Winning votes - and keeping them - sometimes needs more than political persuasion. Chris Bunting looks at methods used by politicians through the ages to boost their chances at the ballot box
Julian Amery had been Conservative MP for Preston North for 14 years when the desperately tight general election of 1964 was called. One of the lesser known spots on his campaign trail, always missed by his opponents, was an obscure Carmelite convent in Fulwood Row. The nuns were strictly cloistered, forbidden television, radio and newspapers. Visitors, even family members, were usually banned. However, they were each allowed a postal vote, and Amery always made a point of dropping in on the nunnery as he pounded the streets of his constituency in the fevered days before polling. He would speak through a special grille to the Mother Superior. "I found her full of wisdom," he said.
Come polling night, on October 15, Conservative MPs were falling across the country, as Harold Wilson's Labour party overturned a Tory majority of nearly 100 to squeak home by five seats. In Preston North, however, Amery defied the tide, and was re-elected with a majority of 14 votes.
Coincidentally, there were exactly 14 nuns at the Carmelite monastery. It seemed likely that their votes had gone to the only candidate they definitely knew existed. The story of Amery's victory has a reassuring personal scale to it that contrasts starkly with the multimillion-pound party machines taking chunks out of each other in the current election campaign.
Elaborately equipped battle buses and airplanes now move the party big-wigs around the country. Gigabyte-crammed campaign centres co-ordinate all that is said and done. Pagers and mobile phones ensure that every party hack is delivering the latest message, as gleaned from the focus groups run by the ad men at HQ. And yet, in the end, Amery's chats through the grille in the nunnery - and the intricately choreographed dances of Blair, Howard and Kennedy on the 2005 campaign trail - come down to the same thing: how many votes can you get in the ballot box?
Amery may have profited from the "wisdom" of the Mother Superior, but his purpose in walking up the drive of the Fulwood nunnery was the same as every other visit he made in the 1964 campaign - to secure a few more votes. General elections are the centrepiece of modern democracy. Even in a world of low-turnouts and voter apathy, few other institutions have the power to mobilise such united effort. For a month, the front pages of every newspaper and the top items in every television bulletin deal with little else. All the political resources of the country are fully stretched. The ups and downs of the previous four or five years are relentlessly analysed and argued over; plans for the next five years are picked over in minutest detail. The veteran election pundit David Butler says: "They have always interested me, since I was a child. I don't know why but I quicken to the sound of an election, at the results being announced by the returning officer. Elections are the central democratic events: grand clashes of ideas and personalities."
Underneath the high-minded talk and appeals to the electorate's ideals, elections are brutal trials of strength, not just of principle but of organisation and manpower. Political history is littered with candidates who have won the argument at the hustings but lost the election because they failed to get their votes out. Elections, as the MP for Henley on Thames, Boris Johnson, has observed, are about winning. So how do you go about winning an election in the 21st century? Has the business of electioneering changed fundamentally with the arrival of the spin doctor and the focus group? Certainly, much about modern campaigns would have been in inconceivable to election managers 50 years ago.
In the back-to-back election campaigns of 1950 and 1951, Prime Minister Clement Attlee was driven around the country by his wife in their family car. In 1951, Mr and Mrs Attlee covered 2,000 miles in this way, with a lone detective accompanying them. Broadcaster Alistair Cooke travelled in the only remaining seat in the car for a day: "They drove through the country lanes and in and out of villages and dismal suburbs and came to a school house or a market place. And he would stand up before a hundred, sometimes no more than a dozen, citizens and give a sort of scoutmaster's pep talk, and then drive off again to a rustle of handclaps." Even at the time, Attlee was seen as a curiously understated sort of politician. The Manchester Guardian described him as so conservative that he looked "like the sort of man who might be suspected of harbouring an intention of voting against Mr Attlee". But the election schedules of more colourful figures, such as Aneurin Bevan and Winston Churchill (who liked to travel in a special train), were not fundamentally different. The party heavyweights planned their own schedules, getting out the vote in their own constituencies, and in those of political allies, by speaking at public meetings.
Radio was not an important factor, and television was yet to reach most of Britain. The BBC addressed the issue of political neutrality by omitting all mention of campaigning from its bulletins. Partly because of the relative difficulty of national campaigning, the influence of the central party machines was so limited that Butler said, in his study of the 1951 contest: "It can indeed be argued that if (the party headquarters) had been blown up on October 5 - that is, before the campaign was publicly under way - the parties in the constituencies would not have been seriously inconvenienced in putting their cases to the electorate."
The Conservative Party was to pioneer the use of marketing expertise in electioneering, engaging the advertising company Colman, Prentis and Varley to help formulate their national message in 1950. But it was in the election of 1959, with the arrival of television in 70 per cent of households, that campaigning began to be transformed. The Conservative slogan, formulated in the offices of Colman, Prentis and Varley, "Life's better with the Conservatives - Don't let Labour ruin it", encapsulated a clear message that could be effectively communicated. It was "You've never had it so good", and that simple theme, repeated endlessly in Conservative election broadcasts as if it were a soap-powder slogan, won them a majority of 100 seats.
Labour and the Liberals were slower to grasp the challenge and opportunity of the television era. Many senior politicians believed that it was morally wrong to sell politicians like commercial products and that it would corrupt the political process. Labour's Anthony Crosland wrote angrily in 1962 of his own party's faltering steps towards modernisation: "After two years of anguished discussion the Labour Party finally advertised for a director of publicity - at the farcical salary of pound;1,650pa. This is the man who will have to take on, unaided, the collective strength of Colman, Prentis and Varley."
Crosland would have marvelled at the scene at Labour's Millbank tower in 1997: a huge open-plan office with rank upon rank of shimmering computer screens, more like a bank's trading operation than a campaign office. More than 500 employees worked at Millbank during the campaign, many on secondment from affiliated trade unions or on temporary contracts. About 360 volunteers were also co-ordinated from Millbank. It was the biggest central campaign operation the Labour Party - or any party - had ever run, but the real innovation was the obsessive, almost military, approach Millbank took to directing Labour's efforts in 1997. It has since become common among election strategists to talk of elections in terms of the "air war" (in the national media) and a "ground war" (local street campaigning).
At the heart of the Millbank operation lay a "rapid rebuttal" system, relying on the Excalibur database, a huge store of past speeches and statements fed into the party's computers. The idea was that no criticism or policy launch by the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives would go unrefuted and that these refutations would be on the desks of TV journalists before their reports hit the airwaves. With the touch of a button, staff at Millbank could pull up every relevant reference held on Excalibur, and a statement could be produced in minutes.
"Rapid rebuttal" wasn't always a clinical, computerised process. When the Tories launched their "Devil eyes" posters in 1996, depicting Tony Blair's Satanic side, Labour's chief spin doctor, Peter Mandelson, shouted to his Millbank minions: "We need a bishop!" A denunciation from someone of such spiritual authority might just derail the Conservative campaign. After two hours on the phone, a staffer told Mandelson they couldn't find a bishop.
He told her to look harder. Two hours later she came back: "We're not going to find a bishop." Mandelson went bonkers: "I want a bishop. Just find me a bishop." They eventually found Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, and the Tories were forced onto the back foot. A similar tactic was seen in the phoney war that preceded the current campaign, with the Conservatives repeatedly labelling Labour attacks on the supposedly slimy character of Tory leader Michael Howard as anti-Semitic. In so doing, they temporarily stymied one of the main lines of Labour's campaign.
Another novel aspect of the 1997 Labour campaign was its extensive use of focus groups: hour-long, carefully structured discussions with selected groups of voters, exploring their attitudes and responses to campaign messages. In the 1997 campaign, Labour's pollster Philip Gould travelled every evening to a different part of the country to conduct focus groups.
His nightly report on their views was faxed to campaign leaders and helped decide the party's campaign tack for the next day. Gould's work was also responsible for Labour's famous five pledges in the 1997 campaign, based on what he called "emotional triggers" revealed by the polling.
Butler believes the 1997 election was a turning point in election history comparable to the arrival of television in 1959. Millbank's highly centralised and quasi-scientific operation has been copied by the Conservatives and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats. All the British parties have closely studied the further development of these techniques in the 2004 US presidential election, in which Republican campaign strategist Karl Rove was credited with creating an awesome machine, Voter Vault - a database of tens of millions of voters - and a million-strong nationwide network of volunteers.
For the current campaign, both Labour and the Conservatives have bought a profile of every postcode in Britain from the marketing firm Mosaic. This has been tied to their own canvassing records of individuals' voting history to build up a detailed picture of potential supporters or wavering voters in marginal areas. Labour has a call centre in Tyneside with 100 staff to systematically target key voters, and the Tories have a smaller operation in Coleshill, Birmingham. The Liberal Democrats, who operated on a budget 10 times smaller than their rivals in the 2001 contest and have a tradition of effectively using local organisation to run their campaigns, have asked their MPs to collate contact details and profiles locally. Steve Bell, Liberal Democrat MP for Northavon, has email addresses for 3,000 voters, one-tenth of his electorate.
It is all very glitzy and exciting, but some feel that modern campaigning may be damaging our democracy. Fundamentally, the changes have all been about the impact of television which offers the opportunity to reach every voter without going to the trouble of organising a canvass, as well as ensuring that a disciplined and consistent message is put forward at every turn of the campaign. In the 1950s, a party could get away with putting often quite disparate messages across. Bevan and Attlee presented radically different visions of the future.
In today's 24-hour news culture, however, any "off-message" comment will be endlessly replayed to voters. Even the localised databases and call centres now being introduced are, in part, the products of this centralisation: Labour and Conservative campaigners privately admit they are resorting to such tactics partly because their local activist bases have shrunk.
Some argue that it is not just the organisation of campaigns that has been distorted by television, but also the political messages presented at the hustings. Style rather substance seems to be the order of the day. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher, that most ideological of British Prime Ministers, was sold to the electorate as an almost apolitical figure. Her publicity chief, Gordon Reece, said privately in the run up to the election that he would be happy for the leader to be seen every night on the television news, but not heard. The journalist Gerald Priestland noted a particularly vivid example this tendency toward shallowness on the campaign trail with Richard Nixon:
"Every time he received the customary ovation at some whistle stop, he would turn and say something to the dignitary on his right, which was always received with a look of fascinated comprehension. By moving in very close with a microphone, we discovered why that was; instead of saying 'Really, this is too flattering, too kind,' Nixon was moving his lips and saying nothing at all. On film he looked modest and grateful, but in fact he was silent. It was very curious."
In a world where a candidate's image can be more important than the substance of their party's manifestos, some argue that negative campaigning has become an increasingly common feature of electioneering. It is often easier to destroy a rival's image than to bolster your own. Rove, President Bush's "evil genius", is notorious for his attacks on rivals' reputations.
His trademark technique is to smear rivals on aspects of their character regarded as their strengths, rather than their weaknesses. Thus, in 2004, Democrat challenger John Kerry was targeted by a smear campaign against his proud Vietnam record. In 2000, Bush was neck and neck with another Vietnam hero, Senator John McCain, for the Republican nomination, when Bush supporters started spreading completely false rumours that he had been made mentally unstable by his captivity in Indo-China, that his wife was a drug addict and that he had fathered a black child with a prostitute. McCain, enraged, confronted the falsehoods, strayed off message and lost the nomination.
Rove, known by the affectionate nickname "turdblossom" in the Bush camp, is by no means unique in the ruthless world of modern politics. And yet it would be a mistake to imagine that such shadowy politics are a new invention. The Conservative's victory in 1924, ending the country's first Labour government, was partly due to the notorious "Zinoviev Letter", published four days before the poll in the Daily Mail. It purported to be a message from the Communist International to the Communist Party of Great Britain, saying that a Labour trade agreement with the Soviets would assist in fomenting revolution, but it was a forgery. The Labour Premier Ramsay MacDonald's attempts to cast doubt on its authenticity in time for the election failed, and the Tories stormed home. He said he "felt like a man sewn in a sack and thrown into the sea". And a municipal election campaign "poster" found in the ruins of ancient Pompeii stated: "M. Cerrinus Vatio is supported for the aedilate by all the petty thieves."
Television has undoubtedly helped to emphasise the importance of image, but personality politics is not a new invention. Cicero's brother advised him to avoid making any political stand during an election because of the risk of making enemies. And in the US presidential election of 1840, the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison, a patrician figure with a 16-room mansion, portrayed himself as a simple man of the people. When a Democratic opponent suggested sarcastically that he should retire to a log cabin with a barrel of hard cider, Harrison made log cabins and cider the Whig party's symbol and bombarded the electorate with images of his rustic life and captured 79 per cent of the vote.
Reports of the death of local campaigning are also probably highly exaggerated. Local party organisations have atrophied. In 1950, half of voters said they had been canvassed at home. In 1997, that had dropped to 15 per cent. In 1951, 30 per cent of the electorate had attended a public meeting. In 1997, it was just 3 per cent. Yet local candidates up and down the country will be wearing out their shoes over the next three weeks, pounding the streets of their constituencies and shaking as many hands as they can reach, all because of the sneaking feeling that one of their opponents may have found a secret nunnery with enough inmates to swing it their way.