The real problem with party campaign material is not its camouflage but its content.
Early this year the first dribs and drabs of electoral material started rustling through the letterbox. On reading one particular piece of colourful newsprint you might have assumed that the local paper, Bristol West Edition News, was running an impartial feature on the embattled, incumbent Lib Dem, Stephen Williams, and his struggle to be re-elected in order to carry on his good work.
In fact, this is just the local manifestation of the political tactics employed by a party in critical decline; Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams is pushing for re-election in Bristol West and, judging by two of his early offerings, is off to a particularly opaque start.
The first offering comes in the format of a free tabloid newspaper entitled Bristol West Edition News, which contains campaign material presented as newspaper articles, complete with ‘Exclusive Reports’ and a ‘Comment’ section. The other is a personal letter from ‘Redland resident’, Gareth Owen, commending Stephen Williams and praising Lib Dem education policy. Gareth Owen is a real person. However, after a little research one discovers that he is not merely a grateful constituent, but actually ran as a Lib Dem council candidate for Bishopsworth in 2014. Neither letter or newspaper carry the Lib Dem logo or any straight up political party indicators.
“the campaign is banking on a lack of understanding by the electorate of recent political shifts and possible local outcomes”
This kind of campaigning is, in some ways, a reflection of a changing political landscape and PR tactics. The main political parties, their leaders and ideas are arguably an unattractive, toxic sell for local voters, with the emphasis in this instance being placed on the local individual. This is reinforced by parties who do have big ideas, such as UKIP and the Greens, moving from the fringes to competing for seats.
However, the real problem with Stephen Williams’ material is not its camouflage but its content. This is when it becomes clear that the campaign is banking on a lack of understanding by the electorate of recent political shifts and possible local outcomes.
The contest for Bristol West
Bristol West is a generally left-liberal leaning area, with a large student population. Stephen Williams toppled Labour in 2005 and gained an overwhelming majority (48% to Labour’s 28%) in 2010. However, since going into coalition with the Tories and facilitating a threefold increase in tuition fees among other unpopular policies, his party’s popularity has declined steeply. In contrast, over the same period, the Greens have experienced a surge in support, gaining a majority in recent local elections that has left the Lib Dems in third. The ‘seesaw’ relationship between the two parties’ popularity is unsurprising; a recent YouGov voter profile shows that 50% of Green supporters are ex-Lib Dem voters.
The thrust of this local material is the argument that voting Lib Dem is the only way of keeping Labour out: in Bristol West Edition News a graph showing the 2010 election results is accompanied by the underlined caption,
“It’s between the Lib Dems and Labour here!”.
In reality, the seat certainly includes the Greens as serious contenders, making it a three way race. However you won’t see this on either Williams’ or Thangam Debbonaire’s (Labour) material as they both seek to frame the seat as keeping out Labour or the Lib Dems, respectively.
Bristol West is the second target seat for the Greens and, whilst the call to ‘tactically vote’ might work in other constituencies, it remains to be seen whether the selective coverage of Bristol West Edition News will have the desired effect.