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The cost of a general election

The cost of a general election

When voters go to the polls on 8 June, millions of pounds will have been spent on getting them there


How much do we pay for an election?

This one is expected to cost the taxpayer at least £143m. The 2010 election (the last for which an official figure is available) cost more than £113m to administer, about £28.7m of which went on distributing mail (each official candidate is entitled to one free postage of a leaflet per residential address). Other big-cost items are the hiring and manning of 50,000 polling stations; the provision of postal votes and polling cards; and the counting of more than 46 million votes.

And how much do the parties spend?

Not much by American standards. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump between them spent £1.75bn on their campaigns. In Britain, by contrast, campaigns are relatively short and spending is strictly limited by laws dating back to the 1880s, to ensure that the rich can’t “buy” the election. That limit is determined by the number of seats a party contests: in this election, if a party were to contest all 650 constituencies (which none of them do), the limit would be £19.5m. In addition, each candidate is given a fixed spending limit during the campaign period: this year, it’s £8,700 – plus 6p per voter in urban seats, or 9p per voter in rural ones. In the 2015 election, the total spend of all the parties fell just shy of £60m, some £37m of which was spent by the parties’ central offices, and the rest by local candidates. The Tories spent £15.6m, Labour £12.1m, the Lib Dems £3.5m, UKIP £2.9m, and the SNP £1.5m.

Where does most of the money come from?

The Tories get large sums from rich donors. In the first week of this campaign, they raised £4.11m in large donations, more than all other parties combined. The largest donor was John Griffin, a founder of the cab firm Addison Lee, who gave £900,000. Labour relies heavily on large donations from the unions: of the £2.68m it raised in the first week of this election, £2.36m came from Unite, and £62,000 from the GMB. (Though Labour does occasionally get big donations from individuals: in the first quarter of 2017, Max Mosley donated £300,000.) The parties can also draw on subscriptions and small donations given in the course of a year by members and supporters. Labour’s membership has surged under Corbyn: it now has 483,000 members. The Tories have about 150,000; the SNP 120,000; the Lib Dems 82,000.

What is the money spent on?

Campaigns tend to be divided into the “ground war” – efforts organised by party activists and volunteers at local level to promote a given candidate, and the “air war” – the national media and advertising campaign. The ground war is restricted by the spending limit per seat and by the availability of volunteers (the Tories recently came under fire for allegedly, in the 2015 election, allocating to local candidates money that should have been assigned to the party campaign, thus tipping some candidates over their spending limit). So it’s the air war that uses most of the money.

What does the air war consist of?

Two of the big items are “unsolicited material sent to voters” and advertising. In Britain, the parties don’t have to pay for TV advertising – the main terrestrial TV channels and all national radio stations have to allot a given amount of air time (varying with the size of a party’s support) to party political broadcasts. So the advertising spend is mainly on billboards, newspapers and, increasingly, online ads. The other big item is “market research/canvassing”. At the last election, the Tories paid £4.7m to pollsters, and nearly £3m on two of the world’s most successful political consultants: campaign chief Lynton Crosby and Barack Obama’s former campaign manager Jim Messina.

What did these strategists do?

According to The Guardian, they ran the most complex campaign ever mounted in the UK, using “vast databases, commercial market research, complex questionnaires and phone banks” to map the “fears and desires of swing voters”, and to design “highly personalised messaging that would appeal to them” – using data gleaned from social media, and Facebook in particular. The Tories greatly outspent Labour on social media, spending £1.2m on Facebook, while Labour spent just £160,000 (see red box below).

And are such campaigns effective in British elections?

Possibly not. A survey of the academic literature, notes Professor Paul Whiteley of the University of Essex, shows that their effects are “variable and in general rather modest”. The final outcome is usually very similar to what polls predict at the start of the campaign. When the final result is markedly different, as in 1992 or 2015, it’s usually thought to be because the polls have been wrong, rather than as a result of brilliant campaigning techniques. But what campaigns – face-to-face canvassing, in particular – have proven effective at is not so much converting voters to a party, but in getting them out to vote – though not always for the party doing the canvassing. Ultimately, it’s hard to judge the campaign in isolation, as parties today are in permanent campaign mode and the air wars begin long before the election is called.

How closely do people follow election campaigns?

By and large, not at all. Messina claims the average voter thinks about politics for no more than four minutes a week. “Successful campaigns know this,” said Laurence Stellings of the pollster Populus, “and relentlessly repeat their key messages so, in those moments when a voter does engage, the ‘right’ message gets through.” Hence the style of the Tory campaign. According to Populus, 58% of voters know of Theresa May’s promise to offer “strong and stable” leadership, and associate it with her. By contrast, just 28% know that the Lib Dems are offering a second Brexit referendum. The only “campaign event” to have achieved similar widespread currency to May’s slogan is Diane Abbott’s difficult interview on LBC, in which she struggled to explain how much it would cost to recruit 10,000 police officers. More than half of voters (54%) know about this.

Facebook: the weapon of choice

Today, campaign managers consider Facebook to be one of their most powerful political weapons. Will Straw, who ran the Remain campaign in the EU referendum, says it’s now “on a par with the BBC for getting your message out”. Half the UK population, according to Facebook, now uses their network; users spend 40 minutes a day on average on the site.

The strategy in political campaigns involves using data from user profiles – location, friends, “likes” – to build an accurate picture of their behaviour and target them. But it’s a strategy that has caused concern, as it lends itself to “microtargeting” – using the data to target voters personally. It has been alleged that the “big data” strategy firm Cambridge Analytica influenced both Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit vote by using “psychographics” to identify “persuadable” voters. Cambridge Analytica denies playing any part in the referendum, but that hasn’t stopped the UK information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, from launching an inquiry. If companies or political parties are using “precise digital trails” to target individual people, rather than to analyse general trends, says Denham, then “they are going to be outside the law”.

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