The grass roots are withering and the money is drying up – so what is the future for local parties in general election campaigns?

Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie discuss the evolution constituency campaigning in the UK. Their book Money and electoral politics: Local Parties and Funding in General Elections was published earlier this month.

With the 2015 general election now less than a year away, political parties will again be focusing on funding of their campaigns. As in previous elections, candidates will need two resources to sustain their general election campaigns – people and money. Each is in increasingly short supply. As a result, the nature of constituency campaigning has changed very substantially in recent decades, and is likely to do so even more in the future.

People are needed to manage the constituency campaign and to promote the candidate’s/party’s cause across the local electorate: as the average constituency has some 70,000 voters, this means reaching a large number of people. In the past, most candidates could rely on activists drawn from their party’s local members, but as their numbers have declined the available pool has been reduced. Some candidates have replaced them by supporters – non-members who are nevertheless willing to promote the party’s cause – and by volunteers from nearby constituencies where there is an excess of supply relative to demand.

Money is needed to sustain the campaign organisation – its office and equipment, plus staffing – but in particular to meet the costs of posters and leaflets. Research has clearly shown that the more intensive the local campaign, as indicated by the amount that the candidate spends on those items, the better the performance: those who spend more tend to get more votes, and their opponents get less.

This relationship is clearly demonstrated in our book just published by Policy Press – Money and Electoral Politics: Local Parties and Funding in General Elections. In it we found that the more marginal the seat, the more that candidates spend either defending what they hold or seeking to unseat the incumbent. But over the last two decades, even in those targeted places, the amount spent has declined – especially, but not only, by Labour candidates. It is becoming increasingly difficult for local parties and their candidates to raise funds – and central party organisations rarely transfer money to their local branches as contributions to their costs (although the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have done so for targeted seats in the pre-campaign periods).

In the four months preceding a general election, candidates can spend up to £40,000 on their campaigns– but in 2010 very few reported spending anything like that amount. The reason why is very clear from our analyses of constituency party accounts. All local parties with either an income or an expenditure of more than £25,000 in any year must lodge copies of their accounts with the Electoral Commission – which publishes them. In only just over half of the British constituencies (359) did the local Conservative party return its accounts to the Commission: even in a general election year, the Conservatives lacked a local organisation turning over more than £25,000 in over 40 per cent of all constituencies. But they were much better placed than their two main opponents: for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats there was an organisation turning over that amount in only 80 constituencies each – only 13 per cent of all seats.

Local parties derive their income from three main sources – donations, appeals, and fund-raising events. In 2010, those local Conservative parties that submitted accounts to the Electoral Commission raised over £3million in each of those categories – some £11million in total. The 80 local Labour parties whose accounts are available for scrutiny raised only just over £2million, the majority from donations, and local Liberal Democrats were in a similar situation – they raised £2.7million in donations, out of a total income of some £3.8million.

All donations to local parties above £1,000 must be reported to the Electoral Commission, irrespective of their total income. In 2010, the Conservatives reported 1,131 separate donations, totalling just under £5million. Labour local parties reported many more – 2,273 totalling £3 million: the Liberal Democrats received only 666 donations, totalling just under £2million.

So the Conservatives attracted more money, in larger chunks. And they got it from different sources than their opponents: one-third from companies, compared to just 8 per cent for local Labour parties, who got most of their donations (some 45 per cent) from trades unions. Some 70 per cent of the Liberal Democrats’ income came from individuals: Labour parties got 25 per cent of their money from this source and the Conservatives some 60 per cent.

As the money has dried up and the membership grass roots have withered, so local campaigns have become centralised – and increasingly focused on target seats. For the seats that they either hope to win, or fear losing, the parties conduct extensive telephone polling, produce leaflets for the candidates there, and send customised letters and other canvassing materials to potential supporters. Voters elsewhere are largely ignored and their candidates have to rely on what they can raise and mobilise locally.

This trend will be extended in 2015. The parties have already identified their target seats and placed control of the campaigns there in the hands of centrally-appointed staff. Voters in those constituencies (fewer than 150 out of the total of 650) will experience lots of canvassing activity – see lots of posters, get lots of leaflets, and be contacted by letter, e-mail, phone, twitter and whatever on several occasions: their votes count. That will not be the case in most of the other seats, however; candidates there may send them a single leaflet but otherwise they may be overwhelmed by the deafening silence of the local campaign; nobody will knock on their doors on election day to make sure they vote.

Might this all change if there is cross-party consensus that party funding should be reformed? Two main features of any such reform package have been discussed – and then rejected by at least one party: a cap on the total amount spent on campaigns (other than local); and a limit on the maximum size of any donations. Some hope that if such a package were introduced then local campaigning might be revived, with benefits for local democracy. But there is no incentive for the parties to campaign intensively in most constituencies: only the marginal seats matter.

And so in many parts of the country, the money available to candidates through their local parties will continue to dry up, the number of activists and supporters prepared to give their time to canvass electors will continue to decline, and local democracy will go on withering away. The trends and patterns identified in Money and Electoral Politics: Local Parties and Funding in General Elections can only breed pessimism regarding Britain’s democratic future.

This article originally appeared on the Policy Press Blog.

Ron Johnston is Professor of Geography at Bristol University. Charles Pattie is Professor of Geography at Sheffield University.

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