Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday 16 June 2015

The Tory 2015 ground campaign shows how we need a new electoral system

There's a must-read piece today on Conservative Home from Mark Wallace where he goes through the Tory ground campaign operation in painstaking detail from its inception in the aftermath of the 2012 Omnishambles Budget through to election day,

It's a brilliantly researched post and I am sure many in politics across the parties will be reading and absorbing it to see what lessons can be learned for future campaigns.

I however, as is my wont have absorbed a slightly different lesson. And that is just how utterly broken our electoral system is.

The following sections leaped out at me:

The majority would be won by campaigns targeted directly at a relatively small number of groups, each composed of a relatively small number of people in a relatively small number of seats.


During the last 28 weeks of the campaign, Team 2015 supplied 26,000 campaigning days in the target seats. While this effort was not a replacement for the wider party (or for the contribution of other supporting groups, such as the pro-hunting Vote-OK group, which contributed campaigners in around 25 seats, or the various Conservative “Friends of” groups), it was an undeniably valuable contribution. If just 901 people in the most marginal seats had voted Labour instead of Conservative, last month’s majority would never have been achieved: every one of those days spent campaigning was crucial.

Mark (no fan of electoral reform himself) is essentially admitting just how broken things are here. Almost all the focus of the Tory ground campaign was on a tiny, tiny sliver of swing voters in a very small number of constituencies.

The Tories were of course right to focus on them. That's how you win elections as we've just seen. Well, to be more accurate that's how you win elections under First Past the Post. If Labour want to win again in 2020 they'll have to focus on these same narrow tranche of voters too.

But what a dreadful, anti-democratic situation this is where such huge efforts by the main parties are put into wooing a few thousand voters out of tens of millions. And of course what then happens is that the policy offerings are tailored to suit these tiny number of people who are not representative of the country as a whole.

There is one other, slightly more subtle point I was want to make about the detail from this piece too. You'll recall that in 2011 there was a referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system for Westminster which the Tories vociferously campaigned against arguing that our current First Past the Post system is much better. They won of course but just bear with me.

One of the things about the Alternative Vote that is an improvement over First Past the Post is the amount of information that the counting system then has about the choices of each voter. Instead of just a simple X against a single party in a binary fashion there are rankings. So the counting system knows who the voter's second, third, fourth etc. choice is and that can then be processed by the counting system to ensure an outcome closer to that that the majority of the voters in the seat would want.

Now check this out:

The Survey. With 14 questions ... this was intended to be a swift but effective way of identifying voters. The strategists worked to move away from a binary model of identification – Tory or not, Labour or not – and to collect more subtle information, rating people’s enthusiasm for various parties on a scale of 1 to 10. 
Such data has a practical use: with the kind of hyper-targeted communications CCHQ was planning, it needed to know as much as possible about people’s interests and concerns in order to segment them accurately.

Does this sound familiar? Yes, the Tories were using a much more sophisticated approach in their canvassing to assess in a more nuanced way how strong or weak their support was. In a very similar way to how AV allows an electoral system to assess support for parties in a more nuanced way. Of course the Tories then used this information to bludgeon those it deemed likely to vote for them with squeeze messages to push them through the binary system to their eventual electoral advantage and success.

But it is very, very telling that even those stalwart opponents of reform recognise that a binary filter is such a poor way of assessing people's views that they have even abandoned it for their own canvassing.