Word of mouth election? That’s so 1997

Douglas Alexander’s soundbite about wanting to make 2010 the “word of mouth” election has got a fair amount of coverage in the last few days, such as in this mostly thoughtful piece by Andrew Rawnsley.

Why do I only say “mostly thoughtful”?

That’s because it’s a good piece, but also displays a weakness so common in contemporary British political commentary. It’s the feeling that it’s more important to talk about what an American did a couple of years ago than how the British political system has worked over the last few elections.

Because if you want “word of mouth”, and you know in at least as much detail about how the 1997 British election played out as the 2008 US Presidential election, then 1997 should leap out as the comparator to talk about.

That’s because the 1997 election results were a curio. In the run-up to polling day much praise was heaped on the Labour key seats operation. Its technology, its finances, its messaging, its existence. Yet when the votes were counted, Labour did no better in its key seats, with all their targeted help, than it did in the next tranche of seats down.

The reason? Once the academics had surveyed the public, segmented the answers and chewed over the results, one explanation stood out: the power of word of mouth. So many people were willing to talk to their neighbours and friends about their political choices, and to influence how they voted, that the power of word of mouth meant those seats which got less formal Labour campaigning nonetheless saw sufficient informal campaigning to achieve the same end result.

So yes, the word of mouth can be powerful. But please, when we talk about its impact on a British general election can we talk a little more about what’s happened in the past in Britain and a little less about what’s happened in the past in the US?

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Chris Keating 21st Mar '10 - 10:54pm

    Which famous Liberal agent was it that said that the result of a really successful election campaign was a “spontaneous outpouring of the people?” And which decade did they say it in?

    I think Rawnsley’s right when he says Labour want it to be a word of mouth election because, if it’s any other kind of election, they don’t have a hope.

    But I’m not sure that word of mouth is necessarily going to be that helpful for Labour this time round either. Can’t see many swing voters saying to each other “Yes, I’m going to hold my nose and vote Labour again” at dinner parties or down the pub, tbh…

  • Can’t see many swing voters saying to each other “Yes, I’m going to hold my nose and vote Labour again” at dinner parties or down the pub, tbh…

    No but they might say, “you know I’m just not sure about David Cameron….”

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