Not all your letters have to be the same: a European lesson

The following piece by Dinti Batstone and myself appeared in the November edition of ALDC‘s Campaigner. It follows up on two common themes of ours – Dinti’s on targeting European voters and mine about direct mail:

It’s been a case of two steps forward, one step back in many local parties when it comes to getting more out of direct mail over the last few years. As covered previously in of Campaigner, the emphasis on doing direct mail more often and to more people has sometimes come at a cost in variation. Rather than, say, one batch of direct mail involving five different letters to 2,000 people, it has involved doing the same letter to 6,000.

Yet one of the powers of direct mail is the ability to vary the message so that it tries to cover the issues and provide the information most pertinent to the people whose names are at the top. The recent European Voters Initiative in London has shown how letters aimed specifically at European Union residents, with messages specific to them and wider campaign integration, can produce more Liberal Democrat votes in the ballot box.

Dinti Batstone / Mark Pack article in ALDC's CampaignerEU citizens resident in the UK can vote in every election except the General Election. It is a common experience when out canvassing to call on such people and find out that they think they cannot vote even though they are on the electoral register. Not even receiving a polling card makes everyone realise they can vote because many people dismiss it as a clerical error.

Even those who know they are entitled to vote often don’t know how to go about it – polling station formalities vary widely from country to country and the prospect of voting in a foreign country can be intimidating. All this contributes to lower turnout, which is why many campaigners have traditionally ignored EU Voters.

Yet in their outlook, EU citizens living in the UK are often very well disposed towards the Liberal Democrats – instinctively pro-European themselves, they are attracted by our party’s positive attitude towards the EU.

This makes them a perfect group of people to target with their own specific messages, let alone adding in the opportunities in some areas of providing materials in languages other than English and talking about specific foreign policy concerns.

It is this opportunity that the European Voters Initiative was founded to address in London. It began with a pilot in the 2008 Assembly/ Mayoral elections, continued with the 2009 European elections and ended with all-up local elections in May 2010.

In several parts of the capital EU citizens make-up a significant part of the electorate. In Childs ward in Barnet, for example, EU citizens were one in seven of every person on the electoral register. The Liberal Democrat team there specially targeted European citizens with an extra addressed item of literature in the run-up to local elections in May. When the votes were counted around 275 EU Voters had voted – and the Liberal Democrats won their third seat in the ward by a majority of just 119. There was strong feedback on the day that many of the 275 voted because of the efforts our team had made – and voted Liberal Democrat.

In widespread phone canvassing of thousands of EU Voters across London during the 2009 European election the EU Voters Initiative team consistently found that around four in ten EU voters said they would vote Liberal Democrat – again a very promising sign about how much potential support is available from this group of people.

Phone canvassing is a very efficient way to reach EU voters, not only because it enables campaigners to cover more ground than they would on foot, but also because it gives canvassers the opportunity to inform EU Voters personally about their UK voting rights and answer any lingering doubts or queries. Evidence from London suggests that when EU Voters are properly informed about their voting rights and signed up to postal votes (making the experience of voting in a foreign country less daunting) their turnout matches – or even exceeds-  turnout by UK voters.  Some EU voters even decide to join the Liberal Democrats!

So next time you do a pool mailing, why not flag up the EU citizens separately and send them a different version of the letter? Follow up then with phone canvassing and a postal vote form and you could secure those precious few extra votes you need to win your marginal ward. And don’t forget, varying your pool letters and integrating with other campaigning works for other groups too.

Mark Pack is Head of Digital at MHP Communications and co-editor of Liberal Democrat Voice (www.LibDemVoice.org). Dinti Batstone founded the EU Voters Initiative and was No.3 on the London Euro List in 2009.

You can read more about the European voter campaign in Barnet at http://bit.ly/eubarnet

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