There are two types of election campaign; one consists of leader debates, speeches by politicians, press releases and photo opportunities organised by the national parties, together with media interviews with the politicians and their supporters. This is what most people think of as the election campaign and it is often described as the air war.
But there is another much less visible campaign going on at the same time – the ground war. This consists of campaigns at the constituency level. It involves canvassing, delivering leaflets, holding meetings, candidate interviews with the local press and a variety of other activities.
The ground war is likely to be more important in this election than in the past, because the campaign is significantly longer than it was when the election date was known only about a month in advance of polling day. The Fixed Term Parliament Act means the parties have known the date of the election for five years and that, in turn, has meant the campaign on the ground could be organised months in advance.
Of course this is also true of the national campaign, but there is evidence to suggest that voters get fed up with that when it goes on too long. In contrast, voters often complain that local councillors and party activists only turn up in their area when an election is on the immediate horizon. They are much less likely to get tired of talking to local activists and candidates on their doorstep.
There is a fair amount of research on the effects of local campaigns on voting, and the consensus is that they make a real difference. Intensive activity on the ground increases turnout and can boost the vote share of whichever party does the most campaigning.
One way of gauging how effective the parties are is to look at the size of the party membership, which is a good guide to the number of volunteers available to run these campaigns.
The most recent report on party membership was published in January 2015. It shows that Labour has the largest membership, at around 190,000 and that the Conservatives have around 150,000. The Liberal Democrats have 44,000, which is approximately the same number as the Greens, and UKIP has 42,000.
In Scotland the SNP has a total of 93,000 members. The Greens, UKIP and the SNP have been recruiting significant numbers of new members over the past year and Labour has done so as well, but on a more modest scale. Not surprisingly, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have been losing members – something which frequently happens to parties in power.
These figures suggest that Labour is better able to mobilise foot soldiers on the ground than the Conservatives. Similarly, the Greens, UKIP and the SNP are all likely to be in better shape than the Liberal Democrats.
We can find out just how effective the parties are in getting their members to campaign in the election by looking at Ashcroft’s constituency surveys. He polled in 28 Conservative held marginal seats in March and April of this year including seats like Gloucester, Harrow East, The City of Chester and Croydon Central. His surveys ask the following question:
I would like to ask whether any of the main political parties have contacted you over the last few weeks – whether by delivering leaflets or newspapers, sending personally addressed letters, emailing, telephoning you at home or knocking on your door. Have you heard in any of these ways from the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems or UKIP?
The chart shows the percentage of respondents in these constituencies who reported such contacts. An average of 62% of them reported that Labour had contacted them, and 50% had heard from the Conservatives.
In contrast, only 13% of respondents reported that the Liberal Democrats had contacted them. UKIP had reached out to just 18%.
This campaign data is roughly in line with the membership figures for Labour and the Conservatives, suggesting that these parties are persuading many of their members to work during the campaign.
However, because Labour has a larger membership it is significantly out-campaigning the Conservatives in these seats. It seems likely that the party is doing this in Labour-held marginal seats too. This will help it to retain its own and capture seats from the Conservatives too.
When we take into account UKIP campaign in these seats as well then the Conservatives are really up against it.
Some men left behind
The Liberal Democrats have done less campaigning on the ground than UKIP in these seats despite having a slightly larger membership, which is a sign of weakness on their part. To be fair though, the party is fighting a defensive campaign in order to retain its own seats, and so its activists are likely to be working elsewhere.
The Ashcroft data suggests that Labour is set to win 13 of the 28 marginal seats surveyed. It is tied with the Conservatives in a further five of them. So a reasonable expectation is that Labour will win 15 or 16 of them altogether.
The forecasting models show that neither of the two major parties will win an outright majority, but any seat taken from the Conservatives is particularly valuable to Labour because it is worth two votes in the race to be the largest party in the House of Commons.
Disquiet on the northern front
Ashcroft has not paid much attention to Labour held seats in England in the last couple of months, but he did conduct surveys of ten constituencies in Scotland in April 2015.
These surveys showed that the party had contacted an average of 58% of voters in these seats compared with the SNP’s 38%. The nationalists have recruited many more members in Scotland since the referendum but these figures suggest that they are not necessarily that active. They may be symbolic members rather than party activists.
Notwithstanding this point, the surveys show Labour is set to lose all of these seats, with nine going to the SNP and one to the Conservatives.
Local campaigning may be important but it is not strong enough to overcome the extraordinary change that has occurred in Scottish politics since the independence referendum of last year.
Looking at the situation across the country as a whole the Conservatives are being out-campaigned on the ground in the seats they really need to retain if they are to have any chance of winning the election.