Signs of the times

Signs of the times

Politicians are increasingly losing control of the messages they convey – and with them, their dignity, warns Rachel Sylvester

This year’s general election is going to be simultaneously the most centralised and the most localised poll ever. It will be a ‘long tail’ campaign in which all the parties hope to harness the ‘wisdom of crowds’.

While TV debates involving the three leaders will provide an unprecedented national focus, each party’s message will be shattered into a thousand pieces by a cacophony of tweets and blogs. Although virtual constituencies such as Mumsnet are bringing together swing voters from all over the country into one national forum, there are also huge regional variations in the political mood. The kaleidoscope has been shaken and the MPs’ expenses row has speeded up the erosion of tribal, class-based loyalties and the power of the party machines.

Billboard advertisements, once the way in which the political elite communicated with the masses, have instead become a medium for the people to shout back at their rulers. Within seconds of a poster being launched, spoof digital versions will circulate on the internet and, within hours, the original is likely to have been daubed with real paint. The Tories spent £400,000 on their first ad campaign, only to find David Cameron turned into a sinister Elvis Presley lookalike next to a doctored slogan: “We can’t go on like this... with suspicious minds.”

The spin doctors are desperate to control the message, but know in their heart of hearts that this is impossible. “I’ll start at campaign HQ,” one Tory aide told me, “but I’ve already been told I’ll be out on the road when it all goes wrong and the candidates make gaffes.”

Labour MP Tom Harris’s blog recently included advice that has been circulated to all candidates on how to use Twitter. “Don’t tweet and drink,” it stressed. “Always assume that whatever you tweet will be read by the news editor of the Daily Mail. Because that assumption will be correct.” It concluded: “If you wake to find an army of reporters, photographers and camera crews outside your home... rethink your new media strategy.”

Political campaigning is only just catching up with a more individualised, less deferential age. The Tories are producing highly personalised direct mailshots targeted at different groups of voters in key constituencies. Labour is trying to make a virtue of its lack of resources by copying Barack Obama’s use of peer-to-peer communication in place of expensive national campaigns.

The duck houses and bath plugs have thrown a (John Lewis) spanner in the works, introducing more unpredictability. In many constituencies, the sitting MP is standing down, removing the benefit of incumbency. In some seats, independent candidates such as Esther Rantzen could disrupt the result. Small parties, such as the British National Party and the UK Independence Party, will mop up protest votes, while the Tories’ decision to select some less partisan candidates through primaries may reduce the hold of the party’s high command. “The electorate is very volatile and the mood is different in different parts of the country,” says one senior Labour figure.

The concerns that candidates pick up on people’s doorsteps are often not the same as those discussed at Westminster. While London-based politicians and journalists witter on about the row over Lord Ashcroft’s tax status and whether the cabinet secretary gave Gordon Brown a dressing down for bullying his staff, local people care more about rubbish bins, graffiti and late trains. “One old lady asked me to change a light bulb for her,” a Labour candidate says. “People are interested in things that actually affect their lives.”

The difference between the national and the local picture will be significant at the general election. National polls, like national media, may not accurately predict the result. Surveys in certain marginal seats show the Conservatives to be doing between 3% and 8% better than in national polls. Lord Ashcroft is pouring both money and candidates’ time into the key constituencies.

So while Westminster concentrates on TV debates and dodgy dossiers, black holes and Bullygate, the result will be determined in village schools, shops and post offices in marginal seats far away from SW1. It’s the long tail that will become the wisdom of the crowd.

Rachel Sylvester
is a weekly columnist and political interviewer for The Times.