By calling a snap election, Theresa May has probably ensured that the 2017 poll will be cheaper than 2015's © Getty Images
By calling a snap election, Theresa May has probably ensured that the 2017 poll will be cheaper than 2015's © Getty Images

The cost of an election

4 May 2017

Knowing where – and how – to spend money could help parties exceed expectations

Shrewd procurement will help parties win seats in the general election on 8 June. Professor Justin Fisher, head of political science at Brunel University, London, says: “Votes don’t win elections, seats do. The parties are extremely skilled at targeting resources. In 2010, the Liberal Democrats spread their efforts too widely and won 57 seats, far less than they had hoped. Five years later, when they were unpopular, they focused on the seats they could save. They only won eight, but if they hadn’t done that, they might only have four MPs.”

Fisher says the election will be decided in a select number of key constituencies where the parties will focus their polling, spending and campaigning.

“Nothing holds up the vote better than face-to-face canvassing,” says Fisher, “and that’s still more influential than social media. If I had a penny for every time I hear someone say this will be a Twitter election, I’d have £8.33 by now. As far as elections go, Twitter is certainly less influential than Facebook, in which the Conservatives invested heavily in 2015. Social media may have more of a role now because parties need to reach quickly key voters in key seats – normally, they will have made their plans for direct mail and poster sites six or nine months ago.”

Prime minister Theresa May’s snap decision could save parties and taxpayers millions. “In aggregate terms, the amount candidates can spend will be significantly lower than in 2015,” says Fisher. Two years ago, candidates spent £13.2m in what is called the ‘long campaign’ and £14.3m in the ‘short’ campaign – from the dissolution of parliament until polling day. With this election surprising politicians and pundits, candidates may have spent 70% less in this ‘long’ campaign.

The parties’ national spend should also be lower than their combined outlay of £39m in 2015 – as the snap election is out of sync with their traditional five-year fund-raising cycle. Fisher says the parties will prioritise late donations – the Liberal Democrats raised £500,000 in one 48-hour period – but don’t have much time to decide how best to channel that money. As he says: “There is little proof that national spend has a great influence on results, but there is empirical evidence that spending in constituencies makes a difference.”

Although the media obsesses about social media, in 2015 the major parties’ spending priorities were very traditional: leaflets, rallies, battle buses, canvassers and manifestos.

None of the parties are likely to be as innovative as Podemos, Spain’s anti-austerity party, which printed 3.4m copies of a manifesto designed like an Ikea-catalogue in 2016. Their reward for thinking outside the box? A 3.4% swing away from them.

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