On Message 

15 April 2005 tbs.pm/2071

Recent years have seen an increase in sophistication relating to the methods used to target voters. Many of the changes have been the result of an increasingly sophisticated use of computer databases and mailshots, but the advent of more television channels has also seen a profoundly different use of the media compared with previous general elections.

The requirement to be ‘media-savvy’ has almost upstaged the actual policies themselves, especially as the Conservative and Labour parties have become closer in terms of their policies and general outlook.

It has to be said though that changes in social attitudes over the years have also helped to make different styles of campaigning feasible compared with the very formal presentation adopted in the past.

For example, Tony Blair appearing on Richard and Judy would have been considered to be a very demeaning promotional opportunity several years ago but in an era of politicians wanting to be more ‘in touch’ with the electorate it’s now perceived as being a required method of ‘reaching out’ to a core section of potential Labour voters instead.

Then there is the specific targeting of ‘floating voters’ to consider. It has been calculated that the ‘floating’ votes of up to a million people can literally make or break electoral success for the three main parties, so it’s no wonder that the power of new technology – such as databases of potential voters in marginal constituencies – is being harnessed to specifically target these groups of people.

Combine the need to single out groups of people with the proliferation of digital TV channels and it’s easy to see that there are opportunities for party promotion that haven’t existed in previous campaigns.

Getting the right message across is just as important as who the target is; for example, back in 1979 the Conservatives set out to portray Margaret Thatcher in a variety of domestic situations as a practical home-loving person in order to appeal to people who were looking to an alternative to the then current Labour administration which had been badly hit by industrial disputes caused by powerful and militant unions.

Indeed the Conservative campaign went further and targeted the wives (or husbands) of people involved in strike action who were perhaps fed up with their other half’s trade union involvement (their partner being at home most of the time and/or not earning a wage).

But of course in all cases it helps if there is a large number of people who are disgruntled with the current government and there is a clear message to target, such as the 1997 Labour party election broadcast which helped to highlight the perceived weaknesses of the NHS at that particular time in a dramatic soap opera-style context.

This very message has been reprised as part of the 2005 campaign in order to remind voters of the change of emphasis, though Michael Howard has attempted to claim that the Conservatives will somehow make hospitals ‘cleaner’ – a classic example of a media-driven issue influencing party policy, and of course the same applies to the issues of immigration and asylum seekers (even though few areas have been directly affected by them).

However there is a downside to targeting specific issues in that many others may not feel particularly affected by the specific issues in question (eg. the NHS, asylum seekers, education, etc.) and in turn this can lead to more voters feeling as if they have been neglected.

Then there is the question of how much needs to be done in order to ensure vital votes are not lost, and any television opportunity is considered to be crucial to ensure that the right message is put across to the right audience, though overexposure seems to be at the very back of politicians’ minds when it comes to electioneering.

There has also been extensive television coverage of the debate concerning the legality (or otherwise) of the Iraq war that has been especially fuelled by various leaked documents; the BBC may feel very conscious of actively tackling such issues after being stung by the Hutton report, but Channel 4 has no such qualms which has enabled it to tackle the Iraq issues head on.

Also the fact that Channel 4 News has had such ‘exclusives’ is also indicative of the intended target audience for the leaks, since the Murdoch-owned Sky News may give them less emphasis (for its target audience, and – perhaps – political reasons), plus of course the BBC wouldn’t want to devote much time to them.

Although the Iraq war and the issues surrounding Tony Blair’s competence as a leader may be brushed aside by many voters who just want a strong economy combined with good schools and short hospital waiting lists based on a (perceived) previous track record, the Iraq war is a good example of exactly how the media is helping to pinpoint issues that may otherwise have been ignored by the average person and in turn might just make a difference when it comes to an undecided voter on polling day.

Television is still a very powerful medium when it comes to influencing people, so it’s not surprising that the parties fight for positive media attention constantly throughout the campaign.

As for the campaign in general, the fact that both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are offering policies which actually have more in common with each other than they like to admit in public means that they are essentially fighting for the attention of the same ‘middle ground’ group of voters.

This has produced what many commentators have regarded to be the dullest and least imaginative election campaign in recent times, which is perhaps an inevitable outcome of political groups trying to be similar yet different at the same time; the most controversy being reserved for the BNP’s campaign and in particular its party election broadcast which had to be re-edited “for technical reasons”, though the consequence was that the BNP was perhaps portrayed as just being tough on asylum seekers as opposed to exposing their uncomfortably extremist policies (a side effect of censorship even if it was actually required).

However this blandness has perhaps helped what could be the ‘dark horse’ of the campaign – the Liberal Democrats, which has made a specific selling point of being “the real alternative”. Indeed one of its party election broadcasts concentrated on establishing Charles Kennedy as a credible leader, which presumably may help to alleviate any doubts that some potential Liberal Democrat voters may still have.

Both Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Ulster Unionists have arguably also benefited from the narrow policy focus that the main parties have adopted, since they can equally claim that both Wales, Scotland and Ireland have been ignored in general policy terms as well as being partly ignored amongst the scrap for votes “in and around London” even though various Labour and Tory politicians have probably worked just as hard at a local level.

It’s perhaps inevitable that in a society that is heavily influenced by the media that the final election result may inevitably be media-driven regardless of the best efforts of the politicians, since those so-called floating voters may be persuaded by what they see or hear before they cast their vote.

And this may also apply to people who have been affected by the recent collapse of MG Rover or various retail chains (Allders, Index, The Gadget Shop…) that have closed (or are closing); the various politicians’ reactions to these key events as portrayed by the media could make all the difference when it comes to the ballot box. And if you’re reading this article before May 5 2005, don’t forget to vote.

This article was written in the lead up to the UK Parliamentary Elections in May 2005

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