This year has seen a change to the political campaigns we are used to, thanks to the rapid rise in social media use and also what could be perceived as an increase in the ferocity of political smear campaigns. It also promises to be the closest campaign in my lifetime.
From afar it could seem as though sites such as mydavidcameron and order-order and conversations on new media sites like Twitter are the big influence on voters. It’s easy to get caught up in the online world and think that the election will be won digitally.
However, the real campaign for parliamentary seats lies much closer to home, as I discovered when I had the opportunity to shadow Jason McCartney, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Colne Valley.
The constituency covers a large area: Lindley, Holmfirth, Meltham, Marsden, Brockholes, Slaithwaite, Honley, Linthwaite, New Mill, Golcar and Netherton.
The area is particularly important as there is only 3% between the Conservatives and Labour, who currently hold the seat.
If just 600 people change their vote, McCartney would become an MP and the Conservatives will be one seat closer to taking power in May.
So the pressure is on for the Leeds Metropolitan University lecturer, who took a sabbatical from his post at the start of the year, to campaign full time.
The day began with a train journey to Slaithwaite, a small village near Huddersfield which also happens to be home to the Labour MP – McCartney’s competition. The task for the day was traditional door-to-door campaigning, speaking to locals right outside their homes. As I soon learnt, there are many advantages to this approach.
The first is that the locals can place a face and a personality to the Conservative flyers they have probably been handed in town or received through their door. This is particularly important to McCartney, who feels that connecting to voters on a personal level is the key to gaining support.
As he has served in the RAF, he uses this to connect with people and show that he is passionate about his country. He likes to chat about Huddersfield Town, the local football team he follows. He can also make the most of the fact that he was born in Yorkshire and has lived in the area since the 1980s. These factors help him connect with his potential voters.
Secondly, McCartney has the chance to talk to locals about things that affect them and find out what they would like changed. This is a great opportunity for feedback; to find out what the locals want, to show them that you are willing to listen and to assure them that you take what they say on board.
In the feedback loop
From a PR point of view, we understand how essential feedback is – but how hard it can be to get – so doorstep conversation is a fantastic tool. It is also the best time to tell your potential voters directly what you have done for the area. McCartney took the time to tell locals about how he had acted on issues that affect the area such as the snow over winter and vandalism.
Finally, McCartney also takes the chance to quash any of the rumours spread by other parties through word of mouth or in flyers. He says this has become a problem recently, and in fact during the day he received a call saying that a batch of flyers from another party was going out this morning with incorrect information about him in them.
The best way to correct the problem is to speak to those who have heard it directly and to reassure them of the facts, though it is slow and there is no guarantee you will set the story right with everyone that believes the untruths.
Door-to-door campaigning is very effective, but it is also incredibly hard work. As we move nearer the election, McCartney does two and a half hours of doorstep visiting every day and has visited tens of thousands of homes since he began his campaign.
He is polite to every home owner, no matter how they behave towards him and what party they support.
We walked all around the hilly area of Slaithwaite on the Saturday we shadowed him, which was exhausting in itself. Campaign literature is also expensive, and McCartney takes part it lots of fundraisers like coffee mornings and pay-per-head dining events to pay for flyers and other literature. McCartney does not receive any wage until he is elected and becomes an MP or loses the seat and returns to work; a huge risk and commitment and an indication of his passion.
McCartney stands by the door-to-door approach and says it is 100% effective and truly is the best way to influence voters. Though Jason does actively blog and use Twitter, he says social media only has limited effect. Twitter is good for reaching journalists and blogging is a great way to keep the more tech-savvy voters involved.
However, many of the voters in the Colne Valley constituency are older people who don’t use the internet and won’t see social media campaigns online. For these people, the face-to-face approach is essential, and for those with a postal vote as they are unable to get around easily, it could be the only chance they get to find out information and ask their questions. Indeed when we shadowed McCartney, it was elderly voters who engaged most and seemed most interest in what he had to say and wanted to debate issues.
That’s not to say the younger generations aren’t involved. McCartney has been to Huddersfield University to speak to the students there, and the lecturers say more 18-25-years-olds are asking about politics than ever before. Further to this, there are a lot of young pro-Conservatives, as is evident with the Conservative Youth, the largest youth political party in the UK. There were members helping out that Saturday as well as other teenagers who wanted to get involved and learn more about politics.
So what was McCartney telling his supporters and potential voters? The main message was one that the Conservatives have been using to front their campaign, ‘Vote for Change’. He says he wants to fix the broken society, the troubled economy and the state of politics. He says if the Conservatives get in they will cut the number of MPs and reduce ministers’ pay and put the money saved back into targeted public spending, like more police officers on the streets.
McCartney met David Cameron when he visited the area a few weeks ago, and said that not only was he pleasant to talk to, but he has worked very hard to get where he is today in such a short space of time which deserves respect.
The main message I interpreted from the day was not so much support for any particular party, but more an understanding of how elections really work. Sitting at my desk absorbed in the likes of Twitter and Facebook, it is easy to believe that the digital world dictates what goes on outside and that the online smear campaigns and social media can shape an election. After seeing door-to-door campaigning, I know this couldn’t be further from the truth.
This election will be won on the doorstep. It’s a bold statement, but one I will stand by.
But how long will this remain the case? According to one of the Conservative Youth members I spoke to, this will be the last election as we know it. Others I have spoken to argue that doorstep campaigning has life left in it for a few years yet. We’ll know better when the votes are counted.