream of. Their micro-targetting of voters with specific messages was so successful that their political opponents all adopted these campaigning techniques. Nowhere was this more clearly seen than with the assertion by Lynton Crosby, as the head of the Conservatives election campaign in 2015, that the general election would be decided by some 4,000 electors in some 40 seats. The precise numbers aren’t important (and will vary by party) – but the campaign focus is clear – there are very important electors who need to be listened to, and communicated with. To a greater or lesser degree the rest of the electorate can be largely ignored. It is, if you like, a key elector’s strategy within a key seats strategy.

I am familiar with one party’s targeting strategy, and even in that case, with very few resources, voters are differentiated by likelihood to vote and likelihood to support the party (along with other basic socio-demographic data). As a candidate (particularly if you have a relatively small band of helpers) this is a godsend. You can reasonably hope to knock on the door of the majority of regular voters who would consider voting for you in a constituency (as long as you’ve got a few sturdy pairs of shoes to carry you on your way!). Parties may not even seek to contact face to face a majority of electors in a given seat. It is a really efficient use of resources and allows you to get a real feel for the issues of concern in your constituency – or does it?

Post-brexit it has become glaringly obvious to me (and in hindsight it should always have been thus) that regular voters do not necessarily share the same concerns as their non-voting neighbours. They may do so, but the act of regular voting may well be a sign of greater engagement with politics, the community, local issues – and as we have seen, our non-voters may have strong views but don’t necessarily have an outlet for those views in ‘routine’ elections. Parties don’t regularly contact non-voters, they certainly don’t target them and there aren’t hundreds of activists who are experienced in talking to non-voters.

As political parties we have become far more ‘sophisticated’ and ‘efficient’, but in so doing I’d suggest we’ve lost touch with a large section of the electorate. I have little doubt that when the survey evidence emerges from Wales we’ll see a pattern of differential turnout i.e. that those who voted for the first time in several years were predominantly leave voters. We may all be tempted to guess their motivations for doing so – in Aberdare, Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil – but it would be for the most part, guesswork.

The challenge for all political parties during this next period is to acknowledge that all electors have a voice and that voice should be heard. It means listening anew to the concerns of non-voters and having those long term conversations about the challenges facing the communities in which they live, which tend to be poorer, with lower life expectancy and higher unemployment. And for the avoidance of doubt, it certainly doesn’t mean conducting a few focus groups, concluding that immigration is the most discussed topic and producing a mug with the slogan ‘We will control immigration on it.’

We have it seems four years before the next scheduled UK election, as parties – particularly as progressive parties of the left – we have an opportunity to re-engage, to listen and to develop answers to some of the major problems facing our communities. And if we do so, we may not be quite so blindsided next time a major issue arises and the legions of non-voters, who have apparently given up on politics, demand that their voice is heard.

Dr Dafydd Trystan Davies is the National Treasurer of Plaid Cymru and a former parliamentary and assembly candidate for Plaid.

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