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The professor will see you now - leaflets

4 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for The House’s readers. This week: leaflets

For all the changes in political campaigning in recent years, the main method of direct contact between the parties and the British voter remains the humble leaflet or letter, pushed through someone’s front door, usually by a party activist or supporter.

Of course, digital campaigning is growing in importance, but when discussing election campaigns we should always remember Deep Throat’s advice to ‘follow the money’. Of around £50 million spent nationally by the parties in 2019, the biggest single category of expenditure, some £20 million, went on what the Electoral Commission call ‘unsolicited material to electors’ – leaflets, direct mail and so on.

A detailed analysis of the almost 23,000 items of expenditure from 2019 logged with the Electoral Commission, and just published in Government and Opposition, found that the vast majority of cash went on campaign activities that would have been very familiar to anyone campaigning in the 1980s or earlier. Under 20% went on campaigning techniques dating from 2008 or later.   

And yet in much discussion of election campaigns (and I fear this will be as true of the coming contest as it has been of all the recent ones) you will have to look hard to find any discussion in the media about a party’s leaflets. It’s all too retro. Not shiny and new enough. But as a party staffer once said to me: ‘I have never understood why journalists don’t focus on leaflets more. If you want to know what our message is, look at what we’re putting through people’s doors’. In surveys of voters, it is the leaflet or letter – respondents are not great at differentiating between the two – that gets noticed the most. Everything else is secondary.

This has prompted me, only slightly tongue in cheek, to formulate Cowley’s Law of Election Campaigns: that there is an inverse relationship between the importance of any election campaign technique and the amount of media coverage devoted to it.

Hence why I was interested in a newly published piece of research examining what form of communication voters preferred. Drawing on data from the 2016 Welsh Senedd elections, it initially asked people what they had noticed receiving from the parties – and, once again, leaflets were top, by a long way.

Then they asked what form of communication they wanted from the parties, the first time I have ever seen this question asked.

Turns out about a third said that they didn’t want to be contacted at all. Not so much ‘we never see you around here apart from at elections’, more ‘we never see you around here and that’s the way we like it’.

But of those who said they did want to hear from the parties, top came leaflets – the preferred choice of just under a third of respondents. There was then a sizeable gap before any of the other methods of contact: email and home visits (both 11%), or personal letters (9%), with e-campaigning methods coming in at 3%.

The researchers noticed what they described as ‘considerable heterogeneity in voters’ contact methods’ – or in other words, people differ in how they’d like parties to contact them. Older voters, for example, were keener on doorstep conversations than the young, with younger voters more likely to prefer e-campaigning than those older.

Yet the heterogeneity wasn’t all that considerable. Both these groups preferred leaflets over everything else. Indeed, based on what was reported in the paper, it looks as if the leaflet was the preferred contact method for almost every group of voters. Voters are much more old school than is often realised.

This isn’t a call for parties to dump alternate campaigning methods. All have virtues, and in practice campaigns aren’t about choosing one or the other. Horses for courses and all that.

But we’d do well to remember Willie Sutton. He was the bank robber who when asked why he robbed banks, reputedly replied ‘because that's where the money is’. If only journalists covering elections would do the same. Go where the parties are devoting their money and efforts, and report that.

Further reading: J Townsley and D Cutts, How Do Voters Want to be Contacted and Are Parties Listening? Evidence from a Recent Election in Wales, Political Studies (2023); K Dommett et al, Understanding the Modern Election Campaign: Analysing Campaign Eras through Financial Transparency Disclosures at the 2019 UK General Election, Government and Opposition (2024)

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