2019 General Election Day 3: It’s time to talk about the PIG

Nick Barlow
Nov 8 · 4 min read

And so we head into the first weekend of the election with today’s news including Boris Johnson rambling about his deal in Northern Ireland, the SNP launching their campaign and an absolutely huge amount of rain falling in Northern England causing some rather large and dangerous floods.

December 2010 might have seen a second election of that year if the coalition hadn’t worked out. Here’s how the UK and Ireland looking during it (from Netweather)

Now, bad weather and unexpected events can cause problems in election periods at all times of the year. I started EU referendum day getting absolutely drenched in the torrential rain that swept over the south-east of England that morning and a large part of the 2010 campaign involved learning how to spell and pronounce Eyjafjallajökull. However, an election at the end of the year runs into a much increased chance of bad weather as well as the problem of there being a lot less daylight for the campaign.

Even without any major events, running an election campaign in November and December is going to be complicated for all the parties, as they generally have established ways of doing things based around elections taking place in late spring or early summer. Local elections take place in May every year, and there hasn’t been a general election outside of the April-June window since the two in 1974. Local campaigns rely on expectations that not only are you going to have enough generally good weather to be able to deliver a lot of leaflets without them disintegrating in the rain but that there’ll also be plenty of light evenings to go around and knock on doors before it gets too dark.

Which is where the pig comes in.

No, not that one, the PIG way of organising election campaigns by breaking them down to their three key tasks — Persuading people to vote for you, Identifying those who will, and Getting out the voters who are going to vote for you.

Think about them in terms of the idealised campaign from several decades ago. Each candidate would distribute an election address across the constituency and hold several public meetings to persuade voters to back them. Teams of canvassers would knock on doors across the seat to ask if the candidate could rely on the votes of you and your household as they attempt to identify who their voters are, and then on polling day, people would encourage everyone to get out and vote.

All very simple, and things still follow the same general process, though they’ll often go through several iterations of persuasion and identification, and getting out the vote now has much more effort involving in registering voters, signing them up to postal voters and making sure they’ve sent their ballot papers back in time. One of the key things to remember, however, is that when people are out knocking on doors in an election campaign their main focus is identification, not persuasion, and even though that process is a lot more complicated than the 50s ideal of “is this a Labour or a Conservative household?” the main aim of a knock on the door is to find out more about the person behind the door to either know how they’re going to vote or work out how to persuade them to vote a certain way.

The problem is that this is a very much a time-intensive activity that needs a lot of people. An average constituency is going to have around 40,000 doors to knock and even the most dedicated candidate is going to need people to help them cover all those in a five-week campaign. However, for most parties, the plan would be to do the bulk of that in the evenings both because that’s when more people are at home and when more people are free to do the job of knocking on those doors. When people don’t want to open their doors and people don’t want to go out because it’s dark or the weather’s bad, then a lot of campaigns are going to be short of a lot of the information they’d expect to gather during an election campaign. They might also have to deal with less people being available to do deliveries, or being willing to come out into the cold and help in other ways, and knocking-up voters on a dark December night is going to be a pretty tough task.

So, what this means overall is that the parties aren’t going to have as much information as they usually would to make decisions later in the campaign. If they’re not getting all the canvass data they would normally see, or if weather has meant leaflets haven’t been delivered, will parties be able to make those key late decisions about where to target and where to pull resources from in the closing stages of the campaign? Who’s going to be motivating people to do the hard work of electioneering when the chance of getting a campaigners’ tan is minimal? And while you’re thinking of that, spare a thought for the returning officers who’ll be wondering just how they deliver the election processed they’re expected to do in the face of winter weather. Disruptive levels of snow aren’t regular in early December, but they do happen…

Nick Barlow

Written by

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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