Constituency Campaigning in the 2015 British General Election

Lead Research Organisation: Brunel University
Department Name: Politics, History and Law


Constituency level campaigning has become crucial to the electoral strategies of all the major parties in Britain, and a significant academic literature - initially regarded as 'revisionist' - has emerged. This work - now regarded as mainstream - has revealed many things including how campaigns have changed over time; how parties have responded to wider changes in society, the electorate, and within their own parties; and the degree to which parties are able to harness their resources effectively to fight elections. They have also informed discussions about power within parties - how far central party organisations are able to coordinate constituency party campaigns and how much is left to the grass-roots. And finally, they have furthered our understanding of how voters respond to cues from the parties, and the extent to which voters can be mobilized.

This study will examine constituency campaigning at the 2015 British General Election and will provide not only a continuation of a unique and valuable time series that began in 1992, but also a programme of innovation that furthers our understanding of the impact, role, and nature of campaigns in the modern political arena. The study will seek to address four underlying research questions:

1) What is the electoral impact of constituency campaigns?
2) How have campaign techniques evolved?
3) How are party campaign organisations evolving?
4) What is the impact of constituency campaigns on different groups of electors?

The study will feature data gathered through a survey of election agents, candidate spending data, and individual level data captured through the main British Election Study (BES) and the British Election Study Internet Panel (BESIP). It will provide an empirical account of the style and intensity of constituency campaigning in 2015; investigate the role of the parties' central organisations in planning and managing constituency campaigns; gather data on voter perceptions of the campaigns (both long and short), and investigate the electoral effects of constituency campaigning in a changed electoral context both in terms of party votes shares and turnout. There will also be innovations to this well established study. Principally: extending the study to candidates from UKIP; a detailed focus on e-campaigning techniques; an extended focus on the role of members and supporters in campaigns; greater focus on candidate effects, and the application of new and improved methods for understanding the impact of campaigns on electors.

The study will also pool data from this study and all previous constituency campaign studies dating back to 1992 and combine these with candidate spending data, census and geographic data over the same period. This will permit extensive longitudinal analysis, greater hypothesis testing and theory building. The pooling of these data will allow us, for example, to analyse of the impact of boundary revisions on local parties' abilities to mount effective subsequent campaigns; to measure over time whether free campaign efforts are more electorally effective than those that incur cost; whether the process of increasingly rigorous targeting by parties impacts upon turnout; whether campaign intensity and style varies by geography and social composition, and whether campaigning in seats where parties have little prospect of victory is of any electoral benefit in subsequent local government elections.

Planned Impact

Academic Impact
The research findings will be published in key international academic journals such as the British Journal of Political Science and Electoral Studies. Dissemination will also occur through conferences including the American Political Science Association, Political Studies Association, the European Consortium for Political Research, and Elections, Public Opinion and Parties (EPOP) conferences. Presentations from previous projects have delivered impact on attendees and those registered for the conference. For example, the paper on constituency campaigning at the 2010 general elections presented at APSA in 2010 has, to date, been downloaded 104 times from the Social Science Research Network with 372 Abstract Views.

The research will also have an impact on the broader campaign studies community. This research team's members are regarded as leaders in studies of district level campaigning with previous work being widely cited. The theoretical and methodological advances generated by the study will have significant impact.

In addition, the work on constituency campaigns has now become an established part of the broader study of British general elections. As such, the findings will have an impact on the current and future BES teams. Finally, the findings and outputs will have an impact on fellow researchers - Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie - who focus on mainly on candidate spending in general elections. Both teams have collaborated in designing the questions on campaign contacts that feature in the BES.

The team will produce fully documented datasets, which will be deposited at the UK Data Archive. These will be datasets containing responses to the questionnaire-based survey and candidate spending data. Transcripts of interviews with party officers will be provided on an anonymous basis only where agreed by the interviewee.

Wider Stakeholders
The project will have an impact on both political parties and government agencies. Previous studies have helped political parties better understand the impact of campaigning, developments in campaigning and the prevalence of supporters in campaign work. Critically, it has allowed the parties to better understand not only their own campaigns, but compare them with those of other parties. Feedback from parties suggests that past projects have influenced thinking on future campaign strategies. We expect similar impact with this project.

The project will also have an impact on the Electoral Commission, providing an important source of information on how campaigns are organised, and if funding is received from the Commission as in previous elections, on the understanding of electoral procedures and the perceived quality of information provided to candidates.

Post-election, it is possible that the issue of party funding will again be examined. In this case, Fisher's pre-eminence in that field will again provide the opportunity to feed findings from this project into the evidence base to inform policy proposals

We will reach non-academic audiences via direct communication (e.g. with political parties and the Electoral Commission through post-study presentations); through the media (where Fisher has a long history of active engagement); and via the internet: a regularly updated website managed by the Research Associate will be used publicise the work of the team to both academic and non-academic users. This will provide interim findings, news from the project and working papers, plus links to other relevant projects and resources. These findings will also be publicised via the PSA blog site and the LSE British Politics blog, where Fisher has previously published, together with the BES blog site.
Description 1) The research to date has demonstrated that the constituency campaigns of all three main GB parties as well as UKIP delivered electoral benefits. In the case of the three main GB parties, these gains were delivered as a results of careful party management and effective targeting. This ensured that despite the party's relative unpopularity, the Liberal Democrats' campaign still delivered benefits. However, the performance of the SNP in Scotland badly damaged the electoral effectiveness of Labour's campaigns in particular. Finally, UKIP's campaigns delivered some electoral benefits, but did not damage the electoral prospects of the other parties, suggesting that UKIP's campaigns were most successful in attracting voters who were less likely to have supported the three main parties in the past. Overall, the project shows that constituency level campaigning was effective in delivering electoral gains despite the increased level of multi-party competition in 2015.

2) Analysing six general elections since 1992, we find that the use of traditional campaign methods has declined through the declining pool of human resource available to parties, together with the greater potential reach of different technologies. And, during the period, the relative balance compared with modern approaches has changed, particularly in target seats. But, technologies also change. It's clear that after a sharp rising in adoption, the use of modern techniques 'peaked' in the mid-2000s. This may be partly to do with saturation - as availability increases and relative costs fall, there will be limits to the extent to which modern approaches can grow, not least since these methods also require some labour (to staff the computers and to telephone voters, for example). So such developments are not themselves immune from the decline in campaign workers. But another reason for the peaking and even decline of modern campaigning is the development of e-campaigning. This has become increasingly popular. But critically, allocation of resource does not appear to follow the patterns we have seen in traditional and modern approaches. It is more prevalent in target seats, but its adoption relative to modern approaches suggests that e-campaigning does not necessarily lend itself so easily to the traditional model of understanding the distribution of campaign activity. The shift towards e-campaigning has occurred much more strongly in non-target seats than in target ones, which is different from the patterns we observed in the shift from traditional to modern campaigning. For all these changes, however, there is a near constant - the electoral effectiveness of traditional modes of campaigning - this approach delivers positive payoffs more often than not. This is not so much the case with either modern or e-campaigns. This suggests that that technology may never replace traditional campaign techniques. Approaches such as modern and e-campaigning may not be alternatives to traditionalism, but rather, they will always play a supporting role to the enduring positive impact of campaign approaches that have far longer roots.

3) Supporters (non-members) are an increasingly integral aspect of parties' activities in a range of democracies. Not only is participation widespread, the level of activity is clearly nontrivial. In election campaigns, we observe that while supporters tend to be more likely to engage in low intensity activity, their contribution remains important. And, there is growing evidence that supporters are becoming integrated into other aspects of party organisation. But key questions emerge in respect of the recruitment of supporters. Is supporter recruitment a function of party structure, or is it better explained by responses to parties' electoral fortunes? While much of the existing literature suggests that structural factors are likely to be paramount, our testing of alternative explanations suggests that electoral fortunes offer a more convincing explanation - supporters are more or less likely to be recruited depending upon the electoral popularity of the party. By way of contrast, the structure thesis has far less support. And, these findings are borne out not only in terms of recruitment, but also in terms of levels of activity. Electoral circumstances have a strong impact on levels of supporter activity, even when controlling for parties' existing strength. Supporters are active in seats where there the party is likely to win or where the contest is close.
Exploitation Route The initial findings are already being used by the political parties
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The research to date has been used by the political parties in planning their field campaigns, demonstrating how targeting is very effective in delivering electoral benefits, and which forms of campaign contact are most likely to mobilize electors.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Attitudes of Electoral Agents on the Administration of the General Election 
Organisation The Electoral Commission
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Additional question were added to the survey of electoral agents to solicit their views on the administration of the 2015 general election
Collaborator Contribution A report was delivered to the Electoral Commission in September 2015 and the findings incorporated into the Commission's report on the 2015 general election
Impact Attitudes of Electoral Agents on the Administration of the 2015 General Election. Report Produced for the Electoral Commission
Start Year 2015