The analogue election of 2010

Reflecting on what may happen on May 6 when the country goes to the polls, I got thinking about communication.

It’s clear to me that all the political parties in my constituency, Wokingham, who are contesting the election on May 6 – both the parliamentary election as well as for local council seats – are decidedly analogue when it comes to communicating with voters.


This image is a representation of the mountain of printed material that’s come through my letterbox during the past few weeks. Over 30 separate items of print so far, some of it personalized to me with my name and address on it.

In nearly all cases, the brochures and flyers include website and email addresses, some even with Facebook pages and Twitter handles.

I’ve lost count of how many political campaign sites I’ve signed up on. Many have my name and email address.

Yet the only way I’ve heard from anyone locally is via hand-delivered printed stuff through the letterbox. It’s like so much junk mail, coming as it does along with the flyers for local restaurants, window cleaning, dog grooming and low-cost limo services to Heathrow airport. And if I actually read any of this stuff, it’s hard to separate out the national issues from the local ones, hard to get a sense of where the candidates really stand on issues as the flyers are full of political rhetoric and don’t trust-the-other-guy messaging.

Another thing: I’ve yet to see any candidates knocking on doors in my neighbourhood. Hey folks, you’ve got less than a week!

There is one example, though, of messaging and a platform that was a bullseye for me – an email I received yesterday signed by David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party and one of the three contenders with a genuine chance of winning the top job of running the UK for the next five years.

The subject line in the email caught my attention: “A contract between the Conservative Party and Neville Hobson.”

And there is what I need: an easy-to-read and understand outline on what Cameron and his party say they will do if they get elected on May 6. It’s embedded below (or see it at Scribd); you can read it for yourself.

Now, all of this may be readily available elsewhere, on the web for example. All the other political parties may have equally well set-out policies somewhere online, there for the reading.

Yet Cameron and his Conservatives are the only ones who have reached out directly to me, in a way that makes sense for me.

That makes a big difference.

[Update May 3] I received another email this afternoon, this time signed by George Osborne, the man who would likely be Chancellor of the Exchequer if the Conservatives win the election.


What a difference to Cameron’s ‘contract’ email. Impersonal not personal. Generic content and bashing the other parties. Not impressed at all.

This email was trapped by the Outlook junk mail filter whereas Cameron’s last week was not. That sums it up, really.

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Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Oranjepan

    From the state of all indications Wokingham is not a key battleground parliamentary seat, unlike for instance Reading West.

    This plays a decisive factor as to what kind of approach each side will take when attempting to reach voters in each constituency, so when analysing the form of communications residents receive it offers greater and more exclusive insight to look at it from the perspective of the parties within their historical context including their respective strengths and weaknesses, particularly the level and type of resources each side can draw upon as a result of key decisions when building their organisational capabilities over the years.

    I think it's worth asking: is what you have received on your doorstep and in your inbox a fair reflection of local and national strengths and weaknesses, or does it conceal more than it reveals?

    Of course it will be no surprise that the side with the wealthiest backers appear more professional and impressive, but this is a less interesting conclusion than it would be to pick out which side is actually more effective in using and maximising those resources it has available and how we construct and resolve our own personal equations.

    Is style more important than substance? Do you prefer to emphasise the method, mode or manner of the communication? Do you wish to be given reassurance in a lecture, or engage in meaningful discussion and debate?

    In other words the type of communications you prefer offers an interesting exposition of the type of politics you and your particular lifestyle naturally inclines towards – human vs digital, centralised vs decentralised, individual vs institutionalised, egalitarian vs authoritarian, distance vs proximity, amateur vs professional etc.

    I wouldn't go so far as to prejudge if one is better, whether one type or other is necessarily good or bad, or even if different forms are more effective under different conditions, but I will argue that each have their own consequences. Isn't it swings and roundabouts and horses for courses? So shouldn't we each be cautioned to think very carefully about how our choices will constrain us and where they will inevitably lead?

    So for me this is less a matter of who has the 'wow' factor, but what one's personal ethics are: what you decide is more a reflection upon you, not them.

    Maybe it is a sign of our times that these choices are presented in a less overtly political fashion and we are as a society are less able to predict, plan or secure our futures because the emphasis has been unbalanced or inverted – could it be said the cause of our problems are the product of our wider lack of political conciousness and a related moral vacuum, or were they a result of forces beyond our control which make problems inevitable? And if it can, shouldn't it?

    In particular, with the expenses scandal and the credit crunch making trust in our political system a pressing issue I must personally confess I've become suspicious of many email communications (with their relatively high levels of formality, automation, expense and regulation) and admit I prefer the immediacy of the human factor.

    So forgive me if I find 'analogue' an inaccurate, inappropriate and potentially offensive description – I think it would open our lives up to profound risks to make decisions based solely and exclusively on the concerns of people who have a vested economic interest in promoting a particular point of view (as you clearly do in this instance). I understand and respect your advocacy for your industry and have no quarrel with the presentation of your professional concerns, but political choices must be about far more than that to be successful and sustainable.

    I must therefore put my point of view that this election has been much more of a 'duologue' or 'multilogue' campaign where traditional forms of communication have been complemented by the addition of TV debates and the impact of social media etc.

    The dissent in this response should be a demonstration of this fact and I hope you may be interested in answering some of the points I raise to prove meaningful dialogue has actually been enabled by the combination of communication forms, that the greatest resistance to effective communication is among 'us', not 'them' – and that solutions are in utilizing opportunities, not just in having or creating them.

  2. neville

    Appreciate the time you took for your lengthy comment, Oranjepan, thanks.

    It seems to me that you've made something pretty simple seem terribly complicated. My point isn't about the substance of anyone's communication – what thoughts I have on that that may come in a separate post at some time – but simply on methods. That you say you find my use of the word 'analogue' a potentially offensive description is quite bizarre. But, we each have our own opinion on, well, anything, which is a good thing.

    Whether what material I've receievd is a fair reflection of local and national strengths and weaknesses, I have no idea. Nor, frankly, do I much care. What I observe is simply the huge amount of printed stuff through the letterbox and, in this digital age, precisely one effort at a direct and 'personal' connection attempt via email: an effort that caught my attention where the printed content has not at all.

    A personal outreach effort like that – even when I know it's really mass communication but done rather well – makes a big difference in how I perceive parties and candidates in my area where all I have to form opinioin on regarding the others is the printed junk that comes through the door or the scripted, controlled and filtered content on TV or radio.

    But that's my preference. I can think of many friends who would care less about email and far more about traditional print and other mainstream forms of communication.

    Will any of this influernce how I vote? Hard to tell with 4 days of campaigning still upon us. But I guess I'll know that on May 6.

  3. Oranjepan

    Thanks for the sharp response, Neville.

    My point comes from the perspective of one of these ever-hopeful souls who knocks on doors – my particular angle is to increase voter registrations and improve turnout at election times. Perhaps it was my personal investment in my activity which caused my emotional response and meant I was less clear than I could be, so I apologise for not editing back.

    I wholly agree that no form of communication should be overlooked regarding efforts to reach out to the public, however I have come to realise that the methods of communication used is a direct reflection of the political philosophy at the heart of any organisation and the tendency to emphasise one at the expense of others is an indicator for the basis of decisions that organisation has made in the past and also provides a strong indication of the biases which contribute to those it will make in the future.

    There are a number of striking studies showing how effective different communication methods are on a mass scale (mainly referring to the Obama campaign) and there is an ongoing debate about how to marry method with manner and mode – which is what I was hoping to gain your insight on (perhaps in the later post…).

    I'm most intrigued by the possibility raised that during an election when 'change' is the major theme it is the ability to grab attention by doing something differently (and well) is what piqued your interest, though again I'm cautious of extrapolating from your response as you are speaking professionally as much as personally.

    However I can't escape the questions it would raise were you to continue the logic of your argument all the way to the conclusion that traditional campaign methods should be abandoned due to their inability to make any impact.

    What then would be the role of party membership?

    What then would be the extent of political participation in edcision-making – would a direct democracy where daily online email polls (of YouGov and PoliticsHome's likes) contributing to actual decisions be desirable?

    Or would this create a Wizard of Oz situation where real accountability would be progressively lost?

    My feeling is that the desire for 'impact' is actually not conducive to making healthy decisions, as this has a tendency to quickly lose appropriate proportionality which will undermine proper authority, so in this context the public funding of postage for one electoral address from each major candidate in a constituency is a baby step to neutralising potential distortions and may suggest a productive route forwards.

    With regards to email the problem arises that universal communication cannot be ensured simply because the online world is virtual, and since communication is voluntary and basic standards cannot be regulated quite so easily this has the inevitable consequence of favouring parties with material resourcing and a well-established data-gathering organisation (ie it favours the status quo).

    All of which creates a perverse situation where the party most able to promote the popular message du jour when it is 'change' may actually be the party least inclined to fulfil those pledges – and equally oddly, this 'contract' may with hindsight become seen as both the stand on which Mr Cameron hangs his ambitions and the rope with which he hung them!

    So really I think I'm trying to tease out the difference between 'communication' (which I understand as a grounded and engaged balanced method) and that old-fashioned media bete noire 'propaganda' (which in the last century gained a very different complexion).

    Isn't it only through the back-and-forth within the masses of literature where an effective, if indirect, right-to-reply is secured? And can we trust a method of communication where none exists?

    The comparison I'd make is with the 15-minute video sent to 5m homes by Lord Goldsmith's Referendum Party in 1997, which retains a mythical status as an unanswered piece of 'communication' and still forms the ideological core of anti-EU sentiment enjoyed within the eurosceptic movement to this day.

  4. Robert Safuto

    Two thoughts on this issue. First, the comments by Oranjepan are two of the longest ones I've ever seen on a blog. Serves you right for mixing social media with politics. ;) Second, email lives! Seriously. Email still seems to be the bread and butter of web based grassroots political campaigning here in the U.S. Yes there are many more Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. But I still get tons of political email. I've signed up for emails from both sides of the spectrum and get several per week from each. I'm also seeing many more email newsletters from more traditional social media sites.

    I think that what the politicos realize is that you can reach a large audience via the web but the most direct approach to address pressing issues, like asking for a vote days before an election, requires a direct plea which is done most effectively via email.

  5. neville

    Thanks Oranjepan. Clearly this is a huge topic about which you have signficant thoughts and on which you have some clear opinions.

    Sadly it's not one where I share a similar frame of mind. My interest is from a broad comunication perspective rather than any kind of analytical approach into people's behaviours during an election campaign or any other moments in time.

    Yet the questions you rhetorically ask are very good ones. Maybe another reader might want to enage in deeper discussion with you on such topics with considerably more relish that I wish to.

    Having said that, let me add a couple of further thoughts on communication.

    You say that “traditional campaign methods should be abandoned due to their inability to make any impact” as the conclusion to my argument.

    I'm not advocating abandoning campaign methods, only use tools and channels that are likely to be effective and to produce measurable results.

    Communciation for a political campaign is little different to communciating news to the media and other influencers of a new product, or explaining the latest new benefit to employees of a medium-size business.

    Among many others things, all require some clear understanding of who you're communicating with – some knowledge of your communicatee's (in a maner of speaking) preferences in whether he or she wants to receive information from you. Next is how that information would be welcomed, eg, printed stuff, email, etc.

    It's not hard to find these things out these days. Yet I ask whether that process has been gone through in the Wokingham constituency during this election camapign.

    I see no evidence of that.

  6. neville

    Rob, here in the UK, I'd say that print, TV and radio – the good old mainstream media – are still the dominant channels of communication.

    I've not seen any evidence of email campaigning, and I know of no one who has spoken of receiving emails from anyone that even look as though they're part of a planned campaign.

    Here, the direct plea is on TV (eg, the three leaders debates we've had). And I'd say it's still anyone's guess who will be victorious on May 6.

  7. Oranjepan

    Wow, there are a lot of issues which are raised by your comment and you're right that it would be difficult to address them all here, but I do want to pick up on one thing you mention.

    I didn't mean to imply you intended to extend the logic of your argument to it's natural conclusion, so it's worth highlighting the 'little' difference between political and commercial communications which you do touch on.

    There is a subtle if fundamental gap between providing basic information and giving an insight into the likely benefits and drawbacks of any direction of travel regarding future decisions.

    Rather than be consumed passively, political communications are part of the a participatory process and are therefore designed to be engaged with in equal parts by the general public, internally by party members and activists as well as by opposition parties and other interested groups as part of the wider policy debate – which is particularly relevant in a situation where no overall majority is a likely result.

    So the point about leaflets or emails etc producing measurable results is complicated by the fact that they work on multiple levels simultaneously and therefore must include multiple factors.

    Consequently any evidence that the process involved in producing such communications takes account of knowledge about the recipient will depend entirely on a view about the multiplicity of ways individuals can behave as agents within the political process and the fact of the particular ways the actual recipient does behave.

    And as such it is not a matter of taking an analytical approach, but rather of philosophic calculation about the position of emphasis one wishes to take.

    If you say you see none then I'm afraid that says more about you.

    I have to say I'm slightly surprised that you are able to distinguish production and consumption of communication in the manner you did, rather than understand it in the context of a complex and ongoing interplay, however this chimes with the widely-held mindset of politics being somehow separate from real people. If I may also say, it exposes a non-attatchment and underlying cynicism towards the results of the process which contradicts the basic tenet of democracy that nobody is neutral.

    Given the tenor of reporting about our political system and the obvious and regular failings of politicians over recent years (if not generations) it'd be a bigger surprise if more people weren't sucked into the grind of opinion promoted by each section of the media, but nevertheless it is informative that even authoratitive professionals of your standing are unable to take a completely detached view.

    So forgive me if I come across as somewhat combative, but I think it is to the detriment of our decision-making processes and causes long-term damage to society when subjective perspectives on reality are confused with objective ideals: isn't it only through unravelling disagreements that better solutions are found?

    I am highly critical of the stimulation and resolution of deep-seated psychological fears and desires on which artifical communication is based and I think it says a huge amount about the choices we are presented with that there is a view that the most effective communication is that which commonly strives to end debate by pronouncing oversimplification of the issues rather than encouraging greater precision in a more detailed debate where every bias is acknowledged and counteracted.

    Personally I am looking forward to a properly-balanced parliament where the old-fashioned knockabout of soundbites and empty promises is replaced by greater information and more meaningful debate – maybe then we will be able to say our country is maturing as a democracy!

  8. neville

    Oranjepan, I don't see you as combative, just as someone with some strong views on this broad topic and a keen willingness to articulate them in some detail.

    Thanks for offering a definition of political communication, a participatory process and engagement. Yes, I agree. In this regard it's similar to the aspirations communicators have for other aspects of organizational communication.

    Unless we get a rude surprise on May 6, I fear the wish you describe looking forward to in your ultimate paragraph is more likely than not to remain unfulfilled.

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