Different policies are prominent in each election, be they local, national, or European. The key issues at each election are carefully selected by the parties. Some issues have become prominent within the media and the electorate, and they cannot be ignored. So for example, in the February 1974 general election, the issue of who rules was very prominent after numerous miner strikes and the introduction of a three-day working week. Other issues are harder to identify as key concerns. The parties will try to steer the campaign in a direction which is beneficial to them. They will highlight policies which they think will win them votes.
The parties will always try to focus the election campaign on issues which they think they can win on, issues which they believe that the other party are weaker on. But what about the issues the electorate are concerned about? How do parties learn about those? Well, the main function for a political party is to represent people. So one of their primary responsibilities is to identify what issues are concerning people. The way in which they will find this out is through opinion polling evidence and through focus group feedback that they’ll secure. What that then does is it provides them with a list of the primary concerns that the electorate are concerned about at any particular point in time.
And what the parties then try and do is they want to try and ascertain on which issue are they seen to be dominant on and marginalise the issues upon which they are less successful. Issues are usually separated into two categories. Valence and positional. Valence policies are usually those that the electorate are in almost complete agreement of, regardless of their political persuasions or party allegiances. So for example, the importance of liberties and freedoms within society. The need to not destroy further the environment. Or the rights of all individuals to vote. Positional policies are those which are affected by the political stance of an individual. So for example, your stance of fracking, the war on terror, abortion.
The parties set out in an election campaign to attack these positional policies, persuading individuals that they can deliver what is needed and wanted in those policy areas. Well, as we approach the general election, the two main parties are going to want to focus on the issues where they feel they are dominant, where they feel the electorate find their arguments more persuasive. So from a Labour perspective, they’re going to be of the opinion that the NHS is their issue. They own that issue. And they will want to prioritise that issue.
But other issues that Labour will want to focus on will be issues to deal with unemployment, will be issues to deal with the cost of living crisis, and issues to do with the impact of the austerity programme that the coalition government have implemented. So a lot of what Labour will focus in on will be things related to poverty and perceptions of inequality within society. In terms of the Conservatives, the Conservatives will want to try and get across issues to deal with the argument that their economic strategy has actually worked, it has actually produced a movement out of recession and into growth, albeit not necessarily at the rate that some may have wanted.
Once the political parties have identified the policies which are important to the electorate and the policies which they want to highlight, they need to advertise their policies to the public. However, we have seen party membership decreasing over the last 50 years and voter apathy is a very big concern for all parties. How are the parties trying to counter that? What are their most effective campaign tools? The campaign tools to use is the direct ones, trying to get the messages direct across to the masses. And that’s really posters, canvasing, leaflets, population broadcasts and party political broadcasts. That’s the main way to get their message across. That’s the direct message across to the masses. What they’re really after is indirect messages.
They want to use what they call a paid media, for free media, because the paid media is used in such a way as to construct a poster, but if that poster has any resonance at all, the news channels or the newspapers pick it up because, let’s be honest, politicians are not exactly trusted anymore. So if the newspapers and the TV and the broadcast media are picking up on their messages and running it, they’re cock-a-hoop. They’re quite happy that they’re getting that message across. Other forms of communication and more modern social media has changed the way in which parties can reach out and communicate with their voters and supporters. It allows more direct and continual contact.
But there are downsides to this for the parties. In the past, there was a lot of newspaper adverts. There was a lot of television adverts, billboard adverts. That was how you reached your population. That’s changed. Now, these parties realise that people spend so much of their time on social media and online, they have to go there to try to reach out to people. So lots of MPs will say that it’s wonderful because rather than seeing one member a time in my constituency office, I now get to see or speak to hundreds of them at a time, communicating directly.
The danger, I think, is that in this election, we are going to see an increasing number of what you might call mudraking, going through somebody’s social media history and finding out whether they’ve said anything or posted anything stupid or drunk or insulting or whatever. That, I think, could mean that too many politicians will start being afraid of speaking their mind on social media. And in the end, it will become just another very boring, very press released, very corporate and focus grouped, bland content. And that’s exactly the opposite of what we want our politicians to be like.