As the 2017 General Election candidates – many of whom are standing for this first time – intensify their campaigns for election, Rosalynd Southern and Kingsley Purdam explain the importance of effective communication with the electorate for building political support.
- Communication skills and an ability to connect with the electorate are key attributes for politicians and are integral to ensuring that our political representatives are accountable.
- The 2017 review of political engagement by the Hansard Society has highlighted how few people in the UK feel they can have an influence over national decision making.
- MPs undertake their roles in different ways and do not have a defined job description. Research has highlighted how the electorate wants MPs to be predominantly focused on constituency issues.
Our research has involved a test of the responsiveness and engagement levels of election candidates in marginal constituencies. At the last two elections an email was sent to the candidates in the first week of the campaign from a hypothetical voter. The voter requested information on the candidate’s and party’s policies. Such a covert methodology is vital in order to gain a real insight into how politicians are communicating in practice. It is notable that one MP has called for politicians to be subject to greater scrutiny including mystery-shopping checks as part of quality assurance measures.
During the 2010 election campaign, from a sample of 775 electoral candidates, we found that 82% had some form of email address that could be identified or had an online contact form. In total our hypothetical voter received 373 email responses (49%).
Ninety per cent of candidates who sent a reply did so addressing the voter by name. This represents a high level of personalisation. Some candidates referred to their own personal lives and experiences, expressing empathy. A timely response was also important. One in three replies were received the same day. Most candidates who replied did so within three days. However, just 4% of candidates had set up an auto-response system to acknowledge emails. Very few follow up emails were received from the candidates, suggesting that the voter’s details and political concerns had not been added to the candidates’ campaign databases or linked to a communications strategy.
A textual analysis of the replies suggested that only 27% of candidates provided a directly relevant answer to the question asked by the voter; however, a further 42% of responses contained information that was at least related to the question posed. Labour Party candidates were most likely to provide a directly relevant answer. Candidates from smaller political parties, including UKIP and the BNP, were much less likely to give a direct answer.
At the last UK election in 2015 from a sample of 862 electoral candidates almost all of the electoral candidates in the sample had an active email address. 53% of candidates replied to the hypothetical voter’s question. Of these responses 32% were directly relevant answers to the question, 51% were related answers. 53% of candidates offered further contact for the voter, either over email or by phone or via a face-to-face meeting.
Substantial engagement, but lower than expectations
More than half of the responses contained some type of empathetic response where the candidate spoke of their own experiences related to the question. 11% of the email responses were ‘signed’ by someone other than the candidate, for example a staff member.
Our follow-up interviews with candidates revealed that many were concerned about communicating online and being ‘on the record’. One candidate commented, ‘I am very cautious of going off message via email or social media. A slip up can be distributed far and wide before you know it…and it is written proof…I wouldn’t want to embarrass my party’.
Overall the evidence from our research suggests there was a substantial level of engagement with the electorate amongst politicians. However, the response rates and content relevance fell below the expectations of many public and private sector customer service standards.
This was a missed opportunity for politicians to engage with the electorate in a direct way, and the lack of two-way communication puts at risk the extent to which the electorate can hold politicians to account. Moreover, the electoral benefits of localised and personalised campaigning and frequency of contact have been widely documented.
In 2017 such communication could be important given the shifting positions of the political parties and particularly so in marginal constituencies where people who are undecided which way to vote could determine the outcome. Estimates suggest that around 20 per cent of voters were undecided six weeks before the polling day in June.
Frustration and engagement – the challenge for politicians and public
Politicians need to be responsive and provide information on policies and decisions in order to engage the electorate. Of course email communication is just one form of contact, and politicians and their party offices may be being overwhelmed by the communications they receive. If so, resource constraints are hindering the renewal of democratic representation in the longer term. Politicians need to develop effective systems for managing communications effectively and efficiently.
Politicians being elusive and not answering questions directly can be particularly frustrating for the electorate. Two-way communication and campaigning provide opportunities outside the limitations of the broadcast media and set-piece campaign tools. As Richards and Smith have argued, there is a need for a new openness and increased accountability amongst politicians. The web tool TheyWorkForYou, developed by mySociety, is a hugely valuable resource for the scrutiny of MPs’ activity, but it is notable that it was established by an organisation external to Parliament, rather than being a formal performance audit.
Increased communication and dialogue could transform the model of democratic representation in the UK, giving politicians more scope to explain their policy positions and decisions. Citizen engagement is not solely the responsibility of the citizen; it requires a democratic system that fosters it. Politicians now have many more tools available to communicate and engage with the electorate. The question is, will they use them this time around?
The research findings are published in:
Southern, R. and Purdam, K. (2016) The Changing Representation Interface: Democracy and Direct Contact with Politicians. Journal of Civil Society. Volume 12, Issue 1 pp 101-120.